Corrections or additions?
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:
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.
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
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
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
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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