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Living life on the edge – identifying and managing stress, avoiding burn-out

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) – 500,000 people reported work-related stress at a level they believed was making them ill, accounting for over a third of all work-related illness - so I hope we can all agree this is a pretty important issue.

At Shift, we focus on the larger scale of businesses, so as any of you who've dealt with enterprises or been in executive roles can imagine: I've been in some high-stress environments over the past few years.

I've found whilst I'm certainly no zen-master, I am good at identifying when I'm teetering on the edge of breaking-down or burning-out and dealing with it before it becomes too serious.

I'm afraid I don't have a Buzzfeed-compliant "one weird trick" that will miraculously remove all stress for you. Everyone's situation is different, but there are a few things that I've learnt that have helped me.

Surround yourself with the right people

Support Network
Credit: Fabrizio Verrecchia

I cannot stress enough how important your support network is.

Indicators of your stress levels are often more apparent to those you're close to than to yourself.

I think mentors and business partners are particularly great for helping you here, the right person knows when to tell you to take it easy and when you just need a kick up the arse with some fresh motivation.

Surrounding yourself with successful, positive people will have an immense impact on your mood, but this also means removing the negative people from your life too, or at least limiting contact with them.

Identify bad habits

Once you've got a circle that's got your back, you can start dealing with yourself in order to avoid the stress in the first place. For me, this has been a few things:

Working too much in evenings / on weekends

I'm sure your partners will identify this one!

I'm lucky enough to enjoy my work, but I know that doing it 24/7 is a recipe for burning-out.

Mountain biking is a great one for me – I can't reach for my laptop or even be thinking about work when I need to focus on the trail, plus the exercise is a bonus.

Reaching for my mobile phone

Your first port of call is turning off your notifications!

I've learnt that if something is of critical importance, ultimately people won't rely on Slack or email to contact you – they'll pick up the phone or come over to your desk.

Taking things to heart and caring a little too much

I appreciate this sounds really pretentious but I'll explain...

You can't convert everyone

One of my favourite anecdotes is sitting with my mentor, who said the following:

The reason you're so worked up right now? You care too much.

I know you're doing the right thing, you know you're doing the right thing, so you need to ignore the negativity and keep moving in the right direction.

You're like Neo in the Matrix... you can see what these people can't.

We often get this with the web, depending on who we're dealing with, the individual might care about deadlines, design accuracy, function or conversion – rarely is anyone truly thinking of the project holistically, but as professionals we do care about all of these things and many more: accessibility and performance are just two other important traits that come to mind.

We're understand, like any tech project, everything is a balancing act, but many stakeholders only see and operate within their niche role.

Imposter syndrome

Imposter Syndrome
Credit: Ruthson Zimmerman

One reason we often find it hard to hold our ground against those questioning our direction is imposter syndrome. The worry that we're not qualified or others are more qualified, and that we'll be found out to be some kind of fraud.

After seeing the other side of what would commonly be described as “successful” businesses and the people working in them – I can categorically state that whilst there may be the occasional hustler who's incredible, they are the minority.

There are a wealth of people who can talk-the-talk but actually have very little knowledge or experience about they are doing and have stumbled through life, often through arrogance and ladder-climbing.

Don't let these people get you down, because they are the ones who will eventually be caught-out.

You should use this humble feeling to test your assumptions. Having peers in your industry who can provide honest feedback on your ideas, decisions or work is invaluable.

Know what's expected of you

A big help to me was asking our CEO what he feels the most critical aspects of my role are. If you can understand your top 3 responsibilities and focus on getting those right, they'll give you a good measure of whether you're doing well, whether you're over-working or whether you need to realign your focus.

A good way of looking at this is the concept of "popping the why stack" aka "the 5 why's". For those who are unfamiliar, when you're asked to do something, you ask “why?” then when you get the answer, ask “why?” to that too, and so on, up to 5 times.

It's very annoying if you're doing it with an actual person and not in your own head, but if by the 5th time asking, the answer isn't one of:

  • Increasing revenue,
  • Protecting revenue (e.g. because it's the law),
  • Or, managing cost

Then you probably shouldn't be wasting your time on it.

You can perform this same task but instead of those 3 items, replace them with your responsibilities. If a task is so far removed from your actual responsibilities, there are much better ways to spend your time – and that should be quantifiable to whom you report.

Focusing in on where you deliver value as an individual will translate to value for the company or client.

Practice

So, I've never spoken at a conference before - I gave this post as a talk at All Day Hey! because I thought it's about time I plucked up the courage and what better way to start than a short lightning talk rather than throwing myself in at the deep-end by trying to keep people entertained for 45 minutes?

This all comes back to the old adage "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail". Handling stressful situations is a skill like any other, and with practice you can learn to handle it more effectively.

You could start this simply by attending meetings with those higher up than you to see how people act, the kinds of questions people ask etc. Or it could be offering to join an important project to provide support to those already under-pressure.

Recover

Nobody can sustain operating at 120%. But if your work life 'requires' 120%, you may feel there is no other option than to keep going until you run yourself into the ground.

What works for me is a technique I stole from my personal trainer: deloading. Essentially: resting without stopping.

Chris doesn't want to risk me losing my newly built-up strength every 4 weeks when my body needed a rest, so we reduce the volume of training – I'll still do the same exercises, same weights, but half or even a third of the number of sets.

So how can we apply this to work?

  • If you're working extra hours in the run-up to a deadline, agree with yourself at the bear minimum you'll drop to your contracted hours after – if you can take time off in-lieu, then you can reduce it further.
  • If you're a business owner or manager, you'll have more control over this. Try agreeing with your team some core hours you'll be available for a week, and limit your office hours to those.
  • Even if you can just work elsewhere, e.g. a cafe or home office, the change of scenery and removing yourself from a stressful environment for a few hours a day will be huge.
  • If anyone has read the 4-hour work week, you'll know that you'll likely find that you'll get no less done during this reduced time, you'll get better at communicating, delegating and prioritising and ultimately come out more productive.

Bonus Point: If all else fails…

It's widely recognised that cats reduce stress levels. So, just get a cat, maybe a few cats, a whole room of cats even...

Photo of Ryan

Hi, I'm Ryan.

I have been working with the web for 15 years, and I'm currently CTO of Shift Commerce, a SaaS ecommerce platform bringing agility to mid-to-enterprise businesses.

Running a conference? I'd love to speak — see my speaking page for more.