December 2017
By Leah Guren

Image: © GeorgePeters/istockphoto.com

Leah Guren is the owner/operator of Cow TC. She has been active in the field of technical communication since 1980 as a writer, manager, Help author, and usability consultant. She now devotes her time to consulting and teaching courses and seminars in technical communication, primarily in Israel and Europe.


leah[at]cowtc.com
www.cowtc.com

The Burnout Paradox Ė coping with the stress in a tc career

As an independent tc practitioner with my own company, I am used to juggling different projects, clients, and tasks. To make my schedule work, I have specific times each week allocated to specific tasks. For example, Sunday afternoon is my time to sit down and correct student homework for one of my online courses.

But on the last Sunday in August, my neatly planned schedule fell apart as I learned that Genevieve, a dear friend and colleague, had suffered a complete breakdown. Her stress level was such that she was unable to make even the smallest decision. She looked gaunt and exhausted Ė a dreadful change from her usual glowing health. While we talked, she wept. She needed help, so the homework was ignored while I spent the evening making calls, arranging meals, and researching doctors and care options.

Genevieve had always been a strong, confident woman. In the years that I had known her, she had managed a Tech Pubs group, launched a networking group for local businesswomen, and been active in her community. But as I listened to her that afternoon, I realized how much she had been hiding over the years and the heavy price she was paying for working in a high-stress company.

Genevieve confessed to being perpetually sleep-deprived. She talked about her constant anxiety and the knot in her stomach as she sat in some of the management meetings. She talked about the high turnover rate in the company since it had been bought out by a larger hi-tech company. She talked about the toxic management style and callous treatment of longtime loyal employees. "The new boss only cares about the deadlines," she whispered. "We are like rats running on a wheel. One sprint is over and another starts. We never get to do more than emergency patches and nothing is ever enough."

A common tale

Sadly, my friendís situation is not unique. The sense of excitement and adventure that was present when I entered hi-tech in the early 1980s has mostly faded. Stress and burnout are at an all-time high. In an article for Business Insider, Mariana Simoes summed up the situation with the brutal title, "Donít Work for a Tech Company If You Want a Stress-Free Job".  She discussed how 82 percent of tech employees considered their work environments extremely stressful.

In the past few years, the spotlight has been on the toxic work culture in the biggest tech players in Silicon Valley. Sharon Gaudin, a senior writer at Computerworld Magazine, wrote about the "pressure cooker" conditions.

Worse, those of us on the mature side of the employment market are finding the conditions even bleaker. Julie Bort wrote about tech workers over 50 "working themselves to death" in an environment where youth is worshipped.

The statistics vary worldwide. In Western Europe, for example, tech employees report less stress and a healthier work climate. Most European companies seem better at keeping work separate from home life; they donít expect tech employees to answer emails in the middle of the night or work while sick. However, some tech employees in the Far East report a work atmosphere akin to a sweatshop Ė long hours, cramped cubicles, insane deadlines, and little or no creative input.

There is no doubt that the stress is real and increasing.

Causes

There are many factors that contribute to the situation:

  • Competition: Tech careers are seen as high status and high pay, attracting more people to tech fields. This, in turn, creates more competition for jobs. In many cases, it becomes a buyerís market, putting the power and control in the hands of the tech companies.
  • Buyouts: Successful startups are inevitably sold to larger companies; companies merge; larger companies often consolidate. Ultimately, this reduces the number of unique employers. It can also cause a toxic work culture to take over and spread as the parent company swallows up smaller companies.
  • Status: Some of the stress is self-induced. In a culture that values speed, youth, and aggressive success, young tech employees often internalize the distorted values. Suddenly, working 18 hours is a badge of honor or status rather than an unhealthy, unsustainable situation.
  • Commoditization: Tech workers are not always seen as intellectual contributors. Once, the highly specialized training and knowledge made tech workers participators in the process, using their intellectual abilities to analyze issues and solve problems. Now, many tech workers, especially Millennials at the start of their careers, are treated almost as piecework employees. Their value is measured in their output (x number of lines of code per day, x number of topics written, etc.) For us in tc, it is even worse as many managers still think that ďanyone can write.Ē Once a company views an employee as a commodity, it becomes very easy for them to outsource jobs or replace people with little thought to their special value.
  • Economics: Salaries have been relatively stagnant while costs have been rising. In the U.S., for example, housing, education, and medical care have become so expensive that even well-paid tech workers in Silicon Valley are forced to have roommates or endure long commutes. Whenever people are struggling to make ends meet, they are easy to take advantage of in the workplace. They are less likely to leave a bad job as they cannot afford any loss of income.

What can we do?

The situation may seem bleak, but there are things we can do to try to reduce and manage the stress:

  • Do your homework: Before accepting a job offer, find out as much as possible about the corporate culture and work environment. Sometimes it makes sense to pick a less exciting project in favor of a more humane company.
  • Learn to say no: Setting boundaries is crucial. But rather than saying "I canít" or "I donít want to," researchers at Boston College and the University of Houston suggest that you say, "I donítÖ" (I don't work on holidays, I don't take business calls at night, etc.).
  • Take advantage of built-in support: Chances are that your company has policies and procedures to deal with employee complaints. It is sad that many people donít understand that unreasonable stress is abuse and must be addressed by Human Resources.
  • Don't expect balance to happen organically: You may need to actually block off chunks of time to spend with family, to socialize with friends, or as personal time to take care of yourself (meditation, dance classes, hobbies, etc.). People who donít schedule their personal time risk having their work demands expand to fill all available time.
  • Encourage our professional organizations to be our advocates: One of the values of a professional society is the ability to work to improve the way we are perceived and treated in companies. Donít let tekom or other tc organizations focus purely on the bureaucratic issues. Letís remind them that the human side of tc is as important as standards and metrics!

Conclusion

After over 37 years in tc, mostly in hi-tech projects, I still love this profession. I believe that the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. However, we all need to be protective of our health and sanity. There are too many Genevieves who have been sacrificed on the altar of technology.