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Globe 100 | Stress busters

Bosses and their toys

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By Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / May 22, 2011

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Seth Priebatsch does battle with a toy helicopter he controls with his iPhone. Jim Holzman watches his African dwarf frogs wrestle. John Halamka warms a clay pot with 170-degree water for a traditional Japanese tea ceremony.

With all the stress that comes with running a company, it’s no wonder so many executives stock their offices with distractions. People can only work at maximum efficiency for about 90 minutes before their minds start to wander, said Debra Nelson, an Oklahoma State University professor who has written books about preventing stress at work. To get an ambitious chief executive to look away from the computer screen, it helps to have a putting green or a wind-up penguin to play with.

“These things give us an excuse to take a break,’’ Nelson said. “I think some people need a physical symbol.’’

If anyone needed a break, it was Holzman, the founder and president of the Allston-based ticketing agency Ace Ticket, who said he used to get so angry he would throw his phone against the wall. Now he finds peace in the two frogs frolicking in the aquarium on his desk.

“I think the frogs have mellowed me out,’’ said Holzman, 50.

Priebatsch, the 22-year-old chief executive of the mobile gaming website SCVNGR, admits that the hours he and co-workers spend flying $400 four-rotor helicopters around his 26,000-square-foot space in Cambridge aren’t productive. But flying the copters — and visiting another room that’s stocked with Nerf guns — helps to ease the pain of a 12-hour workday.

“We’ve been putting up big enough revenue numbers for a while that our investors have stopped asking us questions about the line item for expenditures on Nerf guns and other associated toys,’’ he said.

In his offices at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Halamka, chief information officer, clears his mind in a very different way. His workspace is equipped with a set up for a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. The routine helps Halamka, 48, regain his composure as he oversees thousands of computers and smartphones.

“It’s an ancient tradition, and yet I’m a very high-tech guy,’’ he said. “I punctuate the craziness of business days with the ‘way of tea’ that forces me to slow down.’’

The act of making the tea is more therapeutic than drinking it for Halamka. He warms the water in an electric kettle, then adds the green tea leaves — usually sencha that he has purchased on one of his regular trips to Japan — and steeps it for two minutes. Sharing it with his co-workers puts their interactions on a different level, Halamka said: “It tends to make the meetings more civilized.’’

Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com.

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