During the past two decades, the job profile of an Indian IT professional has mutated into one requiring long hours in the office, and often outside the office as well. Our IT Industry services multiple countries across several continents, and this requires availability and travel to different time zones, often with short notice. Additionally, many of these jobs require night shifts and prolonged odd hours.
These demands often combine to create a work environment that is hectic and stressful. Stress is defined is any uncomfortable “emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological and behavioural changes.”
Of course, some stress is useful as it gives us a push to accomplish a task or goal. Everyone regularly experiences stress of one kind or another, but continuously working under stressful conditions over an extended period can lead to chronic stress.
Chronic stress can affect your health and morale, jeopardising your professional and personal life. It can deprive you of physical and emotional vitality, and leave you feeling tired all the time. You can become cynical and disillusioned leading to a loss of interest in your job. You may even develop a sense of hopelessness.
Chronic stress is also one of the leading causes of job burnout — defined as “an extended period of time where you experience exhaustion and a lack of interest in things, resulting in a decline in job performance.”
For example, a fresher beginning his career after college is motivated and eager to learn new technologies. At first, his exuberance and attitude enable him to withstand the stress. As the years go by, however, the job becomes multi-faceted and there is an increase in rivalry and office politics. Our aging fresher grows tired of the “same old routine.”
Then one day he just feels burned-out with his job. He feels exhausted, lacks motivation, has difficulty focusing on tasks, and experiences a decline in job performance. He may also begin to have interpersonal problems at home and work, and engage in unhealthy coping strategies like eating too much junk food, skipping daily exercise, being too sedentary, drinking too much alcohol and so forth.
Corporate management has long realized that burnout can lead to a loss of talent and an accompanying drop in organizational productivity. Wise companies, in conjunction with their HR departments, have begun to implement strategies to reduce employee stress and combat burnout. Such efforts increasingly include company-paid memberships for spas, gyms and yoga clubs — some office campuses even have their own on-site gyms and yoga centers.
In-house counselling and regular one-on-one meetings with HR representatives are also encouraged. Some companies allow flexible work hours and even go so far as to mandate employees take two annual vacations with their families. The results show that these measures are helping employees avoid burnout. Companies that provide such benefits have healthier work environments and accompanying increases in employee retention and productivity.
It is also important for employees to understand their exposure to stress. Knowing the signs of job-related stress and dealing with it early on can, to a large extent, help prevent burnout. Some signs are obvious, others more difficult to see. Identifying obvious signs of excessive stress in ourselves and peers can help make the work environment a more enjoyable place to be.
Note that if signs of extreme stress are evident, it is advisable to seek professional help. If you or a work colleague displays such signs it may helpful to obtain counseling. Being productive at work necessitates dealing with varying levels of stress on a regular basis. Here are a few simple suggestions to help reduce your stress level and create a positive workplace:
An appreciative work environment — A friendly and inclusive work environment is one where every member feels a part of the team. Such an environment will foster positive relationships between members. A little praise between and for team members can go a long way towards making a difficult situation pleasant.
Supervisors should also openly appreciate exceptional work and reward team members accordingly — although care should be taken to ensure that awards are inclusive and not isolating. I once knew a team member who suffered a breakdown after being passed over for an annual award.
The award must have been the last straw that broke an already overloaded camel’s back. This particular team member was already under a lot of stress, but I do wish that I had noticed beforehand their level of stress and done something that may have alleviated it.
New Challenges — A new challenge can serve to motivate employees and break the monotony of a daily work schedule, help reduce stress levels, and increase job satisfaction. The challenge can be anything from a pet project to a poster painting competition. Team members should be free to volunteer their time and work on them at their own pace.
Supervisors should also consult team members for suggestions on the sort of project they would like to take up. This enables them to feel as if they have some control over their duties and work goals. Employees know their skill set and often have good ideas on new ways in which they can contribute.
A publisher friend tells how he asked one of his editors if there were any particular projects that he might like to tackle. The editor mentioned that he had been studying for a degree in business administration and wanted to help out a bit with marketing. My friend let him try his hand marketing a new book.
The editor worked hard and proposed a few good ideas that were implemented. The book sold well, the publisher was happy, and the editor felt validated as a contributing team member. (The editor has since moved on to become vice president of marketing at a successful tool company.)
Community work — Volunteering for any kind of community work helps take the focus away from our own worries. Volunteering can be for anything from minor activities like serving soup or reading to children. Helping others is often a tonic for stressed nerves.
Check if your company has a social service arm and if there are any activities in which you can participate. Volunteering for these services along with other colleagues is not only a good way to destress, but can increase the level of bonding among team members as well.
Have a life outside of office — Make certain to spend time with your family and do something you enjoy. It is important that you create a work life balance. While fixed hours seem almost impossible for an Indian IT pro, you must try and take at least a short break or two daily. Use your break time to exercise at the gym or read your favorite book over a cup of coffee. Exercise is a great stress reliever — even thirty minutes of brisk walking or jogging can make a pleasant difference in your life.
Time away from the office is a good time to cultivate a hobby like gardening or painting and find some time every day to spend with your hobby. It doesn’t matter how you relax. The important thing is to take time to relax and recharge your batteries.
Personal care — Taking care of yourself is a great way to reduce stress and stay healthy. Dress with care even if you are not going out. Wear comfortable clothes suitable for the weather. Eat healthy, and watch your weight. One good way to do this is to follow the 5 Lb. Rule: Weigh yourself once a week. If you’ve gained 5 pounds, it’s time to reduce your caloric intake until you get back to your desired weight. (This will allow you to occasionally treat yourself with your favorite sinful chocolate cheese cake.)
Remember not to skip breakfast — it really is the most important meal of the day. Eating a healthy breakfast of protein and clean carbohydrates (not a bag of chips and a Coke) will let you start the day off right and help maintain your energy levels.
Be positive — The mantra of enjoying your job is most valuable — after all, you will usually be spending more time at the office than with your family. Make a sincere effort to check negative thoughts and avoid gossip and office politics at work. People enjoy working with someone who builds others up and has a positive outlook. No one enjoys a Gloomy Gus.
Get away from IT all — Sometimes you may just need an extended break from work. This can be a challenge because traditionally there has been a strong belief that one does not leave the job for any length of time. Fortunately, this is changing — slowly, but it is changing. More companies are allowing valuable employees to take extended breaks and sabbaticals from work.
If you feel that you need a sabbatical, don’t be afraid to ask. Perhaps the sabbatical involves working in another field or location that will not only recharge your batteries, but simultaneously give you knowledge and ideas on how to do your work more efficiently. Carefully study possible sabbatical opportunities and explain to your supervisor the perceived benefits.
Employers know the value of a good employee. They also know that it is often easier to keep good employees happy than to replace them. They may be willing to give you that time away from the office knowing that you will return rejuvenated and ready to go.
India’s IT landscape is constantly changing and, recession or not, new jobs are always being created. So do not let the fear that you may not be employable after a sabbatical deter you. Time away from the office doing something you enjoy might just be the tonic you need to bring back your old enthusiasm for work.