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Working through workplace frustration

Published Sep. 10, 2005

Rude bosses. Violent co-workers. Corporate cutbacks.

As the economy slows and workers get laid off by the thousands, some fear that employee frustration may become more intense.

But even in turbulent times, it's possible for employers and employees to work together to maintain a sense of calm. It's easy to forget that simple acts like communicating with colleagues, taking time out to acknowledge accomplishments or just pausing for a moment in the company lounge can be enough to take the edge off, say psychologists and workplace experts.

"It's still helpful to walk a little more slowly to the restroom, photocopy machine or coffeepot, and then do some breathing exercises to help the body to recover and relax," said Bruce Sanders, an organizational psychologist in Vacaville and instructor at the University of California at Irvine. When a problem is too severe to be cured by those simple methods, "it becomes important to maintain good friendships and family relationships . . . a network outside the workplace."

In times of downsizing, it's also important not to let feelings of guilt creep into an already stressed-out psyche, Sanders says.

"There's often this sense that "I may be going next,' " he said. "You think, "That person that was let go was a pretty good worker, and a better worker than I am, even.' "

Sometimes just identifying the event that causes the stress can help significantly, Sanders says.

"The unknown can grow way out of proportion," he said. "When we're feeling out of sorts, and we don't know what it is, simply labeling it can reduce the stress."

Steven John, an executive search consultant at The Xcel Group in San Francisco, said even something as basic as a leisurely walk around the block can make all the difference.

John says he has little privacy at his desk. He shares space with the other consultants and his boss.

"We're in the middle of the Financial District, so there's plenty of distractions," John said. "It's usually enough to alleviate the extra pressure."

At Apple Computer in Cupertino, employees often meet for biweekly get-togethers in the company's interior atrium, said David Austin, a director of applications, who returned to Apple in April after eight years working in venture capital and a San Francisco startup.

"When we go out and see people from different groups hanging out and and relaxing themselves, it works out just fine."

But stress reduction is not only an employee's responsibility. Employers who provide opportunities for open and honest communication are much better off in the long run, experts say.

Employees are happiest when they feel like they're being heard, said Janet Hurwich, a clinical psychologist in Oakland.

"It doesn't mean that employees get their way all the time," Hurwich said. "But what it does mean is that management gets back to employees and lets them know why something wasn't possible. People at all levels feel like they enjoy working at a company more when there's a corporate culture that puts people first."

When the workplace is thrown into turmoil, managers often try to squeeze more productivity performance out of employees without first giving them the tools to put forth the extra effort, said Mike Thayer, a principal consultant at the Terranova Consulting Group in Orinda.

Managers should help to create an environment where employees have a measure of control over their future, Thayer said. That way, workers can stop feeling like break out of the cycle of being a victim and act to improve the situation.

"One good exercise is to think about what the problem is," he said. "Make a list of what you can control and what you can't control, and then act on the things that you can control."

The Golden Rule is what employees at Rogers, Joseph, O'Donnell and Phillips live by, said Margot Wenger, one of the founding partners of the San Francisco law firm.

Everyone, from the top attorney to the mail room clerk, is expected to treat others with respect, Wenger said. The firm is big on acknowledging people for their accomplishments, both inside and outside the office.

All employees are treated to a bouquet of flowers on their birthdays. There also are Monday morning breakfasts and an infamous 11th floor cookie jar, which remains full as a symbol of the role everyone plays in making the firm a success.

This year, the the company was one of four recipients of the California Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award. The award recognizes organizations that provide for the well-being and growth of their employees.

"Our firm culture expects people to treat one another with consideration," Wenger said. "And when with that doesn't happen, we let people know."

At OMIX, a Menlo Park technical services firm that also received a Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award, the workplace is structured in a way that minimizes politics, blame and the stress that goes along with it, said Sandy Lillie, OMIX's co-founder, who also happens to be a clinical psychologist.

The company culture focuses on learning, and OMIX's corporate structure is more like a circle than the traditional hierarchical pyramid, Lillie said.

"What we emphasize is that we are all adults working together toward joint goals," she said. "And it's everyone's responsibility to achieve those goals."

As a veteran of Silicon Valley high-tech companies, Kyle Hurlbut, vice president of sales at OMIX, said it's refreshing to work in an environment where political games are not an issue.

"It's like you're walking into your living room instead of walking into your job," Hurlbut said. "You don't have to worry about covering up mistakes. You're going to get support from other people in the company."