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Promoting relaxation is one amazing strategy to counter stress at work. Chronic stress can make it much harder for staff to concentrate and be fully productive. It can also lead to ill-health, burnout and subsequent staff high absenteeism. This article explains what relaxation is, how to relax and how to help your staff relax.

What the heck is relaxation really?

Relaxation is hugely important in building our resilience to handle the stresses and demands of life. Let’s face it however, in our culture we are not that great at relaxation. Life is busy, busy, busy. As a result, most people don’t understand how important relaxation really is. One way to understand how important relaxation is, is to become informed on the crucial interplay between relaxation and stress. Both relaxation and stress are physiological, cognitive and emotional processes. We take a look at these three aspects below.

The Body and Relaxation

Let’s look at the physiological side to begin with, starting with the Automatic Nervous System. This has two parts to it commonly referred to as the Rest and Digest and the Fight or Flight. The autonomic nervous system is an automatic process, outside our conscious control. In any one normal day, our body should switch over from Rest and Digest to Fight or Flight, depending on circumstances. Human’s need both aspects of the nervous system in order to function and also to maintain good health.

The Fight or Flight response comes into play as a preparation for physical action. It helps us to get things done. It can occur when we experience even a mildly challenging situation, or, on the other end of the spectrum, a threatening situation. When this happens, a series of hormonal reactions take place, initiated by adrenaline from the adrenals. This sets a chain of bodily reactions in place, including the dilation of our pupils, the acceleration of our heart beat and the inhibiting of our digestive activity.

When the ‘stressful’ task is completed, the relaxation, or rest and digest response takes over. This is the natural restorative process that normally follows a situation of acute (short-term) stress. During this phase our heart beat will slow down and our digestive system come back into play. Importantly, moving into the rest and digest mode, after a situation of acute stress, helps to restore the body back to stability.

The autonomic nervous system therefore involves a kind of natural balancing process. The problem that tends to occur these days, in our ‘busy’ lives, is when we continue to place ourselves over and over again in the same stressful situations with no time to relax. This kind of chronic stress can have long-term consequences for our health.

The Mind and Relaxation

Ongoing chronic stress (without relaxation) also has an impact on our cognitive processes. Without time to digest and come to terms with what has happened, the mind becomes overloaded and we start to engage in ‘mind-lessness’. We know this when we have had just had a conversation with someone and realize we can recall none of it, or arrive at a destination having driven our car there and cannot recall the journey.

The Emotions and Relaxation

Mind, body and emotions are inseparable. Without relaxation, the body, mind and emotions reach an overload situation. This can lead to anxiety and depression. These are both emotions that severely impact on our quality of life.

Whoa! I Want Balance in Life then!

In order to avoid the physical, mental and emotional risks associated with chronic stress, one needs to aim for a good balance in life. As we said above, the ‘busy’ ness of modern life with its multiple demands, where there is always something more we can do, can tend to place us more often than not, on the fight or flight side of the balancing act. Often we put off stopping and relaxing to the very end of the day, the weekend or holidays or in the worst case scenario – retirement! Unfortunately, this can inhibit the body’s natural balancing act.

How then do we and our staff manage to fit ‘relaxation’ into our busy schedules alongside everything else? Given the world in which we live, it is often necessary to make a conscious decision and build ‘relaxation stops’ into our day, every day. In this way we might learn to smell the roses (again) as we go.

Learn to Smell the Roses! Inject ‘Relaxation Stops’ into Your Day

THE RULE: Stop when you need to!

We have seen above why resting and digesting is so important. There is no simple rule you can follow to build relaxation stops into your day, rather, stop when you need to! There are differing opinions about when to take breaks and how many. Everyone is different, find the mix that works for you.

In the Bible it says that God took 6 days to create the world and on the seventh day he rested! Recently we came across a Christian woman who institutes this 6/7ths rule in her life. She rests for 1/7 of every hour, 1/7 of every day and 1/7 of every year.

In general however, a 15 min break from work every three hours is recommended. Micro breaks are also important, particularly for those who are doing repetitive tasks such as PC users. This allows the muscles to relax and toxins to be released out of the body.

In addition to morning, afternoon tea and lunch breaks, experts recommend that we take a break either every 40 to 60 mins, given the limits of human concentration. A physical break (changing activity) and location (get some fresh air) is best. Also take a break from the same task if possible, alternating tasks during any one day.

There will also be time for rest periods in the home, on holiday and so forth. In building relaxation stops into your life, aim for a natural state of stability and well-being.

Relaxation techniques

Are you one of those people who finds it really hard to stop and relax? Many of us tend to just ‘go, go, go’ and then collapse. At such times we may end up in bed with a cold and a book to read. Forced to relax!

Building relaxation stops into our day certainly means that relaxation comes more and more naturally. It is also the case however, that different things will induce a relaxed state in different people.

Commonly suggested options such as meditation, prayer, yoga and massage are great ways to relax, for some people. What you need to do is to find out what works for you. And remember, sometimes unflinchingly building these sorts of activities into our regular routines can add stress to our lives by adding more pressure to ‘get things done’.

If you are finding it difficult to find something to relax you, you might want to think about something you used to do as a child that you found relaxing. Often we find things relaxing when we enjoy the activity simply for itself, rather than what it will achieve’ for us. What activities do you find enjoyable, simply for themselves? Make a mental list. If you get stressed at work, perhaps think of something that will provide some fun at work for you. Do one of these activities next when you really need to relax, just for the heck of it!

Remember how to feel relaxed

Some very busy, stressed out individuals may not even be able to remember what real relaxation feels like. When this happens they are in a cycle of stress that is very hard to break out of. In this case activities such as massage can be very useful, because they will start to relax them and importantly, remind them what relaxation feels like.

Sometimes people use substances like drugs and alcohol in order to relax, when they have forgotten how to do so naturally. Alcohol and drugs can induce a relaxation state. However, on the flip side, they can lead to a whole lot of health and social issues that are now well known to work against a relaxed life-style.

A good laugh also induces the relaxation state. It is a natural antidote to stress. Even though we secrete adrenalin when we laugh (which is why we feel energized) it is balanced with the relaxation that follows the laughter. So going to a good comedy show might help!

When we sleep, we are also naturally relaxed. However, if we are feeling overly stressed, getting to sleep can be a challenge and the quality of our sleep can be affected.

Have fun at work - reduce stress at work for you and your staff

These days we hear alot about the problem of stress and how to manage it. Chronic stress can lead to ill-health & burnout. In a work context this translates to sick staff who may frequently be off work. Or, if staff are present at work, their ability to concentrate and work well may be compromised. As we have seen above, relaxation is one essential ingredient in managing stress. We can extrapolate from our discussion some practical strategies to encourage relaxation in a work environment:

  • Institute a rule that no one is to eat at their desks and no one is to talk about work in the lunch room. It is not possible to properly digest food when in flight or fight.
  • Encourage 15 minute morning and afternoon tea breaks.
  • Encourage some fun at work and lightheartedness at work i.e. Shared lunches, celebrating birthdays, other social occasions.
  • Organise workloads so that there is some ‘down-time’ for staff after a period of intense work (where the workload is lighter). This allows people to recover and regroup and build motivation for the next project.
  • Install micro-breaks software on all computers
  • Promote in-house massage.

REMEMBER: These suggestions will only be effective if management lead by example.

Conclusion – restore balance, fun and wellbeing at work

Relaxation is a crucial key to health, well-being and quality of life for you and your staff. So, take it seriously, but not too seriously! Attempt to build a work culture which restores a natural balance to life, giving relaxation time its due. In this way you and your staff may avoid some of the health issues associated with chronic stress. This should have a positive impact on business, resulting in less sick-leave and a higher quality of work.


Dr Kathryn Owler and Ross Thomson

Sources include:

Andersen, Sven. 2007. EEO Symposium, Diversity and Innovation, Auckland, August 30.

Cameron-Hill, P. & S. Yates. (2000). You Won’t Die Laughing: How to have less stress in your life and more fun. Australia: Argyle Publications.

Tips, training and resources

Staff training: Training for staff can motivating and help staff know that you care. Joyworkz offer a range of appropriate workplace wellness seminars such as "Managing Time, Managing Self" and "Standing Up to Stress" that assist staff to be healthy and happy at work.

A wellness programme: Consider a workplace health challenge to get employees moving. If you need help getting started designing a made to measure wellness programme, consider Joyworkz SimplyWell™ package, which takes the stress out of designing a workplace wellness programme.

Visual prompts: Visual prompts in the workplace can be useful. For instance, the range of free Alsco Heart Health posters that encourage staff in healthy workplace practices.

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