Build or burn?


Mental health is like physical fitness.  Perfect mental health is as rare as elite athletes, requiring similar levels of training and commitment.   It’s beyond most of us.  I admire anyone who has it, but I don’t know any.  Compared to athletes we’re all a bit out of condition.  In the same vein, each of us carries around problems that affect our mental health.  When these problems are caused by our work, this is ‘stress’.  The rest of the time it’s just ‘life’.

If we’re honest, there is usually a personal component to stress which is why it so rarely seems to have an easy solution.  These are the things that cause me stress.

You don’t know what you’re doing; not being able to cope.  This is worst type of panic-inducing stress and cannot be tolerated for more than short periods without consequences.  If it’s because you are not up to the job, you need to leave.  If you are not up to the job at this moment, for whatever reason, you need to hunker down.  This is where the flip side of stress kicks in: resilience.

I’ve experienced this a couple of times.  The first time was while brushing my teeth on the morning of my second day of work having just started in my first management job immediately after qualifying.  For a brief moment, a wave of panic gripped my stomach.  Everyone I was introduced to the previous day seemed to know their stuff.  They didn’t need me.  I had no specific tasks to do that day.  I didn’t know what I was going to do when I sat at my desk in the morning.  I felt like I might throw up.  What did I do?  Like any scotsman would, I ignored it.  The feeling was over in less than a couple of seconds but I won’t ever forget it.

The last time was when I took over in the middle of a project that was a train wreck.  I found it difficult to make progress.  The longer this went on the lower my productivity became and the more difficult it was to find a way through.  It happens that the weather was sweltering hot.  I recall sitting in an office, sweat running down my back, when a wave of panic hit me again.  What if I’m not up to the task I’ve taken on? As it happened that job turned out well but it was an uncomfortable moment.

You’re doing too much; you know what you’re doing, you’ve just got too much to do.  I’m very fond of the phrase ‘If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it’, so I score this type of stress several rungs below the first.  Moreover, we all need some pressure and stress otherwise we are never being challenged and can’t develop.  Physical exercise is all about putting your body under stress to trigger the mechanisms that make it grow stronger.  Mental strength works the same way.  Nevertheless, prolonged periods of stress of this kind are not healthy.

You can’t get things done; this is caused by not being in control.  It may be as simple as having to rely on other people.  Everyone experiences this from time to time but it is probably more common as you go down the hierarchy.

You’ve got too little to do; if you care about doing a good job, are diligent and hard-working, having too little to do can cause almost as much stress as having too much.

At moments in my career when I’ve felt under stress, the thing I recall most is my inability to remove the cause of the stress, without some drastic life change such as leaving my job.  So it seemed a sort of impossible position in which the only option was to suffer through it.

I once heard of a management guru who described stress as being like holding a light weight, like a cup of tea, in an outstretched hand.  If you continue to hold the cup in your hand for long enough, eventually your arm will get tired.  But from time to time, if you can put down the cup of tea, and move around, giving your arm a rest, you can come back to pick up the cup of tea and continue holding it for a long time before your arm gets tired again.  I rather like this analogy.  It’s very British, and quite honest.  Often there is no easy solution to your stress, you must simply bear it for the time being.  Churchill had a name for it: ‘keep buggering on’.

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