For American workers, coping with workplace stress is a year-round concern that employers are beginning to see as partly their responsibility. Three-fourths of employees believe that workers have more on-the-job stress than a generation ago and nearly half say they need help in learning how to manage it, according to the American Institute of Stress.
Most of us harried workers struggle with the daily pressure of time demands, but some cross over into the danger zone. The telltale sign that a breakdown is near is a complete lack of work-life balance.
"Often these are the people working 14 hours a day and expecting others to do it, too," said Charles Nemeroff, chairman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. "I'll ask them, 'When is the last time you had fun?' and they look at me like, 'Are you kidding?' "
Service professionals such as lawyers, financial advisers, accountants and doctors particularly are susceptible with increased client demands and technology making it more difficult to shut off job stress. Often they push themselves harder and harder to achieve.
Attorney Harley Tropin, a shareholder at Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton, just doesn't see that formula leading to a long career. He wants to help his lawyers strive for balance and change the way their brains and bodies react to stressors. Last month, he brought in medical experts to help them identify stressors and learn coping skills such as breathing and meditation.
"It's important to deal with stress the right way, to make a conscious effort to do something about it and not assume it will take care of itself," Tropin said.
Tropin personally defuses the stress of arguing in court by practicing mindfulness meditation, a widely adopted form of meditation that has become increasingly popular with business leaders. It involves focusing on your mind on the present and becoming aware of your breathing.
Alan Gold, a federal judge for the Southern District of Florida, also practices mindfulness meditation and has become a proponent of teaching practices for stress reduction to attorneys. Gold has advocated for the creation of a task force on the mindful practice of law with the Dade County Bar Association and the local Federal Bar Association.
Gold says he regularly sees attorneys shuffle into his courtroom on the brink of a breakdown. He links erosion in the degree of civility in the profession with lawyers' inability to cope with extreme stresses.
They may lash out in anger at a co-worker, assistant, client — or even a judge.
"If you recognize you're in this situation, the next step is to get out of it. The quickest and simplest way is to slow down and take time to focus on your breathing. This is not something that comes naturally for lawyers. It's counterproductive to their bottom line way of doing business," he said.
Outside of meditation, some employers are turning to on-site yoga, or just simply workload management to help employees better manage stress. At Kane & Co., a South Florida CPA firm, employees recently learned from a psychologist how to become more effective controlling their job-related stress. Suggestions included breathing exercises, exercise in general and focusing on relaxation techniques.
Monte Kane, the firm's managing director, said the workshops help his staff with everyday stress, but he makes it his responsibility to know when they have entered the burnout zone.
"Every now and then, a person wants to show us they can work incredible hours and cope, but they take it too far. If we see something occurring, we have to be there to help them. Sometimes we've gone too far and we think we can help them when they need professional help," Kane said.
At its extreme, job stress can ruin marriages, lead to severe depression, unhealthy weight gain, alcohol addiction, sleep interruption and major health problems. Nemeroff at the University of Miami usually gets called in when the situation reaches a crisis stage.
"People burn out in all kinds of destructive ways," he said.
Nemeroff's first step would be to get the person in crisis to recognize that he needs to make a change. "They have to be motivated, because behavior modification is not easy. It's a gradual process."
Next, he works with them to identify attainable goals — leave work by 7 p.m., take their spouse to dinner once a week, exercise twice a week and go get a physical. Then he may work with them on relaxation techniques.
He has found women often are able to prevent a full-fledged crisis by reaching out to co-workers and friends for help with managing job stress. "As men age, it's harder to make friends and there is a reluctance to share. They can be in same office and never talked about what's going on in their life." As part of stress management, Nemeroff encourages men to reach out to male peers for support.
Corali Lopez Castro, a shareholder and the managing partner at Kozyak Tropin & Throckmorton in Miami, says female professionals often come to get her help when they are still in the yellow zone. "Men go much faster to the red zone."
She believes one of the most effective stress-beaters is helping employees manage their workloads. "Sometimes lawyers get used to living that craziness. When you start talking to people, you recognize that they can make small adjustments that get them to where they want and need to be."
Getting high-achieving professionals to take work off their plate can be a challenge, she said. "I have to go to them with a solution."
But personally, Lopez-Castro says the best stress buster she has discovered is exercise. "I know I need to do something to relieve stress. We all do."