Stress survival strategies

Sitting in front of a computer, tackling tight deadlines and working odd hours take their toll on IT professionals under normal circumstances. But lately, many workers have watched their company's financial health plummet, their colleagues get laid off, their perks get slashed and their stock options disappear. All the while, they're picking up the slack for their shrinking departments and worrying if they'll be the next to go.

Most people have heard the sermons before, but now, with workplace stress and strain on the rise, it might just be time to listen to the wealth of advice on creating a healthy work environment.

"Computer people tend to be so technically oriented that they're not really in tune with what they need," says Alice Domar, chief psychologist at the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Harvard Medical School's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. "The human body was not meant to sit at a computer for eight to 10 hours a day."

Many companies, such as Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. in New York and State Street Corp. in Boston, have internal wellness centers for employees.

But it's rare for an IT department to take specific measures. "We aren't very proactive about it," acknowledges John L. Davis, vice president of purchasing for IT and engineering at National Steel Corp. in Mishawaka, Ind.

With more time and resources, workplace health and environment issues would probably be good areas to focus on, says Davis, because simple adjustments in lighting or cubicle size could help employees work more efficiently. w Put Your Body in MotionPounding on the keyboard for hours on end can lead to repetitive motion injury. Backaches, neck aches and headaches are givens -- particularly for those working in IT. Here are some simple adjustments that can go a long way toward improving comfort:

- Use a chair with low-back support and adjust it so your feet are flat on the ground and your arms and thighs are parallel to the floor.

- Keep your shoulders relaxed and your back and neck straight.

- Use wrist pads only while resting. Your wrist should remain straight when you're typing.

- Periodically stretch your arms, wrists, neck and back.

- Put a warm, damp washcloth on your neck while working if you feel your muscles tightening.

- When traveling, use a briefcase or book as a footrest or to raise your laptop. Use a jacket or pillow to support your back.

See Clearly

Janine Smith, deputy clinical director at the National Eye Institute in Bethesda, Md., offers the following tips to reduce eyestrain:

- Keep your monitor straight ahead of you.

- Use a glare screen.

- Spend two minutes every half-hour looking out a window or down a long hallway. Your ciliary muscle, which you use for close-up reading, can be strained if used for long periods without rest, so give it a break by focusing on distances.

- Remind yourself to blink. People don't blink as frequently when they're concentrating, especially on the computer.

- Increase your computer font sizes and adjust the color and brightness.

Take Control

Joseph Dadourian, a Los Angeles-based workplace psychologist, and Tahira Probst, psychology professor at Washington State University Vancouver, offer the following tips to take control of situations rather than letting them take control of you:

- Stress is a physical condition, so treat it as you would any other illness. Relax, eat right, drink lots of water and exercise.

- Don't feel guilty about taking the time to deal with stress. Companies do what they need to survive, and so should you.

- Locate the nearest workforce development council and find out what types of training they offer.

- Cut back on information overload. Turn off your cell phone and pager for a while, recycle old magazines, filter your e-mail and organize your Web bookmarks.

Chill Out

The following are eight steps you can take to reduce physical and emotional stress, says Alice Domar at the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center:

- Practice relaxation techniques, such as yoga, meditation or imagery.

- Practice minirelaxation techniques, such as taking slow, deep breaths (a great way to calm down in a hurry).

- Replace candy bars and coffee breaks with bananas and tea breaks.

- Take a half-hour walk during lunch.

- Question negative thoughts. Ask if a particular thought contributes to your stress, where you learned it, if it's logical and if it's true.

- Write down your emotions (and destroy the documentif you're worried someone will find it).

- Give and get social support from trusted co-workers.

- Nurture yourself. Bring in fun pictures or get a nice flower for your desk..

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