1. Thought trigger
Recently, I was talking to a young and bright software engineer who works for an Analytics software company in Bangalore. This boy graduated in engineering in the year 2017 and joined this company as a fresh graduate engineer. At the time of joining, he was very excited as this company was his dream company. I observed that, in the first year, he was satisfied due to the learning opportunities he got at work. He used to push himself spending around 50 hours a week worth effort. However, during the last conversation, he sounded a bit frustrated and stressed out. I decided to have a chat with him about his situation. He revealed that the continuous work pressure and deadlines in the last six months have completely exhausted him. He is unable to cope up with the high levels of stress and contemplating quitting the job.
2. Investigation of the problem
The above case is not one-off but a true reflection of the high stress, software professionals in India are facing. Based on a recent survey of software professionals, over 80% of the respondent felt the high-stress level almost every day at work. This is an alarming number as we all understand the impact of stress on the mind and the body. Stress on the mind causes depressions, anger, irritability, mood swings, lack of self-confidence etc., which leads to a vulnerable effect on the individual. And even if we consider this high number as an aberration, we can deny that the Indian IT industry is seen to be characterized by challenging conditions of organizational Stress. The level of stress and its impact may vary within and between organizations based on the nature of work and work culture. There is pressure to deliver in a highly competitive market space. To meet the deadlines, organizations require employees to work beyond normal hours, under stressful conditions of workload and a competitive environment that triggers performance pressure. Employees are unable to manage work-life balance. When asked, ‘do they feel lost or are losing a sense of control in their life – 53% of the respondents said ‘yes’. The high stress has caused a rising trend of low motivation, high attrition, sabbatical and premature retirement of employees due to ill health.Factors causing high stress
3. Factors causing high stress
There are several factors that cause stress at the work environment. And it is difficult to order them based on their impact. In my opinion it the compounding effect of a few key factors which impact the stress level. Let’s look at five prominent factors here.
The first factor, the lack of ‘role clarity’ or role ambiguity, is one of key contributors to the stress. ‘Role ambiguity is a result of the lack of clarity around the expectations of the work from an individual. The second key factor is the management style of the immediate supervisor. Managers, who themselves are subject to high-stress levels due to pressure to deliver, often work as taskmasters completely ignoring the people aspects – empathy, motivation, standing by the side of his team member during a difficult time and celebrating both success and failure. The absence of the required support from the manager impacts the self-esteem and productivity of the employee causing spiral effect to the stress level.
The third factor is the workload or overload. Over 50% of the survey respondents said that they work more than 8 hours a day to meet project deadlines. The main reason for this situation in the Indian software industry is over-commitment to its customers to win projects. The over-commitment results in unrealistic timelines which in turn puts the team under undue pressure and high levels of stress. The execution teams may pull it off if the situation or the demand is an exception. Contrary, the management seems to assume that stretching and crossing the line is the norm. Such expectations are neither sustainable nor productive as constant push creates high stress in the teams and results in de-motivated individuals that under-perform and eventually quit.
The fourth factor is the feeling of insecurity in the organizational context. This could be manifested in different ways in a different situation. A software engineer working on an end-of-life product may feel insecure and his/her role redundant in near future or a tester being on the bench for a couple of months in a software services company.
The fifth factor is the personal inadequacy for the role. This is triggered by the lack of adequate skills and the resulting inability to meet the demands of one’s role. Within the IT industry, it is acknowledged that the skill requirements may vary through different projects, and professionals need to be re-skilled accordingly. But many a times, project time pressure makes it difficult for the managers to plan and execute the necessary skill development initiatives. In such situation, the general tendency of the managers is to throw the kid in the water and let him learn to survive. He may but think about the stress he would be going through.
4. What can be done to manage stress?
Stress has two aspects, positive stress and negative stress. Positive stress is also called eustress and can be defined as pleasant or curative stress. Given the situational demands, eustress may help a person to perform better. The ‘General Adaptation Syndrome’ theory in neuroscience, considers eustress as a part of the initial indication of the alarm in the body, but the problem seems to arise when the alarm is ignored causing negative stress and the body heads towards a burnout.
When we look at the key factors relating to high stress, they all point to the work culture of the organization. By and large, the organization culture in the Indian software companies seems to be lacking in assisting the employees on stress management. Organizations need to create an environment that equips employees with appropriate coping mechanisms and programs for ‘stress management’. Another focus area should be strengthening the project planning and governance wherein the organizations should empower managers to do planning encompassing all aspects of project management and NOT just time boxing. While planning the project, it is critical to allocate reasonable time for the team to recharge and to indulge in stress-busting activities like mindfulness programs, outdoor team building activities, hackathon. In addition, organizations must have good rewards and recognition culture not limited to monetary rewards but aligned with the interests and mindset of the employees. And above all, organizations need to have a support system that is people-oriented, trustworthy, unbiased and that listens to its employees. As per Mark McDonald, founder, Appster, “The cheapest and most effective way to help stress is simply listening to staff,”. “It doesn’t really cost us except for a little bit of time, but the impact on morale is really big.”
The good news is that many organizations have started focussing on this issue and are implementing different approaches to help employees better manage their stress.
One of the companies in India, having strong people focus, is ‘Happiest Mind’. Their philosophy is – ‘happiest people make happiest customers’. They call themselves the “Mindful IT company”. To inculcate mindfulness, Happiest Mind has set aside 60 minutes in a week for the team to engage with customized techniques such as ‘Mindful Meditation’, ‘Active Listening’ , ‘Body Scan’, ‘Desktop Yoga’ and ‘Mindful Coaching’ among others.
Google also has inculcated mindfulness in its work culture. Google has institutionalized programs such as Meditation 101, Search Inside Yourself, and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. The company has created both virtual and in-person communities called gPause to facilitate and encourage meditation practice, including features like daily ‘in-person meditation sits’ at more than 35 offices, and ‘day meditation retreats’ at some of the locations.
Stress management initiatives require effort both at the organizational and individual level. In addition to changes in the organization’s work culture, individuals need to equip themselves with mechanisms to deal with high stress. A balanced lifestyle is the first step towards self-stress-management. The key to a balanced lifestyle is time management. Most people suffer from stress due to poor time management. Additionally, it is important to incorporate certain activities of one’s interest in daily routine. It could be any sports, music, theatre or light reading. In addition, walking, exercise and stress-buster mindfulness activities like Yoga and meditation are immensely helpful. Last but not least, sharing one’s feelings and thoughts with friends, family members or a counsellor helps to emerge out of negative stress.
Stress is an unavoidable and common problem at the workplace. It cannot be eliminated but can be better managed. Organizations must inculcate a work culture which values its people, respect and motivates them, provides continuous skills and behavioral coaching, and it senses and listens to the issues of the employees. Organizations must create an environment that helps their employees perform without undue stress. In addition, organizations need to enable managers in managing people and projects effectively. And, finally, the onus is on individuals to harness the support systems and manage their time effectively to achieve the work-life balance.