Hitting the stress wall

Mark has hit the wall.

Mark’s posting inspired me to scribble down some random thoughts, which eventually turned into this rant.None of this is directed at him specifically; he’s a pretty smart guy :-). In fact, he’s unplugging for a few days, an excellent idea…

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen burnout over the years, among family, friends, and others. I’ve hit that wall myself, a time or two, and I know a few people flirting with the edge. These days, my answer is along these lines:

Stop complaining about how you don’t have a life. You “live” a life, you don’t “have” a life. If you really want to live a more balanced life, start looking at the choices you are making. You are not in prison.

– workplace writer Barbara Moses

Now that quote is worded harshly, but the idea is sound. If you let them, other people will absorb all of your time and energy. This is true of employers, family, friends, organisations you volunteer for, and so on. We each have to decide, for ourselves, the things that we believe are worthwhile expenditures of energy. Where do you draw the line?

Obviously, having a job is key; without a job, it can be challenging to eat and stay warm. And it’s important to do one’s job well! But that is no reason to let an employer (or client) bully you into burn-out. In this economy, some employers think that they can get more out of their employees because they cannot escape. I’ve heard about companies that routinely expect 10 hours (or more) per week of overtime. Spread across four employees, that is an entire extra person that company should hire! That kind of nonsense is why the economy is recovering even though unemployment rates remain constant. (Thankfully I don’t work for one of those employers.)

Somewhere in there we have to make time for our families, to see friends, for our health (physical fitness is the leading cause of longevity :-) and yes, even personal time for reading, meditation, or whatever else keeps us sane. Good employers realize that healthy, sane employees are more productive. But it’s hard to avoid spreading oneself too thinly, with all of the demands on our time. Multi-tasking and “efficiency” can only go so far; they merely postpone the inevitable.

I have worked crazy hours in the past to meet deadlines. Sometimes they were my deadlines, and sometimes they were other people’s. But there were fewer demands on my time back then, and so overtime was managable. I have a family now, my priorities have changed, and I think I’ve mananged to find a balance between work demands and the rest of my life. Thanks in part to a commuter train schedule, I work normal hours most days. With some exceptions, I’ve found that clients that demand a solution “right now!” will accept one, two, or several days provided that their expectations are managed appropriately. (In fact, we’ve found it’s better to deliver a tested solution in two days, than it is to deliver a “quick-fix” in one day.)

It certainly helps that my team and I have developed a good development discipline over the years (and across multiple employers). Management requests features, and (sometimes) a specific ship date. We estimate the work involved, then combine that with the programmers available and develop a schedule and an actual ship date. (It’s up to us to make quality estimates, since we suffer if they’re wrong). If management wants to move the deadline, they have two options; hire more staff, or drop features. We’ve trained them to understand this. :-) We still work late when the unexpected comes up, or when an estimate is a little bit off, but generally speaking, we all get to go home at night and avoid burn-out.

I too have a laptop and a wireless network. I still spend too much time in front of my computer, but now it’s personal play time. I maintain my servers, catch up on e-mail, look up the name of the actress on the TV show I’m watching, and so on. I can work from home if I need to, and I often do if the weather is bad (or I’ve slept in and missed the train :-). But normally I don’t check my office e-mail from home, and I don’t have a compiler (or the project source code) on my laptop so I can’t be tempted to “fix one more bug”.

This weekend I took my son to hockey, went to the Science Centre with family, had friends over for dinner, did some housework (but not enough), took both kids skating, and helped another friend move furniture. I was tired Sunday night, but in a good way. That’s how I avoid burnout…

posted at 6:30 pm on Monday, February 03, 2003 in Random Thoughts | Comments Off on Hitting the stress wall

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