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Say "Yes" to Less Stress

by Claire Sykes

You've been at the store all day and, once again, you won't be leaving until after midnight. And what about your one sales person who's been calling in sick lately, not to mention the recent conflict between two of your clerical staff?

You're stressed, they're stressed. Who isn't stressed in the workplace these days? From personnel shortages and encroaching competition, to difficult customers and office politics, on-the-job stress - and personal stress - can lead to serious problems at your tea and coffee store. When you work to manage and prevent your own stress, however, you can help your employees do the same, through education, communication, and changes in company policy and benefits.

Stress Is Everywhere
Workplace stress costs businesses billions of dollars a year in staff turnover, errors and accidents, increased Workers Compensation, and even theft to support drug or alcohol habits. From a 1996 survey directed towards its members, the Employee Assistance Professional Association (based in Arlington, Virginia) found that stress ranked second only to family crisis as to why those members contacted the organization for assistance.

On-the-job stress isn't limited to workplace issues. Personal stressors, such as family and financial problems, can also affect one's health and work performance. We forget that employees have lives outside the workplace, and they're carrying their problems with them when they walk in the door of your store.

This Thing Called Stress
Stressors can be positive (a wedding, a new job) or negative (divorce, death of a loved one). Since each of us reacts differently to them, one person's threat is another's challenge.

By definition, stress is a mental or physical tension or strain caused by your perception of an event (stressor), triggering physiological, biochemical, or psychological changes in the body. These changes made sense for the earliest humans who relied on the fight-or-flight response to the threat of saber-toothed tigers. Then, a complex set of physical responses was set in motion, designed to increase their chances of survival.

They still exist today in emergency situations, in the body's release of adrenaline and cortisol hormones which speed up the heartbeat and supply extra glucose for energy (to flee or fight that tiger), and which thicken the blood (so it would clot more easily in case they got slashed). These hormones also suppress the immune system (scientists still don't know why). The body can handle a big jolt of stress, but continued or frequent exposure to stressors weakens your immune cells and invites illness.

Why All The Stress?
Be aware of workplace stressors, the most significant one being a lack of control, feeling powerless to change a given situation. Change itself, favorable or not, is another, along with work load, whether too little (boredom) or too much (exhaustion). Job politics can be stressful when you refuse, deny, or respond ineffectively to the "game." Interruptions, conflicting demands, procrastination, ineffective delegating, and poor organizational and time management skills only add pressure to one's workday.

As owner of your tea and coffee store, some stressors belong mostly to you, like worrying about the competition, wearing too many hats, and dealing with a personnel shortage. Meanwhile, as "top dog" of your company, you may have no one to talk to about all this stress, unlike your employees, who can always commiserate with each other about:

* Physical and mental demands: Long hours, heavy lifting, prolonged standing or sitting and repetitive motion tasks create stress. So does inadequate training.

* Work environment: Poor lighting, ventilation and temperature control, and noise, lack of privacy, and unsanitary conditions can be stressful.

* Changes in duties: Learning new skills can be overwhelming, as can a welcome promotion, when your new store manager now supervising her former peers faces their jealousy.

* Boss's attitude: Any anger you may feel only rubs off on staff, who, likely enough, may already feel that you don't praise them enough for a job well done.

* Job dissatisfaction: We spend at least half of our waking lives at work. That's too much time to feel unhappy. An employee looking to quit won't perform as well.

* Unstable job: Hard times may mean layoffs. What could be more stressful than a reduced work force for you and job loss for employees?

What You Can Do
If you want to manage stress on the job, begin with yourself. Make sure you maintain a positive attitude. The way you perceive stressful events determines how well you'll deal with them. Eat a healthful diet, exercise, and get plenty of sleep. Establish a supportive network of friends and family, and balance out your life with activities that have nothing to do with your tea and coffee store.

With your own stress under control help your employees manage their own when you:

* Encourage open communication: Invite employees to talk about their stress, and really listen to them. Show concern and promise confidentiality.

* Offer employee assistance: Send staff to a stress management seminar and provide a list of community mental health services. Fund an employee assistance program, on- or off-site, for free.

* Be generous with benefits: Offer a solid medical plan, pay for a gym membership and day care, provide flex-time, and job sharing.

* Give more control: Let employees have more say over their responsibilities. Invite suggestions on how their jobs could be improved.

Take Charge
You may not be able to influence and overcome every stressful situation, but you can take charge over how you respond. When you successfully manage stress, you embrace:

* Control: You know what you're able to change, and accept that which you can't.

* Challenge: You view stress as an opportunity for creative problem-solving.

* Community: You work with others to make those changes, from talking openly with staff to forming committees.

Learn to manage the stress in your own home and in your work life, and help your employees manage theirs. The time and effort it takes to educate yourselves and carry out the changes to ensure a more stress-free workplace are worth it for you and your tea and coffee store.

Claire Sykes is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. She can be reached at c.sykes@teaandcoffee.net.

Tea & Coffee - May/June 2000


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