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updated 12/23/2008 7:25:54 AM ET 2008-12-23T12:25:54

You know it's a bad sign when spa owners are stressing out.

Planet Beach Franchising, which oversees some 390 spas worldwide from its Marrero, La., headquarters, has seen sales dropping off this year as consumers tighten their belts to cope with the slumping economy.

"Looking at things long term, you worry about how you're going to come up with your numbers at the end of the month," says Angelina Vicknair, a company spokesperson. "It's a stressful time."

Planet Beach is not alone. By any measure, Stress Prevention Month got off to a bad start this October for small-business owners and their employees.

As lawmakers wrangled over a $700 billion Wall Street rescue plan aimed at easing the impact from the collapse of the nation's largest banks, the world's stock markets went into a tailspin. With investors and bankers in panic mode, suddenly everything from million-dollar investment portfolios to daily checking accounts appeared shaky. Add to that still-high gas and food costs, credit woes, widespread layoffs, and a rash of home foreclosures, and you've got a recipe for one stressed out nation, experts say.

While New York area cardiologists have reported a rise in hospital visits by Wall Street executives complaining of chest pains, Main Street business owners aren't doing much better.

"I'm stressed out and it's freaking me out," says Joy Gendusa, the owner of PostcardMania, a Clearwater, Fla.-based marketing firm with more than 150 employees. "Before any of this happened we embarked on building a new corporate headquarters. We're going ahead with that now, but had I known what was coming, I might've used that money to drum up more business instead. It's very stressful."

Like many small employers, Gendusa says she's keeping a close eye on staff these days. According to the American Psychological Association, eight out of 10 Americans are feeling anxious about the economy, with many getting increasingly angry, irritable, and fatigued. In the trade group's annual survey conducted between April and September — about the time the feds seized control of Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, and Washington Mutual (which was later sold to JPMorgan Chase), and gave AIG $85 billion for 80 percent of its stock — more than half of 7,000 respondents said they're worried about job security and their ability to provide basic needs for their family. Fifty-three percent reported losing sleep.

All that built-up anxiety is taking a toll on workplace productivity. According to Workplace Options, a work-life services firm based in Raleigh, N.C., roughly half of 711 adults surveyed said recent financial stress was making it hard for them to perform well on the job, citing rising anxieties over everything from personal day-to-day expenses to retirement savings.

"Financial problems affect emotional and physical health, and ultimately trickle down to the workplace, where employees must juggle these worries with hectic schedules," says Workplace Options CEO Dean Debnam.

It doesn't help that a slew of recent small-business surveys show employers are just as jittery as their workers. According to Discover, 74 percent of 1,000 owners polled nationwide in October felt the economy was getting worse. Seventy-nine percent of 250 owners surveyed by the National Small Business Association said they're bracing for a protracted recession. And based on a survey of 700 owners, the National Federation of Independent Business's small-business optimism index for September was flat, marking the longest stretch of recession-level readings since the monthly index was launched in 1973.

"Small-business owners are feeling less confident in nearly every way, particularly with banks' ability to keep their money safe," says Todd McCracken, president of the National Small Business Association, citing declining home values, tighter credit, and failing financial institutions as major concerns.

Yet, with so many forces at play, what's an employer to do? According to Kathleen Hall, the founder of the Atlanta-based Stress Institute and a former Wall Street broker, everyone needs to step back and take a breather, for starters.

"Stress is like battery acid on the brain," says Hall, "But there are some amazingly simple low-cost things employers can do to relief stress at the office," she says.

Among other approaches, Hall recommends taking the time to listen to quiet music, which studies have shown directly affects brain waves and gives your immune system an immediate boost. Just memorizing and repeating a positive affirmation can also lower cortisol levels that cause stress. She also prescribes healthy eating and regular activity, like walking around your office building or climbing a fleet of stairs, rather than taking the elevator. Texting or emailing friends, or just sharing lunch with a co-worker, can raise oxytocin and endorphins levels, Hall says.

"Responsible CEOs and business owners need to accept that these pressures are going to affect their bottom line. They've got to be aware of how their staff is coping and what they can do to help," she says.

For managers at Planet Beach, that's a cinch.

"We have our own spa room," Vicknair says. "We have all the equipment here. It's a nice bonus." She says employees are encouraged to take 20 minutes or so to unwind with everything from a relaxation massage to oxygen therapy.

Joy Gendusa of PostcardMania says getting away from work helps her dispel thoughts that everything is spiraling out of control. In late October, Gendusa and her husband took a weeklong trip to New York to check out new restaurants and leave her business behind.

"Sometimes you just need to sneak away and get a panoramic view of things," she says. "Even just seeing a busy restaurant let's you know that people are still spending out there, and that's reassuring."

Copyright © 2012 Mansueto Ventures LLC.

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