Give me a break

We’ve all said it a hundred times: “Give me a break,” but in the IT world, few of us take the request to heart.

Stress-related burnout is nothing new, but in an economy where the word “vacation” has become a euphemism for “layoff,” many IT professionals are banking their holiday time and perpetually postponing time off. When companies do encourage these folks to take their vacation days, they often end up on the beach with a laptop on their towel or at the cottage with a cell phone attached to their collective ear.

Leslie Bendaly, a Toronto-based speaker, workshop leader and author of Winning Instinct, acknowledges that in our interconnected world it is often unreasonable to expect that completely disconnecting from work is either possible or desirable.

“Work is not stressful,” Bendaly said. “In fact, man is created to work. It’s our attitude toward work that makes a difference. It’s not so much that we’re connected, it’s our attitude while we are connected.

“Interconnectedness won’t stop,” she continued. “It’s a reality. If that’s the case, we’d better love what we’re doing. If we hate what we’re doing 24/7, we’ll burn out. If I love work, I am not going to be stressed.”

Bendaly’s theory rings true for Vanessa Shokeir, a project coordinator for GSI Consulting Services in Toronto, who spent the last several months on contract to Video One, and faced what she describes as burnout.

“I wasn’t happy with the work I was doing,” Shokeir explained. “There were times when I really enjoyed it, but I found my job going into management and administration and that’s not what I wanted to do.”

Shokeir found herself becoming less productive on the job and less motivated to advance her career, so when her contract finished in late July she opted to not seek another, but instead take time off to travel to the Czech Republic to take a course in the Czech language.

“I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do and felt that time off would help me figure that out,” she said. “I want to find a better direction for me.”

Shokeir hasn’t had a break from work since she took two weeks off at Christmas in 1999. Before that, she said, she had not taken more than a day off here and there since mid-1998.

This kind of continuous work without break is unhealthy for both the mind and body, according to Dr. Mel Borins, a family physician, associate professor at the University of Toronto and author of Go Away Just for the Health of It. Borins asserts that while it is not always possible to disconnect from work, the benefits of physically removing yourself from the work environment are invariably beneficial.

“I think that there is something therapeutic about going away and leaving the routines of daily life,” Borins said, stressing that you don’t have to leave the country to experience the benefits of getting away. “Go out into the park. Go away for the day. Go onto the Bruce Trail or take a rowboat onto Lake Ontario. Do something that breaks up your routine. Being exposed to different environments can be a transformational experience. It’s not a panacea, but it is an important component to a healthy lifestyle.”

The result of not taking a break of one type or another is detrimental to both a person’s physical and mental health, according to Lucille Peszat, director of the Toronto-based Canadian Centre for Stress and Well-Being.

“Human beings are not meant to go hours on end and work on a continual basis without relief,” she said. “The trouble with most of us is that we keep going and don’t give ourselves an out. Often, the only way to get away from these pressures is to get sick or fall down, and this is a pretty sad way to relieve ourselves.”

Like Bendaly, Peszat equates stress with an imbalance and recognizes that it’s not necessarily the work itself that causes burnout.

“People in IT are working in tremendously demanding high-paced situations. With the fallout of the dot-com market, most people who are still working are not only working hard carrying heavy workloads, but are frightened of what the future holds. In addition to working hard, they’re worrying hard. Worry is worse than hard work,” Peszat said.

However, Peszat noted that often vacations can be more stressful than work itself.

“Sometimes a vacation is the worst thing a person could take,” Peszat said. “Frankly, it can be a waste of money, time and effort for a person if it’s not planned well.”

Instead, Peszat recommends that people learn how to take a “mental holiday.”

“When you’re doing things you enjoy, you’re much different than when you are under stress,” she said. “A smart person will try to memorize that feeling. When you’re under pressure you can call that feeling back through a mental holiday. Put yourself into that frame of mind and experience those same feelings. If you can’t take a break [from your job], close your eyes and call back that feeling. It will give you enough of a lift to carry on.”

According to Bendaly, people who do things that they are passionate about in their spare time encounter less stress on the job.

“People who take some time out to do what they love to do can work long hours,” Bendaly said. “Take that course. Join that team. People who do these things are more energized and can cope with interconnectedness. That balance in life is needed.”

Shokeir hopes that following her passion to Europe will help to re-energize her for when she returns to work life in Canada, but she is already planning to do things differently next time around.

“I would maybe take the same job again, but I’d do it much differently,” she said. “Since I stopped working I woke up one morning after having the worst nightmare. I dreamed I was doing monotonous tasks, hiding the fact that I was surfing on the Internet, and dreading my boss coming to talk to me. My nightmare was a normal day.”