5 ways to cut work stress

Feeling overworked and overwhelmed? These simple strategies can help you reduce the strain - and they don't cost a thing.

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By Anne Fisher, contributor

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Quiz
How stressed are you?
1. Conditions at work are unpleasant or sometimes even unsafe.
Never
Rarely
Sometimes
Often
Very Often

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Dear Annie: I found your column "6 Ways to Be Happier at Work" very helpful, but what I could really use is some advice on how to help the people under me be happier (and more productive). Our department was cut drastically, back in February, so everyone has been working crazy hours since then. On top of that, we just heard our pay has been frozen, and bonuses this year will be far smaller than in the past.

I understand the reasons for all this, but I think it's pretty clear that we're going to lose our best people as soon as the economy improves. In the meantime, I need to find some way to shore up morale around here without spending any money. Suggestions? -- End of My Tether

Dear EMT: The stress your employees are feeling may actually be worse than you realize, according to Deb Bright, head of Bright Enterprises, whose coaching and consulting clients include Morgan Stanley (MS, Fortune 500), General Electric (GE, Fortune 500), Pfizer (PFE, Fortune 500), the New York Stock Exchange (NYX, Fortune 500), and Disney (DIS, Fortune 500).

"The longer hours, reduced pay, and so on are usually only the tip of the iceberg," she says. "Lots of people are also facing serious problems at home, including financial worries and, often, an unemployed spouse. As all of this piles up over the course of this very long recession, people get mentally derailed by all the things they can't control. They lose their focus."

How can you help them get it back? First keep in mind that "when people are overtired and distracted, they don't hear you as well as they would normally," Bright observes. "So you need to be extra clear in what you tell them." Second, realize that right now "people are desperate for successes," Bright says. "They need to regain a sense of control."

Talkback: How do you deal with stress at work? Leave your comments at the bottom of this story.

She suggests trying the following five steps. "They're pretty simple," Bright notes. "But my clients tell me they really work, and they don't cost a dime."

1. Clearly articulate your expectations. "Managers are often unaware of how they are adding stress to people's workday by being vague about what they want," says Bright.

An example: A boss will announce, "Let's have a meeting Friday to talk about cutting costs." That sets the rumor mill abuzz (are more layoffs coming?) and leaves everyone uncertain about what, if anything, they can bring to the table.

"If you say instead, 'Let's have a meeting on Friday, and I'd like each person to bring two suggestions for how we can cut costs,' that is a whole different message," says Bright. "Just by being a little more specific, you let people know what's expected and how they can succeed at it."

2. At the end of each meeting, ask someone to sum up what's been said and who is going to do what. "Knowing they may be called on to do the summing-up cuts down on people's BlackBerry use during meetings," says Bright. "But beyond that, too many meetings are just general discussions, where everybody rushes off at the end without a clear idea of what comes next." No one can succeed at something if they don't know what it is.

3. Put a cap on hours. "If you have someone who puts in 60 hours a week, then make that the limit," says Bright. What good does that do? "In many offices, nothing is said about constantly increasing hours," she explains. "So people just keep putting in longer and longer hours, not because they really have to, but because they are afraid not to."

The result, as you may have noticed, is that staffers get exhausted and irritable, and the quality of their work takes a dive. By contrast, "if you let people know there is a limit, and you set that limit at the number of hours they're already working, it makes an amazing difference."

4. Schedule some downtime each week. "One of the things that has everyone so stressed is that they never get a chance to catch up," says Bright. "If your email inbox is overflowing and your office is a mess because you haven't had time to get organized, it makes that out-of-control feeling just that much worse."

So try announcing that, say, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. on Mondays and Fridays is "get-it-done" time, during which no meetings will be held. Giving people permission to clear away the background noise of tasks left undone "can be an enormous stress reliever," says Bright.

5. Help people set realistic priorities. "If you ask people for a list of their priorities, they usually have so many that it is obvious where their frustration is coming from," Bright observes. "So you can help them set goals they can actually achieve. Again, it's a way of creating successes and regaining some control."

"Of course, before you can discuss other people's priorities, you need a clear idea of your own -- which means you may need to seek out what your boss's priorities are," she adds. "So often in companies these days, that information just isn't getting communicated." Too true.

Talkback: How many hours a week are you working these days? How do you deal with the increased stress? How do you help your employees cope? Sign on to Facebook below and tell us. To top of page

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