Q&A on Mental Health – Part 2

Disclaimer: I am NEITHER a professional therapist nor a certified medical worker. I am a software engineer writing out of my own ideas and experiences. Please treat everything as a subjective opinion, not as a professional advice!

Background

This is a second part of the Q&A list covering the remaining 12 questions. If you just landed on this Part 2, I’d advise to check the Part 1 first.

As stated in Part 1, I’ve tried keeping all the questions in their original form.

Questions that are covered in this second part, are:

Q: How to recognize if you are mentally overloaded? How to deal with pressure and stress due to short deadlines, etc.?

This is a tricky one as it’s made of TWO questions really.

For the first one, I can tell you how I recognize when I’m mentally overloaded. And it really boils down to experience.

Namely, in my case, feeling of mental overload ALWAYS starts with a light headache. Like, always. What experience taught me here is to recognize that as a first warning sign. And this is exactly when I start planning for a break.

Should I not make a break here, it progresses towards a full-blown head-burn sensation which is just damn awful and makes me unusable. So, again, what experience has taught me is to recognize the red flags and start planning for a break as soon as possible.

As for the second question, it requires an article on it’s own really. But I’ll try providing a brief answer. Well hell, I’ll actually share a piece of advice that I received from one of our Senior VPs.

He asked me how I was feeling in my new role (I moved from Solution Architect to Engineering Manager) and I told him that I generally like it but I feel overloaded most of the time. Feeling like every single person is requesting my time and if I let them down, everything goes to havoc.

Funny enough, his reply (and do remember this guy is like REALLY high in company hierarchy) was – “Look, I felt the same in the beginning. What you eventually learn is that, whatever you do, nobody will die really. Company might lose some money, sure, but nobody is going to die really. So just suck it up and do whatever you think is the best and you’ll improve over time”.

Q: IT people usually claim that they can’t turn their brains off after work. They bring their problems home and into their personal lives. It just seems to be different from, for example, people working in Banking industry, who simply switch off and go to caffe afterwards. Is it truly like that?

First of, I honestly highly doubt that people in other professions, and especially in Banking industry, have easier time after work. Not that I know anybody, but I doubt it to be the case.

Next, I’m just sorry to inform you that I’m probably the worst person there is to actually answer this question. Primarily because I myself have hard time coping with it. I myself am a victim of a brain that just won’t shut the heck up afterwork. And sometimes this goes so crazy that I wake up in the middle of the night, processing some task or meeting that I had. And it takes like 5-10mins to realize that I’m doing it!

Now, I’ve been thinking about this a lot and I kind of think I know the reasoning behind it. Solution isn’t there yet, but I think I know what it is about.

What I’ve learned is the best way to shut my brain off is to make sure that I finish something specific before I call it a day. Whatever it is, as long as I make sure that I’m done with it before the work-day ends, my brain seems to reward me with being calmer.

On the other hand, God forbid if I leave work with something unsolved … I swear that one of the primary reasons why I was considering to start smoking weed is exactly because there are times when my brain just won’t shut the fuck up.

Good news is that as of lately, I’ve been experimenting with potential approaches here:

  • Going for a run after work
  • Taking Magnesium before sleep
  • Drinking green tea

This seems to go in-line with a suggestion from my colleague who says that what helps him is doing some “brain-dead” activity like – “watching a bad Western movie, vacuuming, or sweeping the leaves from the garden” (his exact words from this comment).

I’ll let you know the results!

Q: How to overcome stress and remain calm so that we can meet our goals and deadlines? Because, by working under stress, we tend to make mistakes and the actual time to deliver increases, which yet puts additional strain on our psyche.

When it comes to deadlines, I actually dedicated a whole article to it. My general opinion is that they are a necessary evil engine that drives creativity and productivity. Seriously.

I think that both deadlines and stress about them are unavoidable. They’re just necessary to get the work done.

The problem is if you are having CONSTANT stress; week after week. And if everything is ALWAYS late.

If that is the case, what I suggest is to first do a reality check. I know of many people who feel stressed out even if the objective situation is not stressful and there are no actual deadlines. Yet, they stress about the possibility of eventually being late and then stressing about the deadline.

Now if you pass a reality check and if your company is really constantly putting stress and more deadlines on you, especially if those are non-realistic ones, then I hate to say it but it might be time to start looking for another employer.

Q: How to find a work-life balance, and how to deal with a pressure of having to learn after-work in order to stay competitive in this ever-growing market?

The first part on “how to find a work-life balance”, I covered in the “How to make a clear balance between business and private life?“.

The second part on staying competitive is a bit more interesting though. I have a different opinion here.

Namely, the general wisdom seems to be – “if you want to stay competent, you need to choose companies that use the latest cutting-edge technologies”. I fully disagree with this and I will happily elaborate why.

For one, it’s just impossible to keep your tech-stack up-to-date the whole time; unless you are in academia and doing a research. It just can’t generate the needed business value and as such it just makes no sense for business. Hence, whatever the tech stack is now, it will become legacy in the near future.

Next, unless your primary goal is to always play with latest tech (in which case I’d suggest actually going to academia), bigger companies usually have more legacy stacks and they usually pay more money. So, really, becoming more proficient with how to work with legacy code is guaranteed to actually bring you more money.

And finally, even if you somehow find a way to stay and work on cutting-edge tech all the time, there’s just too much of it to tackle it all. So I’d argue it’s freakin’ impossible to do!

Logical question is – what do I suggest then, right? For one, I have to disappoint you but, yes, if you want to stay competitive, you’ll most likely have to invest time after-work. I just don’t see any way around that really.

On the other hand, unless you are in rush to change your job ASAP, you should really tackle into the “power of small”. Invest something like 20-30mins per day learning new stuff, but do it consistently (20mins per day, over 5 days is hour and a half, which is 6 hours per month, and 72 hours for a full year). Now let me tell you, you can learn A LOT in 72 hours, and it’s 72 hours more than 98% of the people in the industry invest!

Finally, I’m a huge believer in “back to basics”. Hence, unless I’m targeting a specific job with specific tech stack, I usually focus on learning basics of Computer Science, or Distributed Computing or Databases, … you’d be surprised how many things simply build upon some basic building blocks 🙂

Q: Which apps do you recommend for tracking and improving your mental health?

  • Day One for journaling — I use this one for writing my daily journal and tracking my mental health, in a way
  • Headspace and Calm for guided meditations
  • Strong app and Strava for tracking my fitness goals

Q: At which point going to a therapist becomes a “preferred” option over the job change?

This question reflects exactly what I think is wrong with our perception of therapy, and I’m glad you asked.

For whatever reason, we assume that going to the therapy is like that last weapon that we can draw. The one we use when we hit the rock-bottom. Just … no.

From my point of view, and I’ll steal this from whoever said it originally – “The perfect time to start therapy was years ago. Second perfect time is NOW”.

So, don’t be like those people who keep changing partners and searching for that special “something”. Don’t do that to your career. Start the therapy now, figure out what’s at the root of your frustration and then see whether you need to change companies or not.

Q: Imposter syndrome – how to deal with it as beginner in their mid/late 30s?

Heh, well, probably the same way that you’d deal with it in you 20s or 40s – by accepting it and learning to live with it.

Now, the way that the question was phrased is really interesting though. How do you deal with it as a “beginner”. And I assume you are beginner in IT.

If that’s the case, I think (and pardon me if I’m wrong here) that it’s not the same as imposter syndrome. From my understanding, imposter syndrome occurs when you are perceived as being good at your job, and yet you doubt in your own abilities and you think you are a fake. And that’s completely different from being afraid of being Junior at something.

So how do you deal with a fear of being a Junior? I hate to say it but there’s no an easy way. Starting a new career in your mid/late 30s is scary and can be overwhelming, especially if you have a family. My suggestion would be to be patient. Like, seriously patient. Understand that life circumstances are way different for you then for somebody who is in their 20s, with zero to no obligations towards anything except for pumping their work skills.

Now once you accept the fact that it will be scary, let me tell you this – I have met MANY people in their late 30s and 40s who were just starting their career in IT. And let me tell you this – I would trade 10 unreliable young rockstars for one “older” and reliable junior. And my reasoning here is rather simple – I’ve learned that people in their 30s and 40s have a way higher sense of appreciation and commitment. They know what a shitty job looks like and they know what being reliable means. So, most of the time, they are the kind of people that I can rely on to get the job done! And that’s incredibly valuable.

So once again how do you deal with it? Be patient and take my word for it – a lot of people, including myself, will respect you for being “late-bloomer”! And that’s your damn advantage right there!

Q: Are there any companies in the market that invest in employee’s mental health, or is it simply easier to let the burnouts happen and deal with the consequences afterwards?

I answered a similar question in Part 1. Yes, there are companies that invest and employee’s mental health by financing the therapist visits.

Now the second part of this question implies that it’s company’s job to recognize if the employee is on the verge of burn-out or whatever. As stated before – I disagree here.

In my opinion, it’s your manager’s job to notice a problem that is building up and to find ways to react to that. I’m pretty positive that even if your company is not openly advertising a “mental health budget”, should your manager approach and ask for it, they’d most likely allow it.

Q: How to stay professional and prevent expressing anger and negative emotions towards your colleagues when the stress reaches its peak?

Again, I’m pretty much the worst person ever to answer this, because I’m the one who used to have problems controlling this in my past. Like, I was the guy who’d start “riots” in a company and fight for our employee rights …

Now, I say – “used to”, because I believe I managed to train myself to stop doing that. Or at least I like to believe I did.

So how do you do it? Practice. Seriously.

What you have to understand is that letting out your anger doesn’t do anything except making you look like an idiot. It’s painful, but it’s truth. Because it’s not like anybody will stop and think – “yeah, that guy is shouting and rightfully so”. No, for most of the time you will be perceived like a complete idiot who can’t control their emotions. And I’m saying this from a first-hand experience, being that shouting idiot.

Oh and you might want to look into an interesting book on the topic – Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.

Q: Do you have any experience with Eastern techniques used for problem solving in IT, and if you do, what are the results? Techniques specifically like Chi Gong, Tai Chi, but also Indian like Yoga?

No, I have no experience with those. And to be perfectly honest with you, I don’t even know what (most of) these are; but I’ll look into them for sure.

Q: Are the shorter but frequent breaks more useful than longer but fewer ones?

Hell yes!

And at first I had no idea there’s a scientific background to be honest. So I’ve pretty much came to that conclusion by trial & error. As in – I’d try to bang my head for as long as possible thinking that taking a rest means being lazy … No wonder I burned out in the end …

As I will come to learn the harder way (as usual), more frequent and shorter breaks are actually necessary if you want to keep yourself focused.

It’s been a while since I was immersed 100% in a single project (thanks to moving to eng. management, lol) and these days I usually jump between 150 things per day. And as we all know, switching tasks is HARD and it eats up tremendous amounts of energy.

So what I learned is the best way to jump from one thing to another is to go and do some, as my colleague would say – “brain-dead activity”, like, washing the dishes, or vacuuming or just strolling around the office. But I found it necessary to actually stand up and move away from your screen.

Q: How are the relationships with people in IT? Things like interpersonal relationships and communication?

Well, given the fact that I’ve been in IT for 12+ years, I guess I have no idea how the OUTSIDE looks like 🙂

For me, personally, I love hanging around IT people. Really. I’m sure it could be weird for non-IT folks, but some of my best coffees are with couple of my close friends who happen to be developers as well, and we just talk for hours about, believe it or not – programming 🙂

Closing words

Funny thing that I gained from answering these questions is realizing how I never really thought some of these things through. Things like stress, burn-out, toxic environments, …

This is exactly what made it uniquely enjoyable experience. Having to sit down and think it through. Because, as I wrote before – the best way to understand stress and frustration is to sit down and write about it. And this has been extremely therapeutic for me as well!

By no means is this an end. Au contraire. I’ve started actively thinking and learning about the stress, the effects of it and how should we reshape it to use it to our advantage. So stay tuned – there will be more to come!

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2 thoughts on “Q&A on Mental Health – Part 2

  1. Another great article! Very insightful. I totally agree with the therapy part. It’s never too late to be kind to yourself and seek professional help.

    Also, HR managers in IT companies should pay more attention to raising awareness about mental health.

    Hustle culture is toxic and it is not surprising that so many people deal with stress, burnouts, impostor syndrome and so on. The entire narrative is wrong.

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