HOW TO STAY SANE AT WORK

It is a sad state of affairs in this modern world that so many people suffer from mental health problems. In the western world, 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of a year, with anxiety and depression being the most common mental disorder. Women are more likely to have been treated for mental health problems than men, though men are three times more likely to commit suicide. About 10% of children have a mental health problem at any one time and depression affects 1 in 5 older people.

It should come as no surprise that work related stress is one of the greatest causes of mental health issues, so how should one go about protecting oneself by creating an antidote to the stresses of an ever increasingly hostile work environment and hence retain at least a modicum of sanity.

Author: Bryan Helfrich, Alias52; via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 license


I accept that there are some obvious ways to help keep ones sanity with non-work related activities such as sport, meditation and regular holidays but many of these are short lived, as just opening one’s inbox on return from vacation can in about 10 minutes negate 2 weeks of lying by the water in Phuket being massaged by a Thai girl who understands that “boy wins girl” is not the only thing meant by a happy ending.

I have found over the last 40 years of working in the IT sector that retaining ones sanity at work requires much more dramatic remedial measures than sporting activities, and I have therefore developed the following short list of crucial ways of retaining one’s marbles while still making a worthwhile business contribution.

REFUSE TO GO TO ANY MEETINGS

Author: Awersowy; via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0 license


One of the worst stress creators in the workplace is caused by having to spend an inordinate amount of time locked in a room with a large group of people who all know that any simple problem can be made insoluble if enough meetings are held to discuss it. The stress of having to come up with even a minor contribution, or to feign interest in yet another attempt to pretend that something will actually be achieved, puts massive strain on all vital organs. The best approach is to find an understanding member of the medical profession who will be prepared to diagnose you as suffering from Demophobia, Enochlophobia, and Ochlophobia which are all forms of phobia related to the fear of mobs or crowds. This will accord you the right to miss all meetings, and instead to stay in your cubicle and build your personal mental health store by doing something that actually delivers some value to the organisation. It is therefore critically important that you remember that “Rome did not conquer the known world by having meetings. They achieved this by destroying anyone who opposed them”.

DESTROY ANYONE WHO OPPOSES YOU

People who regularly annoy you are a major threat to your mental health and must be annihilated as part of your personal drive to retain sanity in the workplace. Whilst actually killing them is illegal, the next best solution is to get rid of them from your daily life by continually telling them that they are much too good for the job that they are doing and that the company does not value their contribution whilst sending their CVs to competitors and head-hunters. Competing companies love stealing from each other, as this is one of the major metrics in their management dashboards, and you should use this knowledge to your advantage by being an enabler to their love of churn. Remember that one of the laws of life is that “if you do a good job and work hard, someday you may get a job with a better company.”

TAKE HOLIDAYS IN HAITI

Take at least one week of your annual leave in Haiti and get to know some practitioners of the black art of Voodoo, always taking with you a selection of bodily detritus (hair, used tissues, discarded Birkenstocks etc.,) of all your business contacts and associates, as you can never tell who is going to annoy you in the coming 12 months. This will enable you to come home from a satisfying vacation with the knowledge that you can handle any eventuality of mental health threat with a suitable counter. Remember the maxim that you should “keep your friends close, your enemies closer, and your voodoo dolls in a locked drawer in your office desk”.

Author: http://www.flickr.com/photos/eliogarcia/; via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0 license


TAKE REGULAR POWER NAPS AT YOUR DESK

It is important to make up for all the sleep that you are missing out on during the nights, because of the stresses of the job, by sleeping at the office. You should not overdo this and must limit these “power naps” to just 15-20 minutes every hour. It is also critical that you do not snore during these restorative sessions as this will make people aware of the fact that you are only pretending to be totally engrossed in reading the corporate strategy document, so you must take heavy doses of sleep apnea medication. You can manage the side effects of chronic diarrhoea by ensuring that your cubicle is close to the restrooms. Just remember that if you get caught sleeping on the job by your boss you should say “I wasn’t sleeping! I was meditating on your mission statement and envisioning a whole new cloud paradigm.”

Author: SanGatiche; via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0 license


As Mark Twain said “When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.”

TO BE OR NOT TO BE … A MANAGER

The best job I ever had was being a computer salesman for Digital Equipment Corporation in the 1970’s. I was the only one in my territory of the South Island of New Zealand and my boss was miles away in Auckland so I saw him only rarely. I shared the office in Christchurch with two young hardware engineers and my secretary, whose only job was to look after my business needs.

Author: Brianski; via Wikimedia Commons


The only responsibilities that I had were to win some new deals, make my quota and look after my customers, and all of these tasks were easy to do. I had total control of my work time and when I left the office in the evening my time was my own. My weekends were devoted to doing whatever I wanted to do and that rarely involved anything at all to do with my job. The 70’s were really exciting times in the computer industry and DEC was changing the world with its range of PDP-8 and PDP-11 minicomputers and setting it afire with the new VAX range. I was being well trained and developed mainly in Australia and the US, being well paid and rewarded with a good salary, generous performance bonuses and trips to exotic places for Achievers clubs.

I lived in one of the nicest places on earth. Christchurch was a city of about 300,000 close to some of the most beautiful natural scenery in the world with a great climate, wonderful cultural facilities such as the Czech quartet who were visiting in 1968 and who had stayed on when Russia invaded Czechoslovakia. I had a wonderful group of friends and was enjoying an active single life.

Author: P. Stalder; GNU Free Documentation License; via Wikimedia Commons


Life could not have been much better, when I was offered a promotion to Auckland as NZ Sales manager.

What actually makes people move into management roles, particularly when they love doing what they are actually doing, and what possessed me to give away an idyllic life and move to Auckland to accept a management role ?

I had been in a management role before joining DEC, as the IT Manager at International Harvester, and while I had also loved this job, I knew that with my move to Auckland I would be losing all the freedoms that I now had, and would have to spend my time worrying about what and how others were doing, rather than just worrying about and pleasing myself.

I would actually like to be able to say that the reason for my move to management was that I craved a promotion, that it was a calling and that I understood that a management career was my divinely inspired fate, but the real reason that I accepted the promotion was just a case of “cherchez la femme”, and no other reason. I had met an incredibly exciting young woman and she just happened to live and work in Auckland, and I felt that she was definitely worth the move.

I now know that I am not alone in that my move into management had little to do with any true, deep desire to actually be a manager, and it took me some considerable amount of time and learning over the coming years to realise that it was what I was meant to actually do with my work life.

When, towards the end of my career, I took up the role as a Global Head of HR, we thought it would be important to run some surveys amongst management people in the company to find out what issues and challenges they were facing, to ensure that the HR organisation could do some things that would actually help the business units.
One technical division that we chose to work with had over 300 people in management positions, being roles that were defined by the fact that they had performance responsibilities for people other than just themselves.

One interesting, and yet troubling, finding was that about one third of these managers didn’t actually want to be in “people responsible” roles, and not only would have preferred to have stayed in “individual contributor” roles, but most of them also said that they would gladly move out of their management role if they were given the chance to do so without repercussions.

It turns out that most of these people had been offered promotion into management roles primarily because of their vocational skills and their bosses’ belief that this would make them capable of leading and inspiring others in their field of expertise, without anyone really discussing and evaluating not only their suitability but also their actual desire to move up the ladder into leadership roles.

Author: ThisIsRobsLife; CC BY-SA 3.0 license


The reason that they had accepted the promotion was that this was the only way that they had felt they could make more money, get more influence or more status in the company or just have a greater say and some input and control on what projects that they got to work on.

It was obvious that the dual career paths that we had in place for the vocationally brilliant didn’t actually work, and as a result we had ended up with a large percentage of people in management roles who didn’t particularly want to be there, and despite their upgraded titles and improved salaries were doing little in terms of managing their people, but were spending most of their time actually doing their pre-promotion tasks.

Over the last 40 years I have realised that many people working in management roles didn’t actually plan for nor make the decision to do so, but that it just “sort of, somehow, kind of happened”.

I have found this particularly true in European companies where management is still seen as just an add-on to vocational brilliance rather than as a profession, and where there is little chance for true advancement outside of a management stream (See “Flogging a Dead Horse” posted on July 2, 2010).

Until we can get to a stage where we recognise the difference between vocational and management characteristics and skills and treat each accordingly, and hence differently, we will continue to make management appointments a hit and miss art, and keep putting people into roles where we lose the vocational brilliance and replace it with incompetent management.

As author Paul Dickson said “Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.”

Author: Guido Gerding; GFDL license; via Wikimedia Commons


ANGER IN MANAGEMENT

“In a controversy, the instant we feel anger, we have already ceased striving for truth and have begun striving for ourselves.”
Theologian Abraham J. Heschel (1907-1972)

Anger is a human process that has been felt by most normal people at some time and that has allowed humans to evolve, adapt and change. The flow of adrenalin that comes with anger generates a burst of energy that has enabled many people to perform beyond their normal capabilities, but unchecked anger can result in aggression against others in a way that is harmful, whether it is expressed in a verbal way or is allowed to move on to physical abuse. This flow of energy that anger generates can also result in a secondary problem, in that to some it can become quite pleasurable and hence have an almost addictive effect, particularly if it results in a sense of power.

So, if it is a natural emotion, and even if it can be controlled, is anger ever acceptable in a manager?

At a fairly early stage in my career, I had a boss who got angry with those around him openly and often, and seemed to carry anger with him as a perpetual and normal state of being. The problem was that his anger tended to target individuals rather than problems, so that even when things were going well there was always someone who was the focus of his anger.

Author: Stefan-Xp; GNU-FDL license; via Wikimedia Commons


This created a number of problems with his ability to manage and motivate his team and to interact with others.

Firstly, as his anger surfaced regularly, over time it became impossible for those around him to easily evaluate whether he was just miffed, really angry or furious, as the tone and volume of his voice when expressing anger seemed fairly constant. Anyway, when someone is screaming at you, it is hard to think about trying to define their actual level of anger, even if you have a good view of the vein throbbing in their forehead.

Secondly, because his normal reaction to any issue was to get angry, his people stopped coming to him with problems that under normal circumstances would have needed him to help resolve, so many issues were left to fester until they surfaced as a serious problem. The normal state of affairs was that he would always be excluded if there was any way that he could be left out of a loop, which meant that he was generally not aware of what was happening around him.

Thirdly, his peers saw him as someone who was impossible to deal with so offered him only minimal interdepartmental support and co-operation, which only made him angrier. We had to live through a daily diatribe about the incompetence of the rest of the organisation, despite the fact that they all seemed to get on well with each other and seemed to function well in terms of company need. This meant that it was impossible for him to build a working network for information, co-operation and support.

Fortunately he did not last long.

This early experience did however make me understand that getting angry didn’t actually achieve very much, as in arguing any point at all, the minute you get angry you have to all intents and purposes already lost the argument. I also realised that when one gets angry, one tends to stop focussing on trying to solve the problem, and are focussing more on trying to win the argument.

The reality is that when you are angry there are many reasons that you can use to justify being so, but afterwards it is very hard to find that you actually had any good ones.

I understand that anger is an emotion that is sometimes impossible to stifle, but it is better to take it out on something like physical exercise than to take it out on the source of the anger, usually another person. The focus should always be on solving the problem or issue that has generated the anger, rather than on the anger itself. There is no question that one should never take any decisions in anger, other than to just get over it, and to leave the decision process to when the anger has abated.

Author: Bart Hiddink; Creative Commons license; via Wikimedia Commons


I believe that one of the problems with inexperienced or incompetent managers is that they see “righteous anger” as being a privilege that comes with power and position, and thus a way of showing that they are in charge, and that they are a tough boss. But true management toughness has little to do with title, and is more about setting stretch (but achievable with effort) goals for your people and ensuring that they deliver on their commitments. Toughness is about fighting for resources and funding for your team to ensure that they have what is needed to be successful. It is about not tolerating incompetents and non-contributors in your team, but only after having made every effort to help them be successful. It is rarely about losing your cool, and therefore true anger must be reserved for those rare occasions when it may actually be justified, such as for serious lapses in integrity or honesty.

It is also important to remember that when you get to anger, there is nowhere further that you can go.

As said over 2000 years ago by Aristotle (384-322 BC)

“Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”

Source: Jastrow (2006); via Wikimedia Commons


THE OLYMPICS SEEN THROUGH SOME NATIONAL CHARACTERISTICS

The Olympic Games are a spectacular gathering every four years of some of the world’s greatest athletes, and some of the world’s most overweight officials, for a period of two weeks to compete for Olympic sporting glory within an environment of peace and mutual respect, when national differences are forgotten and laid aside in a spirit of competitive equality.

Author: Gonzolito; License: CC BY-SA 3.0; via Wikimedia Commons


It is however hard for most of the Olympic competitors to overcome some of the ingrained characteristics that are specific to their national identity.

Here are just a few:

USA

Americans must love showing the world their shaved, deodorised armpits, as the most ubiquitous and repeated action one sees in the US Olympic team is the “high five”. This is not just for moments of triumph such as when a medal has been won, but also when a medal has not been won, and also seems to have replaced the handshake and/or kiss on the cheek as a way of saying hello, good-bye or even “well done on a good bowel movement this morning”.


NEW ZEALAND

Kiwis seem to perform best at the Olympics when they are sitting on their bums, and in most cases when they are actually going backwards, being equestrian, sailing and rowing events. This will only really change if the Olympic committee can be convinced to introduce real sports such as rugby. I feel that this should be pursued as a strategy to replace pre-choreographed sports such as soccer which is mainly filled with national “diving” teams.

Author: Voyager; via Wikimedia Commons


AUSTRALIA

Aussies love the Olympics as it gives them a chance to come up with catchy names for their teams, even when they have little to do with the reality of their skills or abilities, such as “the famous five” for a basketball team that no-one has heard of, and the self-styled “weapons of mass destruction” for their men’s 4×100 metre relay swim team who did not finish in the medal count and who were immediately renamed “the foot-in-the-mouth weapons of self-destruction” by those who believe in truth in advertising.

Photo by DAVID ILIFF; License: CC-BY-SA 3.0; via Wikimedia Commons


NORTH KOREA

The land of the Kims proved yet again that it is hard to develop a national sense of humour when your staple diet is grass soup and Kim Chee (pickled garlic-enhanced vegetables, not the name of one of their leaders). They just could not see the hilarious side of the Scots not being able to differentiate between the flags of North and South Korea, and so their women’s soccer team walked off the playing field in protest and instead spent the time wandering the streets of Glasgow looking for stray dogs.

ENGLAND

The English continued with their overall national strategy of “blame the Germans” for anything that goes wrong (such as the creation of the euro, the protection of the euro and the possible destruction of the euro), by blaming the Germans for the poor performance of the English road cycling team because the Germans got in the way of the perfect fool-proof English strategy, which had been specifically designed to keep the gold medal for Bradley Wiggins the 2012 winner of the Tour de France.

CANADA

The Canadians may not win many Olympic medals but continue to outdrink the other country teams with their beer intake. The poverty stricken areas around the Olympic village will be revitalised at the end of the games with money collected from the proceeds of cashing in the empty beer cans left over after the departure of the Canadian team.

CHINA

The English may have home team advantage, but the Chinese have even greater advantages in that nearly every piece of equipment used at the Olympics was manufactured in China. This gives the Chinese team the benefit of knowing exactly when things will disintegrate into dust, or break at any stress point, in the same way that everything does today within just a few days of use, which we buy as global consumers. The Chinese manufacturers now claim that this is an integral part of their biodegradable drive for all manufactured goods.

Author: Kostmo; via Wikimedia Commons


INDIA

The Indian team has been complaining about the interloper (an unidentified woman in blue trousers and red top) who marched in the opening ceremony and who they now claim was not actually a member of the Indian team. However it has since come to light that she was actually there to typify life in India as she is an unmarried post-graduate student from Bangalore, the Indian IT capitol, and she was just trying to find a suitable husband amongst all these well-honed athletes.

FRANCE

The French are really miffed (translated in French to “tresmiffee”) about the fact that the American team wore berets in the opening ceremony, and they have therefore registered a serious category 1 complaint with the IOC. The French feel that the Americans should have asked for their approval before adopting this very French item of apparel, particularly based on the fact that Ralph Lauren is not a French registered designer and therefore does not have the right to incorporate “le beret” in his outfits as would say Christian Dior. Furthermore, the fact that these were manufactured in China,rather than by the French firm “Berets-du-jour”, turns this into a serious international diplomatic incident. The French team have now been issued with Stetsons to wear at the closing ceremony in direct contravention of the United Nations hat proliferation treaties.

Bill Bryson, American author, summed up one key element of the Olympics with his explanation of the sport of fencing thus:

“A lot of people don’t like fencing because they don’t understand the rules and terminology, but it’s quite simple. Basically, there are four thrusts – the cartilage, the chaise longue, the aubergine and the fromageanglaise – and these in turn can be parried by four defensive feints – the pastiche, the penchant, the demitasse, and the salmon en croute. Scoring is on the basis of one point for a petite pois and two for a baguette. Points equally can be deducted for a foot fault, or pied a terre, and for a type of illegal lunge known as a zutalors. Actually, I don’t have the faintest notion what goes on in fencing, but that’s OK because this is the Olympics.”