Tech & Work

Independent contractors can find solutions to work-related stress

If you have a job in this economy, you have little to be stressed about--if only that were the case. Some consultants may need to employ tactics used by employee assistance programs to help them deal with work-related stress.


Whether you’re a contractor or a salaried employee, you’re likely experiencing more stress working in IT than you did a few years ago. “Do more with less” seems to be the mantra of CFOs and CTOs. Those with jobs are dealing with the new reality that the workload has stayed the same, but there are now fewer people around to get the job done.

But while many salaried employees and consultants with larger firms have access to employee assistance programs (EAPs), many consultants and contractors do not. As with most workers, consultants looking for work have found the job market increasingly competitive. Contract assignments are harder to obtain, and compensation levels are dropping.

So what do you do if you’re experiencing high levels of stress and you don’t have access to an EAP? I've gathered some advice from an EAP on what you can do to cope. If you've found resources that have been helpful to you in dealing with the kinds of stress that EAPs provide support for, share them with your fellow consultants in the discussion.

Stressors for consultants and contractors
Employees tend to operate within a certain comfort zone of familiar people and procedures, but each assignment is new to the contractor. There’s usually no support network of friends who are available to go to lunch when the week has been stressful.

Those of you who are road warriors can experience an even greater degree of isolation since you’re also often away from friends and family. Couple that with the fact that your next assignment may hinge on how well your current one goes, and the stress can be enough to drive your blood pressure through the roof.

Then there’s the whole issue of money. While many contractors earn excellent pay, some rates have declined, and assignments are becoming scarcer. Yet, for most, expenses remain fixed. (That mortgage has to be paid each month.)

More need for EAP services
Workplace Solutions, a provider of employee assistance program services, receives between 400 and 500 calls per month, including 50 to 60 regarding stress-related disorders, said Rick Kronberg, VP of operations. He estimated that this represents a rise of about 100 calls per month in the past couple of years for the same client base.

Of these calls, about 85 percent are self-referrals from people who know they need help managing their circumstances. The other 15 percent are from people who have been directed by their companies to get help. In those cases, the stress has gotten so bad that it has begun to affect their job performance. Perhaps they’re dealing with drug or alcohol problems. Or maybe their attitude has begun to deteriorate to the degree that they are no longer behaving professionally toward coworkers or customers.

Helping yourself
A key to dealing with stress is to be intentional about realistically looking at your life and determining what’s out of balance and what you can and can’t manage in the short run. In a clinical setting, such as working with an EAP counselor, this would involve a very detailed counseling session. However, there are things that we can do on our own by addressing the same areas that a counselor would. You may also want to spend some time taking some of Workplace Solutions' self-assessment questionnaires; you can use them to determine whether you might want to contact someone for professional help.

Self-assessments from Workplace Solutions
Taking a few of these self-assessments will require only a few minutes and may help you organize your thoughts about your stress level:
Depression assessment
Stress assessment
Burnout assessment
Anger assessment
Assertive communication assessment


Work
Yes, for most of us, this is our source of anxiety. Either we are in a job we hate, have a boss we can’t stand, are overworked, are underpaid, or need a job. But even when many factors are beyond our control, we can take a serious look at the situation and figure out what we can change. For example, there comes a point when you figure out that even if you put in 80-hour workweeks, there will still be too much work to do. Each of us has to figure out where to draw that line. If you hate your job, you need to begin taking practical steps that will help you find something else. Maybe it’s furthering your education. Maybe it’s cutting your losses and getting into a different field entirely.

Mental
An EAP counselor discussing this area with you would assess your emotional and psychological state of being, primarily looking for signs of stress and/or depression. Causes of stress and depression can range from work-related stress, such as the issues I've mentioned here, to major life changes. Depending on the seriousness of your problem, the solution can vary from self-management to professional counseling to medication.

Physical
When we get tired and stressed, we’re actually less likely to get out and get exercise than when we aren’t under stress. What our bodies actually need is regular exercise and rest. The life of a consultant is probably less geared toward a normal routine than other occupations, but if you can be aware of simple things such as regular sleep habits and exercise, you’ll reap the benefits.

Spiritual
I found it interesting that a “secular” program would identify this as an issue worth addressing. I’ll take a step away from my interview with Rick Kronberg and state that this is much more than telling yourself that there’s a “higher power” that’s going to help you get through a 12-step program. If this is an area where you feel a need, I suggest you seek out someone who can provide some guidance.

Social
Here’s an area where you road warriors especially need to focus. Again, the key is being intentional. In my own job, much of my contact with people is by phone or e-mail, so I make it a point to get out and have lunch with a couple of friends each week, in addition to the various church and volunteer activities that I’m involved with. The key here is not just having some face-to-face contact. It’s meaningful communication with people you trust, whom you can lean on when you’re down, but who are also willing to give you a kick in the seat of your pants when necessary.

Don't be afraid to ask for help
For many of us, the stress is something that we can manage ourselves, or with the help of friends and family. However, some of you are reaching the point where you need some professional help. For those of you who are fortunate enough to be working for a company that has an EAP, I strongly recommend that you make use of its services if you’re feeling like work is getting the better of you. It’s probably going to be a free service, and the service is confidential.

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