Saturday, April 26, 2014

Taking a new approach to managing work / life stress

I go back to work on Monday, after a fortnight of annual / public holiday leave which was proceeded by almost a week of sick leave (I have, in fact, only been in the office 2 days since 4 April). This is by far the longest period of time I have been absent from work since starting in my job last July.

Right now, I feel quite detached from work and emotionally recharged. I am able to see with a clear perspective that many of the things that were causing me angst before I commenced leave were really not worth investing emotional energy in. I have a pretty solid view of what are the essential things I need to get onto when I get back, what are the nice-to-haves-but-no-one-is-going-to-die-over-it items, and what are the things I should dump without ceremony into the also-ran pile.

This is good, but I am not silly enough to think it will last once I plunge back into the fray. I have enough self awareness to realise that if I don't take active steps to manage my work and the impact it has on me, I will burn out, and this would be bad news for me, my family and my employer.

I have been reading lots of things around about the place on work stress - what triggers it, how to manage it, and so on. The key factors that seem to be implicated in work stress are:
  • Fear of being laid off
  • Excessive workloads
  • Bullying 
  • Bad cultural fit / interpersonal conflict with manager / colleagues / workplace
  • Unrewarding work / tasks
  • Feeling of being taken advantage of / used
  • Inflexible / rigid work scheduling and expectations
  • Pressure to perform to meet rising expectations but with no increase in job satisfaction
  • Pressure to work at optimum levels—all the time!
Looking at this list, it's quite easy for me to pinpoint which ones are relevant to me. Most of them emphatically are not - my work is an excellent cultural fit for me and I get along very well with colleagues and managers; my tasks are mostly rewarding; there is a high degree of flexibility; I am absolutely not being bullied; and I don't fear being made redundant (ie I do not worry about job security).

For me, it all coalesces around workload (mine is very heavy, likely to get heavier, and quite difficult to moderate) and my perception that I am expected to bring my A game every single minute because everything is significant and nothing can be let slide. This perception is almost certainly partially within my own head - I am afflicted with a huge amount of Puritan work guilt and, not to put too fine a point on it, anal retentiveness when it comes to work - but that doesn't make it less of a thing for me to manage.

So because I do not want to crash in a blaze of glory in 3-6 months, I have consulted the boundless resources of Madame Internet and put together a few tactics that I am going to try to roll out over the coming two months to see if I can get this rocking along comfortably for me while still delivering for my workplace and prioritising my family. After all, it's a marathon, not a sprint, right?
  1. Self-care: Walking every day, including at least once in the work day; having stress reducing scents in my office; listening to music on headphones when I am engaged in writing work; weekly lunch or coffee with work friends; drinking enough water and tea; no weekday alcohol; getting enough sleep; and when tasks get overwhelming, stepping back and stepping out.

  2. Permission to treat work time AS work time: This sounds contradictory to the first point above, but really it isn't. I have been guilty, if that is the word, at times of allowing my colleagues, of whom I am fond, to spend a lot of time discussing things in circles with me - usually, but not always, work related things. It's definitely essential to talk issues through, but my primary job is translating thought bubbles into useable documents, and conversations are the first stage of this, not the bulk of the process.

    While it is absolutely important to support your colleagues and friends, and I have drawn on their support too, I cannot keep giving up massive chunks of time to pulling apart every issue that besets the whole organisation when I have a minimum of 8h worth of deliverable work that must be done every day. If I do, I either take work home (bad) or fall behind (worse), both of which stress me a lot.

    So from now on, I am really going to enjoy my weekly social thing (coffee / lunch) and other than that, I'm going to try to restrict my non-meeting, non-planning work conversations to 10 minutes in length. As a corollary, I am going to try to bring my lunch from home at least 3 days a week and eat at my desk those days, to make it possible to get through work and therefore be able to leave a little earlier.

    It won't always work, but if it works even half the time, it will be a net gain for my stress levels.

  3. No bringing work home in the evenings or at the weekends: This one is aspirational, and I doubt I'll be able to stick to it completely, but I'm going to try.

  4. Keep remembering to not sweat the small stuff (and most of it, at the end of the day, is small stuff): Very little is worth the adrenalin I expend on it. I am working hard on realising that.

  5. Celebrate the victories: Despite feeling like I am climbing Mt Everest in slippers most of the time, I do actually achieve things; tasks get finished, documents get published, projects get completed. Instead of getting frustrated that I'm not achieving more / faster, I'm going to take a moment to enjoy and recognise these successes when they happen, whether via a coffee with a colleague or just a mutual happy-dance phone call with other project team members.

  6. Fake it til I make it: I am actually good at this, because I am a workplace trainer (among other things) and I know how to put on my game face, despite what I may be feeling, for my trainees. I am going to extrapolate that ability into the rest of my work. We all have bad days, but I don't need to drag my colleagues down with me, and I will actually lift up a lot faster if I don't waste energy complaining.

  7. Keep my priorities straight at work and in life: I am not going to be, or feel, apologetic for prioritising my family commitments. My children and husband come first, and they always will. I am also going to make sure I give priority to the other things in my life that matter to me - the volunteering I do, reading, my writing life. As part of this, I've decided to treat myself to attending at least part of Continuum, the Melbourne SFF fan convention on the long weekend in June - just because I want to, and that is a good enough reason.

    Further, I am not going to second guess myself anymore about the priorities at work. There is an organisational direction that has been established, and it is OK for me to say "No, I can't" or "Not yet" to task requests that do not feature in that vision. I cannot do everything, so my best bet is to make sure the things I do do are the most useful and productive possible.

    Part of this is going to be a triage model that I saw on one website that I'm going to try. Instead of letting things bank up and cause stress, the idea is to to decide at the outset how, when and if you are going to handle them, and respond accordingly within 24 hours. The response could be "I can't do this for you but X might be able to"; it might be "I am not able to do this for 2 weeks but could get you something by X date"; it might be "I am working on this, I will get you something by Friday". I think this will help me manage the reactive / responsive part of my work (maybe 30-40% overall) much better, not to mention being a professional approach to managing expectations.

  8. Keep my eyes on the prize: Why am I doing this? Not "this particular job", but any job? Every night when I pay bills, I'll remember. Every time we plan another activity to do on our Great Barrier Reef holiday, I'll remember. Every time I get a superannuation statement, I'll remember. Every time my girls talk about what careers they want to have, and how they will combine them with parenting, I'll remember. 
Got any other tips for me? I'd love to hear them!

1 comment:

  1. Good luck with the changes. Bringing my A game to every aspect of work is something I struggle with, even as a volunteer I want to do the very best at every aspect of what I'm doing.