As a career technology guy, I am admittedly biased, but few industries are cooler to be part of. Every day, I get to think with people around the globe about how the latest trends can be applied to improve the way people live and work. And that’s exhilarating. But it can also be really stressful. Things move and change at warp speed and long, irregular hours and lots of travel are required to keep pace. And technology isn’t perfect. There are always things to fix and threats to guard against.
Most of us ignore the stress and anxiety we face, because in our minds, it’s part of the job. And as professionals, we’re supposed to suck it up, right? Wrong. Stress and anxiety are no different than the bugs we tackle behind screens. If we don’t recognize the symptoms - or worse, brush them off, they can do a lot of harm.
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The silent killer
All jobs come with a certain amount of pressure to perform. And in many ways, this can be healthy. Stressing over deadlines can help you meet them. Worrying about the competition can motivate you to outperform them. But sometimes things get out of balance and healthy stress and anxiety become unhealthy. It’s important to recognize this – in ourselves and others – because if left unchecked it can lead to more serious issues.
Trust me. I know. For 20 years, I’ve quietly struggled with mental health issues because I frankly didn’t recognize the signs and bought into conventional wisdom that I simply needed to “snap out of it.” What I chalked up to the normal pressure that comes with being a chief technology officer eventually became days of endless anxiety, introspection, depression and lack of self-esteem. And it took a huge toll on me.
There’s a tremendous amount of stigma surrounding mental health issues. And for many, mere mention of the words brings about uncomfortable silence. But it shouldn’t. According to the World Health Organization, around 450 million people currently suffer from mental health conditions, making them the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide. In fact, one in four people in the world will be affected by them at some point in their lives.
Breaking the silence
It’s time to open the dialogue and remove the stigma. Mental health issues affect us all. But they can be difficult to detect because the symptoms are hard to recognize and can often be masked. How did I uncover mine?
In 1997, my grandfather died. I had never experienced that kind of grief or emotional stress. And it triggered many of the problems I struggle with today. I started having panic attacks. I became detached from my surroundings. And I became depressed to the point that even the simplest tasks like going outside or crossing a road become huge efforts. Before I knew it, I was in the grip of a truly awful illness.
So what did I do about it? First, I ignored those who told me that I simply needed to “pull myself together,” because that didn’t work. Then, I focused on understanding the physiology behind my symptoms, their triggers, and actions I could take to get a grasp of the current moment. And what I came to understand is that mental illness is a way of life. But it can be managed.
Over the years, I’ve learned a few techniques that help me keep things in check:
- Keep it real - We all like to aim high. But overshooting can cause pressure and anxiety that may negatively impact performance. Be sure your goals are clear and realistic. And if they’re not, reset them or break them down into smaller goals. With flexible goal setting, you can adjust objectives throughout the year in response to your workload and ability to manage it at any given time.
- Know when to ask for help - There is no “I” in technology. It’s a team sport played by lots of smart people with diverse levels of experience. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by deadlines or the scope of what you’ve been asked to do, don’t be afraid to draw on the people around you. It’s not a sign of weakness. And you might actually learn something through collaborating that helps you up your game and win in the end. Unity is a strong value and one that I value within my company. It’s a great inspiration to know you’re part of something bigger and that people share your goals and are there to help you succeed.
- Be present - Thanks to technology, we are more connected than ever. We can communicate with anyone, anywhere, anytime. But we shouldn’t try to ALL the time. In order to perform at our best, we need to focus on the people and issues in front of us. Be where you are. Do the best you can. Take time to unplug. Encourage your teammates to disconnect.
- Know thy limits - There are 24 hours in a day, but they weren’t all meant for working. Find your passion and indulge in it every day. Engaging your mind and soul in activities you cherish can help to drive innovation and creativity
- It’s ok to no be ok - Be open about your feelings and struggles. Talk to a friend. Keep a journal. Leverage your company’s employee assistance programs and wellness resources. There’s no shame in doing so.
People often ask me, “Are you ok?” Depends on what you mean by “ok.” I continue to struggle with mental health issues. But thanks to these coping techniques and a positive work and family environment, I can handle them, and it doesn’t define me.
Christian Reilly, CTO at Citrix (opens in new tab)
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