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Dealing With Workplace Stress

Knowledge workers often think they don’t face health and safety issues, says one expert, but when you make your living with your brain, you have to take care of it. Unmanaged stress can lead to physical and mental malaise, decreased productivity and worse. Occupational health professionals detail how to stay your happiest and healthiest

Between dealing with machines and dealing with people, being an IT manager can sometimes feel like the most stressful job in the world. But letting that stress get to you can cause a lot of harm, from physical problems and mental anguish to decreased productivity. Occupational health experts detail how to stay your happiest and healthiest (yes, even in this economy).

The silent killer

“Stress is like blood pressure — it’s the silent killer,” said Kevin Kelloway, a Canada research chair and director of the CN Centre for Occupational Health and Safety at Halifax’s St. Mary’s University. “A lot of people don’t even realize they’re under that much stress, whether it’s not getting enough sleep or getting a few drinks after work. People are often just not aware.”

He said that becoming more aware of your triggers and working on them is the best way to de-stress.

“Be alert,” said Kelloway. “Knowledge workers think they have no health and safety issues in the workplace. It’s not like they’re going to fall off their chair or something. But when you make your living with your brain, you have to take care of it.” Feeling blue?A guide to depression and seasonal affective disorder

IT does often have to deal with it from both ends, whether it’s executive demands or users clamoring for help. “When it comes to expectations of IT, it’s always people wanting more for less, and, ‘Oh, we want it faster and better,’” said Nora Spinks, president of the wellness consultancy Work-Life Harmony Enterprises. “It’s on 24/7 and never slows down, making IT unique in that way because the elements often aren’t predictable.”

Then there are the users. “You’re often dealing with people who don’t have a clue what they’re talking about,” Spinks laughed. “You actually have to be really good at managing other people’s stress. And trying not to make them look stupid.”

She recommends that IT staff make sure to try to lead a healthy lifestyle to offset these challenges. This means eating well, sleeping enough, making time for friends and family … and keeping workplace stress to a minimum. Easier said than done, right? There are, however, ways to do it.

Finding the balance

First of all, companies and managers should take a proactive role in letting their employees know that a healthy workplace is important. “We need to set aside the assumption that work-life balance is just a North American or women’s issue,” Spinks said. “Everyone has a life outside of work.”

From the business’ side, “a company’s most important resource is its people. Most people don’t see it like that…or the value of preventive maintenance,” said Zorianna Hyworon, president of the software-as-a-service company Info Tech Inc., which does online lifestyle assessments via its Wellness Checkpoint tool.

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She said that companies are overly concerned with absenteeism. Instead, Hyworon said, companies should keep an eye on presenteeism — how engaged and happy employees are in the workplace and their job.

From the employee side, it’s important to establish boundaries, whether it’s cutting back on overtime, or requesting work-from-home privileges. Taking an interest in employee assistance programs and any work flexibility will also show the company that these programs are worth their investment.

Work smarter, not harder

People often feel helpless and get the most stressed out when they feel a lack of control over their environment, whether it’s a lack of flexibility in choosing projects or strict employer rules. “There’s a relation between control and demand. The bigger the gap, the bigger the stress,” said Spinks.

There are ways to take control of your work life, however.

One strategy is to make a preemptive strike against future stress by seeking out jobs and companies that offer more flexibility and suit your work habits and lifestyle. The interview is the first step — they may be interviewing you, but you’re also interviewing them to see if you actually want to work there in the first place.

Sandra Levoy, regional vice-president with the Ottawa office of IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology (a subsidiary of the staffing firm Robert Half International Inc.), recalls a recent client who went on an interview in which the interviewer stressed several times the amount of overtime required. Was the candidate was okay with that? It was a big, red flag, said Levoy, alerting the client that it probably would be a pretty stressful workplace environment.

IT staffers are increasingly looking for companies that offer more flexibility and less stress. She remembers a recent client who was making $100,000 per year at a high-stress job. “They had two young children and virtually no work-life balance. (The client) ended up leaving for a job that paid much less that offered a better balance.”

The desire to work from home at least some of the time, for example, has been increasing rapidly, according to Levoy. “People don’t want to commute any more, and they want to work at companies that offer that flexibility,’ she said. “Companies are beginning to come around, although it takes time to make changes like that.” And the more employers are aware of the desirability of diverse work options for employees, the faster that flexibility will become more commonplace.

She suggests building the potential to work from home — or other flexibility request — into your job offer. If you’re already working somewhere but would like to have a more flexible work style, she said, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

“It’s important to bring your expectations out in the open, and be sure to ask about how flexible they are,” she said. If you’re a desirable enough worker, there should, in theory, be some wiggle room, provided your request fits with your job description.

Another way to regain control is to feel like a top-notch IT job candidate, ready for anything.

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“If you’re unhappy, you can always start looking around for another job,” said Kelloway.

Upgrading your skills and learn new technologies will give you marketable skills and confidence, Kelloway said. “Then, even if the worst happens, you’re ready for it.” And if you stay at your job, you’ll probably be more knowledgeable and invested, and thus — hopefully — happier where you are.

Workflow is another culprit when it comes to control over your workday. That’s why it’s important to take “mini-breaks,” said Kelloway. “For a lot of IT people, it’s a lot of project work. There’s intense bursts of activity followed by a more mellow period. One of the big problems is that workers don’t recognize the need for some slack — people need downtime. They can’t just keep going and going.” By scheduling in time to work on long-term projects or catch up on some busywork, employees will feel less stressed.

From the employer side, companies must consider what they should take control over, and what they should let go. Finding that balance can make the difference when it comes to employee morale, said Estelle Morrison, director of health management with the human resources, employee assistance and payroll company Ceridian Canada Ltd. “This could mean something as small as limiting personal effects in the workspace,” she said.

Let's get physical

Did you know that working in IT can be hazardous to your health? “The physical demands of an IT job can take a significant toll on the body, whether it’s lighting, heating, chairs, ergonomic workstations or equipment,” Spinks said.

Kelloway added, “IT people are often put back in the server room or other areas where there are few windows. People can often become very disturbed by all-fluorescent lighting and recycled air.”

This is all exacerbated by the current tendency to try and cram as many people as possible in a smaller space to save on rent, and cubicles are just as popular as ever, in spite of their isolating properties, according to Morrison. “A downside is that people can feel both cramped and removed from everybody in their own little hovel,” she said.

She said that companies should try to provide opportunities for augmenting your workspace for optimal productivity — an example might be sound restriction, whether it be moving the cubicles around or soundproofing their structures. Financial software vendor Intuit Canada, which uses a more open layout, provides its employees with high-quality headphones that block out distracting noise.

Being as accommodating as possible when it comes to equipment is another way to keep employees happy, said Morrison. To save workers from strain, proper ergonomic workstations should be made available, and the option of requesting non-standard chairs and peripherals that will allow workers to more comfortably and safely do their job.

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Wherever possible, provide spaces for collaboration, and seek out office space with as much natural light as possible for everyone. If you’re already entrenched, and if space allows, reorganize workspaces so as many people as possible have access to windows and natural light.

It can often be challenging to retrofit an office, but there is one way that employers can encourage more wellness in such an environment — get out. “It’s imperative that you get people outside, even if it’s only for a short period. This can be anything from a regular walking club to walking outside to go for a coffee-break,” according to Morrison.

Colleague challenges

Whether you have a fancy ergonomic chair or not, you definitely have co-workers. “Stress stemming from interpersonal interactions is one of the main things people are paying attention to now,” said Kelloway. “This includes bullying, aggressive behaviour, violence, and work rage.”

This can be a real minefield for IT professionals, said Kelloway. “You might be working with other people who don’t really have those soft skills,” he said.

Another pitfall? If you work in a small IT department — or you are the IT department — it can be hard to find co-workers to commiserate with. “We rely on people to understand the nature of our work,” said Kelloway. “An IT person might not have anyone like that, or they might not have the necessary soft skills to seek that social support elsewhere. Talking to your family is not the same thing.”

A way to reach out to your peers, however, is to attend local industry mixers, or user group meetings for your favourite IT products. Staying in contact with peers is important, said Hyworon. “As the nature of work becomes more knowledge-based, the nature of what we do becomes more solitary, with less social interaction,” she said. “Those who work in the 24/7 world of IT are particularly at risk.”

But what if you want nothing to do with a colleague? Spinks recommends confronting the issue head-on. “If conflict needs to be resolved, you shouldn’t let it fester. Prevention is always beneficial,” she said.

The economy

Granted, we’re all feeling a little down these days, what with the economy suffering its own depression. As expected, the age-old workplace fear over job security has reared its ugly head once more. “Trend-wise, this had almost gone away, but now it’s back,” said Kelloway.

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It’s also resulting in a lot more work for beleaguered IT staff. “Large companies aren’t hiring people as quickly as they were. If people leave or retire, they’re not backfilling those positions. IT people are now being asked to do more, but with less resources,” said Levoy.

This can suck away at morale, she said, which is a problem both in the short- and long-term. Frustrated employers can take out their stress on their employees during a down economy, which leads to irritation and misery.

And, once the economy picks up again, employers will be even worse off — once the hiring market improves, those slighted employees will be off for companies who treat them better, Levoy said.

That is why it is important to show employees that you care. As corny as it sounds, it will keep the business running smoother and maintain staff levels.

“As workloads go up, recognition and celebration is actually dropping. People think you shouldn’t give the ‘wrong impression’ if times are tough,” Spinks said.

In fact, just the opposite is true. She suggests that IT managers make a special effort to recognize employees who are making an effort to help the company’s bottom line. This will show everyone that the company sees how people are pitching in, and appreciates it. And the best part? A congratulatory e-mail or having lunch together at the end of a stressful project “doesn’t cost the company any cash,” Spinks said.

Listening to your employees and co-workers is also important.

“You need to stop and listen on a regular basis,” said Spinks. “Most of the time, you might not even be able to do anything about it. But the recognition that you care? That’s huge.”