Managing workplace stress is an ongoing challenge for scientists--busy, task-oriented, ambitious people who often feel they don't have enough hours in the day, at home, or at work. But managing stress doesn't have to take a big chunk of time. Small chunks can work just as well--and that's one of the keys to managing stress in a busy life.
"Most of us have a tape player in our heads telling us that our work is overwhelming, and it becomes self-fulfilling." --Rachel Permuth-Levine
Short breaks and exercise are both known stress-reducers, says Rachel Permuth-Levine, deputy director of the Office of Strategic and Innovative Programs at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. "Research has shown that all types of physical activity, whether light, moderate, or vigorous, have the capability to reduce anxiety, depression, and both self-reported and physiological levels of stress," she says. There's not much data on the benefits of combining the two, but if short breaks and short bursts of exercise are good by themselves, she figures, combining them can't hurt. "We do know that when people have control of their schedules and have the flexibility to take small health breaks during their day, their mood can improve and the day just seems to flow better," she says.
The second in a four-part series on stress
Based on this premise, NHLBI instituted an innovative program aimed at combating stress by allowing employees to exercise in short bursts. Dubbed "Take 10 Rooms," these getaways--the institute has three of them--are equipped with recumbent bikes, elliptical cross-trainers, resistance bands, small weights, mats, and flat-screen TVs. Employees are encouraged to take one or two 10- to 15-minute breaks a day for physical activity.
Programs like this one have another potential benefit, apart from stress reduction: improved health. A team of researchers from the Translational Medicine Branch of NHLBI hypothesized that a sedentary work force is at increased risk for future cardiovascular disease. They looked at the effects of staff engaging in a 15-minute-per-day exercise program at these work-site exercise facilities at NIH on the endothelium, the thin layer of cells that line blood vessels that is a biomarker of risk. They found that even in the absence of weight loss, relatively brief periods of exercise daily during the workday improved endothelial function.
Wellness in the workplace
A global survey of 600 organizations in 25 countries conducted last year found that workplace wellness programs are growing globally, particularly in North America. Yet, as the NHLBI investigators noted, nearly two out of three American adults say they don't engage in routine exercise, "possibly because of demands of work and family." Despite the benefits of regular exercise, it's easy for a busy scientist to find excuses. Some wellness facilities are located off-site, making their use inconvenient during the workday. A small proportion of scientists still work in dinosaur-age academic settings that don't even offer wellness programs.
Permuth-Levine is the four-star general of the institute's war on stress, overseeing wellness and disease-prevention programs for 1500 NHLBI employees. Her approach is practical. She wants people to have options, realizing that only a certain proportion of employees are going to walk, run, or bicycle to work; go to the gym during evenings; or take advantage of the Take-10 rooms. The rooms have about 30 users--5% of the NHLBI workforce. About three out of four people who use the rooms are regular users, Permuth-Levine says.
So that no stressed-out person is left behind--including those who don't make it to the Take-10 rooms--Permuth-Levine has come up with a five-point plan for reducing stress that can be practiced at employee workstations or in laboratories. She suggests the following:
1. Become better at managing your time
"Invest in an egg timer," says Permuth-Levine. "Not for cooking, but for giving yourself 5 to 10 minutes to write down what you need to do that day, in priority order if possible." Many of us turn on our computers then automatically respond to e-mails, even if we know that's not the most critical thing we could be doing. "The egg timer helps you get in the habit of effective time management by prioritizing your work before your day gets ahead of you," she says.
Even if your organization doesn't have yoga classes, you can benefit from your own yoga session right in your chair. Simple stretching sends impulses to the brain that evoke a relaxation response, Permuth-Levine says. "One of the best ways to decrease eye strain and tension in your neck is to do some slow, deliberate neck rolls," she adds. "You start with a deep inhalation and slowly bring your head to one side, like laying your head down on your shoulder like a pillow. Roll your chin to your chest as you exhale and slowly move your head to the other side. Repeat. Go slowly, taking time at those more tender spots to explore tension."
Because our eyes are open most of the day, staring at people, paper, an instrument, or a computer screen, we need to rest them. "Start by turning away from your computer or other work," says Permuth-Levine. "Rub the palms of your hands together vigorously until you create some heat. Close your eyes and gently place your cupped hands over your eyes. Take 10 slow, deliberate breaths in and out and relax. Repeat as often as needed throughout the day," she says.
4. Play music
Tune in, "but not to just any old music. Choose tunes that you really enjoy and you associate with positive feelings," Permuth-Levine says, then listen as you work. Music with a moderate or slow tempo makes it easier to relax. "Fast and frenetic music might have the opposite effect you want, making you rushed and harried." Listening to music doesn't work for everyone; music commands some people's attention, distracting them from their work. For those people, music at work can be a source of stress and not a stress reliever.
5. Focus on the present
According to the April 2009 issue of Harvard Women's Health Watch, there is mounting evidence that mindfulness--focusing on the present rather than the past or future--can relieve stress and alleviate a number of chronic health problems, such as high blood pressure, pain, sleep problems, and gastrointestinal difficulties. Mindfulness can be practiced through meditation or by just slowing down your everyday activities. The publication suggests sitting quietly for 20 to 30 minutes, using a repeated phrase, breathing, or focusing on an image; this will help you focus your attention and free your mind of distracting thoughts. Slowing down can be achieved by "devoting your full attention to the thoughts, sensations, and feelings you're experiencing" when you are feeling impatient.
Reframe negative thoughts. "Most of us have a tape player in our heads telling us that our work is overwhelming, and it becomes self-fulfilling," Permuth-Levine says. Such thinking evokes a physiological stress response. She suggests reminding yourself to tackle one task at a time, even if the list of tasks is long.
In times like these, we're lucky just to have good jobs and be able to make ends meet. Yet the stress of living in such times isn't limited to the people who lost their jobs. For those who are still employed, layoffs mean working harder to make up for the staffing shortage. At state universities, staff layoffs mean scientists have less administrative support, and teaching loads are larger because departed faculty members are not being replaced. Meanwhile, principal investigators and administrative staff at research institutions are working long hours at a frenzied pace to meet the stimulus act's accelerated grant deadlines, and the workloads of NIH staff members are increasing proportionately as they seek to handle the flood of inquiries and applications and manage the review process.
During such times, "each person needs to find something that makes them feel good and stick to it, whether it's exercise, dancing, meditation, Pilates, or yoga. The benefits of these tools reach well beyond your office into every aspect of your life: family, friends, and overall health and wellness," Permuth-Levine observes.
- Save the dates 8-11 September for NIH Mind/Body Week and explore the science and practice of yoga, meditation, and stress management. All events are free and open to the public.
- Four Steps to Managing Your Stress from the Stanford Health Promotion Resource Center
Photo (top): Judepics
Irene S. Levine is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in many of America's leading newspapers and magazines. Trained as a psychologist, she works part-time as a research scientist at the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research in Orangeburg, New York, and she holds a faculty appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. She resides in Chappaqua, New York.