Marsha Lindquist had a morning routine: Arrive at the office an hour early, then soak up the news while sipping coffee to rev the senses.
One day after lunch, she was in for a big jolt. About 15 of her co-workers had filled her office from floor to ceiling, window to door, with crumpled newsprint.
"They knew that I absolutely loved to read the newspaper," said Lindquist, 54, then the director of finance for a major aerospace company in Washington.
That practical joke was a way for a group of usually serious co-workers to fit some fun into the day. As Lindquist and her co-workers found out, breaking up the routine just a bit can make all the difference between a workplace full of tense people on the edge of burnout and one where folks can labor together smoothly.
Even the most strait-laced business environment can handle a little loosening up, said Sylvia Henderson, 49, an independent leadership consultant in Olney and a former corporate trainer for International Business Machines Corp.
During her two decades at the legendarily formal company, she watched some co-workers accumulate weeks of vacation days, almost never taking time off because they were immersed in their work. Yet other co-workers who led more balanced lives were more resilient; they responded better to change and setbacks.
To help the workaholics relax, Henderson and her office mate decided to try something different.
"We were sitting out there in the hallway in our business suits, racing matchbox cars for three or four minutes of fun during the day -- not every day, but when things got tense or somebody was feeling discouraged," Henderson recalled.
The gang came back to their desks laughing, energized and refocused on the tasks at hand.
Tension-busters need not be elaborate. "It can be a small thing -- for instance, take a brief walk after lunch," advised Stephanie Kay, a work-and-life balance consultant for the World Bank. That's enough to ward off the typical after-eating lull that hampers afternoon progress.
Whether on the job or after hours, "anything that distracts your mind and relaxes you" is worth pursuing, said Nancy K. Schlossberg, a Sarasota, Fla., author who runs workshops in Washington on career transitions. "For some people, it's taking an art class. For others, it's horseback riding."
For Freddie Tanada, 25, it's meditating upon waking. He sits cross-legged on the living room floor, breathing in and out, stretching and pushing problems aside. His goal: "Get myself ready and rejuvenated."
At times, the Germantown bookkeeper feels overwhelmed because there are too many invoices, too many things to do. He needs a break from the monotony of number-crunching. So he parcels out his workload into one- or two-hour blocks. During a block, he either issues paychecks, returns phone calls or collects timecards. The latter provides a way to mix and mingle.
"I like the social interaction," said Tanada, who is working as a temp for a government contractor. "It's one way of getting to know the employees."
Lindquist, now a self-employed speaker and consultant based in Gaithersburg, stays in touch with a few co-workers who made her day with the newsprint-stuffed office years ago.
"It was really worth it," Lindquist said. "People remember this kind of stuff forever."
She never found out who masterminded the prank, yet somehow she had to reciprocate. One co-worker lived for M&M's. Before the woman came to work one day, colleagues loaded every desk drawer, pencil cup and coffee mug with plain candies -- no peanuts.
When you're feeling less innovative, post a note on somebody's door or cubicle. Saying something as simple as "You're really cool" can have a profound effect. Whatever you say, Lindquist suggests, don't sign it. Make the person wonder.
But not always. "If your buddy is having a bad day, maybe you'll go out and buy him a flower or a bar of chocolate," she said. "It kind of sweetens the day."