Ray Jensen thought he was handling the stress of the bear market well. Until July. That was when the market plunged for four weeks in a row, brought down by more revelations of corporate scandal and dimmer prospects for an earnings rebound. Not surprisingly, Jensen lost his equanimity. The strain was unbearable.
So Jensen did what any self-respecting guy would do: He started sweeping. Literally. Every morning, before heading off to work as a broker at Raymond James Financial Services in Louisville, Ohio, he would take the broom off a hook in the kitchen and sweep the floor till it was spotless. “It was a way to start the day off with something positive, to get a feeling of order,” he says.
That feeling of order — that everything is in the right place — has been hard to come by. These days, many reps are operating in an environment of almost relentless stress, where nothing seems right. It's difficult watching your clients' portfolios — and your own — get hammered, not knowing when it's all going to end.
“I see a lot of brokers filled with doom and gloom, withdrawn and depressed,” says Terri Levine, a business coach in North Wales, Pa., who works with reps. Or, as John Moshides, president of Moshides Financial Group in Williamsville, N.Y., puts it, “I often have a horrible feeling at the pit of my stomach, watching the market go down.” So, brokers are trying all sorts of things — sweeping the floor or walking around the block or focusing on different asset classes — to get through the day without blowing a fuse.
Of course, not all stress is bad. Theoretically, it's supposed to be useful — an innate survival mechanism, or, specifically, a physiological and emotional reaction to a threat. For many reps, a certain amount of stress can be a productivity booster — and something they thrive on. “I like the action,” says Moshides. But, when there's too much stress, instead of a motivating force, it becomes an unpleasant experience. The following stress-busting tactics can help:
Find an outlet
Is business slower than it used to be? Fine. Take advantage of the downtime to find an activity that provides a release. (We mean something constructive and legal, of course.) Just waiting until the weekend or after hours won't be as effective as doing something during the day. Two afternoons a week, for example, Jensen plays basketball at a nearby Y with a group of other professionals. Jim Whiddon, president of JWA Financial Group in Dallas, takes guitar lessons from an instructor located just up the block from his office. He keeps the guitar by his desk in case he gets the urge to play during the day.
Schedule it in ink
It's easy to put off stress-busting activities. Don't. “The only way to relieve stress on a regular basis is to have it on your schedule,” says Lance Alston, a financial planner with JWA. “You're changing from being reactive to being preventative.”
Squeeze in quick ways to decompress
At the same time, you don't have to take an hour out of your day, every day, at the gym. There are plenty of quick activities you can engage in at work to let off steam. The key ingredient is that you need to focus completely so you can chase other nagging worries from your mind. Example: portable “stability disks,” which you can keep by your desk and inflate when you need them. You stand on the disks, hip distance apart, and try to balance. “You won't make it if you're thinking about other things,” says Debbie Mandel, author of Turn on Your Inner Light: Fitness for Body, Mind, and Soul (Busy Bee Group, 2003). “It's a good way to clean your head.”
Bring in a masseuse
You don't have to live in Southern California to do this. For three years, Kay Shirley, a financial planner and president of Financial Development/Mutual Service in Atlanta, has hired a masseuse to work out the stress-induced knots in her back and those of her 12 assistants, as well. This summer, she increased the 15-minute-a-person sessions to twice a week.
Get out of the office
Doesn't matter if you're a solo independent or part of a wirehouse army. Leave your cubicle, go outside and get a 10-minute change of scene. Alston, for example, walks around the block every few days. That's especially important if the atmosphere in the office is particularly tense. “One person gets stressed, then talks to the guy in the cubicle next to him, and pretty soon everyone is on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” says Bettina Nolan, a financial planner with NEXT Financial Group in Houston. At those times, sometimes the only solution is just to get out of there for a moment.
Enlist your assistant's aid
You'll be more likely to follow through if you have someone else making sure that you do. For example, Nancy Challenger, with Royal Alliance in Glendora, Calif., works out three to five days a week at a nearby fitness club during lunch — with her assistant. When Raymond James' Jensen gets visibly antsy, his assistant pokes her head in his office, announcing, “It's time to walk the grounds” — his signal to leave the office and walk around for a while.
Don't just sit there; call
Perhaps the last thing you want to do is actually talk to your distraught clients. Not only is avoiding customers bad business, it's a recipe for a stress overload. You have to take the initiative, pick up the phone and make appointments. “By avoiding your clients, you just allow the stress level to build up,” says Challenger. Moshides of Moshides Financial Group has developed a “keep-in-touch” program, through which he and his four assistants regularly call 300 key clients. “If we call them before they call us, we're not dodging bullets,” he says.
Diversify your products and services
Reducing stress is all about doing things that make you feel more in control. “Separate the things you can control from the things you can't,” says David Nelson, president of Life Enhancement Systems, a business consulting firm in St. Petersburg, Fla., specializing in working with reps. If your business is too dependent on the vagaries of the stock market — something you can't possibly control — then you need to branch out. Add other areas of expertise, such as learning alternative asset classes that are not so closely correlated to the equity market. Investigate services, such as trust and estate planning, long-term care insurance or succession planning, so you're less of a slave to equities.
The more efficient and forward-thinking you can become, the less stressful your life will be. At least, you'll feel you're doing something — and your production might even benefit. Consider Larry Weicht. Even under normal circumstances, he has a lot on his plate. The senior financial advisor for Merrill Lynch in Tampa, Fla., is also a producing sales manager, with responsibilities for training and recruiting reps in his branch. Recently, he began a program to restructure his day, organizing his time into 50-minute blocks, during which he concentrates on one task, instead of jumping from one project to the next. Already, he's seen a 20 percent increase in production, he says. The key, says Nelson of Life Enhancement Systems, is to “take actions to make your business go forward.” It's better than getting an ulcer. And your kitchen will be a lot cleaner.