Office Space. This is one film almost every self-respecting techie has watched. In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, the protagonists get together and smash into pieces what has hitherto been the bane of their lives—the office printer.
Funny? Definitely. But look beyond the farce and the movie highlights an important facet of the Software Industry—Burnout Stress Syndrome or BOSS.
In these times of economic recession, companies are less reluctant to ask employees to work overtime and workers are more reluctant to refuse. From the management’s perspective, budgetary constraints may mean that bosses have to ask one person to do the work that was being done by two or even three people a few years ago. Gargi C, a programmer in Maharashtra, recounts this incident. “One day, when I was getting ready to leave at 10 p.m., my project manager tells me, ‘Why do you want to go home? What will you do going home?’”
“I said that if I don’t go home now my parents will throw me out of the house. He retorted, ‘Oh, brilliant! Then you can come back to the office and continue working!’”
Her story is not uncommon. Nowadays, workers in the IT industry work as many as 14 hours a day. Weekends too are no longer sacrosanct. People are expected to come in to work or at least be available by phone or pager. So it comes as no great surprise when the employee finally burns out.
Severe burnout can lead to some serious problems. One Ohio-based developer ended up with acute depression after working in a stressful position where he was the only one familiar with a particular piece of software.
Other symptoms can include nausea, sleeplessness, and even memory loss. At one particularly stressful time in my career, I found myself unable to remember how to get to a place that I had visited about 20 times before. I kept driving, got lost, and finally went back home, having driven for an hour without actually getting anywhere.
Relationships suffer. The burnout victim may become irritable and snappy. Or he or she may not feel like talking to people. I once heard a colleague describe his after-work hours thus, “I go home, drink a few tequila shots, and go straight to bed. Thank God for my wife. She calls up all my friends and maintains relationships. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have any friends left.”
Okay, so short of taking a sledgehammer to your boss, what can you do? Most IT industry veterans agree that the best way to prevent burnout is to “Just say No.” In Gargi’s case, she and her co-workers approached the boss as a team and explained the situation. It worked. The 14-hour days stopped.
Another standard strategy is to take short breaks. Walks, yoga, and other forms of exercise can help. Gargi, for instance, used body massages to relieve both her work-related backache and her work-related stress.
Humor acts as a useful tool. Some companies even offer stress-management seminars conducted by professional comedians. And, of course, there is always the Dilbert comic strip that you have pinned to the cubicle wall.
What if short breaks aren’t enough? Easy answer—take a long one. Companies like Intel provide an eight-week paid sabbatical every seven years. Another practice is to ask for a six-month leave of absence to “travel and see the world,” however, this practice is fairly rare among Indian technology workers.
Sometimes a total career change can be the only way out. Alfred Percy, a Bangalore-based technical writer, worked as a developer in a high-pressure job for 22 months before he realized that it was not what he wanted to do. He switched to technical writing. Today he describes himself as “much happier.”
Alfred is just one of many IT professionals who have switched to a more rewarding career in the same industry. Meenakshi Abbi, another “ex-techie,” worked for three years before she decided “to move into something personally fulfilling.” She started looking for non-profit jobs while still employed at her regular job.
“I looked into Americorps and searched for programs that were related to technology,” she explains, “I also emailed quite a few program coordinators asking them for advice on how I can use what I have learned.”
Today she enjoys her job at SBDC TAP, a non-profit organization that helps small businesses in the area of Information Technology. “In this one position,” she says, “I have learned about small businesses, marketing, business development, organization, and consulting. And the best part is, we get to help those who need our help.”
Obviously, career switches do not happen overnight. Successful career changers are usually prepared to change their lifestyle. Alfred quit his job in the United States, moved to India, and moved in with his parents. Successful career changers are also patient. Getting back into the job market takes time. In Alfred’s case, he had to face situations where companies rescinded job offers that they had already made.
On the flip side, the effects of burnout need not always be drastic. For a lot of people, burnout can just mean feeling very bored. A number of hi-tech workers have chosen to combat this everyday angst by developing creative hobbies. For instance, I know a couple of techies who work in the IT industry by day and make independent movies by night—well, by weekends, anyway.
The Bay Area offers several opportunities to explore your artistic side. Drama enthusiasts can join Naatak, an amateur theater troupe in the South Bay. Zingaris, an award-winning dance group, is made up of dance lovers. Yet others, like me, can choose to write.
Flash back to another movie, one that is not a techie staple—Fight Club. This somewhat-bizarre, thought-provoking film features Edward Norton as a white-collar employee who has fallen into a rut in his life. He finally finds new purpose in a way that is both strange and surprisingly apt—he starts a fight club where people beat each other up.
I like to think of these hobbies as our fight club.
Sandhya Char is an IT consultant in Sacramento.