A competitive culture and always-on mentality lead to high workplace stress levels in the tech industry, research shows. About half of IT employees reported feeling burnt out at work, according to a survey from Comparably. And more than two-thirds of US employees said they suffer from work overload, a study from Cornerstone found.
Stress can cause burnout and a loss of motivation, said Dave Denaro, vice president of career management firm Keystone Partners. “Workplace stress has more causes than just the obvious one of too many hours at work,” Denaro said. “For some people, especially members of the tech industry, workplace stress is due to the misalignment of one’s strengths vs. what they are being asked to do on the job. If you can’t use your biggest strengths in your current job you forfeit the ability to be most successful.”
Ping pong tables and free food are not enough to solve the problem, experts said. Here are eight tips from members of the C-suite on managing stress in tech jobs.
1. Allow work from home and flex hours
Allowing employees to work from home certain days of the week is a major stress reliever, said technology consultant Anthony R. Howard. “Many folks in tech are mobile–only they really know how busy they are,” Howard said. “Life is simply better in the home office. It’s up to you to get to your objective, and in doing so you will need to create efficiencies.”
At Geeks Chicago, office requirements are very open. “We have the policy of ‘work wherever you want,’ as long as you get your stuff done,” said president Mark Tuchscherer. “We have many people that, when the office gets tense, or a lot of people are scrambling to complete a deadline, don’t work in the office. They have told me that not only are they more productive, but it also keeps them away from all the stressed out people in the office.”
Flexible hours are also key for managing work/life balance, said Suvas Vajracharya, founder and CEO of Lightning Bolt Solutions. “Often, the source of stress is not the work itself, but conflict of work with our personal lives,” Vajracharya said. “Traditional work hours do not work well for the non-traditional personal schedule. For example, it might be a little stressful to have to attend an important meeting at precisely 9:00 a.m., but it’s much more stressful to have to drop off the kids at school beforehand and fight traffic to get to the meeting on time.”
2. Prioritize your work
Good time management is a skill that can be learned, according to Karen Williams, chief product officer at Halogen Software. “Take the time to differentiate between the really high-impact tasks you’re working on and the busy work,” Williams said. “Focus on the tasks that really matter and let the rest ride for the moment. Evaluate things like time constraints and potential profitability.”
One way to do this is single-tasking, Williams said. Focusing on one task at a time, and ignoring your email and any other work, can increase productivity.
3. Build short sprints
When a team is presented with a large project, building short sprints–in which you chunk out small pieces of work for the team to focus on, one at a time–is a way to prevent burnout, according to Anjoo Rai-Marchant, chief customer and technology officer at HighGround.
“It is more manageable psychologically, and more achievable,” Rai-Marchant said. “It’s our philosophy that, in general, people don’t leave because they’re working long hours. They leave because they don’t think working long hours serves a greater purpose.”
4. Write down your stressors
Whether you are anxious about a presentation or the results of an upcoming project, simply putting your worries on paper can relieve stress and improve your performance, said Andrew Filev, CEO of Wrike. “Worrying about a situation has the effect of reducing your working memory and the processing power of your brain,” Filev said. “Writing helps you stop ruminating a concern and identify the actual source of your stress, so that your working memory has the resources to function better when the problem arises.”
Throughout your work life, it’s important to continuously ask yourself what really matters, said Stefan Benndorf, COO of AppLift. “There will always be a constant influx of new opportunities on the horizon and to-do lists will always continue to grow,” Benndorf said. “It’s extremely helpful to write down the things that truly matter and are deserving of my time. I keep my focus on that list–it helps to cut through all of the other clutter.”
As tech work often involves staring at a screen all day, it’s important to disconnect to avoid eye strain, neck pain, and increased anxiety, Filev said. “Instead of making a break by exchanging on social networks or sending SMS to your friends, turn off your screen, turn off your computer, and rest your eyes for a moment,” he said. “Read a book or magazine, go for a walk, or make a coffee and talk with a colleague orally.”
Steven Aldrich, chief product officer at GoDaddy, said he holds his one-on-one meetings with direct reports while walking whenever possible. “Getting up and moving–especially outside–can boost endorphins, which reduce stress hormones, and help you clear your head.
6. Reconsider meetings and email
Email adds to employee stress: A 2013 study from Loughborough University found that 83% of government employees became more stressed while sending and receiving email, with blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels rising while active in their inboxes.
In addition, work interruptions like emails and meetings can cost employees 6 hours a day, research shows. “Meetings and emails are your worst enemies,” said Cristian Rennella, co-founder and CEO at El Mejor Trato. His company decided to eliminate internal meetings and emails completely, instead relying on an in-house project management platform with no notifications to communicate.
7. Stay physically healthy
In the tech industry, it’s easy to acquire bad habits like eating poor quality food or spending extra hours churning out work, said Bryan Petro, COO of GetMyBoat. “My best recommendation for employees in the tech industry is to stay healthy,” Petro said. “Eating wholesome, nutritious meals and getting some physical activity is a much better use of time and helps our team manage workplace stress better.”
Workplace stress can lead to a vicious cycle of lack of sleep, which leads to a lack of proper exercise and nutrition, said Kelly Bedrich, co-founder and president of ElectricityPlans.com. Taking an exercise break–even just a short walk–and refueling with water and healthy foods and make a huge difference in stress levels.
8. Embrace adaptive changes
While practicing mindfulness and taking breaks are good short-terms solutions, in the long run, managing stress requires adaptive change, according to Rebecca Zucker, executive coach and partner at Next Step Partners.
Adaptive change requires looking at all their underlying “competing commitments” that are working against a person’s goal of reducing stress in their lives, Zucker said. These goals are not noble, she added, and may be things like “I’m committed to never being outshined by someone else,” or “I’m committed to always getting the credit.”
“These assumptions or beliefs may not be rational, but they feel real to the individual, whether they are conscious or unconscious to them, and perfectly explain all of the behaviors that they are engaging in that contribute to their stress,” Zucker said. “Articulating these limiting assumptions and beliefs can help us to gain distance from them so we can look at them, instead of through them, so that we can operate from greater choice.”