IT freely, a true tale: One night a project saved my life

Staying human in an automated lifecycle

Everyone knows that IT is a byword for burnout. Admins, coders and hardware jocks frequently keep unsociable hours. Putting in 60-hour weeks is something of a norm. Such punishing workloads can and do push people over the edge. Everyone deals with stress in different ways.

Some people snap and end up taking it to the extreme, as we witnessed last month when one user ended up shooting his PC. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that 72 per cent of workers in general suffer from stress that impacts their daily lives and wellbeing.

I have always been pre-disposed to depression but my newly landed job could hardly have pushed me any further. Things started out fine; I was happy. I did what was needed and my reviews were positive and I went home feeling I had achieved something that day.

But gradually, more and more work started being heaped upon the small team. Workload increases averaged around 100 per cent quarter on quarter.

This was compounded by the fact that in large-scale IT environments, stress is part of the job. Losses from downtime are frequently counted in the mid five figures per hour. When it is on you to fix it, you do tend to get a bit nervous. Some outages can cost a whole lot more, especially if financial penalties are included. Just look back at what happened to RBS not so long ago to see what can go wrong.

Quite serious failures can have duration of days and sometimes even weeks. Everyone working on such an event will be subject to stress. This is on top of normal day-to-day activities. In my case, it was work that would really require a team twice the size of the one we had. We tried our best to manage both the workload, the emergencies as well as people’s expectations. Management couldn’t have cared less as long as the systems worked and the staff didn’t complain too much. As long as targets were met and their bonuses were in the bag, “everyone” was happy.

Some staff cracked under the pressure. Members of the team were there one day, gone the next. A few never returned. The jungle drums revealed their fates in dribs and drabs. Several who did return did so on some pretty hardcore mood-stabilising drugs.

The thousand-yard stare

In between all this, I wound up a year-and-a-half later as a literal walking wreck. I found myself sitting and staring at the wall for several hours a day doing the minimum possible. I don’t mean just a casual glance, but full on trance-like experience. I kept myself to myself end and I actively swerved meetings. This wasn’t because I was lazy but I was burnt out. I didn’t realise this at first, but the days flew by and I got by, just doing enough. The poor wife bore the brunt of it when I got home. The thinking was “What’s the point in trying when management would in all likelihood see it as a good reason to push more work on the team.” I had well and truly lost my mojo.

I came close to losing it several times. The key event happened when a colleague made unreasonable request to add to the existing pile of work and I literally ripped a 24” monitor off the desk and was about to throw it across the room at the requester ... of what was probably quite a reasonable request under the normal scheme of things. I got it together, put the monitor down and walked out, without speaking. I got in my car and drove to the doctor's office. He put me on sick leave and Prozac. I phoned my boss and relayed the news. I neglected to tell him that the week before I had begun having heart palpations and had previously ended up in the doctor's surgery after having heart attack-like symptoms. It turned out to be a panic attack that was likely induced by my workload.

Fast-forward to my return to work, suitably medicated. It started slowly, with management being a bit more sensitive. At least people were aware. The problem was, the workload was still there. I could do enough to stay below the radar but it got to the point where even the internet became boring. To be honest I could have done this for years without incident but if you’re not happy, you’re not happy.

I had to bring myself back into the game. Here I share the how, you already know the why.

Check yourself

Typical warning signs that people are suffering from work-related stress can include lack of appetite and lack of sleep – but more people will probably relate to drinking and potentially destructive habits. Frequently people also find themselves having trouble focusing, being short tempered (more frequently than normal. Realising it may be an issue is the first part of the problem, but how do you fix it?)

Purely by chance, I was given a project that I was able to work on. It was something I could call mine. This goes hand in hand with the next point that I found on my road to recovery.

Find something to call your own

This is without doubt what saved me. I think a lot of people find that part of the issue is repetition and nothing ever moving forward, stuck in endless bureaucracy. I found myself a little project that was going free. It was neither high profile nor particularly important, but it was mine. More importantly, I could see the difference that I made. It wasn’t managed to death or political.

Ignore(ish) what the boss says

A lot of the time part of the bigger problem is that workloads and expectations can be very ill-defined. Having a pile of tasks and no real order just adds to your stress and frustration. The golden rule that many workers in this situation ignore is the fact that if your boss assigns you work, they should also assign the work a relative priority. If you have 12 items and no direction, you have to guess at the priorities. If they aren’t aligned, this is where the stress and friction can come in.

Work on the priority items and fuck the rest. If something more urgent comes along, make sure management are aware of it. That way they have less room to moan about other tasks. If management moans, just tell them you are working on the items in the agreed-upon order. If they don’t assign a priority, they can very easily be setting you up for a fail. Having a list of defined priority helps provide focus. It sounds preachy but it works. Try it for a week or two and then tell me it doesn’t work.

Your boss can often be part of the problem. Part of my issue was the goals set by management were often unachievable or SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely). Just asking for priorities means management have to acknowledge your workload you have.

Strike a balance and stick to it

Part of the issue that can contribute to the situation is lack of sleep and stimulants or depressants. I found I wasn’t sleeping and wouldn’t go to bed until most of the channels started pushing their daily roulette wheels on post pub TV. I’d be tweaking because to relieve the boredom I drank at least a couple of pints of freshly brewed coffee a day. In the evening, on occasion, I would get through half a litre of JD.

The truth is, getting to bed at a reasonable time and avoiding coffee and tea too late in the day as well as any alcohol helps to keep you sane. A pro tip is also to stop putting yourself forward or feeling obliged to pick up work items. Very few of us have a job we love and I am pretty sure no one will ever remember you 10 years after you work yourself to death to enrich your bosses. Go home, go out, get into the bedroom with the other half, whatever works. You need to balance work with life. Work to live, not the other way round.

Talk to your boss or HR department

If your workload is truly too much, you need to speak to your boss. They have a legal requirement to safeguard your health and wellbeing. If nothing comes of it, I suggest visiting your doctor. It may reflect badly on you, some may say, but your mental health comes first. Taken to its extreme, mental breakdown is a career ender. Nip it in the bud. My doctor when I asked him used very vague language and didn’t really put much down, at my request. I am to this day grateful for him doing this.

If not HR, then someone

If you really don’t want to talk to HR or the doctor, there are alternatives. Some companies have an independent counselling service (some unions also provide this, you would need to check). I am not embarrassed to admit I ended up ringing the Samaritans and it helped. Just realising there were people whom I could talk to helped immensely.

Also, unless you work for the worst company on Earth (IBM ranks quite highly on that scale), HR will go out of its way to help you. It is what the staff there are paid to do and to be honest, from my experience, HR is rarely overruled or railroaded into anything from the company side.

If there is one takeaway from all this, it is that if you need help, ask for it. Any company worth working for will have procedures in place. However, if you want to help yourself, some of the advice listed above could go some way to realigning yourself and hopefully getting your mojo back.

Stress is not always unhealthy. A certain amount is healthy and goes back to our instinct for survival. Working and suffering from extended periods of high levels of stress causes many subtle and not so subtle problems in your life, not just the one at work. Managing stress is key to a healthy work environment. ®

Got a work-life crisis tale to tell? Contact Gavin Clarke here.

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