Stress & Anxiety In The Tech Industry

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Written by Lauren Helm, Ph.D.

"More than three-fourths who say stress interferes with their work say it carries over to their personal life..." - ADAA Workplace Stress & Anxiety Disorders Survey

Working in the tech industry can exceptionally rewarding and exciting, offering employees the opportunity to engage in challenging, creative, and meaningful projects, while also receiving great pay, benefits and perks. The tech world is known for valuing innovation, creative problem-solving, and the development of products that can have a huge impact on our daily living. Flexible work schedules, remote working options, and investment in employee professional development and self-care (free food and drinks, yoga, and meditation rooms!) are now the norm for many employees in the tech industry,  The emphasis on taking care of employees needs has been a positive outcome that was driven in part to draw in talent, prevent turnover, and improve productivity. Despite the tech industry's emphasis on treating employees well, those that work in tech are not immune to other aspects of the tech world that create conditions ripe for high stress and anxiety. Although not true of every tech company, many tech employees face pressure to work long hours, be consistently productive, play multiple roles, and meet urgent or unpredictable deadlines. Unfortunately, anxiety and stress in tech is commonplace, but not often openly discussed. However, it is nearly impossible to ignore the impact of workplace stress because it bleeds into so many other important areas of our lives, affecting our energy, relationships, play, financial security, self-care. and sense of satisfaction or purpose in life.

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Understanding Work Stress

What makes a job stressful? Generally, job stress is thought to be a result of an interaction between the employee and the working conditions. In other words, certain people will be more stressed by certain jobs. Sometimes our personality or coping style is not be a good fit for the demands of a particular type of job. Some people thrive in fast-paced settings, and others are worn down by them. When the job is not a good fit for someone, job stress is likely to occur.

Though unique employee characteristics often affect a person’s sense of stress in the workplace, for most people, feeling overtaxed, overworked, and minimally supported are universal recipes for increased job stress. Other sources of job stress may be certain workplace conditions that lead to stress, as identified by the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (see NIOSH job stress article here), including the design of tasks (i.e. workload, breaks, length of workdays, tasks that don’t having meaning or provide a sense of control), management style (i.e. poor communication, not involving employees in decision-making), interpersonal relationships (i.e. lack of support from coworkers or supervisors, conflict with coworkers), work roles (i.e. unclear expectations or too many job responsibilities), career concerns (i.e. job insecurity, no room for growth), and environmental conditions (i.e. potentially dangerous working conditions, including crowding, noise, pollution, ergonomic problems). Universal psychological factors discussed in this APA blog that often lead to job stress include a sense of powerlessness and traumatic events that occur while on the job.

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Stress in the Tech industry & Start-Up Culture

Those who work in the tech industry or in start-ups often face anxiety-provoking work environments on a daily basis, dealing with fast-paced and high-pressure environments that demand significant and sometimes unforgiving amounts of flexibility, creativity, and productivity. It can feel like life is being consumed by working at a tech job, instead of being supported by it. Larger tech companies may leave employees feeling overworked and undervalued, like a "cog in a wheel," despite the significant time and effort they sacrifice in the service of the company. Start-ups may feel chaotic, unpredictable, and disorganized. Although employees may be expected to take on multiple roles, and projects require urgent attention, there may be poor guidance and communication, leaving employees frustrated and confused. Irregular sleep schedules and social isolation deplete needed inner resources for coping. All of these conditions are a recipe for chronic stress, anxiety, and depression, exacerbated by a culture of silence around mental health that deprives employees of much needed support and time for self-care.

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Coping with a Stress at Work

Ultimately, stress both inside and outside of the workplace can have a significant impact on our ability to thrive. Selecting the most supportive work environment possible, and learning how to effectively manage stress, can potentially tremendously impact not only psychological and physical well-being, but work-performance and success as well. However, whether you work in tech or not, it is not always be possible to work at a job that is a good fit for your personality or needs. If you struggle with chronic stress or anxiety as a result, know that you don't have to suffer in silence or alone. Getting support is crucial: whether it be from friends, family, support groups, or a therapist you trust. Additionally, coping with the day to day stress as best you can with healthy strategies can help. Here are a few tips for coping with the often unavoidable work-related stress:

  • Use a planner or calendar system to keep track of your schedule of activities: Although we often use multiple online, paper, or smartphone calendar systems, try to stick with just one (or two, if necessary) calendar or planner so that keeping track of your schedule doesn't become too complicated. For some, using a web-based calendar that can be easily updated and has automated to-do reminders integrated in is most effective, for others, using a paper-and-pencil weekly planner is more intuitive and intrinsically rewarding. Find a system that seems clear and easy to follow, and reference your planner regularly. This saves cognitive energy, because you don't have to hold everything you need to do in memory, and you can free up your attention to what needs to be attended to in the moment. Track work-related obligations and make sure to block off time in your schedule after work for valued-activities, self-care, friends/family, exercise, healthy eating, relaxation, and fun!
  • Try to avoid over-scheduling your work day (if possible) and home life: Regular use of time-management skills is often essential for maintaining healthy work/life balance when you work at a high-pressure workplace. If you have the ability to go home during a set time, do your best to follow that consistently. Depending on your unique situation, it may be helpful to avoid long hours in the workplace at the expense of other important aspects of your life, such as your physical health, relationships with friends or family, or time spent on hobbies or passions. Ask yourself: Am I working to live, or living to work? Can work be a part of my life, not all my life?
  • Try to create a separation between your work day and personal life in whatever way is feasible. The line between work and home life does not need to be rigid. Although healthy boundaries that separate work and home life can be difficult to create with the quickly changing landscape of the tech industry, they may prevent you from carrying the stress of work home, and give you the opportunity to experience restoration by focusing on rest, relaxation, and play. 
  • Allow yourself time to decompress and unwind after work: If you live with other people, it might be helpful to take 15-30 minutes to yourself to rebalance after a hectic workday before interacting so that you can prevent spill-over stress (so often we get into arguments because we are worn thin from a bad day at work). Try to let your loved ones know in advance that you taking this time is nothing personal, this is just a needed self-care routine and that allows you to be more refreshed and connected afterwards. Practice activities that help you release the tension of work as much as possible, whether it is a hot bath, a walk of silence in nature, listening to music, engaging in aerobic exercise, riding your bike, meditating, or journaling about your day.
  • Make sure to take your workday breaks. For some, it can be tempting to skip or shorten lunch or other work breaks to make sure you finish that important project on time. However, try to prioritize breaks just as you would any other work requirement. Your mental health and well-being is critical for sustained effort and attention. Try to use your breaks to do non-work related activities - think of it as "you" time. Use the time to hang out with coworkers, to exercise your body, or to practice stress-management activities outlined below. If your job offers you self-care based-perks, make sure to take advantage of them to help you to refresh and restore.
  • Use stress-management & relaxation techniques throughout your day. During every opportunity that you can (e.g. allowed work breaks), practice relaxation and stress-management techniques to care for your body and mind. Exercise is a stress-management activity that can help discharge the physiological buildup of energy from anxiety or frustration, or energize and activate your mind during mental slumps or brain fog. Take the opportunity to walk (outside, if possible) during a break. Practice slow, diaphragmatic breathing at about 6 breaths per minute (5 second inhale, 5 second exhale) for 5 minutes to create physiological balance. Do gentle stretching after sedentary periods. Use a mindfulness app to help guide you through a 5-mintue meditation break. Use a creative outlet using a doodle book. Pay attention to whatever nourishes and restores you. 
  • Remember that you can't be perfect, and that's okay. True perfection isn't possible. A fear of failure often underlies the drive for perfection, but "failure" is often a necessary ingredient for learning and growth within multiple contexts of our lives, including our jobs. Try to remember that everyone you work with, including your boss or CEO, is imperfect, even if they do not show it. On a practical level, If you find that your job description and what you are actually doing in the workplace consistently don't match up, it might be worthwhile consult with someone about whether to talk about this with your employer to clarify expectations and brainstorm ways of addressing the discrepancy, so that both your and the organization's needs are better met.
  • Speak up about the importance of mental health: Mental health stigma is a powerful oppressive force, often leading us to hide our emotional pain, and feel isolated and alone in our suffering. The reality is, approximately 1 in 5 individuals experiences mental illness within a given year. Anxiety and depression are much more common than most people think. Cultural myths that anxiety or depression are signs of "weakness" can be especially prevalent in certain industries. Stigma perpetuates shame and fear of judgment, creating a cycle of silence and suffering that prevents many from seeking needed support. Avoid shaming others who appear struggling. Invite open, accepting dialogue, recognizing that we are all human, and we all struggle.
  • Get support.  
    • Open Sourcing Mental Illness (OSMI) is a non-profit devoted to spreading mental health awareness, education, and resources within the tech industry.
    • Check out Startups Anonymous, a forum devoted to providing anonymous and positive feedback for those struggling in the tech industry.
    • Prompt is an initiative started by members of the tech industry to start more conversation about mental health in tech. 
    • You might search for online or in-person support groups near you.
    • Receive support by opening up with trusted family members or friends.
    • Consider scheduling an appointment with a therapist or counselor to receive additional support, especially if anxiety or depression starts to pervade your life.
    • Talkspace is a subscription-based app to talk to therapists and counselors via text and video chat.

Know that you are not alone, and there is help available.

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References

Sauter, S., Murphy, L., Colligan, M., Swanson, N., Hurrell, J., Scharf, F., Sinclair, R., Grubb, P., Goldenhar, L., Alterman, T., Johnston, J., Hamilton, A., Tisdale, J. (1999) Stress...at work. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/99-101/

Miller, L. & Smith, A. Stress in the workplace. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/workplace-stress.aspx

Weiss, S. & Molitor, N. Mind/body health: Job stress. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/job-stress.aspx