WHO BEATS STRESS BEST -- AND HOW In a faster-spinning world, managers are finding new ways to ease stress in workers and themselves. Wisdom comes from surprising sources -- like the Army -- and pays off.
By Alan Farnham REPORTER ASSOCIATE Nora E. Field

(FORTUNE Magazine) – WHAT WE DON'T understand about stress could fill volumes. And it does. Some books say stress is an invigorating tonic; others, that it's lethal. Stress stands implicated in practically every complaint of modern life, from equipment downtime to premature ejaculation, from absenteeism to sudden death. Some workers in high-stress occupations -- bomb deactivators, for example -- suffer its effects hardly at all. Yet a man who tastes port for a living lies awake some nights worried that ''the whole business is riding on my palate.'' There's enough apparently contradictory information about stress to make any honest seeker after truth, well, anxious. Isn't there more stress today than ever before? There might be. There might be more love. But neither condition is quantifiable. Diseases to which stress contributes -- hypertension, heart attack, ulcers, the common cold -- are quantifiable, but since stress isn't their only cause, an increase in them doesn't necessarily signal an increase in stress. Ask people if they feel more stressed, and, of course, they say yes. Who would admit, even if it were true, that he feels less stressed than he did a year ago? Inner peace is seen to be the prerogative of dweebs. It's hip to be stressed. Earlier this year Northwestern National Life Insurance questioned a random sample of 600 U.S. workers. Almost half (46%) said their jobs were highly stressful; 34% said they felt so much stress they were thinking of quitting. Some of them were telling the truth. Commutes really are growing longer, highways more congested. In more families, both husbands and wives have jobs. And with upsizings, downsizings, rightsizings, takeovers, and mergers, the corporate world in recent years has turned upside down more times than James Dean's roadster. The number of stress-related workers' compensation claims has ballooned in states such as California that compensate for so-called mental-mental injuries. In these, an intangible (mental) injury results from an intangible (mental) cause, such as stress. California courts have awarded compensation to workers who just say they feel hurt. Judith Bradley, a former cake decorator with Albertson's, a supermarket chain, won compensation in part because she said her supervisor had been ''very curt'' with her. He had told her to ''get the lead out'' and to ''get your butt in high gear,'' and had reprimanded her for leaving cakes out of the freezer. She was distressed, sued, and won. Though recently the number of stress-related claims has begun to decline in California, dollar costs nationally continue to rise. Donna Dell, manager of employee relations for Wells Fargo Bank, says workers suffering from stress ''typically are out a long, long time, and they need lots of rehabilitation,'' including costly visits to psychiatrists. In medical treatment and time lost, stress cases cost, on average, twice as much as other workplace injuries: more than $15,000 each. Perhaps the most telling sign of stress's apparent rise: strong business for purveyors of relief. Psychologist Stanley Fisher, a Manhattan hypnotist, says the demise of New York's boom-boom real estate market has sent many relief- seeking former brokers and developers his way. Gene Cooper, a partner at Corporate Counseling Associates (a supplier of corporate employee assistance programs), says, ''It used to be, 3% to 5% of our calls for counseling were stress related. Now, more like 8% to 14%.'' They come from all levels, clerks to VPs. There are stress-fighting tapes, goggles that send pulses of white light into your head, vibrating music beds (''not quite like the first time you had sex,'' says one manufacturer, ''but maybe the second''). Morgan Fairchild has a video out (Morgan Fairchild Stress Management, $19.95). Whenever the status quo gets a good shaking -- even where that shaking eventually results in greater opportunity and freedom of choice -- stress goes up, as people scramble to adapt. Yet if change is a constant, and if everyone is susceptible to stress, why doesn't everyone suffer from it equally? Why do some maddeningly healthy people appear not to suffer from it at all? Not everyone finds the same event stressful. Drop a scorpion into a box of puppies, and you get stressed puppies. But drop it into a box of elf owls, which eat scorpions, and you get satisfaction. If a tree falls in the rain forest and nobody from Ben & Jerry's hears it, is there stress? No. Perhaps you think drinking port is fun. Peter Ficklin, wine master of Ficklin Vineyards, a California portmaker, says, ''Sure, it's a pleasure to taste port. But the fortified wine category is down. There's increased competition. In the busy season, sometimes, I have trouble sleeping. The whole business is riding on my palate.'' Some people are protected from stress by buffers. For example, the more mastery or control a person feels he has over circumstances, the less stress he's apt to feel, even if his control extends no further than the power to decide how he's going to feel about change. A sure-fire recipe for creating stress is to put someone in a job that affords him little decision-making power but carries great responsibility or imposes heavy psychological demands. RARE IS THE JOB where an employee has complete control. Wally Goelzer, a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines, has plenty of control over his schedule -- he's got 11 years' seniority. But the workplace limits his freedom: ''Probably the worst incident in the last six months was an alcohol situation. The plane was full of a mixture of tourists and commercial fishermen. I had to tell this guy, one of the fishermen, that we wouldn't serve him any more alcohol. Now these fishermen are out on their boat sometimes six or eight weeks. He wasn't pleased. Yelling. Profanities. People around him were not having an ideal travel experience. 'What you're doing,' I told him, 'is you're being loud now.' I didn't want to stir him up too much, since we're all trapped in a tube at 29,000 feet.'' The most potent buffer against stress may well be membership in a stable, close-knit group or community. Example: the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania. Stress researcher Dr. Stewart Wolf wondered 25 years ago why Roseto's residents, though they smoked, drank, ate fat, and otherwise courted doom, lived free from heart disease and other stress-related ills. He suspected their protection sprang from the town's uncommon social cohesion and stability: It was inhabited almost entirely by descendants of Italians who had moved there 100 years previously from Roseto, Italy. Few married outside the community; the firstborn was always named after a grandparent; ostentation or any display of superiority was avoided, since that would invite ''the evil eye'' from one's neighbor. Wolf predicted Rosetians would start dying like flies if the modern world intruded. It did. They did. By the mid-1970s, Rosetians had Cadillacs, ranch- style homes, mixed marriages, new names, and a rate of coronary heart disease the same as any other town's. The U.S. Army tries to instill a Rosetian cohesion prophylactically. Says Dr. David Marlowe, chief of the department of military psychiatry at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research: ''If a bond trader feels stress, he can go meditate for 20 minutes. A soldier facing enemy fire can't. So we have to give him the maximum protection ahead of time.'' Marlowe says that where stress is concerned, Army research shows the primary issues are organizational. ''You want to build cohesion into a group, by making sure soldiers have good information, that they aren't faced with ambiguity, that they have solid relationships with leaders. If a man feels his squad is listening to him, if he can talk to it about his hopes, fears, anxieties, he's not likely to experience stress.'' The Army's No. 1 psychological discovery from World War II, he says, was ''the strength imparted by the small, primary work group.'' Keeping group cohesion strong after battle is crucial, too, since members, by collectively reliving their experience and trying to put it in perspective, get emotions off their chests that otherwise might leave them stressed out for months or years. The process is called debriefing. Squad members, for example, are encouraged to use travel time en route home from a war zone to talk about their battlefield experience. ''It helps them detoxify,'' says Marlowe. ''That's why we brought them back in groups from Desert Storm. Epidemiologically, we know it works.'' Thus, the group emerges both as the primary protection against stress and as the means for relief after a stressful event. In light of the Army's approach, much of what passes for stress management in U.S. industry looks superficial. Most FORTUNE500 companies offer employees either an employee assistance program (EAP), a wellness promotion program, or both. Some of these emphasize stress management. At Liz Claiborne, for example, well-attended lunchtime seminars explain how workers can relax by using mental imagery, muscle relaxation, and a variety of other proven techniques. Why the big turnout? ''Misery loves company,'' says Sharon Quilter, Claiborne's director of benefits. Honeywell has offered a 45-minute program called Wellness and Your Funny Bone, taught by Sister Mary Christelle Macaluso, R.S.M. (Religious Sister of Mercy), Ph.D., ''a lecturer/humorist with a Ph.D. in anatomy.'' Ted Barash, president of a company that provides wellness programs, ( dismisses such approaches to stress reduction as ''Band-Aid happy hours and traveling humor shows.'' Professor Paul Roman, a University of Georgia expert on behavioral health who has surveyed EAP programs, says most ''never address the source of the stress. They blame the victim. Our studies at Southwestern Bell and other companies show the single biggest source of stress is poorly trained and inept supervisors.'' External suppliers of EAP programs, such as Corporate Counseling Associates, purveyors of counseling to Time Warner, Digital Equipment, Liz Claiborne, and others, are understandably reluctant to tell clients how to run their own businesses. Says CCA partner Gene Cooper: ''We help employees develop coping mechanisms. We don't reduce the stress itself.'' One of Cooper's counselors, asked if she ever suggests stress-relieving organizational changes to employers, says no, ''that would be presumptuous.'' STRESS EXPERTS who advocate a more interventionist approach ask how it can possibly make sense for a company to soothe employees with one hand -- teaching them relaxation through rhythmic breathing -- while whipping them like egg whites with the other, moving up deadlines, increasing overtime, or withholding information about job security. Any company serious about stress management should consider the following steps: -- Audit stress. Dr. Paul J. Rosch, president of the American Institute of Stress, thinks any intelligent program must begin and end with a stress audit. Questionnaires typically ask workers and managers to list conditions they find most stressful. Answers can illuminate areas where workers are stressed by boredom, as well as those where they are stressed by overwork. (Rustout, stressmeisters are fond of saying, can be as anxious-making as burnout.) Rosch says, ''An audit may show a need for programs not generally thought of as stress reducing, though they serve that function.'' Examples: child care and flextime. Follow-up audits show results. -- Use EAPs aggressively. Try to catch stress before it blooms. At McDonnell Douglas, EAP director Daniel Smith uses a program called Transitions to prepare workers for potentially traumatic organizational changes. ''You tell people what they're going to feel before they feel it,'' he says. ''It prevents more significant problems downstream.'' Case in point: Pete Juliano, head of McDonnell Douglas's 2,000-person facilities management operation, knew he would have to flatten and streamline his division to make it more responsive. Specifically, he would have to strip five levels of management with 260 managers down to three levels with 170. ''Nobody was going out the door,'' he says, ''and nobody was getting a pay cut. They'd all be staying on, though not all as managers. Still, that's a tough nut to crack: One day you're a manager. The next, you're carrying tools. How do you tell your wife and kids? How do you go to work each day and face not being a manager?'' Juliano called in the Transitions team, whose members made a two-hour presentation to the department. They covered such topics as how to face your spouse and peers if you don't continue as a manager, how to recognize denial, how to cope with anger. The counselors also told listeners about career options if they decided to leave the division or McDonnell Douglas. ''It gave them a chance to vent,'' says Juliano. ''There have been cases of guys committing suicide when they had to go back to carrying tools. But we didn't have any serious problems.'' -- Examine EAP usage. If you've got an EAP program, study the usage data that counselors collect: How many employees from what departments are requesting help, and for what? For example, if you know that (1) in the past five years nobody from your tax department has ever used the EAP program, (2) half the accountants signed up for stress counseling last week, and (3) it's not mid- April, then you might be seeing evidence of a problem. -- Give employees information. They can't feel in control of circumstances if they lack it. When Donna Dell became manager of employee relations at Wells Fargo Bank last November, she saw there were about 3,000 workers' compensation cases outstanding. Accidents accounted for 80%; another 10% were from workers claiming various injuries from working at video display terminals; and 10% were from stress. She wanted to know where the stress claims came from. Were they, for instance, from employees who had been laid off or who had just been through a performance review? There was no correlation to either event. ''I was surprised,'' says Dell. ''Vengeance, apparently, was not the issue.'' Asbestos was. ''We don't have any claims for asbestosis per se,'' she says, ''but we get stress claims from people who fear they may have been exposed. You don't have to prove you were exposed to get workers' comp. The fear is enough. Now we provide instruction at sites where toxic material construction has been scheduled. We go in, in advance, with trainers and explain to the employees what's going to happen. Since we implemented this program about a year and a half ago, we haven't had any more such claims.'' -- Match employees with jobs they can master. In his best-selling book, Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, points out that the least stressed people often are those who are working flat out on some task that they have selected -- something they really love to do. They give themselves so completely that they achieve a kind of precision and grace -- what the author calls ''flow.'' The chance of your getting such performance from workers goes up, and their stress down, the more choice you give them over assignments. -- Be prepared for trauma. It's easy to forget that stress isn't always the result of a thousand tiny cuts. ''Having a gun put to your head can be upsetting,'' says Chris Dunning, a trauma expert at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. She ought to know. Her business is de-stressing shot cops, crews of crashed airliners, and, at this writing, the forensic examiners in the Jeffrey Dahmer case (''they're having trouble eating meat''). Abrupt and upsetting things happen in offices. Homicide and suicide -- not accidents -- now account for 14% of male on-the-job deaths and 46% of female, reports psychologist James Turner, an expert on workplace mayhem. At the emergency department of Oakland's Highland Hospital, says chief resident Linda Jenks, mounting stress -- with no end in sight -- precipitated two suicides. ''A young intern got into her car, numbed up her neck with lidocaine, took out a scalpel, and dissected herself in her rearview mirror. Within a week, a night nurse started an i.v. on herself -- injected potassium, which stopped her heart immediately. After that, the hospital said, 'Okay, we're ignoring a problem here.' It's as if to admit it is a sign of failure.'' A suicide, an industrial accident, or any other traumatic event, says Dunning, leaves a lingering psychological strain on survivors: ''It usually takes a good three months to get an organization back on track.'' But, says Mark Braverman, president of Crisis Management Group, a Massachusetts consulting firm, these traumas present management with opportunities as well as problems. ''Management sometimes won't talk about the event or face up to it directly,'' he says. ''We try to tell them that if they do face up to it and answer workers' questions, they can build a bond that lasts long afterward.'' Even if you can't talk, he says, talk: ''If you can't tell them much because OSHA is still completing an investigation, tell them that.'' Braverman cites an example of trauma handled right: ''A computer company had had a helicopter crash. They'd also had a work site shooting. So they decided, within the structure of their EAP, to create a protocol for dealing with traumatic stress. Later a safety system failed in a plant with 2,000 people, killing one. Every work group got together. The international manager of facilities was flown in to answer questions, including the ones on everybody's minds: Why did the system fail? Could it happen again? EAP counselors were available, but it was the information itself that was most stress-relieving.'' Traumatic stress tends to be infectious. Since large numbers of employees are involved, clusters of stress-based workers' comp suits can result. In court the cases are much harder to defend against than less dramatic stress cases. Says Jim Turner: ''It behooves you greatly to go in early with counselors, since this will reduce your overall long-term costs.'' At Wells Fargo, where bank robberies rose 37% in this year's first quarter, tellers have been traumatized. ''We do get stress claims from robbery incidents, and we don't dispute them,'' says Donna Dell. Instead, the bank dispatches EAP counselors to affected branches, where they conduct group debriefings, much the way the Army does. BRYAN LAWTON, head of Wells Fargo's debriefing program, explains how it works: ''The professional asks them things like, where were you when the incident happened, how did you respond, how did the others act? When the employees start to talk, they find out they're not alone, not the only ones who feel the way they do. Everybody else feels guilty or angry over the event. They're told these are normal emotions.'' The professional then tells them how they can expect to feel weeks later. Nobody is sure why debriefings work, but they do. And they are cost- effective. ''All it takes,'' says Lawton, ''is one case to lead to a significant expense. One person's trauma can wind up costing the bank $100,000.'' The figure includes lost time, medical treatment, and retraining costs. O'Dell Williams, with the bank 16 years, has survived ten robbery situations, the most recent one as a branch manager in Vallejo, California, on May 20. The robbery attempt scared more than 20 of his employees. ''I was afraid we'd lose some afterward,'' he says. But EAP counselors intervened quickly, and so far nobody has quit. And nobody has filed a workers' comp claim. -- Don't forget the obvious. Managers who want to reduce stress should make sure workers have the tools and training they need to get jobs done. Says John Murray, a police bomb deactivator in Florida: ''I'm lucky. I've got the best equipment and the best training. There are departments where all they used to give you was a mattress and a fishhook.'' Managers should set realistic deadlines and go out of their way not to change deadlines, once set. What works well for the Army works just as well in the office: Build cohesion through communication. Straighten out managers who like to play the Charles Boyer part from Gaslight -- who hold sway over subordinates by keeping them confused, by withholding information, or by keeping roles and responsibilities ill-defined. DO ALL THESE THINGS, behave flawlessly, and your exposure to stress-based lawsuits still remains almost unimaginably broad. Chris Dunning cites a case where an employee, as part of some lunchroom high jinks, got silly and taped a co-worker's arm to a chair -- very lightly, not so it restrained her. She started screaming. Other workers looked at each other in disbelief: What was the woman's problem? It turned out that, as a child, she had been forcibly restrained and raped. The taping of the arm caused her to reexperience the trauma of that, and her subsequent disability was judged to be 100% the employer's responsibility. At least this worker's distress was real. Some employees undoubtedly abuse the system, and there are lawyers and doctors eager to help them. Listen to Joseph Alibrandi, chairman of Whittaker Corp., an aerospace manufacturer: ''We try to minimize the problems in the physical workplace, to do all we can to reduce true stress. But a lot of that seems frustratingly irrelevant. There's always an epidemic of 'sore backs' after a layoff. Or they say they can't perform sexually. How the hell are you going to defend against that?'' It's almost impossible, of course, but you can try to flag potential claimants early on. New hires can be asked, as part of their medical evaluation, ''Have you ever been off work due to a stress-related illness?'' A ''yes'' may indicate to the doctor that the employee's assignment should be changed. Performing a periodic stress audit, or making stress management part of your EAP or wellness program, can pay off in court. Says John M. Ivancevich, dean of the business school at the University of Houston: ''Even a sloppy attempt at stress management can be a legal defense.'' Finally: you. Feeling stressed? Not sure what to do? The first rule, says Dr. James Turner, is, Don't quit your job. ''They build these fantasies,'' he says of stressed-out executives. ''They'll go sailing. They'll open a copy center. Lately, for some reason, they all want to open copy centers.'' But sooner or later everyone wants to come back. INSTEAD OF QUITTING, learn the techniques of coping. You'll find plenty of experts willing to teach them to you for a price, but they're not too complex, and many stressed workers have discovered them without help. Flight attendant Wally Goelzer and plenty of other people use them daily without knowing it. ''Sometimes I put my hands out like a scale,'' he says. ''I ask myself: How much does this problem matter? I think of a friend of mine who was killed in a plane crash. 'Life is too short,' I can hear her say. She used to say that, and I can see her face.'' Emergency room resident Jenks and bomb deactivator Murray know the stress- relieving power of humor, even when it's of the gallows type. Says Murray: ''Yeah, I get a certain amount of kidding. I've got three daughters, and when Father's Day comes around they give me a card with a fuse in it.'' Says Jenks: ''We use black humor at work so much that it's gotten so I have to remember to clean up my act when I'm around normal people.'' Then again, you might want to put aside the tricks and strategies, since these change like frocks. You might think about your life. Is it the way you wanted? If not, all the perspective and joking in the world will get you only so far. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who lectures occasionally to 40-ish managers, notes that those who insist on regaining control of their lives, even at what temporarily may seem the peril of their careers, often see an unexpected payoff down the line. ''There comes a point where they're working 70 hours a week, and they're not sure why. Their family lives are suffering. Maybe they've never given any thought to setting priorities. Some decide they can't do everything -- that they have to step off the fast track to get back their family life or take better care of their health. And then a most interesting thing happens: The ones who do it, most of them, in a year or two, they get promoted.'' Dare to be second-rate, if that's how you have to think of it. It may not be what you imagine.