Meetings & Conventions: Under Pressure? - July
Seventy-eight percent of Americans are stressed out at work;
here's how to cope
BY CHERYL-ANNE STURKENJ
ennie 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
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
"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
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
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:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
1. Lots of
responsibility, but little authority.
2. Lack of freedom to voice dissatisfaction.
3. Subjected to prejudice due to race, religion, age or
4. Unpleasant working conditions (such as polluted air,
excessive noise, overcrowding).
5. Chronic and unpredictable commuting
6. Inability to work with superiors, co-workers or
subordinates because of basic differences in goals and
7. Inadequate recognition or reward for good job
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
10. Fear, uncertainty and doubt with regard to job
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,
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