Monday, August 31, 2009

A Tribute to Ted Kennedy's Call to Service

As Senator Kennedy was finally laid to rest yesterday, the weight of his passing hit me much harder than I thought. I can feel the collective heartbreak of losing the last of our royal line. It is as if the round table has finally been broken, and all the knight's swords laid to rest. I am 42 years old, and Ted Kennedy was a state Senator longer than I have been alive. My generation has never known anything else but to live under the legacy of the Kennedy's 'American Camelot' influence. How do we pass this flame of public service to our children, and spark the next generation of leaders?

I think Andy Ostroy said it best in his piece, featured on HuffPo earlier this week:
"Ted Kennedy's contribution to American culture and society can be seen in virtually every historic issue fought in modern American politics, including health care, social security and Medicare, minimum wages, education, immigration, aid for senior citizens, civil rights, voter's rights, women's rights, gay rights and human rights. And he accomplished all this as a gentleman and a respected bi-partisan leader, with civility, grace and humor. A larger-than-life Washington character. Sadly, there's no one to step in and fill his shoes....on either side of the aisle."

I was sobbing listening to Vice President Joe Biden give the best speech of his life remembering his old friend at the memorial service, held at the Kennedy library. He spoke of the countless times Teddy had been there for him, and for so many. Beyond his historic accomplishments, it was in the 'little things' that Senator Kennedy shined his humanity onto all who were in his giant wake and, "makes you want to be better than you are," as Biden said.

The grief floating around America this week has been palpable. We have spent a lifetime grieving again and again with the Kennedy family through the years of unending tragedies. Losing Eunice Kennedy Shriver earlier this month reminded us what a fiery feminist can do; and her gift of the Special Olympics is as a legacy beyond measure. When Maria Shriver spoke at her funeral a few weeks ago, she said her mother would have pounded her fist at the podium - asking what we did today to make the world a better place.

The tenacity, compassion and drive to champion the under privileged moves me to want to be a better citizen, and a better parent. All of the Kennedy siblings, and so many of their children, are working in public service. We may never see such a family again. They had their faults, their mistakes and their issues, just like the rest of us. But there is one thing they did not do: stop or give up.

Senator Joseph Kennedy, Teddy's nephew, reflected on this determination at the memorial.
"He was telling me, never, ever, ever, ever give up. You stay in the race. And if people don't have health care, you stay in the race. If people don't have adequate housing, you stay in the race. If people aren't being treated properly you stay in the race," he said.

In contemplating the death of Eunice and Teddy, I asked my four kids this week, while driving to get school supplies, what we were doing as a family to make the world a better place. The six year old twins slurped their organic juice boxes and gave me a blank stare, while the older ones tossed it around. My 14 year-old son offered up, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country?" This seemed to be his attempt to show me the full scale of his Kennedy knowledge.

We finally decided the best way they can "give" to their country, is to develop their character. To try their best, to help someone out that needs it, and to be grateful for what we have. The new generation of children will never know the Kennedy influence. Who is their champion now? Who is going to dare us to be the first to fly to the moon? Who is going to stand up and pound their fist, roar like a lion, and make us want to be better? Where is our fire, our sense of competition, our collective conscience that serving the lesser among us is a right and a responsibility?

The answer for leadership is not just in Barack Obama, although he has the potential - it is in all of us. Everyone must do their part. The current first family is laying the foundations to inspire a new generation in big ways, as well as small ones. From planting an organic garden outside the White House, daring to touch the Queen of England, or encouraging American's to volunteer - the legacy or making a difference does not have to die.

On Memorial Day, the White House offered a call to service, and at the HuffPo, on the right hand side of this page, you can find links for the "All for Good" campaign. Check it out for opportunities to be in service within your zip code as a great way to get your kid's engaged.

Arianna Huffington wrote a fantastic piece earlier this week, reminding us that the national conversation about helping the least among us needs to remain the center of bipartisan attention.

Right now, Kennedy's Health Care Bill is on the precipice, just like the Civil Rights Bill, when JFK was shot. Ted Kennedy introduced the first legislation for health care in 1969, when I was two years old. Let's get it done as a tribute to our favorite family, and revitalize our momentum as a country. Teddy said,
"the dream lives on."
Let's all work together to make sure it does.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

5 Tips to Overcome Burnout

Whew. Things are heating up out there, aren't they? Temperatures are in full summer swelter, political tempers are sky high, and the hurricane season is only just beginning to swirl. I'm almost afraid to turn on the TV, or see what the latest Huff Po headline is breaking. With the intensity boiling in Washington and on Main Street, something's going to give.

Several of our featured contributors have felt the heat, heard the warning bells, and are offering some sound advice on what to do:

Dr. Judith Rich posted a hilarious blog addressing some of the tensions of the times in her piece: "From Birthers to Death Panels: Blame it on August." I like that one, pointing the finger is always fun. Dr. Cara Barker also has noted the rising tensions in her piece "Town Halls: 7 Tips for Handling Conflict"

Karen Leland offered her: "8 Steps For Cooling Down Your Anger"

Jason Mannino posted a great piece on the "7 Tips to Maintain Energy While Doing the Job of Four People" and wrote: "I am witnessing severe burn-out and heightened levels of exhaustion and frustration."

Clearly the stress barometer in our country, and around the world, is escalating. The reaction to the recession has moved from shock and fear, into anger and rage. The honeymoon of President Obama's 100 days has evaporated into gun carrying dog fights, screaming matches, and the high hopes of "Yes We Can" have deteriorated into, "Is This Ever Going to End?"

Research shows that some stress is important in our lives. It keeps us on our toes, helps to strive toward goals, and makes us feel alive. The hormones related to feeling stressed are designed to get us out of danger - like a fire or enemy attack. Yet the body will also surge adrenaline when driving down the highway and some jerk cuts you off. Stress hormones are not selective - they activate whether the threat is perceived or real. We are not meant to be living with the pedal to the metal 24/7 - and we are pushing our proverbial panic buttons far more than is healthy to maintain.

If stress continues to operate at full scale for an extended period of time, there is an increased risk of burnout. What is burnout? I have taught classes on stress and burnout, with Ceridian development experts who define burnout as: "a constant depletion of mental, physical and emotional energy - without expected or real needs being met."

Burnout is a normal response to putting out too much effort, without taking in what you need to balance and restore yourself. Signs of burnout include feeling overwhelmed with things that used to be exciting, thinking work or personal problems will never end, or having a pit in your stomach of constant dread. When too much of life is draining and not enough is fulfilling, a sense of hopelessness creeps in.

How many of you feel burned out at the end of the day? Studies show well over half of us do- in a steady economy. I have not yet found data for the increase in numbers of disability cases related to burnout and stress. Burnout happens with over commitment, or unrealistic expectations that lead to a feeling of powerlessness or hopelessness. Periods of stress can last for a while without long term affects, but burnout is a more serious and chronic condition. The good news: burnout is preventable - if warning signs are recognized, and actions taken to reverse the cycle.

Some of the physical symptoms of burnout are: low energy, muscle tension, headaches, digestive disorders, frequent colds, or changes in sleep patterns. Mentally, symptoms include feeling inadequate, overwhelmed, loss of meaning, bored, frustrated, sad, irritable, unappreciated or trapped. The outcomes of these symptoms can include withdrawal, increased sick days, accidents, crying or increased used of alcohol or food to self soothe.

Burnout is a cycle of negative emotions, withdrawal and paralysis. Getting out of a crash course with burnout requires putting your hands back on the steering wheel, realigning with your personal vision, surrounding yourself with support, and making time for humor.

Here are a few tips for reducing burnout:

Clear the Clutter- both in your office and in your head: One of the first steps is echoed in the uprising of personal organizers- clear the clutter! There must be a reason that helping people organize their "stuff" has become a recognized and valued profession. The clutter of emails, paperwork, projects and obsessive to do lists, increases stress, and is an easy place to start. There is a great relief to tackling one small project, when the world seems overwhelming.

Stop Eating Crap - Believe me, when I am stressed out, Snickers bars and Starbucks are my best friend. It is hard to cozy up to a chopped salad and lemon water, but your body will thank you for it later.

Walk- How many of us take about 15 minutes to park at the grocery store circling round and round to get a spot right up front? Jeez. Park in the back, walk a bit during lunch, get up a few minutes early and walk around the block. Nothing strenuous, just breathe some fresh air and clear the mental cobwebs.

Take a One Minute Vacation!- This is one of my favorites as a stress management tool that can be done literally anywhere- in your car at the beginning and end of each day, in the elevator before meeting the boss, or at your desk before answering a rousing email.

Here's how it works: close your eyes and think of your absolute most favorite vacation spot - it can be a lovely white sand beach, a gorgeous mountain path by a stream, or rocking on a chair at the family's cabin in the woods. Choose a spot and sharpen it's image in your mind's eye. Check out all the details you may not have remembered. Now turn on the sound: notice what background noises are present in this place. How about the sensation of the temperature on your skin? How does it feel to fully surround yourself with a favorite place?

Once all the "dials" have been set, give yourself a full 60 seconds to enjoy it - literally set a timer on your watch or cell phone! I guarantee if you try this exercise at home, you will be amazed at how LONG one minute actually feels. I have taught this many times, and afterwards, everyone blinks their eyes as if they had a long sleep, yawns, stretches and have a softness to their faces - it works!

Burnout Management for the Girls vs. the Boys: new research in brain development show that men and women react to stress differently. Men usually respond with the classic "fight or flight" response, and can reduce stress by engaging in some sort of activity. Cleaning out the garage, fixing a broken appliance or taking a long bike ride are classic examples of letting off some steam.

For women, finding ways to trigger oxytocin is the fastest way to reduce symptoms of stress, rather than the "fight or flight" tricks, they need more of the "tend and befriend." Women often need to talk, sort, clean, cook, or nurture in some way to feel balanced and calm.

If you have a friend who appears to be on the fast track to burnout- be compassionate. Lend a hand, offer to help. We're all in this together and our country has too much on the line to lose momentum, or hope.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Reviving the Dinner Party and "Serial Socializing"

Ask yourself this question: what percentage of time do you spend communicating with friends in person, vs. IM, Tweet, email or text? Has it shrunk considerably in the last few years? Finding yourself 'too busy' to get together? Creating and maintaining quality and lasting friendships is a challenge these days. I have a whole pile of books on my desk touting the importance of social relationships as key to our health, but how do we find the time?

How about this question: when is the last time you invited someone over to your house for dinner? According to Jeanne Martinet, author Life Is Friends - A Complete Guide to the Lost Art of Connecting in Person, reviving the dinner party is a key to putting our wheels back on track to a proper social life. She claims it is much more intimate than a restaurant, will keep you smiling for a week, and is the fastest way to deepen connections with those people you would like to know better.

Her book is funny, light, and practical - filled with reassurance that most of us have a 'virtual' social life or a 'sound byte' social life, as well as tips on getting over hosting phobia, initiating adult style 'play dates' with new friends, and embracing the ebb and flow of friendships.

I had a chance to speak with Martinet this week. A hard core New Yorker, Martinet noticing that most of her friends were "socially regressing" by spending too much time networking online, less time in person, and operating under a fear that having friends over means hosting a gourmet blow out ala Martha Stewart and Rachel Ray. She said her favorite dinner party recently included chili and Sara Lee cheesecake -simple and easy.

"Our increasing social isolation feels like we've all 'gone to our rooms' and stayed there," said Martinet. "And yet, like children, the way to make a friend is to go to each other's houses and play. In the beginning it takes some effort to focus on having friends over. It feels weird, but eventually you get addicted to it."
Here are Martinet's tips from her book on how to get over "hosting phobia": 1. Invite People 2. Buy Food 3. Clear off the dining room table/move laundry off the piano 4. Make sure there is enough booze 5. Get dressed (I often forget this last one)
I can relate to hosting phobia. I hate to clean, am comfortable with messes here and there, and do not have a lot of elegant dining room regalia. I tried some of the fancy style dinner parties and nearly worked myself into frenzy. I cannot bake - at all. I even manage to screw up rolls of pre-made chocolate chip cookies. Once I tried to make gourmet chocolate bird cage cookies for a fundraiser, and they ended up looking like delicate piles of dog poo.

It is now the running joke that Kari cannot bake, and I get around my messy habits by hosting a lot of outdoor backyard parties pot luck style. We bring pizza, lots of beer, and the laughter is easy. Then I only have to clean the bathroom.

After mastering the art of having friends over to dinner, it is time to "go steady." Serial Socializing is the next, and one of the most important steps, to developing a true sense of belonging in your community, and to ease the ache of loneliness. Some people take vacations with the same families every year, some have a monthly poker club, others have coffee every week - the key is to create a routine with the same faces that can extend into the future.

Dr. Cara Barker, a fellow Huff Po featured contributor, created her own form of serial socializing by starting "Sunday Gatherings" at her house. They went on for years and offered wonderful memories for all. There is something particularly calming, rewarding and inspiring in having a group of people who come together regularly. Everyone knows each other's histories, quirks, and inside jokes. The warm feelings after these gatherings are like a slow release anti-depressant; with memories to savor, and anticipation for the next time.

Not sure how to get started with some serial socializing? Try to find a way to socially engage in three categories: daily, weekly and monthly. Each takes a slightly different focus and each offer its own rewards.

Daily: set a goal to make a heartfelt connection to at least one person each day that you do not normally run into. 'Reach Out and Touch Someone' - via email, phone call or in person. Think of this as a chance to check in, ask how they are, and offer help if it is needed. When you extend a hand, the return is always there. Maybe someone you know just had a baby, or lost a relative, or is feeling blue.

Weekly: find a small group of people you enjoy and make a weekly commitment to get together. For the social types, try coffee once a week. For athletic types, take a walk, jog or yoga class together. For the spiritual types, try a weekly meditation group to keep everyone relaxed, centered and connected. Make it short- one to two hours, so it is easy to keep the commitment.

Monthly: join or develop a group that may be a bit larger, that shares a common interest. Maybe it is a book club with a twist, a motorcycle riding group, a social action group, a 'going green' group, poetry slam, or a poker night. Monthly gatherings are often the easiest to schedule, and to maintain long term.

Think of each of these social commitments as individual roots you are planting in the ground, and as something sacred to cherish. Our lives are marked by the connections we have, not the accomplishments of our careers. Battling loneliness requires sacrificing time that could be spent elsewhere, but the payoffs are worth it.

Martinet described the comforting routine of serial socializing to be like a security blanket in the ever-changing configurations of our lives. "Think of it as one long dinner party, broken up by your life."

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Unlimited Vacation Days, Dogs at Work and Pet Projects- Innovations in the Workplace

For those of you who follow my posts, I have been writing about vacations - and our attitudes about taking time off. Two weeks ago I explored America's poor report card on paid vacations (here) and last week I wrote about our personal challenges with being busy, and turning off the noise when we have a chance to get away. (here.)

The United States ranks far behind other countries in offering vacation time, and millions never use the time accrued. Taking off the month of August for "holiday," like the Europeans, will never fly in the US. Yet, leave it to Americans to come up with some interesting innovations in the work force that are redefining vacation time, as well as improving daily work environments.

At a hearing on July 23rd, the congressional Joint Economic Committee reported that among employers with more than 1,000 workers, there has been a 25 percent increase in flexibility programs. Clearly, in the recession, offering flextime, compressed work weeks, and telecommuting is the best way to save jobs. As the workforce continues to technologically evolve, more employees are able to complete their work from remote locations. The upside of this trend, is an increased flexibility to bring work home and not feel 'chained to a desk.' The downside of working from home, is finding the discipline to walk away now and then for a much needed break

Ultimately, how we take, and how we use our vacation time, is a matter of personal responsibility. Beyond the concept of flex time, some trendsetting companies are tossing out the HR manual altogether - eliminating any sort of set vacation days, sick days or personal days. Employees simply take off what they need, as long as their work is getting done. Sound crazy?

This innovative concept is being implemented quite successfully. Some of the leaders in this "open vacation policy" are Best Buy with their "ROWE" policy, which stands for "Results Only Work Environment" allowing their 4,000 staff to work anywhere, anytime - as long as their work is completed. Imagine the possibilities! To further inspire their staff, Best Buy has just started a "venture citizen fund." Employees are invited to submit social change ideas for creative and financial consideration by the company.

So smart. Let's face it, if you feel valued, are able to take time off, and are encouraged to serve the planet, why would you work anywhere else?

Netflix is another trendsetter, with an "unpolicy" that does not require staff to take allotted days off. Their HR department does not keep track of vacations, tardiness or sick days and still manages to be one of the most successful companies of the past few years. Netflix Chief Executive Reed Hastings, says traditional means of keeping track of employees time are "a relic of the industrial age."

"The worst thing is for a manager to come in and tell me: `Let's give Susie a huge raise because she's always in the office.' What do I care? I want managers to come to me and say: `Let's give a really big raise to Sally because she's getting a lot done' - not because she's chained to her desk."

One in three Americans don't use all the vacation time they have earned, and barely one in 10 takes a break for two weeks straight, according to the non-profit research firm Families and Work Institute. But at Netflix, it's estimated that most employees take off about 25 to 30 days per year, using the time to stay at home, take a vacation, or work on pet projects.

Besides trends in time off, how about innovations in the quality of our time at work? With increased pressures, what can be done within the work environment to offset the daily grind? Google operates with the sound belief that individual passions can become a great asset to the company's growth. With this in mind, they offer all engineers a "20% policy", where employees can use 20% of their work week, (which is about one full work day) for special projects outside of everyday responsibilities. The new product Google News is a result of this 20% program.

Small businesses are under tremendous pressure, yet with creativity, they can also be wonderful places to work and grow. I spoke with Tami Simon, CEO of Sounds True about some of her highly acclaimed, yet simple, management philosophies. Simon founded the company in 1985 with a mission to disseminate spiritual wisdom. Starting out with an idea and a tape recorder, the company has grown into a multimedia publishing company with more than 80 employees, a library of more than 600 titles featuring some of the leading teachers and visionaries of our time, and customers from around the world.

Simon admits it is harder to create flexibility in the workplace for a smaller staff.
"As a for-profit company in today's economy, it is simply impractical for unlimited time off. However, I think the key is how we can work together to find creative solutions."

For example, one of the staff who had worked at Sounds True for seven years, wanted to take three months off for an extended maternity leave. Simon reflected on the dillema.
"I knew it would be hard for three months, then I realized: would I want to have a staff member in the office that is not present and available? This was a once in a lifetime opportunity for them, so we made it work - with a combination of vacation time, unpaid leave time, and time she spent training a contract person to work in her place."

To increase daily "sanity," Simon has a meditation room on site for staff, and encourages dog owners to bring their pets to work. With a staff of 80, about 20 dogs are roaming the office at any given time.
"The dogs give us something to care for," Simon explained." They need to go out for a walk, which is kind of like an old fashioned equivalent to a smoking break!"

During staff meetings, everyone at Sounds True start with a moment of silence, followed by a short personal 'check in,' before starting the business at hand. Simon explained why this practice has made such a difference:
"People may think to themselves, 'taking a minute- what does that do?' But during that time of quiet, we can all become much more present, and we don't feel like the day is one long sentence. It provides a feeling of punctuation."

Simon concludes: "I want to make work life something that does not take the life out of us, but is a place that let's us take life back in."

Let's hear it readers! Do you have any innovative stories to tell from the workplace? How do you find the time to rejuvenate yourself- either on site or off? Always love to hear your comments. Be sure to hear more about this subject on Monday morning on NPR's "The Takeaway" radio show, where I will be a featured guest.