9 August 2015 - 7:21 pm

The weight of stress

Stress: it squishes your fun (Picture by bottled_void)

Stress: it squishes your fun
(Picture by bottled_void)

I’ve been carrying a burden for some time now. Lately, I’ve been struggling to stand up under it. Over the past couple of weeks, it finally got to a point when I couldn’t ignore it any more: it was too much and something had to be done.

I don’t talk about my day job much here, and that’s because I don’t like to cross my personal and professional lives over. It tends to be unprofessional, easily becomes immature, and can be career-limiting if you’re not careful. Besides, this is a writing blog, not a ‘whine about the day job’ blog.

But the day job does impact my writing, (particularly when it impacts my health) and that’s part of what I want to chronicle here. Some cross-over is inevitable. My day job is an essential part of my life: it pays my bills, including the hosting for this blog (and all of my serials), and it’s the single biggest drain on my time and energy.

So here we are, talking about the day job. I’ve mentioned it in bits and pieces: how I was moved into a challenging team situation last November, with issues to resolve and a delivery to salvage (let’s call it project 1). I worked my ass off to pull that together and it paid off: we made our delivery and everyone was very pleased.

But that wasn’t the end of it. I had to keep the team running, move up a notch to high-priority and high-scrutiny work, and hit a pretty ambitious target. There was no time to pause and catch my breath; we finish one project and move right into the next in my line of work (which is software development). The ends of projects overlap so we’re always moving forwards. It’s a system that works.

It’s not a system that is kind to chronic fatigue. In hindsight, that first delivery took more out of me than I realised and I had no real opportunity to recover. It was right on into another, high-pressure project with a longer timescale and even more stress (project 2). The stress began to tell, and it didn’t go well.

That finished three months ago. We delivered what we needed to, by the skin of our teeth, but I’ve been catching flak for it ever since.

Three months ago, at the end of project 2, I was moved onto a different team and into another way of working (for those familiar with these things, I went from SCRUM to kanban). Changes of focus and challenge tend to be pretty good for me, and it was nice to do something different.

I tried to shuck off the stress and sour taste of the previous project, and immerse myself in this new team. Once again, it was high-priority work, with ambitious targets and a lot of management focus (project 3). It was an area that had been compromised previously to get other stuff done, and we were tasked with getting it back on track.

We smashed our targets. If I list out everything we achieved (which I’m not going to do here; you’ll have to take my word for it), we did pretty well.

But that one sour project (2) wouldn’t leave me alone. There was analysis done, so it wouldn’t happen again, and patterns identified, and things to work on (though I wasn’t able to work on those things at that time). It was high-pressure again, and I was one again under intense scrutiny, this time from several directions.

Finally, project 3 drew to an end and I was moved to another team. Once again, I was given challenging personalities that I would have to make work together in a team, and high-priority, high-scrutiny work. It was, I thought, my chance to prove that that one project that didn’t go well (project 2) was an anomaly; I had learned from it and could make a similar situation work, even under those conditions.

That’s when management decided to add more to my burdens: yes, I’d have a chance to prove myself, but as part of the official performance review process. Basically, it was sink or swim, and doing anything other than swimming like an olympian would mean I was only a step away from getting fired. It’s the highwire without a safety net; the tiniest slip meant I would fall, and fall, and fall.

At this point, it’s worth mentioning that one of the worst elements for my CFS is stress. It’s this fun domino effect where it messes with my ability to rest or sleep, so I wind up more tired, and the symptoms get worse, and then I get more stressed because I can’t catch up with myself or do as well at work as I should.

It’s also worth mentioning that I’m currently supporting my family, which means that I cannot afford to lose my job. I literally have no safety net at the moment, not even to cover a gap while I look for another job. Me and the family that relies on me would be out on the street. So putting my job under threat is a sure way to stress me all out.

So I wound up with a choice: push forward where I was, and try to both deliver what the project demanded and meet all management’s requirements for ‘improvement’, or step sideways out of that role, and become a full-time technical writer again.

This choice was put before me at the end of our project kick-off week (for project 4 in this particular chronology), which is an intensive three days of meetings and planning, with loads to set up and sort out, particularly for those of us managing the teams. After those three days were over, I was already run down, and when I get really weary, I lose my resiliency and become brittle. Part of it is that the emotions are way closer to the surface than usual (for me). So the ‘we’re putting you on performance review’ news and ‘you need to make a choice about your role’ both came when I was already exhausted and running on empty, and the added stress and upset of it all only made it worse.

I kept my mouth closed and asked for the weekend to think about what I wanted to do. On the plus side, I know that I tend to get emotional when I’m exhausted, so I can try to manage it by not making rash decisions, taking my time, and nursing myself to a healthier state of mind. On the other hand, I really despise getting emotional, shaky, and on the edge of crying when I’m at work. I refuse to be That Girl.

I thought about a lot over that weekend. My chances of pulling off everything they were asking me to, if I stayed where I was. The impacts that it was having on my health. The impacts it was having on my writing. It all ripples through.

My health has been spiralling downwards for some time now, and in hindsight, I think the stress of those situations had a lot to do with it. I’ve been trying to find a time to go back to my doctor (and the money to do it) to see if there’s anything new we can investigate or try to help manage it better. (I’m currently dealing with an infected jaw that needs a root canal, and my finances will only support solving one problem at a time right now. At least there’s a solution for the infection and bad tooth!)

It has been getting harder and harder to write. I haven’t done anywhere near as much as I wanted to on my hiatus from Starwalker. Over the last couple of months, my writing has dried up altogether.

(One of the first signs that I’m getting tired is that I stop posting on this blog so much. When the gap between posts yawn wide, I’m probably struggling with writing anything else, too.)

You can probably see where this is going. I had to be brutally honest with myself about where I was and what I was likely to be capable of. I had to figure out how I was going to get to a better place.

At the start of the new week, I went back to work and told them that I’d like to move into a technical writer role again and away from the stress that was making me so sick. They supported my decision fully, and by the end of the day, there was a plan to get another team leader in my team to take over.

It was the right decision for me and my health. It’s the right decision for my writing, though I’m still building that back up again (step one is writing more often here, while I rekindle the creative drive).

I am immensely grateful for my work and how understanding the management has been about all of this. Sure, I could go get another job; that’s always an option, but is also somewhat stressful in itself. I’m lucky that I had the option to move to a role that suits me better right now.

And, in a way, I’m lucky that things came to a head now and not when my health was even worse. It has forced me to look at a few things in my life and make choices. I’m glad I made it now. I wish I’d made it three months ago when it was clear something was really very wrong with how I was handling things.

Since making the decision, I’ve been handing my team leader role off to my replacement, and getting back into the swing of full-time writing. I pushed through to the last of the meetings that I was leading, the last of the items to hand off, and then I wound up taking a day off sick. Sometimes, you push so hard for so long that it has to snap back, and I needed to take some time to look after me.

That was last Friday. I have the next week off work (a week of holiday time I had booked months ago). Tomorrow, I have an appointment with my doctor. The day after that, I have a root canal booked in (I’m not looking forward to that, but it has to be done). Today, I’m making a to-do list, because there are things I want to do while I have this time off. Sure, some of them are ‘clean up my bedroom’ style chores, but every little helps.

I want to take this time to rest, catch up, readjust my focus, and refresh myself. I want to get back on top of my writing again.

Wish me luck; it’s a long road and I’m going to need it.

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