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How to keep stress from crushing your IT career

April 01, 2014

Information technology jobs can come with a hefty side order of stress. Particularly with companies across industries expanding their technological resources, creating strong demand for IT professionals, you often face high-priority, fast-paced projects with limited personnel to support them. However, stress isn't just unpleasant and unhealthy. It can also drastically reduce your productivity and cause you to burn out quickly. Consequently, it's in your best interest—as well as your employer's—to develop strategies to reduce stress levels. You need a healthy work environment where you can excel without pulling your hair out.

Does stress really matter? 
If you're fairly fresh to the professional world, you probably recently completed an ambitious academic program with pressing deadlines and seemingly impossible projects. Coffee and energy drinks may have fueled your daily life as you pressed forward in a general haze of sleep deprivation and adrenaline. Maybe you think it's fine to continue in that fashion in the working world, but in reality, managing stress is critical to a successful and sustained IT career.

A little stress is normal and can even help spur high performance but when it becomes too intense and enduring, it can have a detrimental impact on health and job productivity. Forbes magazine described several studies that revealed the optimal stress conditions for the workplace. People tend to perform best when they're not bored or uninterested, but also not anxious or overwhelmed. In other words, the best workplaces supply enough tension to keep people focused and engaged, but not so much or of such a severe nature that workers shut down. This type of tension actually decreases cognitive ability, the source added.

Referring to a recent study by GFI Software, Business News Daily conveyed that IT professionals reported lower stress levels than in previous years, but a staggering 57 percent of specialists said they were considering leaving their jobs because of stress. This tension also impacts family and personal life: 30 percent of IT workers said they had to cancel their commitments, 36 percent missed social events, 16 percent reported a strained or failed relationship due to stress, and 31 percent said they missed out on spending time with their children.

What can you do? 
These insights should spur company leaders to reduce pressure on staff as a part of their overall strategic talent management plans, but there are also steps you can take to keep calm under trying conditions:

  • Get enough sleep. If you're already stressed out, you might have trouble sleeping or be tempted to sacrifice some Z's to get more work done. This can backfire, however, as sleep is also intimately related to productivity and performance. In fact, a couple of years ago, researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston discovered that sleep deprivation causes people to work slower, The Huffington Post explained. In fact, sleep deprivation is one reason why many tech startups fail, according to a separate Forbes article. Facing intense pressures to get more done with limited staff tempts people to work more and sleep less, but this can be devastatingly counterproductive.
  • Plan off-time. Mobile devices and Internet connectivity make it awfully easy for professionals to keep working all the time, even if it's a simple matter of answering a few emails after dinner. These habits work well for some people, but if you're feeling stressed, it's perfectly acceptable and often helpful to intentionally disconnect once in a while. Setting up boundaries and expectations about your off-hours time can help you better maintain outside commitments and spend evenings with family or friends doing activities you enjoy.
  • Optimize your work schedule. Find what conditions help you to work most efficiently so you can get a lot done without putting in excessively long hours. For example, if your company offers flexible working hours or telecommuting options, learn what times of day are your most productive periods and plan accordingly. If you're more efficient working from home in your pajamas, talk to your supervisor about remote working arrangements.
  • Delegate and discuss workloads. If you're overwhelmed and unhappy on the job, you're probably not making the best possible contribution to your company. Most managers recognize this and should be willing to help shift projects around to help you succeed and ensure you're not being driven to seek employment elsewhere.
  • Look at some cute puppies and kittens. It may sound like a joke, but Japanese researchers discovered that taking a peak at some adorable baby animals can actually boost focus and productivity, as The Washington Post reported. There is some solid science behind the idea related to behavioral tendencies, but the more general point is to incorporate a little joy and happiness into your workday. If taking a few minutes to look at some funny GIFs serves as a refresher, it can be a quick strategy to break the tension and lighten your mood. 
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