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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the

February 21, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

In a Centered Workplace, Stress Is On the Sidelines

Barbara Simmons, an expert on reducing stress

in the workplace, was raised in a bar, and that made all the


"My parents chose to create the environment they wanted,"

says Simmons. "My father had been a factory worker. He had no

control over his work, and was very unhappy. My parents knew they

wanted a small business."

While her parents often worked until 4 a.m. at the tavern they owned,

they "were never victims," Simmons says. That is the legacy

they gave to their children, and their grandchildren, too, says


Her daughter Gina is a single mother who left a 9-to-5 job to become

a nanny so that she could take her daughter with her and cut the


of juggling child care and work. Christy, another daughter, "was

working two jobs and going to school." Stressed and miserable,

Christy moved to the idyllic island of St. John in January. "Her

life is fascinating now," Simmons says. "She’s able to meet

people from all over the world. She’s still working two jobs, but

she’s happy now."

The lesson here, Simmons says, is that people not only have the


to take control of their work, but that they need to do so if they

are to avoid a level of stress that can wreck their health. On


February 22, at 6 p.m. Simmons addresses the Central Jersey Chapter

of the Association of Women in Science on "Creating a Centered

Workplace." The meeting takes place at Bristol-Myers Squibb.


Simmons herself revels in her work life. A graduate of the Institute

for Archaeology in London, where she dug for ruins under Lloyds of

London, she says "my real education began when I learned conflict

resolution." She learned of the field when she came into contact

with the Peace Center, a non-profit in Langhorne that was founded

in 1982 by a group of people concerned about international weapons

proliferation. Their thought was to reduce all types of conflict,

including war, by teaching negotiation skills. The organization now

focuses on "conflict, racism, violence, anything that creates

disharmony in society," Simmons says. She joined the Peace Center,

which has between 500 and 800 members, in 1988 and traveled around

the country taking courses that led certification in all types of

mediation. "It was a new field then," she says, and no degrees

were offered. Now Simmons is executive director of the organization

and two of the people on her staff have degrees in peace and conflict


Simmons gives workshops and forums on conflict resolution at


churches, organizations, and schools. In observing workplace


she has determined that stress is often at the core of conflict on

the job. It doesn’t take much to create a stressful atmosphere, she

says. It could be the uncertainty bred by a merger — a problem

she is seeing more of now — or the demands of a hyper-connected,

cell-phone enabled 24-hour workplace. Or it could be just one unhappy

employee, she says, fingering the office manager as the employee often

responsible for stressing out the whole office.

The stress caused by just one person, she says, "can infiltrate

the whole workplace." Drawing a psychological portrait of a


out office manager, Simmons says she is often a woman who raised


before returning to work. "She is a very organized person. She

has run her home beautifully and tended to her kids’ needs. She has

the ability to read people. She can almost read your mind before you

ask her to do something."

Sounds good so far, but the problem, Simmons says, is that she wants

to please everyone, "and it can’t be done." Failing at this

task, the office manager becomes resentful, and because she controls

so much of the life of the office — issuing supplies, fielding

phone calls, scheduling appointments — she is in a position to

spread stress far and wide.

By no means all office managers fit this picture, Simmons emphasizes,

and office managers do not hold a franchise spreading stress. Heads

of schools are sometimes the culprits, as are managers. No matter

who or what the stressor, however, there are steps that can be taken

to pull it back to a manageable level. Here is Simmons’ advice to

stressed workers, managers, and employers:

Add some pressure valves. Lack of control is a leading

cause of stress, and stressed employees are not creative or


It is in employers’ best interest to reduce stress in their offices.

The best way to do this is to keep employees from feeling trapped.

Stress goes down where there are flex-time work schedules, space for

power naps, on-site day care, or a gym.

Employers who can’t afford any of the above can implement the best

strategy of all, at no cost. "Listen," advises Simmons.


who feel appreciated are less stressed. Some companies, she says,

even have one employee whose sole job is going around checking on

employees and talking to them about how work is going.

Take perfection out of your job description. This one

is for office managers and others who feel they need to be perfect

and to take care of all office needs and crises. Realizing these are

unrealistic goals, and instead concentrating on a doable job


will erase resentment, making you and everyone around you more


Close your eyes. "I run an exercise where I ask


to close their eyes, and think of reasons why a supervisor didn’t

like a report," Simmons says. "I make them do it eight


Most people have an automatic tendency to think the boss ripped the

report because they did a bad job, and possibly also because they

are stupid and/or incompetent. And it ruins their whole day. After

thinking of eight alternative scenarios, however, dissed workers


the boss may have eaten some bad fish for lunch or found out his son

drove the BMW into the garage door again. "Detach," Simmons

says. "Ask how you can correct errors in the report, and then

move on."

Protect yourself. If your job is extremely stressful,

Simmons says, be aware that it is most probably making you sick. You

need to change something, and that something may well be your job.

Strangely, she says, many people will not take this step. "I


with a group of engineers," she recounts. They were among the

most unhappy employees she has encountered. "They complained like

crazy," she says. "The boss was selfish. They didn’t feel

appreciated. They went on and on."

Simmons asked the engineers what they planned to do about it. Well,

nothing, it turns out. "I’m sure I wouldn’t get the same pay


else," one engineer told her. "Another," she says


"was actually offered another job with the same pay, but he didn’t

take it." Fear of change was the reason, she says, admitting that

she just doesn’t understand how workers can allow themselves to be

trapped when the effects of an unhappy job situation are so far


When leaving is not a practical answer, Simmons says workers

must "armor" themselves. Build treats into the work week.

Plot how to survive, she says. And avoid office gossip. "We’ve

been doing it for eons," she says of the exchange of unsavory

information about our fellows. Nevertheless, in the closed arena that

is an office, gossipers return to their cubicles to wonder what is

being said about them.

On the whole, Simmons says, it’s a wonder we cope with the stresses

of our high pressure work world as well as we do. "People are

acting normal in a very abnormal situation," is how she puts it.

— Kathleen McGinn Spring

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