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Stress

By Andy Warren,

Stress is one of those things that no one likes to admit to feeling, and definitely it's rare for anyone to admin to having trouble dealing with stress. Part of this is pride and stubbornness of course, but I think just as often it's because the person doesn't believe they are under stress. Not denial, but lack of recognition. Stress can come from many things, big and small. Traffic jams, long hours at work, sick kids, newspaper not being delivered, death of a loved one.

I think part of that lack of recognition is that many stress causing items get lumped into one of these categories; annoying, irritating, worrisome, nagging. Whether or not something goes from irritating to stressful depends on your state of mind (stress level if you will) and your natural defenses against that particular kind of stress. For example, all of the items below are types of things that will happen to most employees at some point in their career. Probably there are some that would stress you right now, rumors of layoffs for example. Maybe others used to be stressful - deadlines perhaps - but you've gotten used to them and now they no longer have a negative impact on you. Perhaps still others are never stressful. Sometimes it's the combination - you're working long hours to meet a tough but fair deadline, you're going to a lot of meetings that seem to have no purpose, a co-worker is complaining in your ear constantly, and you just got dinged in a code review for not coding defensively enough. Can you see how all those little things might add up to real stress?

Office stress points:

  • Deadlines (not just unreasonable ones)
  • Rumors of layoffs or offshoring
  • Meetings that seem to have no purpose
  • Co-worker constantly complaining (or on the phone with spouse, or ...)
  • Annual review
  • Co-worker not pulling their weight
  • New employee that seems to have skills/experience far exceeding your own, or that seems to have very poor skills
  • New manager
  • Code reviews
  • Dressing up for/entertaining clients
  • Working long hours/weekends
  • Lack of cooperation from other departments
  • Poor leadership at any level
  • Company in financial trouble

It's important to say that you cannot avoid all stress, and that some stress is probably even helpful at times (deadlines for example have a way of focusing you and getting you to exclude all the 'extras' from your schedule until the goal is met). What you can do is challenge yourself to think about your reaction to stress and to be mindful that things are causing you stress. Before we explore that more, let's talk about what I consider the primary types of reactions to stressful situations:

  • Individual does not feel stress from the situation, due to experience and/or outlook on life. Note that this is NOT ignoring it, it truly is not perceived as stressful
  • Individual denies the stress and it's impact on their mental state.
  • Individual acknowledges the stress and tries to manage it

How can you get to the point where something is not stressful? Let's take rumors of layoffs for example. Suppose you've only been at the company for a year, your wife is pregnant, and you basically live paycheck to paycheck, putting you in the high risk of being let go category and being at risk financially if you're out of work very long. What steps could you take to reduce your stress level? Potentially you could:

  • Realize that not all rumors work out to be true, sit down with your manager to try to find out more about the situation
  • Understand that companies usually lay off the bottom tier of employees first, the marginal performers. Make sure you're not in that category. Note that maintaining a good attitude can also keep you out of the first group to go.
  • Update your resume, check with friends about possible opportunities with other companies, even reach out to your favorite recruiter. You want to be prepared to job hunt if you have to, and you want to know the state of the job market.
  • Cut back on your spending to try to build a little more financial cushion (note that this also helps in case they do salary cuts instead of layoffs)
  • Arrange a line of credit on your house in case you need money if you wind up out of work
  • If you are laid off, be ready to try to negotiate a severance package that will help you - in this case maybe getting them to cover your insurance for a longer period of time
  • I'm not advocating jumping ship, but that is one way to remove the stress altogether. The problem is that many times the rumors are just rumors, and you start all over again at another company when you didn't have to. You also risk having your current employer finding out that you're looking in response to rumors, which may well guarantee you're on the gotta go list

If you were to do all those things, maybe your stress level drops from an 8 to a 5. Odds are you aren't going to feel stress free, but you should feel better and you've taken logical steps in case the rumor is true. How can anyone hear about layoffs and not feel stressed? Imagine that you've been with the company ten years, you've got a strong financial reserve, you're a star employee that is highly trusted and respected, you've got superb technical skills, and you've survived layoffs at this company twice before. The worst is that you have to look for a new job and that doesn't cause any fear because you have money (which equals time to find a good job) and you have marketable skills.

There are two patterns I try to use. The first is 'immediate stress'. When I feel something causing me stress, I try to take the following steps - writing down the answers:

  • In a couple sentences, what is bothering me?
  • Is my reaction to this emotional or logical?
  • Is my reaction proportional or I do feel like I'm overreacting?
  • What is my current overall stress level (none, low, medium, high, where none is the perfect vacation)?
  • Is my reaction made worse due to other factors (other stress, being tired, etc)?
  • Are there logical steps I can take to remove the stress?
  • Are there logical steps I can take to mitigate the stress?
  • Will taking a day off or a vacation help the situation?

Now imagine showing this list to someone you really trust, would they call you on any of your answers? If a co-worker had written the answers, what other advice would you offer? I'm not advocating showing anyone the list, but it's a useful exercise to help you look at your situation objectively. From there, take the logical steps you've thought of and do something after work that you enjoy, something that will take your mind off of it.

The second pattern is 'cumulative stress'. This builds up when you have multiple things going on at the same time that cause you stress, usually in addition to being tired (or sick). I'll bet you've all seen someone at the office that shows some or all of these symptoms:

  • Complaining a lot, not a lot of fun to be around
  • More time than usual spent not working (web browsing, hall chats, coming in late or leaving early) or working ineffectively (output drops)
  • Making dumb mistakes
  • Slower than usual to respond to email about work
  • Messier than usual work environment
  • Combative with co-workers and/or significant other

Cumulative stress requires a break at a minimum, at least a week and two is better. Sometimes a break is all you need, sometimes you also need to change your response to the things that cause you stress or you'll be back in the same place all too soon. If you see yourself exhibiting these symptoms, find a way to take a break and at the end of the break, evaluate whether you need to spend time on the immediate stress items before you go back.

There are a couple other things you can do to help you monitor your stress level. One is to maintain a short log where you score each work day on a scale of 1 to 5, and include in the log why that day was stressful. I suspect over time you'll see and confirm some interesting patterns. The other is to calculate an ad hoc stress index for yourself (knowing that we geeks love numbers) by keeping a running 15 or 30 day average of your stress level based on your log. If you see the average staying in the 4-5 range you'll know it's time to make changes, whether it be reassessing how you react to some stressful items, taking a break, or both.

Stress is real. Managing stress is not a zen exercise, it's a life skill that most of us aren't as good at as we need to be. I hope that reading this will encourage you to think about your response to stress, and maybe to seek out a good book or lecture from someone more qualified than me to help you improve your stress management skills.

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