I fell really ill twice in 2 decades of career. I was happy in personal life. I was eating healthy and did workout too. So what went wrong? My wife had been warning that I was not sleeping well and I needed to take work easy.
When I fell sick, she blamed my illness on my work. This did not make sense. I liked my work and was successful. Workload was manageable. But later I did bit of analysis on what happened at work before I fell sick. She was right. Something happened at work and surprisingly this was not really about workload.
Work Load vs Work Stress
I confused work load with work stress. I didn’t have much work load so I assumed I didn’t have work stress.
Work load is the extent of work
Simple. More the work higher is the work load. But some works are very easy and doesn’t affect even if we do them more. I had few busy years but I enjoyed them.
Some times work goes with the flow. It could be fun. (Mark me as workaholic? Fine !)
Work stress is independent of workload
As I experienced work load and work stress are different. They may not even be related. Work load may be low but work can be with high responsibility and can cause stress. In management jobs, there are lot of stake holders and important decisions to take. Even if you work 5 hours a day, this can cause huge stress.
Anxiety of unfamiliar things
Stress affects health, for sure. But it shall not be confused with the work load. For example, when there is high work load where you do not have skills, it could cause stress. But it is more about the anxiety of unfamiliar things, rather than the work load.
As I saw the work stress came from lack of clarity in thoughts. When thoughts are not clear, we do not know what to do. For me this had been the biggest source of stress. Then there are other reasons like compulsions, guilt etc.
Most of the stress could be handled better if put into action lists:
1. The action TAKEN in the past
I know that the SW developers, testers and others have the pressure to deliver on impossible deadlines. When they are compelled to compromise and fear about the consequences, it is very stressful. It is not just about the action taken, but about the consequences.
Depending upon the role, we need to take some actions at work. That’s why we are paid for. For me as manager, confronting people on mismatched expectations was stressful in early career. Later, that was alright.
Something that stresses me even now, is the action taken, that was not necessary. It was not a priority. I wrote about not getting credit for doing work. This would be a variant of the same. You could be doing someone else’s work. Naturally won’t get credit for it. The wrong expectation you have might frustrate you. This whole thing could have been avoided.
2. The action NOT taken in the past
I know of the many folks with huge regret list of “what if I did..”. While most talk about it casually, there are few with intense feeling about the same, even after many years.
Things like trying for higher studies early in the career or not switching jobs or may be about not proposing to someone!
3. The actions TO BE taken
When I was first time manager I was mainly worried about having to do too many things. Even if we create project plan, it can not help with pile of unstructured work. The actions themselves were not a big issue. But keeping track of them is an issue.
For me, To-Do list created in outlook notes helped a lot. Best thing is – it is messy little list, not part of formal plans. Very personal and hence lot easier to deal with.
I see many at all levels of organization struggle with it. They spend disproportionate time on different actions. In spite of all the leadership workshops they go through, even simple habit changes never happen. The result – many remain on the table. This could have been easily avoided.
Apart from listing, some actions themselves need lot of courage and also work. Getting stressed due to this, i think is normal.
4. The actions that can be taken, but NOT FULLY SURE
This one is big. This causes biggest havoc. Most of the stress I faced were due to this. Due this we are unsure what action to take. This bucket list causes huge anxiety because it first needs to clear our head.
One big stress factor for me was when to leave the full time job. I knew I could do it because I did financial planning for it for years. But the confusion was when to do it. Also as I gained more competency in a booming industry like autonomous driving, it was even more stressful to take the plunge.
While on entrepreneurship, the stress would come from the choices I make. There is never enough time to fully evaluate choices.
5. The actions that can not be taken
This one should be easy. Once it is clear that it is not a practical option, it should not stress you.But I have seen people who get worked up with this.
Like hiring 20 people for a pet project, negotiating for project timeline that will never be approved, just leaving the job to try your idea while there is a big home loan…
When things are very clear cut, they stress lot less.
Impact of stress
How stress manifests is a tough thing to say. Many times we would think that we already have handled it while it is barely suppressed. Increase in weight, reduction of weight, anxiety eating, back ache and many more. About insominia and how you could handle, here is a great post.
If you pretend that everything is ok, employer hardly cares. Friends who support also could be too busy to holistically listen to you. It is fine to talk to a professional counselor. Many organizations have someone.
If there is no professional counselor at work place and if there is no time to go out in traffic, there is online help available these days.
Create Action List First
In any case, one easy step to take is to create the 5 action lists I mentioned above. Curious to hear about your thoughts !