Shedding Stress

You could call Jeff Fisher the poster child for work-related stress. To please a high-profile, highly demanding client, the principal of Jeff Fisher LogoMotives in Portland, OR, found himself trapped in an endless cycle of grueling work weeks. He spent 12-hour days running between his office and the client’s. He wasn’t eating properly, wasn’t exercising and, finally, couldn’t sleep. A visit to his doctor was the wake-up call: His blood pressure was skyrocketing, and at the age of 35, he was, he says, “a heart attack waiting to happen. When I told him about my client situation, he told me to quit the account or end up in the hospital—or worse.”

So Fisher did just that: He set up a meeting with his client, explained the situation and resigned. But after his initial panic over losing the steady source of income, a funny thing happened. “The immediate result was that my blood pressure dropped almost 50 points within a few weeks. In two weeks, I had five new—and more manageable—clients. And I learned the importance of balancing my work and personal life.” Soon, Fisher established a Monday through Thursday work week for the summer. Later, he adopted the four-day schedule year-round. And his business is more successful than ever.

Stress plagues workers in almost any profession, especially those that involve constant deadlines. But creatives walk a tightrope between meeting those deadlines and producing effective, aesthetically pleasing and on-target work.

And stress can wreak havoc in a creative workplace, says Mike Marino, a New York City-based consultant who advises employers on retention, employee relations and HR policies. “It plays itself out not only in illness, but in poor performance, cloudy judgment, acting out at work and employee turnover,” he says.

Illness leads to sick time, and employee turnover affects client relationships and, consequently, companies’ ability to keep clients. “Bottom line, it’s bad for individuals, and it’s bad for business,” Marino says.

Seeking a New Balance
Marino believes the events of Sept. 11 forever changed our attitudes about work and its importance in our lives. Now, he says, 70% of men between the ages of 21 and 39 would give up pay for more time with their families. “This has always been true for women, but now for the first time you see men saying, ?I’m taking off Thursday and Friday to be with my kids.'”

Because there’s an increasingly strong pull away from the workplace, Marino says, employers should be more flexible and innovative. Job sharing, part-time schedules, employee-assistance programs and creative benefits are essential to retaining good employees. Providing employees with the right tools, technology and training to do their jobs is also important in reducing stress and keeping a highly qualified workforce.

For individuals, maintaining a balance between your work and personal life means identifying what’s important to you and acting on it, says Sheila Campbell, founder and president of Wild Blue Yonder, a Washington, DC-based consulting and training firm. “For some of us, it means acknowledging that we love work and actually want to work long hours—and not feeling bad about it. For others, it means taking care of ourselves, not just our clients.”

And finding balance isn’t a destination; it’s a journey. “The truth is, what you want in the realm of work/life balance changes over time,” Campbell says. “A lot of people are delighted to work 60 hours a week until they get married and have kids. Then there’s something else more wonderful to them than work … at that moment.”

Getting to the Core of It
RaShelle Westcott, whose Laguna Hills, CA-based business, inVision, offers coaching for creative professionals, recalls a recent client who asked her to help identify a nagging lack of energy in her small company. “Business was slow, and she felt the vibrancy that had once been there was gone.”

The client was also stressed out, but not about lack of business, Westcott soon discovered. Like most people dealing with stress, she’d lost perspective. “That’s one of the most insidious effects of stress,” Westcott says. “When you’re overstressed, you lose the ability to assess the situation and manage it well.”

In this situation, the client was sidestepping a sticky personnel issue: An employee she’d hired two years ago was no longer meeting the requirements of the job. “She wanted to avoid the confrontation and wasn’t being honest with her employee,” Westcott explains.

This scenario is typical of creatives who run their own businesses. “They got into the business because they wanted to be creative, but five or 10 years later, they find themselves so immersed in the administrative side of things they feel they’re no longer being creative,” Westcott says. To lessen stress, they need to reinvent themselves as they go along, finding the right balance of creative/administrative work by delegating or hiring others to do the work they either can’t or don’t want to do.

Whatever the situation, Westcott urges her clients—both employers and employees—to examine the situation honestly and get to the core of what’s causing their stress. “The first thing I tell people is to look at themselves closely: Are they taking care of business at home? Are they taking care of themselves physically through exercise or meditation or hobbies?”

Westcott then asks them to make a “toleration list” of the things they want to do but keep putting off. Some tasks or activities they can tolerate not doing. But not having time for other things—like spending time with family or friends—is often at the root of stress.

Breaking Out of Stress
Most creatives acknowledge that a certain degree of stress—we’ll call it the adrenaline factor—is good, even necessary in a field that demands a constant flow of creative ideas. But when it gets out of hand, due to unreasonable schedules or unrealistic client demands, it can take control of an individual project or even an entire business.

Managing stress so it doesn’t manage you requires pro-active thinking. Culturally, it requires business owners and principals to choose the right clients, build mutually respectful relationships with them and learn to say no to unrealistic demands. Individually, it requires a commitment to not only take care of your clients, but also to take care of yourself, creating a work/life balance that meets your needs. Here are eight tips to help you shed stress:

1. Choose the right clients. A huge proportion of stress in the creative workplace comes from working with the wrong clients. “Always ask yourself, Are we a good match?’ when you meet with prospective clients,” Westcott says. Do your clients share your values? Do they respect your services enough to pay you fairly? Are they able to meet the expenses of the proposed project? Have you checked their references?

If you’re partway through a project before you realize it’s a bad fit, finish the job and fire the client, advises Campbell. “Often, we take on clients because we think it will be good for cash flow, then realize that, because of their demands, we’ll never make money on the project,” she says. “Or they treat our employees badly and are just bad for morale. When you win another client to replace them, fire the bad one.”

2. Get real on project schedules. Another major source of stress is taking on too much work or accepting unrealistic deadlines. Develop a schedule that leaves you and your coworkers ample time to complete the project in a thoughtful, thorough manner. Make your clients partly responsible for meeting deadlines. Outline each task in the assignment, from comp presentation to delivery. Tie the deadlines to client approvals and/or delivery of needed materials. Have the client sign off on the schedule so everyone knows the timeline; if the client doesn’t meet his obligations, revise the schedule and ask him to sign off on it again. And always plan for contingencies. Add wiggle room to your schedule to allow for setbacks such as delays in approval of concepts, vacations and printer problems.

3. Allocate or delegate. Stress can be especially difficult for design-firm principals who are trying to run their businesses and still keep their hands in the creative side. “When you’re wearing so many hats—designer, employer, janitor, bookkeeper, new-business manager—it’s difficult to keep all the balls in the air,” Westcott says. Often, the tasks that go undone are those that principals feel the least comfortable doing, such as marketing or developing employees. Avoiding these tasks causes stress in myriad ways. Be realistic about what needs to get done, and either allocate your own time to do it or delegate it.

4. Communicate your needs. Your boss isn’t a mind reader, so unless you articulate your needs in the employment relationship, you may be inviting stress. If you’re feeling overloaded by the workload, let your supervisor know, and identify the priorities together. The burden shouldn’t fall entirely on your shoulders; this, too, is a partnership. And voicing your needs may not always be enough: Make sure they’re heard and taken care of. If you’re experiencing stress at home, take advantage of any employee-assistance programs your employer offers.

5. Keep commitments to yourself. In creative shops, there’s often so much emphasis on pleasing clients that the needs of individuals get overlooked. But it’s in everyone’s best interest for your work and life to be well-balanced, because your work benefits when you’re happy. Taking care of yourself on the job often means scheduling time for the things you want to do. Love to go to yoga class on Thursday night? Block off the time on your calendar and firmly tell coworkers and supervisors, “I can’t stay late on Thursday; I have my yoga class.” After a few times, you won’t even have to tell them.

6. Stop multitasking. Research has shown that multitasking—that mainstay of creatives—is less efficient than concentrating on tasks one at a time. A February 28, 2003, article in The Wall Street Journal stated: “A growing body of scientific research shows one of jugglers’ favorite time-saving techniques, multitasking, can actually make you less efficient, and well, stupider. Trying to do two or three things at once or in quick succession can take longer overall than doing them one at a time, and may leave you with reduced brainpower to perform each task.”

7. Divide big tasks into small ones. Campbell says she learned a simple time-management technique that has literally changed her life. “Whatever task you need to do,” she says, “Chop it into very small pieces.” Many tasks seem overwhelming simply because you know you’ll never get the uninterrupted stretch of time you need to complete them. Realistically, we get 30-minute chunks of time between interruptions, she explains. So divide your larger task into 30-minute segments. Once you start on one portion, don’t stop until it’s done. Don’t answer the phone, read email or chat with a coworker. “You’ll have a sense of accomplishment each time you finish a small chunk,” she says. “Soon the entire task is done.”

8. Exercise. It not only helps you feel good physically, but its mental benefits are endless. “Exercise is crucial for controlling stress,” Fisher says. Like many, he struggles to schedule regular exercise classes or workouts. Keep it simple, he advises: “Walking to the post office (about 10 blocks from my home office) is great exercise, and I go every day to check my business mail. Other designers I know rely on running, swimming, yoga, pilates and other forms of exercise to keep healthy—and sane.”

Fisher is only half-joking when he claims all designers should have a “stress intervention team” for when the pressure is overwhelming. When members of your team notice the telltale signs, he says, they should converge on you. “I can see them gathered outside a designer’s office demanding over a bullhorn, Step away from the computer with your hands in the air.'” Sometimes, he says, it takes an outsider to help you regain perspective on priorities and balance. “We all get so caught up in the work, the client’s demands and the deadlines that our personal health is way down the list of concerns in our life,” Fisher says. “We aren’t superhuman. At times, we simply need to tell bosses, coworkers, clients and ourselves, ‘I just can’t take on any more work right now.'”