Sunday, October 4, 2009

Working Less = Working Smarter

A groundbreaking four-year study, set for publication in the October 2009 issue of Harvard Business Review, seems to confirm that getting away from work can yield unexpected on-the-job benefits.

When members of 12 consulting teams at Boston Consulting Group were each required to take a block of "predictable time off" during every work week, "we had to practically force some professionals" to get away, says Leslie Perlow, the Harvard Business School leadership professor who headed the study.

Requiring hard-driving consultants to take time off was "nerve-racking" and awkward at first, says Debbie Lovich, a Boston Consulting executive who headed one of the teams.  Some fought the idea, claiming they would have to work more on weekends or draw poor performance ratings. 

Ms. Lovich adds: "We wanted to teach people that you can tune out completely" for a while and still turn out good work.  The work itself became the focus, "because if you know a night of is coming up, you're not going to let things spike out of control," she says.

Working together to make sure each consultant got some time off forced teams to communicate better, share more personal information and forge closer relationships.  They also had to do a better job at planning ahead and streamling work, which in some cases resulted in improved client service, based on interviews with clients.

As word spread, other consultants began asking to join the study, Ms. Lovich says.  And some clients told researchers the teams' work had improved, partly because improved communication among team members kept junior consultants better informed about the big picture.

Other companies are putting the brakes on work in other ways.  At KPMG, a professional-services firm, managers use "wellness scorecards" to track whether employees are working too much overtime or skipping vacation, a spokesman says.  At Fenwick & West, a Silicon Valley law firm, "workflow coordinators" review attorneys' hours to avert overload.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, September 23, 2009 / Thanks to Coach John G. Agno

Simple Rewards Program Yields 48% Drop in Absenteeism

Use short-term rewards to reap long-term benefits, says HR manager Nicole Capehart. She has achieved a 48% drop in absenteeism for essentially the cost of a few dozen donuts.

Fresh out of college with my new degree in hand, I took my first HR job, ready to revolutionize my new workplace. Of course, I had no idea what was in store for me. Effecting change is a lot of work; it is a lot of pushing, prodding, and coming up against brick walls. It is almost enough to make the status quo look inviting.

I have found though, that change can happen, and one of the best ways to encourage change is to have a solid employee motivational program in place. Although a simple program is easy to implement and maintain, I have seen that the idea is often discounted or practiced inconsistently.

My motivational program has four parts and costs very little, yet it has made a great impact on the company. My strategy is easy: Set long-term goals but award in the short term. At the start of the year, employees are asked to meet goals throughout the year that increase company productivity and revenue. For example, one of our companywide challenges for this year was for employees to have a year of perfect attendance.

Once the goals are established, the next hurdle is to keep employees focused on the long-term goals in the present. I do this through a series of reward levels. This is how "Operation Motivate Employees" was born. It has four parts.

Part One: Reward Weekly

Every week, short praise notes are sent to employees in each department throughout the company. Notes contain such praise as "Thanks for going the extra mile with your customer" or "Thanks for staying late to get the job done!" (You can do this yourself if you are able to observe employee actions, or you can insist that managers and supervisors single out employees each week.)

Part Two: Reward Monthly

Every month each department has a breakfast awards meeting to honor employees who have met the established goals for the entire month. Additionally, the department that has performed the best for the month earns the company's "traveling trophy." The only cost is the price of breakfast food (donuts are always a favorite), a congratulatory certificate, and candy bars to go with the certificates. (Set up a clear system for calculating the departmental traveling trophy winner—competition can become fierce!)

Part Three: Reward Quarterly

Once each quarter the entire company meets for awards. Employees who have met or exceeded the established goals for the entire quarter are recognized. Prizes include coupons for paid time off or small gift cards, and, of course, there are always donuts!

Part Four: Reward Yearly

At the end of the year, at a special event, the company honors employees who have met the established goals all year long. The prizes are significant (OK, this does cost more than a donut), and the employees strive to earn them.

To date, this simple strategy has employees working harder than ever before. They want to win the traveling trophy recognizing their department as the best in the company, they want to earn the individual prizes, and they want to be recognized in front of their peers.

The Payoff

And the payoff for the company? Absenteeism is down 48%, productivity is up, and the company has directly saved $9,500.

The great thing about a motivational program like this one is it can be designed and tweaked to fit any company. Our company is small, and giving rewards often keeps the employees focused. A bigger organization may have different needs, but regardless of the size or nature of your organization, the foundation that a motivational program lays has the potential to make the revolutionary changes you have in mind. I'm already making the ones I had in mind at the start of my career.

By Nicole Capehart, HR Manager, American Realcorp

The Link Between Stress and Obesity

Stress has been linked to biochemical changes that can trigger cravings and lead to obesity. Learn how to break the cycle.

For years, many people have suspected that stress and obesity are linked — and now scientific research has found evidence to support this connection. Specific biochemical reactions appear to help explain this link and, as doctors better understand these reasons, they may be better able to address the obesity epidemic facing the United States.

The most insidious aspect of the link between stress and obesity is that it tends to be self-reinforcing, notes Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, of New York City, a weight-loss expert and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Very often, when people are stressed they may eat inappropriately," Taub-Dix says. "If that causes them to gain weight, that can cause even more stress. You wind up causing exactly what you're trying to alleviate."

Stress and Obesity: The Biological Connection

Ever notice that when you're really stressed, you tend to crave comfort foods that are high in fat or sugar? Researchers have found that specific hormones may play a role in this process.

  • Serotonin. When we reach for fattening comfort foods during stressful times, it may be an attempt to self-medicate. "When you eat carbohydrates, it raises the body's serotonin level," Taub-Dix says. "Serotonin is the body's feel-good chemical. It makes you feel [better]." Not surprisingly, people under stress don't tend to make smart food choices. "Very often the carbohydrates that people go for are laden with fat, like muffins, pastries, doughnuts, and cookies," Taub-Dix observes. "It's not like they're going for whole-wheat pasta."
  • Cortisol. Researchers have also discovered that chronic stress can cause the body to release excess cortisol, a hormone critical in managing fat storage and energy use in the human body. Cortisol is known to increase appetite and may encourage cravings for sugary or fatty foods.
  • Neuropeptide Y. More recent studies also suggest that our bodies may process food differently when we're under stress. One study found that lab mice fed a diet high in fat and sugar gained significant amounts of body fat when placed under stressful conditions. Mice fed a normal diet, however, didn't gain as much weight despite stress. Researchers linked that phenomenon to a molecule called neuropeptide Y that is released from nerve cells during stress and encourages fat accumulation. A diet high in fat and sugar appears to further promote the release of neuropeptide Y.

Stress and Obesity: Break the Cycle

So if we're wired to seek out unhealthy foods when we are under stress, how do we avoid gaining weight when times get tough?

  • Don't Allow Yourself to Become too Hungry. "When you get hungry and you go too long without eating, you get a drop in your blood sugar. It's very hard to think rationally when your blood sugar levels are that low. You'll eat anything," Taub-Dix explains. To avoid this scenario, be sure you're not skipping meals, she advises.
  • Keep Portion Size In Mind. "When people are stressed out, there's a tendency not to think about what they're eating and how much they're eating," observes Taub-Dix. Smaller portions can help keep your total calorie intake under control.
  • Eat Healthy Snacks. Taub-Dix recommends snacks that combine protein and carbohydrates. The body digests them more slowly, allowing you to feel fuller longer. "An example might be almond butter and whole-grain crackers, or cheese and a piece of whole-grain bread," she says. Avoid snacks high in fat and sugar.
  • Think About What You're Eating. "When people are really stressed, they think that paying attention to their diet will cause more stress," Taub-Dix notes. "Actually, it's just the opposite. Don't forget that food is fuel for your body and your brain. When you eat properly, you're fueling your body to fight stress."
  • Deal With Your Stress. This may be easier said than done, but finding ways to manage your stress is essential to your overall health. Try yoga, tai chi, or meditation. Exercise regularly. Spend time with friends. Seek counseling. Reduce the number of stressors in your life.

If you find yourself reaching for high-fat, sugary snacks when you're feeling stressed, know that you're not alone. Fortunately though, you can break this cycle. Find ways to minimize stress in your life and focus on making better food choices. Stress may be a part of life, but it doesn't have to lead to weight gain.