Learning When to Say No and Deal With Stress in IT

by David Peñaloza Seijas

When To Say No

In the IT industry, often we hear from our mostly senior peers who stress the importance of respecting your own space, essentially drawing a line in the sand between work and your personal life. Upon hearing that, many of us (myself included) could have compared them with the typical grumpy guy at the back of the room who loves to see the planes fall just for the chance to say “I told you so” with satisfaction. But where is this coming from? Why would you say no to another opportunity to showcase your knowledge and prowess and perform a diving catch? Who could resist the kudos after a difficult project closure or an escalated incident’s resolution? Wouldn’t that help you get a bonus or a promotion? Isn’t it tempting? It undeniably is.

My dad used to say (in Spanish): “You never learn that the match burns you from others’ experience – you only learn that when you burn yourself.” This is one of those occasions when that statement wonderfully applies.

Early in our IT careers we are hungry, energetic, full of eagerness, and ready to eat the world for breakfast. There is no second guessing about tasks coming our way: we simply nod and make the most of them. Although this attitude will yield sweet fruits at the beginning, it leaves a sour aftertaste when failing to understand the consequences. As with every profession, we in the IT field are measured by management based on the number of victories, achievements, successful implementations and projects, satisfied customers, or even penalties avoided by the company by meeting *although arbitrary* legal milestones agreed with a customer.

The more feats you make, the better known you will be. Additionally, if you share the knowledge and support your colleagues, you will undeniably turn into a kind of a unicorn or rockstar engineer praised, sought for and looked up to by many. Managers, directors, fellow engineers, anybody will praise your name and look for your wise advice and unwavering support when the time comes. The more time you keep outdoing yourself, the bigger their expectations will grow.

Up to this point, it doesn’t sound bad, does it? If you like attention, it certainly doesn’t. The table flips, though, once you get too much of that attention: when management reaches out directly to you to save the day – again, when you have several engineers knocking on your door looking for support, when you are tapped during your vacation because nobody else can solve a particular problem. Ultimately, you are the single point of failure and burnout knocks at your door.

How To Say No

This problem can have several contributing factors:

  • External
    • Lack of proper support from your management
      • Not enough people to absorb the workload
      • Poor company culture
      • Good company culture that is only poorly embraced
      • Lack of processes in place
      • Willful ignorance
    • Lack of proper training in your organization/company
    • Lack of proper support from your teammates
      • Extreme dependency
      • Lack of documentation
      • Apathy
      • Willful ignorance
  • You
    • Lack of outspokenness – tell your boss!
    • Lack of trust on your colleagues
    • Lack of prioritization
    • Lack of documentation
      • Keeping the knowledge to yourself
      • No diagrams or implementation guides
    • Lack of time management

Although there are many external factors that can contribute to this situation, many of them might be beyond your reach, or simply, not up to you to solve.

What is within your power to change the situation (and raise awareness)? Let us cover each point:

Be Heard, Tell Your Boss

Are you being clear enough with your boss? Are you bringing this up in your 1-on-1 meetings? Seems repetitive, and for many, even useless, but make sure you have raised this topic. If your boss does not react or show interest, this may be the tip of the iceberg of a toxic and deeply rooted company culture gone awry. If this doesn’t change, that company might not be for you, and they could be inadvertently showing you the door.

Lack of Trust on Your Colleagues

Are you talking to your colleagues? Are they showing willful ignorance? Or is it lack of technical knowledge? Can you help them? Make sure you understand the root cause of the problem. Build a good relationship with them, share your knowledge, point them in the right direction, distribute the workload. You might be in a situation where all of you are overloaded, which would only point back to management. I have seen situations in which the manager doesn’t listen and is not aware of the problems. Sometimes on purpose, sometimes inadvertently, they might be overloaded as well.

Lack of Prioritization

Are you handling the right matters at the right time? Is that juicy upgrade in the data center more important than the boring VPN implementation for remote access? Are you trying to do everything at the same time? Are you taking too many tasks? Listen to your customer or the stakeholders about what the organization needs are and understand the amount of workload you can take. If everything is important, you are back to square one: tell your boss, speak with your colleagues, spread the load.

Lack of Documentation

Is everything thoroughly documented? Is every member of your team able to pass the 3AM test? Can everyone rely on documentation and solve a problem while half sleep? If the answer is no, you have an opportunity to help there.

Document everything. It can be boring or bothersome, but it will save your and your colleagues’ time in the future.

Don’t keep the information to yourself: write deployment guides, technology training, document implementations, record videos, leave evidence of what happened, when it happened, why it happened, and how it was fixed.

If all the information is openly available for everybody, there is no reason for people to chase you or rely solely on you to solve problems. The more knowledge you share, the better it will be – for you, and for every member in your team.

Lack of Time Management

Are you being productive? Are you distracted throughout the day? Are you procrastinating?

This topic opens up a can of worms, especially in these “unprecedented times.” (Did you notice the business lingo in action there?) As we are all working from home, people expect you to stay online all the time. Many of us are feeling the extra anxiety, doubt, stress, pressure, worries, and it becomes increasingly difficult to focus, to sleep, to relax, or even to have fun (no kidding).

This is the moment to draw the line. Make sure you disconnect at a specific time, take breaks during the day (I take walks around noon before my US customers wake up), exercise, practice meditation before work, build a schedule, try to put your phone away (I did remove the LED notifications since they were driving me crazy). Make every effort to wake up at the same time everyday, take a shower, have breakfast, read something, meditate, take some Duolingo lessons (I do that), read a book you love, call some friends (I do pester friends in Mexico, Slovakia, Finland, Sweden, Czech Republic and Chile), spend more time with your children, your dog, your cat (if he/she wants to), anything helping you keep those work hours behind the line.

If your work schedule is spread all over the day, then take breaks between specific hours and follow the calendar to the letter. You cannot leave the office (it’s your place now!) but you can make the office leave you: turn off your work phone, close your laptop, put those devices away until tomorrow.

Although all the previous recommendations are important, the paramount one is: communicate openly, and don’t be afraid to say no.

There is nothing wrong with taking time for yourself, there is nothing wrong with playing a game over the weekend, with not studying that day, with reading a non-technical book or watching a movie, with disconnecting and staying away.

Don’t learn that the match burns when you are already crispy outside, learn from others’ experiences, see through our mistakes as much as you can so you don’t make the same mistakes we made (some of us are still learning), stay vigilant of your mental health, love yourself. It is easy to fall into the trap by pursuing glory and shiny colors, and it gets harder (especially now) to recover from burnout. Know your limits, respect them, and don’t be afraid to say no.

For more information on IT training, visit the Skyline ATS Course Catalog.

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