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Taking the Stress Out of IT
There's more to IT than building applications and keeping the systems running

IT operations, in whatever form they take, are in a unique position in that they are rarely noticed until they fail to perform. Malfunctions, whether they are within or beyond your control, are highly visible and often critical, and typically must be fixed immediately.

The reactive nature of IT management, and the increasing importance of IT development and operations to the enterprise, means that bending the will of technology to business and operations inherently involves long and often-irregular hours, dealings with both senior management and line-level employees, and making things work when it doesn't seem possible. And the answer is never allowed to be "No."

And that's not all. With complex problems that often seem to defy rational solutions, short deadlines, and frequently not enough people and equipment to meet the ever-growing needs of the user community and the business, today's demands placed on IT managers can make the role highly stressful, no matter where it is.

Stress and accompanying depression in the workplace are now the second most disabling illness for workers after heart disease, according to a 2002 survey conducted by the International Labor Organization. Recognizing work-related stress, and learning how to cope with it, will make you feel better, make your body healthier, and make you work and live more effectively. In short, it will improve all aspects of your life, not only during work, but also during leisure.

Identifying Stress in Work Life
Stress occurs when you don't feel you have control over events in your life. Because of their nature, IT careers are particularly susceptible to ongoing stress because many of the activities are reactive and involve technologies or user actions that can't be controlled directly. Even if you plan your department's strategies and tactics meticulously, the unexpected has a way of injecting itself into reality. And the consequences of failure can be measured in lost productivity by users, or lost business for the enterprise.

The short-term symptoms of stress include faster heartbeat, increased sweating, cold hands and feet, feelings of nausea, rapid breathing, and tense muscles. These symptoms might be the result of a specific stressful event or brief period of work demands. Over the longer term, work-related stress can manifest itself in difficulty in sleeping, stomach irritation, decreased interest in your work, and irritability toward others around you. Of the two types of reactions, the latter is the more serious, because stressful symptoms that persist can make you less effective and engaging in both work and personal activities, and will cause physical harm if left untreated.

Stress is a natural reaction by your body to events or activities that your unconscious finds threatening or challenging. It's a protection mechanism, grounded in physiology or evolution, that enables your body to prepare to fight or run away from a physical threat. That was fine in the distant past, when threats were usually physical and short-lived, but is a more problematic response to the more emotional and intellectual threats that we typically face today.

In small doses, stress can be a positive force. It keeps us focused and engaged in challenging projects, and enables us to grow professionally and personally. A positive reaction to stress is what lets us make the push needed to finish a critical project on time. Without occasional stress, we might find our work mundane and boring, and not be able to give it our best effort. And when we complete a project under stress, we typically enjoy a sense of accomplishment in overcoming a challenge and growing emotionally and professionally.

The problem arises when stress becomes regular or chronic. During periods of stress, the body releases adrenaline, which constricts peripheral blood vessels and increases heart and breathing rates, preparing the body for a spurt of exertion. When this reaction occurs daily, or continually over a period of days or weeks, it physically weakens parts of the body, and both physically and mentally tires you out. Over a longer period, your personal "weak link" can cause physical problems. It could be your heart, stomach, blood pressure, or some other physiological response, depending on your health and your body's unique response to stress. There's no single response common to everyone, making it difficult for individuals to identify a physical symptom that's clearly a stress problem

Stress can come from several sources. You may be approaching a major system launch and feeling unprepared, or face a difficult project deadline over the next several weeks. It may be as simple as having an airline flight canceled when you expected to get home in time for an important personal engagement. These are examples of short-term stress, which all of us face many times during our lives. Note that some of these sources of stress may not be within our control, so any physical or emotional response can't possibly provide a solution.

Coping with Stress
It's easier to deal with stress when you're younger, and your body is stronger and better able to withstand the physical mistreatment that often results. This is one reason why startup companies tend to attract younger employees; the hours are long and the pressure to deliver immediate results gives younger software or systems professionals an advantage in these environments. While that doesn't mean that IT managers in their 40s and 50s can't make effective workers in startup companies, they almost certainly have to practice strategies to manage stress levels.

Which raises the question of just how an IT manager can manage and even reduce the stress that accompanies our modern work life. A number of people are successful in doing so, and live healthy while working in highly stressful jobs. It's possible to overcome stress through insight into both your work life and your body's normal functioning.

Possibly the best thing you can do to manage your stress is to take actions that put you in better control of the factors in your work life that cause stress. One of the biggest causes of stress is the feeling of helplessness over day-to-day events that impacts how we work. This means you have to first identify the events in your work life that cause you stress because you seem unable to control them. Identifying stress means taking a close and objective look at every event and activity during the workday, and analyzing your approach and outlook to each.

Much of your outlook depends on how you respond to these events. Stress is greatest if you perceive that you have no control over the immediate and often conflicting demands in your work. Your inability to respond to these demands means that you internalize your natural responses, which the body interprets as stress.

If, on the other hand, you have some way to control the events around you, or even if you perceive that you do, your stress levels will almost certainly decline. One way you might do this is to establish procedures for yourself on how to handle different categories of demand. This provides you with a set way of reacting to events without even having to think about them. For example, you might often get urgent requests for new features on a deployed application. Rather than feeling the weight of each request as it arrives, you could establish a process whereby these requests are routed through others who are in a position to evaluate and prioritize such requests, so that you can place them in the context of their importance.

Long-term stress can also result from your inability to perform a job at a satisfactory level. IT professionals are often hesitant to admit this, even to themselves, because of their inherent belief that every problem has a solution. But there are work roles that are simply out of our reach, yet we occasionally find ourselves in those roles. This could happen when you're first promoted to a management role, or if you're given a tough assignment using technologies in which you have no background.

A typical reaction to performance stress is a listlessness at work and home, and a lack of desire to go to work in the morning. You may retreat into your office and reduce contact with your colleagues. If you find yourself in this position, you should seek assistance from your colleagues, managers, or human resources department, for training to better perform your job, or for off-loading some tasks to enable you to focus on what you're best able to do. Admitting you have limitations is difficult to do, but being honest with yourself and those around you will prevent more serious problems down the road.

Working with Stress
Those most successful at dealing with stress make extensive contingency plans that anticipate disruptive issues. You can't stop the production server's hard disk from crashing, for example, but a vigorous backup regimen, combined with written procedures in the case of failure, can make such an event simply a matter of routine. Taking some time up front to think through everything that can happen, assess the risks involved, and set down the contingencies is pure stress insurance. If you can't do it by yourself, form a staff committee and charge them with contingency planning.

Regular exercise is another excellent way to combat stress. Exercise helps in a number of ways. First, over time it improves your general health by strengthening many of the parts of the body that might be susceptible to failure under stress. Second, it provides a safe and healthy physical outlet for a buildup of stress. In psychology, a phenomenon known as transference describes the tendency of individuals suffering stress in one aspect of their lives to take it out on an innocent party in an unrelated part of their lives. Exercise provides a way of releasing stress outside of work that doesn't harm others.

Jogging is a common way of relieving work stress. Weights, team sports, aerobics, and t'ai chi are frequently practiced, often through company-sponsored venues. Your company may have athletic facilities on-site, or may offer a discount at a local gym. Take advantage of these benefits, and join those of your colleagues who already engage in a workout strategy before work, during lunch, or after work. If you want to completely leave your job behind as you exercise, either join a health club or get exercise gear for your home.

Some people turn to alcohol or drugs as a way to relieve stress. While these solutions may seem to provide immediate relief from the short-term symptoms of stress, they simply substitute one problem for another, more serious one. The root causes of your stress don't go away, yet you're doing yourself greater mental and physical harm, and possibly hurting those around you. In these cases, it's time to seek the help of others, starting with your physician.

Above all, if dealing with stress by yourself is unrealistic or hasn't worked for you, you shouldn't be afraid to ask for assistance from your managers or from health care professionals. While the causes of workplace stress may be beyond your ability to fix, others may be able to address these issues, or to provide methods to enable you to better deal with the underlying stress. Because we tend to invest so much of our personalities in our work, we view stress as a personal failure, when it's really simply a problem to be solved.

Summary
Long-term, work-related stress makes life difficult for you and those around you. Living under the umbrella of tension and frayed nerves is not only mentally but also physically hard on you. Recognizing your reactions to stress enables you to change your reactions to stress or your ways of dealing with it. It will make you better at your job, and more important, better at the game of life.

About Peter Varhol
Peter Varhol is a Product Manager at Compuware Corporation, with graduate degrees in Mathematics and Computer Science, and has worked in software development and systems management. As a former college professor, he has substantial experience speaking on technical topics. He has written extensively on software development topics in a variety of trade magazines.

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