From stressed-out to nicely stressed

Stress leave costs the country tens of millions of dollars a year. There’s one good thing about stress, though: If you didn’t have any, you’d probably be dead. Stress is a natural and normal part of life and in fact, some stress is good for you — it’s motivating, makes you feel alive and gives you the drive to succeed.

But too much stress is debilitating. It drains your energy and undermines your body, your emotions and your ability to think clearly and quickly. The effects of too much stress over long periods can be toxic, acting like slow poison and building up, altering your body and your brain.

That’s why it’s important to recognise when you’re stressed and deal with it. When you don’t, it isn’t just you who suffers — it’s those around you, too.

Your first course of action when you recognise you’re stressed is to remove or reduce whatever it is that’s causing you stress in the first place. Of course, you can’t always do that; throttling your boss would land you in jail and you’d be even worse off.

So when you can’t remove or reduce whatever it is that’s stressing you, your next course of action is to learn to deal with it more effectively. There are two main ways you can do that:

  1. Change the way you look at and think about the source of your stress. It’s often how you view a situation or an even that makes it stressful. Your boss is always looking over your shoulder? See it as making sure you’re ok and trying to be available in case you need any help. Better? Ok, you may have to work at it, but a different frame of mind and sending yourself different messages about what’s stressing you can often be just what the doctor ordered.
  2. Don’t allow your stress levels to build up. Learn to recognise your own symptoms of stress and when they strike, do something. Stiff shoulders? Roll them around a few times. Shallow breathing? Take three deep breaths. Hands clenched in a fist? Shake them loose and relax them. Take a break. Do something constructive with your pent-up energy — take a walk, hit the gym, stroll in the park — whatever you need to do to clear your mind and calm jagged nerves. When you break the stress response early on, you have a good chance of preventing your stress from escalating and causing serious behavioural, emotional and health problems.

When all else fails, undertake some form of stress management, be it regular exercise, meditation, yoga or relaxation training. This is a longer-term solution that can prevent stress from making you ill and also improve your overall health and well-being.

The main thing is to get on top of stress as soon as you can. You don’t want to let it build up and become increasingly debilitating and difficult to deal with.


How to make your office safer

It’s easy to gloss over health and safety risks in the pleasant surroundings of a nice, clean, tidy, well lit, air conditioned office. Yet they’re there. Faulty wiring and untidy electric cords and cables, poor posture at the desk or computer, too much sitting, workplace violence, poorly ventilated equipment rooms, slippery floors around the water cooler or in the kitchen area, chemicals stored insecurely or unsafely in the toilet area, unstable shelving, overloaded filing cabinets and drawers left open obstructing passageways, poorly sterilised or unsterilised telephone handsets and ear pads… It’s scary when you think about it, especially when you’re the leader-manager responsible for a group of people working among all those hazards.

In New Zealand, offices have emergency kits in case of earthquakes and every employee has a small emergency kit in a desk drawer (or at least they’re supposed to and do when the team leader develops a strong safety culture). What about in your office? You may not be in an earthquake zone, but what about a power failure or blackout, a storm, or a siege by an unstable person, as occurred in Martin Place on 15th December 2014, or any number of other emergency situations? Here are some items to think about including in a duffle bag or backpack for your emergency kit (which of course, you will keep handy in case of need):

  • battery operated radio
  • first aid kit
  • lighting (flashlight, glow sticks)
  • list of emergency numbers and other important information
  • water and non-perishable food

What emergency protocols does your work team have in place when employees are unable to attend work due to, say, a ‘flu epidemic, a transport crisis, or a lockdown of the area your office is located in?  When did you last review them together? Have you had a dry run to make sure you’ve covered everything?

Is your fire extinguisher in good working order and readily accessible? When did you last hold a fire drill and conduct a hazard audit? When did you last analyse your accident and incident statistics? When did you last review the health and safety and other risks in your workplace and check that mitigation measures are effective and up-to-date? Have you diarised to take these actions regularly?

Do you have a list of items that require periodic inspections with columns showing serial number, location, date of last inspection, result, inspection notes, and date of next inspection? Include office equipment as well as first aid kits and fire extinguishers on your list.

How do you prevent the spread of infections among your work team? Does your cleaner sterilise door handles, drawer pulls, lift buttons–anything that receives multiple uses by multiple hands? Do you provide antibacterial wipes so employees can keep their workstations hygienic? Is everyone aware of the importance of hand washing, and not just after using the toilet or before and after eating? Have you discussed how to wash hands properly? (Hands spread 80% of common infectious diseases.) Check out this OH&S blog for more information on ensuring proper hand hygiene.

How strong is your workplace and work team’s safety culture? (The answer is, probably only as strong as your own attitude towards safety.)


Most drivers have woken up to the extreme dangers of distracted driving, particularly from mobile devices. The other day on the radio I heard about an ‘All-American’ teenager, Reggie Shaw, who killed two rocket scientists and a truck driver by veering onto the wrong side of the road while texting. He was sent to prison and is now an active campaigner against ‘distracted driving’.

And what about ‘distracted working’? Most of us have a smartphone at hand to check in with friends, check our calendars, check the latest news, check the weather, check out my latest blog… (OK, well, maybe not that last one quite so regularly.) But still, all this checking and texting is often done while at work. While checking and texting when sitting at a desk may only impinge on productivity, it can be as hazardous as checking and texting while driving in other work situations–filling your vehicle with petrol, working with dangerous chemicals or operating heavy or motorised equipment or power tools, for instance, or monitoring people’s safety during sport or recreation, such as while on lifeguard duty.

A recent OHS blog reviews how to develop policies regarding such technological distractions. At the very least, as a leader-manager, you should ensure your team knows when it is ok to check and text and when it isn’t. Is it OK, for instance, to check or text while walking down the corridor? While walking through the production area or through the warehouse? During a meeting? While on the phone with a client or supplier? Does your workplace need a ‘phone zone’ inside which it’s safe to check and text and outside which it isn’t?

Food for thought, eh?

Four skills you need to make a difference

I’ve been updating the risk management chapter and there’s so much information, I can’t fit it all in! But this information is too good to not  put somewhere, so here it is!

Annette Mikes, Matthew Hall and Yuval Millo wrote an article called How experts gain influence in the July-August 2013 Harvard Business Review that I filed to use to update the risk management chapter. But as I said, alas, no room. The article explains how functional experts like health and safety managers, risk managers, sustainability managers, training managers and other functional specialists can gain the time and attention they need from senior managers. Based on their research they identified four competencies to build:

  1. Trailblazing: Don’t just sit there–go out and find ways to add value with your expertise. Talk to people across the organisation, at all levels, and find out what’s going on in your specialism and how you can help. Look for opportunities to make a difference to the organisation strategically or operationally.
  2. Toolmaking: Develop tools, dashboard indicators, report templates and so on to help you spread the word about the benefits of paying attention to your area and to show how the organisation is progressing in it. Make them attractive, easily understandable and easily scanned.
  3. Teamwork: When networking across the organisation to keep your specialist area front of mind, listen and learn–What are people interested in? What bothers them? What do they want and need from you? Incorporate their ideas into your activities and plans. Get their feedback on your tools and reports so you can make them more user-friendly and understandable.
  4. Translation: Help people understand the complexities of your specialism. Fancy words and statistics leave people cold. Translate them to everyday language. Tell stories to make your points clear.

When you’re passionate about your area of expertise, when you really believe the contribution it makes to building a better organisation, and when you have the energy and drive to blaze trails, make tools, work with others and translate your know-how into their words and worlds, you can make a difference. And that’s what it’s all about.

Seven ways to make your messages memorable

Whether you need to make a point about health and safety, establish a standard operating procedure, train a team member or introduce change, here’s how to make sure your messages hit home:

  1. Use positive language by stressing what you do want, not what you don’t want. For example, don’t say or write ‘Don’t go up an unsecured ladder on your own’, say or write ‘Always have someone hold the bottom of an unsecured ladder while climbing it’.
  2. Use a photograph or illustration when you can, because, as they say, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. For example, when your safety instructions or standard operating procedures say ‘Always have someone hold the bottom of an unsecured ladder while climbing it’, insert a photograph of two popular team members doing exactly that. (Because images stick in our minds, make sure the photo or diagram shows the right way, not the wrong way.)
  3. Write actively, not passively to keep the word count down and make your points more ‘alive’ and memorable. For example, ‘Always have someone hold the bottom of an unsecured ladder before climbing it’ is active and more interesting than ‘Unsecured ladders should always be held by another person while being climbed’. (You’d never say it like that, so why write it like that?)
  4. Keep your messages short and simple, and in the (polite) language of the workplace so they’re easily and quickly read and understood.
  5. Use the ‘you’ word: writing personally makes it clear your message is for the reader or listener. For example, you could write ‘You should always have someone hold the bottom of an unsecured ladder when you climb it’.
  6. Remember the WIFM—What’s In It for Me? Give people a reason to listen or read. For example, ‘For your own safety, always have someone hold the bottom of an unsecured ladder before climbing it’.
  7. Repeat your most important messages often, using different words, different examples and different mediums (e.g. computer screen savers, emails, face-to-face meetings, posters and Twitter).

Make your meetings positive

An interesting article in April’s Harvard Business Review (‘The New Science of Building Great Teams’ by Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland) reported research that examined the patterns of communication in teams (e.g. how much they gesture, interrupt, listen and talk; their tone of voice; whether they face one another when speaking, etc.). The researchers reckon they can predict a team’s success based on three elements:

  1. how team members contribute to the team as a whole (energy)
  2. how much team members communicate with one another (engagement)
  3. how the team communicates with other teams (exploration).

They concluded that the key to building a great team is not to select the smartest or most experienced people but to shape and guide the way they communicate with each other.

In her Workplace Communicator Blog posted 11/11/12, Marie-Claire Ross combined these successful ways of communicating with Dr Barbara Fredrickson’s research into positive psychology, reported in her book Positivity. Marie-Claire concludes that to improve safety meetings (or any meetings, or to help people work better together, for that matter) you need to make your meetings positive.

This means being positive in the messages you give (see my blog How Managers Communicate). Here are some tips to make your meetings positive:

  • Open on a positive note.
  • Keep the atmosphere upbeat and inclusive.
  • Keep ‘critics’ (negative team members) in check.
  • Get people in the habit of making suggestions rather than criticising and on focusing on the future rather than the past.
  • Make at least three positive comments for every negative comment. (Frederickson says the ratio in high performance teams is 6 positive comments to 1 negative comment, not 3 to 1, but if you’re team isn’t yet high performing, 3 to 1 seems a good place to start.).
  • Concentrate on what’s best for the organisation or team rather than on individuals. This means, for instance, not letting people with personal, or ‘hidden’, agendas introduce topics and working to build bridges between any functional silos that exist in the organisation. Another way to build the team and the organisation is by telling stories that illustrate a behaviour you want to continue; this might be reviewing and praising someone’s actions that demonstrated safe working or talking about how someone on your team or in another team put the corporate values into action.

Discussion questions

Do you think a team’s internal and external communications can predict how successful and productive the team is? Is it possible to predict a team’s performance just from observing team members’ body language and tone of voice?

What are the communications in your work team like? How many positive statements do you and your team members make for every negative statement? Why not keep a tally at your next meeting? Do your team members think about what’s best for the team or the organisation or only for themselves individually?

Your role in safety

In her Workplace Communicator newsletter, Marie-Claire Ross talks about your role in workplace safety in an on-line article called ‘Why Supervisors are so Important when Improving Workplace Safety. Positive communication relations between supervisors and employees is the key: encouraging positive safety attitudes and sharing important safety-related information.

She also gives a good model showing the elements of a workplace safety culture and in that same article, Three Simple Steps to Improve Safety Culture, suggest three things you can do to make your team more safety conscious.

Discussion questions

Check out these two articles and see whether you are doing all you can to create a safety culture in your workplace.