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Managing stress in web design

by Emma

A woman biting a pencil out of stress

What is stress?

We all know how it feels to be stressed but it can be hard to articulate exactly what it means. NHS Health Scotland describes stress as the feeling of being under too much mental or emotional pressure and say that pressure turns into stress when you feel unable to cope. Regardless of the true definition, we as a society are getting increasingly stressed and those working in tech seem to be particularly affected.

Stress in tech

Research by BIMA has identified that stress levels among tech workers are higher than the UK average, with The Drum reporting that tech professionals are as stressed as NHS workers. The Tech Inclusion and Diversity report by BIMA showed that over a quarter of tech professionals have been diagnosed with a mental health condition mainly caused by stress and workplace discrimination.

What impact does stress have on us?

As well as hurting our health, stress can also have a real impact on our ability to perform our job to a high standard, which is unfortunately likely to add to our levels of stress and perpetuate the problem.

A rise in stress levels can lead to reduced attention span, a higher likelihood to base decisions on emotions rather than rational judgement and a general inability to think straight.

In fact, research quoted in a PMI conference paper on tangible tips for handling stress in project management states that when the statistically average person is under significant stress their cognitive performance measured by IQ temporarily drops by 15 points.

So why are we particularly stressed in tech?

There have been lots of studies looking at why stress is so prevalent in the tech industry with tight deadlines, high expectations of output, long working hours and an always-available culture being sited as some of the key issues. Add into that imposter syndrome (a constant fear of not being good enough) and it’s clear to see why stress in our sector is such an issue.

Reducing stress: action-orientated approaches

This involves taking action to change a stressful situation such as improving your time management and delegating tasks to others. We encourage team members to only check their emails twice a day rather than having them open constantly, to mark themselves as unavailable on Slack when they’re in deep work, or to opt-out of using Slack completely if they’re finding the always-on nature of it stressful as well as giving them access to tools like Things to manage their time. We also try to avoid overfilling people’s days with unnecessary meetings.

Reducing stress: emotion-orientated approaches

This approach is based on changing the way you think about a stressful situation because how we think has an impact on what we feel and in turn on how we act. If we think negative thoughts, we have negative feelings and act negatively. However, if we can rationally look at a situation and find a positive to focus on this can allow you to find a way of taking control and managing the situation.

We try to apply this approach to project debriefs where we look at what has gone well during a project and what didn’t go so well. We try to turn negatives into positives such as framing them as an opportunity for learning or to adjust our processes to try not to repeat the same mistakes.

Reducing stress: acceptance-orientated approaches

Sometimes we have no control over a situation or any power to change it and by accepting this we can detach ourselves and our energy from focusing on what we can not change and instead put our efforts into what we do have control over. Knowing the difference between what you can and can not control is harder than it seems, especially when we’re in an industry that prides itself on being able to achieve almost anything!

What else can we do

We all have a responsibility to ourselves and our co-workers to try to mitigate the causes of high-stress levels wherever we can. At Mutual, we are working on ways to help to manage stress. We have introduced pair programming to tackle complex problems as we’ve found that talking out approaches and working through a problem together can help to reduce individual stress levels.

We also try to give developers time to learn. Having the space to try new techniques and expand knowledge even if there isn’t a current business case for that particular skill right now can help to decrease stress levels by giving developers the room to hone their craft without the persistent time pressures of project work.

And we encourage flexible working hours and are happy for team members to work remotely. If you want to go to the gym in the morning or take a long walk at lunch you can do so, in fact, we actively encourage it!

Stress can be useful in some situations, it is a fight or flight response after all. But excess stress, as is increasingly felt across the industry, is damaging and at Mutual we are doing everything we can to try to reduce it.