Explore the many ways to manage job stress and burnout when overtime is an expectation.
TL;DR: Many jobs in the tech industry are fast-paced, stimulating, rewarding—and notorious for being stressful. The key to managing stress and burnout is to realize that we have more control than we think regarding the way we work, interact with the people around us, and engage in self-care. We'll consider a plethora of ways we can cope with job-induced stress both in the workplace and at home.
When the Obvious Answers are Unrealistic
Consider a hypothetical: your current project is under pressure to meet a seemingly unattainable deadline. Your entire team is working nights and weekends. The delivery date is immovable and there's no more scope to cut. You've looked for help managing stress and have been told you should "go home at five no matter what" and "refuse to work Saturdays".
This is sound advice, but right now it seems idealistic to the point of impossible. You feel obligated to do whatever it takes to complete the project on time, including working long hours and giving up weekends. Maybe you love your job, even if it's stressful. You normally enjoy the fast pace, but you're getting burned out. The situation feels out of your control. What can you do?
Perceived lack of control makes a high-pressure situation even more stressful. However, there are things we can do to alleviate this. We'll go over techniques aggregated by consulting devoted tech employees in a variety of positions including engineers, system administrators, project managers, engineering managers, quality assurance engineers, user experience architects, and more.
Coping with Work Stress: At Work
There is no magic bullet for work stress or burnout. You might get a hundred professional massages (but seriously, who has the time?) and not feel better. The most direct line of defense is to tackle work stress at work.
Be the Canary in the Coal Mine
Let's start at the beginning. After all, every situation has one: a point when we first sense things becoming painful. If we're lucky enough to be present at that time, we should not stand idly by. Even if we came aboard after the ship set sail, we shouldn't remain silent through the storm.
Dave Winkel emphasizes the importance of being "the canary in the coal mine". Raising red flags early and often helps us steer a situation and alert others. Laura Kimpel-Matthews recommends escalating with solutions for upper management and including all potential options to open a discussion. Suggest reprioritizing features, increasing resources, extending timelines, shifting responsibilities, etc. It's difficult to ignore a well-crafted proposal for improvement and good management should be willing to work with our suggestions.
We're All in This Together Now
Remember that our teammates are experiencing the same situation. We're all in this together. It's easy to accidentally cultivate a toxic atmosphere when everyone is stressed and overworked. Emily Gladstone Cole emphasizes that we "need to help foster a culture of supporting each other. Answer each other's questions, don't be negative about someone, and be as impersonal as possible when raising concerns on their work."
Do things as a team. Take twenty minutes to go out for gelato together. If everyone is working late, expense dinner and eat together (not at desks!) while having a lively conversation about anything except our stressful project. Mike Behnke recommends "tracking wins" and sharing them: any positive feedback received from clients, management, or peers can help bolster the team.
Take Breaks and Recognize When to Rest
It's easy to feel like we need to keep our eyes glued to our monitors to meet a deliverable, but getting away helps keep us sane and productive. We need to set and know our limits and go home when we've hit them. Ado Kukic makes the important point that "being constantly on edge and stressed greatly decreases the quality of output, which only ends up in working even longer hours to fix an already crumbling deliverable."
Don't eat lunch in front of a computer or at a desk. Get food elsewhere with friends if possible and try not to talk about work. This provides a much needed mental reset partway through the day.
Get up and walk around. A short trek to the break room for coffee, a chat around the water jug, a brisk walk around the parking lot, any movement and small change of scenery keeps our bodies active and our minds alert. This doesn't need to be time-consuming or disruptive. Five to fifteen minutes taken periodically throughout the day helps far more than it harms a busy schedule.
Even if we aren't in a position to take time off right now, Steve Pheley encourages us to negotiate some much-needed vacation in the near future. This can supply valuable recovery time. Also, don't cancel pre-planned vacations even if they occur during the project schedule. If our vacation was on the books and approved a long time ago, we shouldn't surrender it to stay and work. Time off is an employee's right and sacrificing it only makes us unhappy and resentful.
Leaner Workflow and Work Style
Scrutinize the distribution of work. If there's a way to make more efficient use of resources, do so. Sometimes it's difficult to delegate when everyone appears to be under equal stress, but Mike reminds us there are often valid ways to unburden individuals. Let the team distribute tasks according to their strengths to gain efficiency.
Karen Ford reminds us to ask "am I really needed here?" when being invited to meetings or included on email chains. Managers and senior level employees spend a substantial amount of time in meetings, sometimes standing on ceremony rather than out of necessity. This consumption of time can be reduced if we take a moment to consider whether our presence will actually be beneficial. We can also make it clear we'll respond to emails at certain times of day but instanteous feedback shouldn't be expected. Then we can gain some uninterrupted productivity.
Ask for help. Maitland Hemby offers an excellent serenity prayer: "Grant me the patience to figure stuff out when I can, the courage to ask for help when I can't, and the wisdom to know the difference." When we have the luxury of time we spend many hours Googling things. When we're under the pressure of a deliverable or drowning in an ocean of tasks, we should ask for help when we're struggling. The people around us can provide a wealth of valuable knowledge.
Karen promotes breaking large tasks into smaller, more digestible ones. The benefits are twofold: this "helps you keep sane of your goals and helps you feel more accomplished at the end of the day because you can cross things off your list." A sense of daily achievement is an important reassurance that progress is being made.
Communication and Support From Management
Potentially the most effective way to manage workplace stress is to have a channel of communication with our bosses that produces positive outcomes. This can also be the most challenging. Sometimes pushing back yields good—or at least encouraging—results, and sometimes it's frustratingly unsuccessful.
"Active engagement from supportive management is important," H. Jeffrey affirms. Managers should check in regularly with their team and set a worthy example. Emily notes that employees who see their manager working until midnight may conclude such hours are standard for the position; this is something we want to avoid. Team leads often do double-duty because they're just as stressed as their team, but they also need to keep the project on track, provide on-the-ground support, and present a good game face.
Even when previous discourse hasn't been fruitful, in most cases we should continue to be vocal. It's equally important to frame our concerns so they don't evoke complaining. It's easy to dismiss a complainer. We stand on solid ground when we present well-reasoned options and solutions. Even if upper management does not have direct control over some project details (ie., a client with a drop-dead launch date), good managers should be willing to explore any and all options to help their employees succeed.
Coping with Work Stress: At Home
Addressing work stress at work is the most productive way to be proactive at the source of the situation. But we can't always avoid taking our stress home with us. We need to make sure we're promoting self-care outside the workplace too.
It's well-known that exercise is good for stress. At the same time, many of us know how difficult it can be to find motivation to exercise when we're overworked. When we snatch a precious spare moment, all we want to do is languish on the sofa. Keep in mind that getting exercise doesn't have to mean hitting the gym at midnight or waking up at 4 AM to run 5K. If we can squeeze in 10-15 minutes each day before work, it's a worthwhile habit. The barrier to entry is lower than it seems; running, stairs, jumping jacks, squats, situps, and pushups are good places to begin. Start small and do what you can because something is always better than nothing. It can be surprising how much of a difference a 10 minute jog every morning can make.
Don't skip breakfast. Eating in the morning, as opposed to just drinking coffee, provides some much-needed brain food to tackle the day. If you're not a breakfast eater, try to develop the habit. We're pressed for time, but even a granola bar or a greek yogurt helps.
If we're working long hours, sometimes we're too frazzled to have time for lengthy massages or even half an hour of yoga. Instead, a quick 2-5 minute meditation is a good way to soothe a stressed and overactive mind. Quick meditation exercises can be performed in a matter of minutes at home or at work.
We may feel so drained that we just want to be left alone, but spending time with loved ones and pets takes our minds off work and reminds us that we have things that bring us joy. Rituals also help: walking the dog, eating dinner as a family, or reading a few pages of a good book. Steve suggests setting reminders if we need to. Habit-forming apps like Productive can help, but simple calendar reminders work as well.
Help and Outsourcing
We should be okay with asking for help or outsourcing chores. If the house is dirty, we can hire housekeeping. H. Jeffrey notes that we can go out to eat, get food delivered, or batch-prepare easy meals on the weekends. We can ask friends and family for help, but we shouldn't delegate the things we find comfort in. If walking the dog or watering the flowers relaxes us, we should make sure we keep those for ourselves.
Work vs. Hobbies
For many tech workers, hobbies can overlap work. Many of us love designing, systems, or programming, so we do these things in our spare time as well as for our career. We should be careful to avoid overlap when we're stressed at work and in danger of burnout. If we're not, fun rapidly becomes work instead. Ado advocates "doing something completely different" in our off time.
Consider Alternatives and Cultivate Options
Sometimes we power through stressful projects or periods of burnout because we love our jobs. Sometimes we don't. Sometimes it's best to leave a job that we don't enjoy or find fulfilling. It's challenging to drum up the time and motivation to apply for other positions when we're already burned out, but knowing when to consider other opportunities is just as important as knowing when to stick it out.
Looking for another job can also be therapeutic. Putting our resumes together and recognizing the value of our skills reaffirms that we have options and are in control of our future. Even if it's hard to cultivate the motivation necessary to apply for jobs, Maitland reminds us that doing so should be incorporated into our self-care routine. Our future prospects do not need to be dictated by a bad situation.
"Recognizing the value of our skills reaffirms that we have options and are in control of our future."
At the End of the Day
Before going to bed, take some time to wind down. Our minds race with all the stressors we've experienced throughout the day and it's important not to sleep with those things hanging over our heads. We can meditate, read, or spend time with those we care about even if only for half an hour before we crash and need to sleep.
Complaining vs. Gratitude
One of the easiest things to do when we're in a difficult position is complain. Complaining may feel good in the moment, but science has proven it's unhealthy. We should remind ourselves to think of things we're grateful for instead. It may be difficult to feel much gratitude when we're in a tough spot, but remembering the people and things we love is beneficial to our health.
We Have Control
There are many things we can do to manage job stress. Tackling it at the source at work is vital and taking care of ourselves is also important. If we follow the advice of others who have walked our path, we can take charge of the ways we conduct ourselves and interact. Armed with knowledge and support, we can overcome stressful situations and emerge tired, perhaps, but whole. We always have more control than we think we do, and recognizing that is a monumental accomplishment.