July 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Under Pressure? - July 1998 Current Issue
July 1998
Under Pressure?

Seventy-eight percent of Americans are stressed out at work; here's how to cope


Jennie McNeal is no stranger to stress. Two years ago, the newly divorced single mother of three was already stressed out as she struggled to bring her fledgling New Orleans-based meeting planning firm, Jennie McNeal Enterprises, into the black. Then she lost her mother to cancer. Two months later, she herself was diagnosed with the disease.

"For me, the best way to deal with the stress of having cancer was to immerse myself in becoming educated about it," says McNeal. A year later, with a clean bill of health, she has added another facet to her full life - public speaking on women's cancer issues.

Her daily survival tactic: "I keep a photograph of my kids in my office, and whenever I feel like quitting, I look at that photograph and say to myself, ÔThe day I can tell my kids I quit is the day I can quit.' Then, I get on with the task at hand."

Is McNeal's experience more extreme than most? Maybe. But stress - both on and off the job - is nearly universal. And meeting planning rates high on the tension scale, according to Timothy O'Brien, director of the Institute for Stress Management in Tallahassee, Fla.

"In medical and psychological research, change is shown to be the most important stress factor," he says. "The more change there is in our lives, the more out of control we feel. Planners face change daily - keeping up with changing technology, changes at hotels, changing demands from speakers." Because of the uncertainty in their daily work, says O'Brien, planners encounter high levels of stress.

America's Health Crisis
According to the American Institute of Stress, a nonprofit, Yonkers, N.Y.-based organization, job stress is the country's number-one health problem. The primary causes: long work hours, lack of job security, pressure to perform at peak levels and not enough family time. Sound familiar?

Consider AIS statistics on job-related stress: 75 to 90 percent of doctor visits are for stress-related problems; 78 percent of Americans describe their jobs as stressful (up 18 percent from 1973); 40 percent of worker turnover is due to stress; and job-related stress is estimated to cost U.S. industry $300 billion annually in employee turnover and medical, legal and insurance fees.

Top stress indicators cited by planners contacted by M&C were last-minute changes, deadlines and the volume of meetings. Here are their tactics for reducing stress.

Diagnosis: Stress Don't wait to address your stress. It has been linked to medical maladies from the common cold to skin diseases, even heart attacks. Left unchecked, stress can result in suicide or premature death. Typical high-stress warning signs not to be ignored include difficulty breathing, stuttering or stammering, frequent headaches, chest pain, muscle spasms and unexplained weight gain or loss.

The Only Constant is Change
"A stress driver for me is when things change at the end of the project or, typically, when you're well into the actual event," says Stephen Coyler, CMP, a manager with Lucent Technologies' Coral Gables, Fla., office. "What makes it even more difficult is that people who go to meetings don't understand what goes on behind meetings."

Ann Yauger, CMP, chief of protocol for AT&T in Basking Ridge, N.J., agrees. "As soon as you get everything on paper, it all changes. Even while you're in the midst of executing the event, you're constantly changing gears." To cope with the stress of her high-profile job, Yauger builds in time on the weekends for some of her favorite things - golf and hiking. "You have to schedule time for yourself," she says.

For Coyler, injecting a little humor into the absurdity of the situation helps. "You have to have humor, or you'll die," he says. "If you realize and track the ludicrousness of some of the things you do and put up with in your job, they become priceless. The last two times I found myself laughing so hard I had tears rolling down my face, I was recalling those very situations."

When stress hits Robin Almond, contract administrator with Iroquois Gas Transportation System in Shelton, Conn., she makes a point to check out of the situation and into maintaining her sanity. "My industry is big on golf meetings, so one of my favorite things to do is vent my stress on the first couple of tee-offs," she says. "My score is bad, but at least I feel much better."

And sometimes Almond just likes to get away from it all, even for a few hours. "Two or three hours for yourself can do wonders. Go for a walk, go to a museum, even just window shop. And don't tell anyone where you've gone."

Get a Grip The best way to resolve a stressful problem is to break it down and analyze it the way you would any business challenge, advises Timothy O'Brien, director of the Institute for Stress Management in Tallahassee, Fla. Try his five-step approach.

1. Identify the problem. Write down precisely, and objectively, what you see as the main problem. Is it the last-minute request for a meeting? Is it the meeting space that didn't materialize?

2. Ascertain the cause. List every factor you can think of that may have resulted in the problem. Did the meeting location suddenly change because management changed? Or did some half-baked executive just change his mind?

3. List five to seven solutions. Now, rank them in order of perceived value. (Asking for a six-month lead time might be high on the list, with rude e-mail toward the bottom.)

4. List specific steps to be taken. Enlist your staff, because solutions can come from many directions. It may even be as simple as having a heart-to-heart talk with that chronic late-scheduler or demonstrating why you need a bigger budget.

5. Identify your ultimate goal. What would be the ideal resolution to your problem that would prevent it from recurring? Is it getting all event details under control one week out? If so, educate management about what kind of support you'll need to accomplish that goal. Maybe they didn't realize they were asking you to deliver the moon. n C.A.S.

So Much Work, So Little Time
Deadlines, says government planner Carol McDaniel, with the conference and travel management services division of the Washington, D.C.-based Bureau of the Census, are a big stress inducer. "You have all these never-ending deadlines and one meeting after another lined up," says McDaniel.

The solution, she says, is to set even more deadlines. "Assign specific dates for everything that needs to be done for the meeting, and work toward each date." To make it work, "the dates have to be realistic," she adds. But even careful time management can go awry. "The real problem occurs when you take on additional assignments that you hadn't planned for in your regular calendar year. That really makes for added stress."

Sometimes, the sheer volume of tasks at hand can seem insurmountable, says Thomas Clements, manager of corporate events for Houston-based Shell Chemical Company. "You end up taking work home with you, working later, working on weekends. The more the work stacks up, the greater the stress."

To manage his heavy and sometimes unpredictable workload, Clements is forced to prioritize. "You get into putting out fires - always handling the hottest first and working down from there."

The meeting's over; Now What?
Ironically, succeeding in handling a superhuman workload and seeing a project to its conclusion can trigger another serious psychological problem: post-conference stress (a.k.a. post-convention stress). "It's akin to post-traumatic stress," says Michael Mantell, Ph.D., a San Diego-based clinical psychologist and chief psychologist for the city's police department. Typical symptoms include anxiety, depression, a feeling of worthlessness and loss of appetite.

Some meeting planners simply become even more detail-obsessive when the event is over, rushing home to rearrange the furniture, their spouse's schedule, the garage and anything they can get their hands on. More serious symptoms include sleepless nights, flashbacks to the event and a general inability to move on to future tasks.

"I recommend planners stay on site at least an extra day just to unwind and debrief themselves," advises Mantell. "To try to jump home and back to the kids or into the office routine only makes it worse." He adds, "Hanging around to fill out meeting audits doesn't count."

Perhaps the best way to treat the problem is to take measures to avoid it. "Planners should take at least half an hour every day they are working a meeting to check out of the meeting mode," Mantell suggests. "That little time off allows them to plug back in to themselves and recharge."

Top 10 Sources of Job Stress 1. Lots of responsibility, but little authority.

2. Lack of freedom to voice dissatisfaction.

3. Subjected to prejudice due to race, religion, age or gender.

4. Unpleasant working conditions (such as polluted air, excessive noise, overcrowding).

5. Chronic and unpredictable commuting problems.

6. Inability to work with superiors, co-workers or subordinates because of basic differences in goals and values.

7. Inadequate recognition or reward for good job performance.

8. Inability to utilize personal talents and skills to their full potential.

9. Lack of clear job description, direction or chain of command, with too many people demanding too many different things.

10. Fear, uncertainty and doubt with regard to job security.

Source: Paul J. Rosch, M.D., president, American Institute of Stress, Yonkers, N.Y., and clinical professor of Medicine and Psychiatry, New York Medical College, Valhala, N.Y.

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