Stress!

English: Jump! Deutsch: Spring!

English: Jump! Deutsch: Spring! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you ask anyone if they think they lead a stressful life, the chances are a large proportion will say yes. With the hectic lifestyles of today, we put ourselves under enormous strain. The stress is not in the situation, however, it’s in the person. Two different people placed in an identical situation will experience different stress levels, based on their background, training and perception of the situation.

I received a salient lesson in stress once. I don’t mean the kind of stress that makes you want to throttle someone or the stress that gives you a slight headache. I mean the stress that keeps you awake at night, every night. The sort of stress that renders you close to tears the whole time. When you start to wonder if you can ever see the light at the end of the tunnel, stress starts morphing into a slow seeping despair.

I was project manager for a large software rollout. The project was in the late stages leading up to go live. In the closing stages of the project, my boss phoned me to tell me he was to step down and that I would have to fill his shoes. He had a lot of responsibility on his plate and this represented a doubling of my workload. At the same time, a couple who were close to us went through a messy separation.

These three things don’t seem like much when I write them down now, but at the time, each one was enormously stressful. Combined, they were too much for me to take. I didn’t realise at first. Stress makes a stealthy approach, crawling through the long grass before it pounces. Before I knew it I was wrestling with it and the damned thing was winning.

It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but I learned a lot. If you don’t want to be kept awake at night, keep a to do list. Once you write something on this list, your brain will allow you to forget it. Otherwise, your brain will keep coming back to the problem, day or night. If you are struggling, ask for help. It seems so obvious, but it’s amazing how many people struggle on when all they need is a nudge in the right direction or to share out some tasks.

Talk to someone about the stress you feel. It helps. Try and get a sense of perspective about what’s on your plate. If you don’t complete your work, will someone die? Will you go bankrupt? Will you lose your family? There are remarkably few situations when distilled down to their simplest are really that critical.

There is another remedy which I hesitate to relate.

As soon as my wife realised the stress I was under, she took me straight to the local spiritualist shop where she bought me some stones. She bought me a lump of quartz to stick on my desk (to absorb all the negative energy) and some bits of tourmaline to carry in my pocket to absorb all the stress. I don’t believe in such mumbo-jumbo, but I took the stones. I’m absolutely positive it’s a coincidence, but ever since, I have felt less stressed.

I don’t believe a word of it and yet, those stones are still there.

Mr Finch, you swine sir, I salute you!

Telex machine Svenska: Telexmaskin

They say that you should love what you do, so my introduction to employment was a dream come true. I was a despatch assistant, which is code for an internal postman. I worked for BP Oil and my job involved listening to the radio with colleagues around a table, drinking tea and reading the paper. Oh yes – and occasionally, we had to get up and sort and deliver mail. But there was a lot of waiting around. The only thing to disturb the peace and harmony was the telex alarm. That meant that someone had to run up to the telex room, grab the telex and run to the addressee and hand deliver it. If you were really lucky (or unlucky depending on your point of view) the telex was a price change, which meant dashing to each one of the 14 floors to deliver the news.

The post room was full of temps and junior employees (like me). It was your introduction to the company, and you were expected to only be there for a short period before you were promoted to the upper floors in a “proper” job. So it was little surprise that 6 months later, I found myself on the 8th floor, newly promoted to Accounts Assistant. At first, it was a culture shock. They expected you to work all the time! No sitting there listening to the radio and no reading the paper, but I soon got used to it.

A very nice lady called Maggie showed me the ropes. She explained that the job was very important. Lots of high-up people relied on the role I was taking on. Of course, it was all new – so I listened intently. At the time, I thought I was the most important person in the world. The job consisted of heading to the print room early in the morning with a trolley and picking up a 2 foot tall stack of A4 paper. The pile of paper was always nice and warm and had a vaguely mechanical smell to it. I was to waste no time and get this stack of paper back to my desk.

On my desk, there was an A4 binder covered in sellotape. On the binder, there was a label with the word “BIBLE” written with a thick marker. Inside were a number of sheets which described in excruciating detail how to split the 2 foot pile of paper into various different reports for various different bigwigs. It seems faintly ridiculous now in these days of PCs on every desk and email, but this is what kept the wheels of industry turning in the 80s.

There was more to my job. There was the maintenance of customer records (which is shorthand for taking a load of printouts from one system and manually typing them into another). The only vaguely interesting part of the job was dealing with customer queries. This involved fathoming out how our interminably complicated system had priced some quantity of oil for a customer and why it was wrong. Where it was wrong, we had to do what we called a “Retro”, a retroactive adjustment.

These had to be handwritten on a special form, batched up and taken down to the typing pool. A trip to the typing pool could strike terror into the heart of a fragile 17 year old. Any woman who has ever walked past a building site to the sound of wolf whistles and cat calls would know exactly what I mean. I think they deliberately placed the in tray at the end of the room so that they could enjoy your embarrassment as you ran the gauntlet past all the lascivious ladies. Looking back on it, I should have lapped it up, but at the time I used to dread it.

I soon became bored with the sheer routine. Every day was the same cycle. There were little or no surprises and there were very few opportunities for development. Because I was bored and because I was the youngest in the office by far, I regularly found myself on the wrong side of Mr Finch. He was the department head and had an office in the corner. It seemed like every other week, I was in Mr Finch’s office for some transgression or another.

Things started to improve when out of sheer tedium, I read the HR manual – no mean feet seeing as it’s 6 inches thick! In there I found a section on study and was overjoyed to read that BP would sponsor employees in further and higher education. I grabbed this with both hands and happily undertook what was to become six years at college.

As if things could not get any better, I learnt of an initiative to automate the “Retro” system, and I was asked to work on it. This meant talking to the systems people from the 9th floor. It was fantastic – a complete break from the humdrum routine explaining to the analysts exactly how the retro system worked. Unfortunately, I enjoyed it so much that I neglected the humdrum routine and my work piled up. Cue another visit to Mr Finch’s office.

I enjoyed the project so much that I found myself spending a lot of time with the systems guys understanding what they did and how they constructed the system. It was fascinating, and again my work suffered and yet again I found myself in front of Mr Finch. Worse was yet to come, because what I didn’t realise was that the systems guys were all filling in their timesheets against Mr Finch’s project code so Mr Finch got a very large bill. He really gave me the hairdryer treatment over that!

You might think that I bear Mr Finch some ill will, but no. This story does have a happy ending. Whether he did it to save his budget or whether he did it to help me out we will never know, but he was the one who got me into the Information Systems Division.

Mr Finch, you are a gentleman sir, and I salute you (you bastard).