Skip to main content

Understanding and Navigating Workplace Stress and When to Get Out

· 8 min read
Ron Amosa
Platform Security Engineer @ Salesforce U.S.

One thing I used to see a lot of when I was a permanent employee, and experience myself, was the pressure to deliver some pretty crazy project requirements in a short amount of time and the stress management that needs to happen alongside it.

By "time", I mean the 40 hours a week you are paid for. This lead to people working some crazy extra (read "free") hours worked to deliver things. I put free in quote marks because while the project and the company might think they got a massive amount of work for half price. But there is always a cost to anything, it's just not always money up front.

But where does this pressure come from?

If you work in I.T. this question is pretty obvious, but it's good to walk through these scenarios and topics we all seem so knowledgeable about and yet still find ourselves slave to, in 2018.

So I want to talk about where the pressure to deliver comes from; what the price of delivery is; what we can do about it; and why dealing with the pressure to deliver is good for the company also.

Pressure pipeline#

There's a myriad of reasons why you can find yourself, as an Engineer, in a pressure position on a project.

It could be a product solution that was sold to the customer without input from key people who might have been able to foresee a few obstacles, risks etc.

It could be an architectural oversight where the design hasn't taken into account parts of the infrastructure that were going to be a problem, and now figuring it out, without a design, and delivered by the end of the week is your problem.

A bit of pressure is normal in this line of work. There's a lot of work to be done. The business is constantly trying to build new products to compete in the marketplace. They're also trying to upgrade older systems to improve customer experience and respond to LIVE issues to keep the whole thing running.

So there's enough pressure to go around.

Understand the Pressure Supply Chain#

Time is short.

Budgets are tight.

People aren't dealing with their part of the project supply chain well. And mistakes at various upstream points are snowballing and heading your way.

As a project systems engineer first, there's pressure from upstream to estimate costs based on design.

And they want it cheap and accurate. And they want it yesterday.

After that the pressure is on you to "implement it". This means "build it, get it working". "Working" also includes downstream requirements from operations who have to transition your work into BAU (Business As Usual i.e. normal operations).

And if it doesn't have all the alarms, logging, bells & whistles and documentation ready to go... well, here's a side of pressure to go with your pressure.

Now, I don't actually detail this to complain about it. I accept this is the reality of this role. Nothings perfect, and everyone gets a heap of pressure - this is yours.

What I think is important to understand here about the supply chain, is that it's just that - a supply chain. Whether that's supplying a steady stream of well designed and thought-out projects. Or an aneurysm assembly line is up to series of factors.

But understanding your demons is half the battle to casting them out.

Nothing is Free#

And even more so when it comes to what the cost of this pressure is to not only people, but to the business.

You don't have to be a genius to understand stress is not a good thing.

But to help illustrate this cost in dollar terms (the language of business... debate me in the comments if this statement irks you) you only have to go read a Southern Cross Healthcare Media Release from 2015 to see the following figures:

average number of annual absentee days per employee was 4.7, amounting to a national cost of $1.4 billion in 2014. Average absenteeism has risen from 4.5 days since 2013, at an additional cost of $200 million.

Now, I know that's a few years ago, but I don't recall seeing a cure for workplace stress deployed in the last couple of years. So I think it's safe to assume levels of stress can correlate with taking sick leave.

That's the statistics. Anecdotally though, seeing people working 3-4 hours later than they would be required on a regular on-going basis (and not the "good" working late like mine where I'm just geeking out on something in a dev environment completely unrelated to any project I need to deliver) was always a bit concerning.

A few of these late night workers would share their stress-related work stories with me. And I felt for them. They talked about kids and mortgages (I had a mortgage, but no wife, no kids).

So, you've got a lot of projects to deliver in a seemingly unreasonable time-frame. You've pushed back and tried to make the Project understand the difficulties involved, but they haven't budged.

You've spoken to your manager and tried to set a reasonable expectation on delivery. And that didn't get you anywhere either.

So what now?

I'll be honest. There are no easy answers.

But I'll give you two that I truly believe in, and actually helped get me to where I am today.

Line in the Sand#

First, a wise (and pretty excellent) Engineer I worked with once told me

"you can only do what you can do".

And he was absolutely right.

Granted he was a lot more 'zen' than most people. The statement he made is no less true.

If you're giving it 100%, working every minute in those 8 hours a day you're being paid for. Then that's all you can do. Period.

And you need to find a way to be okay with drawing this very reasonable line and saying "no".

Because it will come with its social pressures. The little things people say in meetings to single you out in a way that says "this person is being difficult and holding things up".

This is going to happen.

But you're not being difficult. You're giving it your all. That's all you can do. And that's okay.

But you might get pulled into a performance "review" with your boss or an extra 1 on 1 with the project manager.

And they can either accept you restating your reasonable position.

Or they accept your resignation.

Plot twist huh.

I don't say that lightly and you'll have a whole gang of reasons why you can't quit.

And they're all valid.

But this is also valid.

If you are working at a place they would keep pressuring you for unreasonable work requests, you should leave.

How do you do that?

Well that brings me to answer number two.

Pack your own parachute#

So answer number two isn't rocket science. It's just what I did when I realized the place I was working was unreasonable and I needed to quit.

I started saving.

I used to get paid fortnightly and I setup an automatic payment to go every two weeks into my savings account with the reference "live your life".

I had read you needed 12 months worth of expenses saved up so you have enough to survive once you quit and look for another job. Or better yet, start looking while you're saving so you transition straight away with no downtime.

But once you have that 12 months worth of expenses you can go back to answer number 1 and you are now in a position to see that all the way through.

Good for the Goose#

This has been a long post, and I originally started out to just detail the what's and how's and ended up injecting it with my personal experiences and views.

So to conclude, dealing with pressure as a worker is important because your health is all you have. If you burn out in 6-8 months or 2-4 years what good are you then? Play the long game, look after yourself so you can provide for your family in terms of resources, but also in terms of being a healthy and happy person around them.

As for the company, the benefits of a company looking after their staff are a foregone conclusion. The research showing productivity links to staff work satisfaction and fulfillment can't be overstated enough.

If you look after your employees, their work and the knock-on effect of that morale will pay dividends in productivity, low turnover rates and decreased absentee days.