Worker Stress—Burnout Appears to Be Escalating
By Torri Minton


N.Y. Times News Service

July 17, 1993

A software company owner doesn't have an office, wear a watch or use an alarm clock much. He lives in a hot springs resort two hours north of San Francisco, where he eats a macrobiotic diet, gets acupuncture and chiropractic adjustments.


An equipment manager manages his job stress by getting a massage. In his office. Once a week. Twenty minutes.


A surgical-instruments marketing forecaster works out six days a week to relax during 75- to 90-hour workweeks that include business management school.


"I feel more relieved after karate than aerobics," she says, "because that's when I get to hit something."


They are burnout-busters in the fight against job stress _ the 20th century disease.


The International Labor Organization recently called stress "one of the most serious health issues of the 20th century." It's a problem not just for employees' physical and mental health, but also for employers and governments who are starting to assess the financial damage, the United Nations agency report said.


It found, among other things, that job stress costs the U.S. economy $200 billion a year because of decreased productivity.


It also found that job burnout, the result of stress, brings low resistance to illness, inefficient work and increased pessimism. In Japan, death from overwork has a name: "karoshi."


"In the last five to seven years, across the board in all professions, almost everybody I encounter is experiencing too much work and not enough time to do it," says workplace psychologist Beverly Potter of Berkeley, Calif., author of "Preventing Job Burnout."


"Computers that are supposed to lead to the paperless office mean more work instead of less," Potter says. On top of that, companies are "taking the workload, cutting it up to add to people's jobs, and people are saying, `I can't complain, at least I have a job.' . . . The stress level and the burnout level seem to be escalating."


The cure? Depends on whom you talk to.


On the cutting edge are things like theta brain-wave machines that put you into a nap-like state with flashing lights and ocean sounds. There are "smart drinks" and massage breaks at business meetings. There are anti-stress office stretching exercises, and not just the kind where you walk out the door.


Having control over what you do is tremendously important, experts say.


Many companies offer stress-management classes. Intel also has eight-week paid leaves every seven years for all but part-time employees. Sun Microsystems lets loose by getting seriously silly.


On April Fools' Day 1991, the vice president of Sun Microsystems labs found his office in the fish roundabout at the Steinhart Aquarium _ desk, filing cabinets, computer and pictures of wife and kids. Chief Executive Scott McNealy called the joke, part of an April Fools' series, part of Sun's "work hard, play hard" philosophy.


Hypnotherapy can help, too. On the other hand, so can rose-colored glasses.


Or yellow ones. Potter, also known as "Beverly Burnout," had an eye-opening experience with them. One day in midwinter, her car was stolen and wrecked. She had to ride on her motor scooter.


"If anybody should have been in a bad mood, I should have been," she says. Having no sunglasses, she put on some old yellow ski goggles and drove off. The foggy sky turned yellow.


"I thought, `Hey, this is cool.' I lost my car, so what, I was in a good mood."


Problem is, the minute she pulled the glasses off, she was in a bad mood.


"A person doesn't have to sit there and meditate. A lot of people think it's hokey. They think it's California cosmic," says Potter.


Fine, she says. What's important is learning to notice when you're stressed, and how to cope, through exercise or diet or whatever _ to keep yourself in the middle range between being bored and being overstimulated.


Breathing's a good one, too. Don't forget. People at work often do.


"It's the simple act of consciously taking a slow abdominal breath," says Will Scott, an Oakland hypnotherapist and biofeedback therapist. ". . . Pause at the top of the inhaling. . . . Say `relax' to yourself and breathe out. . . . Every time you do that you are, in the moment, releasing stress."


Gina Championsmith, the surgical-instruments marketing forecaster, has a sign over her computer that says "breathe." Between that and aerobics and karate, her stress has taken such a nose-dive that she now sleeps five hours instead of 10 and has cut on her vending machine junk-food expenses from $11 a week to $2.


"I don't get the tightness in my forehead anymore," says Championsmith, 35. "I don't grind my teeth. My frown lines aren't as pronounced. I feel healthier."


Kay Hartshorn, a Berkeley management consultant in blue leggings, is wrapped around a doorway at the Claremont Resort Spa in Oakland. Her arms are contorted behind her back, pulling on a towel. Yes, she is relaxing.


"Feel your breathing," says Nancy Minges, the spa's fitness center director. "Soften through the eyes." This is not easy. The eyes are a very uptight place.


Hartshorn's leg muscles used to hurt so much from travel stress they woke her up. She's on the road half the time.


Now she does knee bends in airplane galleys and stretches in hotel rooms, and she can feel the difference. "I've learned to breathe and think," Hartshorn says. "When I get grouchy, I control it better."


For something completely different, the Claremont has a "theta wave" machine. It's supposed to bring you into "a state of consciousness associated with well-trained meditation," the Claremont says.


It looks like a stereo, with red digital numbers that measure your "relaxation quotient" while you lie down with earphones making ocean-wave sounds in your ears and lights flashing on your eyes.


Some people hate it. The noise is kind of distracting. But after a while, you feel almost asleep. They say it takes a few tries to catch on.


The problem with relaxation machines, says Scott, the hypnotherapist, is that people come to depend on them. He's heard from people who forgot how to relax on business trips because they didn't have their tapes.