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Wind down but don't wind out

Shyamal Majumdar | June 06, 2003

Let's suppose you are a CEO and want to do a quick check of the stress level of your executives.

Circulate these ten statements among them to see how well they look after themselves. The scoring pattern is simple: four points if the answer is "very like me", three points for "like me", two points for "unlike me" and one point for "very unlike me".

The statements are:

  • I occasionally give myself something pleasant like a present or a treat
  • I make time for relaxing
  • I believe I have to be selfish at times
  • I can say no when people make demands on me
  • I am able to acknowledge and discuss my good points
  • I pace myself rather than going flat-out all the time
  • Sometimes I have to put my own needs first even if I hurt others
  • I make time to cultivate friendships with people I like
  • I make a point of looking after my appearance and health
  • I praise myself when I do a good job

And here the results of the stress test. According to Ashish Mohan, assistant professor at the Birla Institute of Management Technology in New Delhi, if the majority of the scores for each employee are over 27 points, it's champagne time: your executives have a good sense of self-care.

If the scores are between 20 and 27 points, they look after themselves well -- but could improve. But if the average score is below 20 points, the HRD manager has a problem at hand as your executives may be suffering from guilt and poor assertiveness and may need a helping hand to learn to look after themselves.

Mohan, who specialises in organisational behaviour and holds regular workshops on stress management for top-notch corporate clients, says the health costs of stress in the workplace may be much more than anyone thought. A dramatic increase in stress levels has led to spiralling anxiety, burnout and depression across the globe.

Consider the hard numbers: a survey of about 15,000 middle- and senior-level executives in nearly 100 corporations revealed that the Indian executive is paying a heavy price for life in the fast lane, which, in turn, could derail corporate India.

The survey also revealed that as against the international cardiac risk status of 48 per cent, Indian executives' cardiac risk rate is about 56 per cent.

There's more. PERC, a Hong Kong-based consultancy firm, found that stress levels in Asia were on the rise and that India was rated 6.1 on a 10-point rating scale.

And, according to a United Nations report, workers of the world are united in just one thing these days: record levels of stress. What is more, the report warns, anxiety levels are set to dramatically increase with spreading globalisation and the economic costs for business will be massive.

In the US, one in 10 workers suffers from clinical depression and the problem is getting worse, with some 200 million working days lost every year because of stress.

So what's the way out? While the extraordinary appeal of spiritual techniques are, seemingly, the most-preferred option with courses like Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's "Art of Living" and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's "Transcendental Meditation" making rapid inroads into the Indian corporate sector, a growing number of HR experts are advocating music therapy, with its proven potential to influence both psychological and physiological processes as an important alternative in the practice of stress management.

A Coca Cola executive, who strongly believes in the healing power of music to help balance mind, body and spirit, says that the recognition of the inherent qualities of music in association with medicine has its roots in antiquity. Men like Plato, Pythagoras and Orpheus spoke of music as a source of health.

Mohan, for example, is the only HR practitioner in India who uses jazz music as a stress-buster. Why jazz? "Jazz, with its improvisation and ability to surprise, can often provide an important cathartic release," he says.

If the feedback from a group of over 45 managers who sat through sessions like "Feel the Music", "A walk in the clouds with Latin Jazz" and "Sing your pain away" at one of his workshops in the capital is any indication, today's stressed executives are more than willing to try jazz as a therapy for their troubled souls.

The unique workshop of Mohan, an accomplished pianist himself, is aimed at helping managers to learn to relax and unwind while listening to greats like Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong or the more contemporary jazz groups like Tyris.

Listen to what the participants had to say after listening to Sinatra's Cool jazz -- the 1958 great "Come fly with me". While one participant felt it reminded her of her mother who would often say, "Life has many ups and downs. Learn to live with it", another said that it convinced him that one could control stress if one wanted to.

Statements like these should be music to the ears of any CEO who is looking at stress management seriously and wants to relieve a majority of his executives from a pressure-cooker existence.

Just in case you are feeling too stressed by now, here's something to cheer you up. Stress in itself is not negative. A certain amount of stress is necessary to send the adrenaline soaring skywards -- like the stress cricketers face before an important match or when one crosses a busy road. Management consultants have a word for this -- positive stress -- that provides life's zing, and keeps us from being bored.

Six ways of coping with stress

Keep a perspective: it's only  a job  not your life

Don't be a perfectionist: you can't get things perfect every time

Learn to say 'No': don't agree to take on too much

Delegate: don't try to do everything yourself

Express: don't bottle up  feelings and emotions

Separate work from home: learn to switch off



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