Friday, May 10, 2013

How Do You Relieve Job Stress? Or Do You?

Most career endeavors involve some stress. I guess that’s because even a really great job isn’t great 100% of the time. Most career situations involve stress, often high stress, and that is often true even when the career is satisfying overall. Relieving the stress is something we instinctively do, usually without giving it much thought. We all unconsciously gravitate toward hobbies and pastimes when we’re away from work, and want to have fun. We call it fun, and it is, but it’s also a stress-reliever. It’s only when job stress is high that we need to think about it, recognize it as such, and map out a stress-relieving plan that renews us, that gets us ready for the work week.

I’ve had two careers, one as an engineer and technical manager, and one as a fiction author. Both careers were high stress, but the source of stress was different for each, and the methods I used to relieve the stress were somewhat different as well. My career as a technical manager was stressful because the work took place in the context of a corporate office environment. Why is that stressful, you ask? Well, for a variety of reasons, about fifty percent of the work I did in the corporate environment was either useless, or worse, destructive. I only spent about half my time doing useful things, and that was stressful. So what causes such inefficiency? Well, there are many reasons, and I could probably write a month of blog post describing them, so I’ll just describe one example here as an illustration. Many corporate work environments are overstaffed—especially overstaffed with managers—and that inevitably leads to the needless destruction and reinvention of corporate systems. So how does this work and why?

The example I’ll use is employee performance appraisal systems. Every corporation these days has one, and the company I worked for went into the 1990s with a really good appraisal system. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it was far better than any of the systems I saw at our corporate peers and competitors. But hold on, here comes the problem. We had a corporate vice president with not enough to do. And the only way she could progress on the corporate chessboard was to put her name on a new corporate system or achievement, one that was perceived as successful. So what she did was to build a case against our current system. She said that because it wasn’t perfect, we should replace it. Well, it’s hard to tell a vice president that they shouldn’t be working on something, something she apparently feels high energy for. And of course she underestimated the work it would take to implement a new system by a factor of four. That made it easier to get the project approved and kicked off. A year later, after a heroic effort by an overworked staff, we implemented a new system that was decidedly inferior to the original. The vice president and her vested interests had the new system declared a stunning success, and she got her promotion. Interestingly, I saw this entire cycle repeated again before I left the company in 2007.

I was able to work and be productive in the confines of this system, but I found it stressful. I needed a way to refresh myself for facing the corporate meat grinder. I tried a variety of things, but what worked best for relieving my job stress was the exciting and high stress world of PC gaming. No, I’m not kidding! It was as though one form of stress was tailor-made for cancelling another. I’d come home and lose myself in the excitement of what are called real time strategy games such as Starcraft, and Age of Empires II. And presto, I’d sleep well and be refreshed for another day of corporate battles and frustrations, all endured with a hopeful smile and a genuine desire to achieve something useful and lasting.

 So let me wrap up by making two points for takeaway. One is that you can endure a whole lot of stress on the job if you find a way to relieve that stress and renew yourself. And secondly, it can be surprising (even amazing) the things that may work well to banish stress to the Recycle Bin. So it’s definitely worth giving some unlikely things a try.

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