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How to Train For Peak Performance in Today’s High Pace Workplace! Joe Santana

According to a recent study by industry analyst firm Meta Group, 71 percent of IT managers surveyed say employee burnout is a serious issue for their companies. Clearly this is an equally serious, if not worse, issue for IT managers, who are just as vulnerable to stressors and are perhaps experiencing a more generous portion of stress-causing pressure. “IT Management is a field well-known for high levels of stress. Budget constraints, increasing workloads and having to deal with irate customers all add up to sky-high pressures and tension,” states Nancy Rosenberg, author of Outwitting Stress--A Practical Guide to Conquering Stress Before You Crack (www.OutwittingStress.com).

Readers of popular IT magazines know that already high levels of stress are increasing. In a recent article published in Information Week (April 14) titled “Squeezed,” the authors point out how today’s IT department managers are feeling even more pressure resulting from the demand to optimize practices and operations at an ever increasing pace. In addition to well-known costs associated with burnouts and turnover, the fact is that in many cases these managers that have been pressurized beyond their ability to cope are becoming less and less productive with every added task. I was recently told the following by an IT manager who asked that I not publish his name: “I spend ten hours a day trying to get all my work completed and an additional four in the evening and I still can’t get everything done. What’s worse is that I’m making dumb mistakes all the time, not because I don’t know what to do, but because I don’t have enough time to think things through properly.” I’ve since then heard similar stories repeated by other beleaguered managers. Clearly the demands placed on these managers by their organizations will not be diminishing anytime in the near future, so what can they do?

In recent years some managers and executives have successfully responded to these torrents of stress by utilizing the stress-tolerance and productivity increasing benefits of fitness training. John Baschab, Senior Vice President of Solutions at Impact Innovations, shared with me how he used fitness training to keep him in top shape for his demanding IT management role. “As part of our IT turnaround practice, I served as temporary CIO for four companies in the past two years. Last year as part of my stress-management plan I trained for and participated in the Chicago Marathon, achieving a time of 3:47,” states Baschab. “The training and effort associated with the marathon, while intense, definitely helped keep me in top mental condition for my demanding IT management roles,” adds Baschab.

The benefits of a fitness program in building stress resistance, increasing productivity, and providing a general sense of heightened energy are documented and well known. While many acknowledge this and view Baschab’s accomplishment with admiration, the challenge for them is finding a starting point from where they currently find themselves. Often exhausted by the way their bodies are handling stress in their weakened state of health victims of stress find themselves unable to pull out of the downward spiral. So how can you as an HR professional advise these totally “squeezed” IT managers on how they can take charge and start steering themselves toward greater health and peak performance?

Start with Education:

One good way to start is by providing them with a basic education in the principals of fitness. Tony Books Avilez (http://www.14daymiracle.com), a fitness advisor, author and lifestyle coach who operates a successful business out of the North East Fitness Center located in Staten Island, New York, boils this education down to seven things. According to Avilez, you need to tell your IT managers to pay attention to these seven key items in order to improve their overall stress-resistance, health and fitness. These are:

  • Mindset
  • Food consumption
  • Water consumption
  • Resistance exercise
  • Aerobic exercise
  • Flexibility
  • Rest

How does alignment go off kilter?

Mindset according to Avilez is the most important of the seven, because if their mind is not focused on helping them get fit, then they will not take any of the other required actions. So, first of all, you need to help the person suffering from stress to make a personal commitment to building their health. Food consumption is next because, as the old cliché goes, you literally are what to eat. Avilez points out that if your IT managers are making a choice to minimize stress and become healthy they really need to understand that they must choose healthy foods. Finally, since the body is about 55 to 75 percent water, water is one of the most important nutrients you must advise them to consume in generous quantities. (He personally advises drinking at least eight 8 oz. glasses each day.)

As we move on to actual exercises, Avilez points out that “resistance exercise,” where you train your muscles for strength, is vital. “The goal is to build some muscle to help speed up your metabolism and to give your body more energy. Adding to this some aerobic exercises for cardiovascular health and oxygen intake as well as stretching for flexibility (which plays a major role in joint health, maintaining good range of motion, as well as relieving stress), is also important,” states Avilez. By the way, one thing that many people on a new fitness crusade forget to make time for is rest. Avilez points out that “rest” is not a step to be skipped. It is incredibly important because none of the stress-resistance, health-enhancing changes occur during exercise. These systemic changes happen while the person is resting, so adequate rest is a key component of any good fitness program.

Of course, the argument you may hear at this point from many IT managers is, “Are your kidding? I’m too busy to take time to pay attention to all of this stuff. I’m lucky if I can get four hours of sleep.” So, how can you as an HR professional advise them on how they can fit fitness into their lives?

Where To Start And How To Build Up:

First of all, let me share a phenomenon that I’ve discovered in my life as a result of exercise (Yes, I am an avid practitioner of what I preach). As you invest more time and energy in your health and fitness, your productive time will increase. Here’s why: If you operate at 25% efficiency during 16 waking hours, you will effectively produce four hours of results. On the other hand, if you subtract one hour from your busy day to increase your level of fitness and that enables you to operate at 50% efficiency over the remaining 15 hours, or producing 7 ½ hours of results, then that one-hour session just gave you more time. Naturally, as you increase your health investment and come closer to 100% productive efficiency, you will be getting more done with less stress and effort. So, your advice to those IT Managers is to start with a low demand program and gradually build on it as their productivity and performance efficiency increases.

Cheryl Smith, a Stress Management Counselor based out of Northern California, recently shared with me an example of this type of “low-demand” program, which I see as an excellent start-up approach. She explained to me how one of her clients, an IT Manager in what she calls “a very high-powered position,” deals successfully with job pressure through a very easy-to-follow plan. Smith calls the plan they developed the "Easy Street Plan" because of its simplicity and low demand. Essentially, Smith’s client sets aside a small amount of time per day to do a complete "body, mind and soul" stress-reduction routine. The entire routine is segmented into the three areas and is contained in a chart posted on the refrigerator, so that it is visible at least once or more per day. Here’s what’s on the chart:

  • Twenty minutes of a favorite exercise session. (For some, it can be walking in place as you watch television. For other it could be running or a combination of weights and aerobics.)
  • Next is 10 minutes of “stress reducing/meditation.” This manager sits quietly erect in a chair, while breathing in a calm fashion for 10 minutes a day.
  • Finally the list contains a diet plan that’s comprised of recipes that take no more than 25 minutes to execute. The idea is to follow a diet plan made up of foods that are both healthy and easy to prepare. Its also important to have foods that suit you and that you enjoy eating. (See box below for on of Smith’s recipes).
  • 25-Minute Steamed Chicken and Vegetables Recipe Boil 2 cups of water, put in one half cup of dry rice and slice in one peeled carrot. Place one rinsed skinless chicken breast on top. Simmer for 25 minutes. The result is a wonderful and healthy meal all in the same pot (which means fewer dishes to wash)!

Even the busiest of IT managers in the vise of overwhelming stress, should be able to carve out this small amount of time and effort. Over time, as your IT managers' physical and mental stress resistance increases with this low-demand program, they will find themselves able to sustain higher levels of productive output over longer periods of time. As this positive cycle begins to build, they will be able to invest a larger portion of their new-found energy into their fitness program, while at the same time increasing their work productivity.

Netting It Out:

Here then are the three phases of advice that you can use to help your stressed out, over-worked IT managers:

  • Educate them on the personal benefits of fitness and its seven key dimensions.
  • Help them ease into the process by offering them a low demand option, such as the “Easy Street Plan.” This will help them get their weight, stress resistance and energy under control.
  • As their energy, stress-coping abilities, and productivity increases, advise them to allocate some of the extra time and energy to adding layers to their fitness program.

By educating and advising your IT managers on how to start and follow a balanced fitness program, you will help them increase their stress-tolerance, add hours of productive energy to their day and perform with a powerful sense of well-being despite the pressures of today. Translation: A success for you, a win for the company and a win for the IT manager.