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September 5, 2012 | Volume 6 | Number 8
September 5, 2012
By K. Koprowski
The 2012 Work and Well-Being Conference in Chicago showcased outstanding researchers and experts in a range of fields related to employee well-being and organizational excellence. Here we spotlight two of the conference sessions and some of the strategies that can help employees perform at their best throughout the day (and night).
No Longer a 5 O’Clock World: The Importance of Recovery Activities for Employee Health and Productivity
How can employees manage their time at home to maintain mental and emotional well-being? Dr. Larissa Barber, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Northern Illinois University and an expert on workplace flexibility and work-home boundary management, discussed Work Recovery Theory, an approach that emphasizes the importance of detaching from work and releasing stress at the end of the workday.
Job strain occurs when stressful job demands outweigh personal resources, Dr. Barber explained. Workplace stress can cause both psychological and physiological reactions. However, recovery activities can help employees relax and regain balance and, importantly, maintain their physical and psychological health. This is achieved through two complementary processes of avoiding sources of stress and replenishing resources.
The four basic strategies for recovering from work are: psychological detachment from work, mastery experiences, relaxation and sleep.
To maximize the benefits of recovery, employees should be able to choose the recovery activity themselves, and be both actively engaged and mentally attentive to the activity while doing it. Efforts that involve active engagement are also usually more effective than passive ones (like watching TV).
Technology, however, can be one of the biggest barriers to recovery. For example, workers say technology such as mobile phones can blur the work-to-home boundary when they receive work-related calls and emails after hours. A 2010 national survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project showed that 65 percent of Americans sleep with their cell phones, which means many employees may never have a true break from work-related communication.
Dr. Barber then discussed interventions and take-home tips to improve work recovery by reducing demands and building up resources at the individual and organizational level. To reduce demands, employees can set boundaries at home to ensure they have enough recovery time, stop multitasking at work to improve work efficiency and take short breaks at work and also vacations (without email). To increase resources, employees can try to make the most of transition times such as the after-work commute, track their time to find inefficiencies and true “down time,” learn new skills to facilitate mastery experiences and maintain a sufficient and consistent sleep schedule. Regular sleep is an especially important tool for recovery.
Organizations can also improve employees’ work recovery through such methods as paid leave/vacation time, respecting employees’ home and work boundaries, supporting child/elder care, encouraging skills training and career development and building and modeling an overall supportive “recovery culture.” Dr. Barber suggested that organizations may want to experiment with different strategies, using a dynamic process of assessing employee needs and preferences, evaluating and receiving feedback and making adjustments as needed. Dr. Barber noted that, as technology increasingly breaks down the physical boundaries between work and home, the responsibility has now shifted more to the worker to actively manage their work and recovery time. However, she stated that we should find some time to put technology aside and, quoting her favorite Ph.D. Comics article, “sometimes you have to disconnect, to really connect.”
Read a recent article by Dr. Barber: The Unhealthy Sleeper Effect: Hidden Costs to Employee Health, Happiness and Productivity
Leadership and Workplace Wellness: Emerging Insights from Neuroscience
Dr. John Randolph, an executive coach, consultant and clinical neuropsychologist, uses cutting-edge neuroscientific research in an emerging field called neuroleadership, which can help leaders strengthen many critical skills, such as social interaction and collaboration with others, emotional regulation, decision-making and problem-solving, and facilitating and managing change both at the work unit and organizational level.
The session began with a review of recent neuroscientific insights. Dr. Randolph explained that reducing stress can actually enhance brain functioning itself. Functional MRI (fMRI) brain scans demonstrate that physical pain and socially-induced pain actually produce similar responses in the brain, which indicates the importance of paying attention to emotional and social health at work.
Next we examined how a sense of control can affect an individual’s “executive functions,” such as the ability to manage time and monitor one’s own behavior. Dr. Randolph taught the audience some basic neuroanatomy, and we learned how neuroleadership can aid emotional regulation and stress management. An optimal level of arousal exists for each person: Our task-related anxiety must be neither too high nor too low, but at a moderate level, in order to maintain our interest in performing the task.
Emotional Intelligence (“EI”) was introduced as Dr. Randolph gave an overview of how stress can negatively “hijack” the amygdala, which acts as the alarm system of the brain. When a threat is perceived, the activation of the amygdala prevents an individual from doing the best rational thinking and decision-making. Feedback, when done well, can reduce the likelihood of the hijack.
Understanding and managing emotions is especially important for leaders, as EI is correlated with success and can increase adaptability, resilience and optimism. Mirror neurons in the brain also support EI by helping with the interpretation of social cues and rapport building with others.
The informative talk concluded with examples of EI in action from several large organizations, and strategies for boosting our brain power and productivity at work. Some of Dr. Randolph’s recommendations include creating a plan for the day which includes task priorities, minimizing distractions such as email and phones to improve focus, tackling tough tasks sooner rather than later, and taking breaks after periods of intense work.
Read a recent article by Dr. Randolph: Can Organizations Be Emotionally Intelligent?
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