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Serenity Found

Serenity Found

Here's how to inoculate yourself against stress and burnout (once you understand the difference)

We all know that CIO stands for "Career Is Over". The wag who coined that acronym was undoubtedly referring to the burnout factor that comes with the job and the consequent short tenure of the average CIO. I'm not talking about the difficulties inherent in systems design and development or data centre operations but, rather, the misery of working unnoticed and unappreciated until something breaks down. That's when the CIO must explain to senior executives that their company is being crippled by ageing systems, why their equipment must be retrofitted or replaced, and why spending money on IT is a fact of life in the 21st century. And even if the executives can hear and understand the bad news, the CIO is still vulnerable to being axed when the problem can't be solved fast enough or the technology can't be aligned with corporate goals within an arbitrarily imposed budget.

That's your world, and given its pressure-packed nature, you will likely suffer some considerable stress or experience burnout at some point in time. Thus, it is of paramount importance that you know the difference between the two.

Pouring Petrol on a Fire

Everyone knows that working too hard is stressful and can lead to burnout. But CIOs in senior management positions may also suffer burnout if they're doing nothing more than watching the divisions they built run themselves! I call this state of being bored witless "supernova burnout". Strange as it sounds to someone working to exhaustion, doing nothing - at least nothing intellectually challenging - can be as disruptive to your mental health as working 14 hours a day like a rented mule.

If you don't know the difference between stress and burnout, the danger is that you may end up pouring petrol on the fire. For example, interventions that are "just what the doctor ordered" for stress (rest and relaxation) can exacerbate feelings of burnout. The CIO who is suffering supernova burnout, a term I coined to describe those who've achieved success - say, by playing a critical role in the leadership of a company - needs new challenges. Sending him to a resort for three weeks of downtime is robbing him of what he needs: a healthy challenge. It is likely to drive him mad. On the other hand, the rented mule who's working 14-hour days and has no control over what he does (he's rented, you see) needs some R&R.

Good Stress and Bad

Stress is a word that is constantly misused. In engineering, stress refers to a force applied to a structure, a bridge or a material such as concrete or bone that causes change (strain, cracking or "failure") in the integrity of the material. This would suggest that psychological stress is a force lurking outside us, like fire, something that would have a uniformly adverse effect upon anyone who comes in contact with it.

But stress does not lurk outside. In fact, psychological stress exists almost entirely in the eye of the beholder. People will experience stress only if they view something as posing a threat of harming them in a physical or psychological way. I, for one, experience threat (and stress) at the idea of standing atop an icy mountaintop on two slats of fibreglass and contemplating what I'm going to have to do to get down to the bottom. Of course, those of you who enjoy skiing find this exciting. And there you have another wrinkle in the stress nomenclature. Psychologists call your elation at being atop a mountain contemplating your rapid descent eustress, the "good" stress that people derive from confronting and overcoming challenges. The way I help clients understand stress is to quote a great thinker, Epictetus, who did his thinking in 40 BC: "Men are disturbed not by things but by the views they take of them."

What Epictetus didn't know was that there is one factor that regulates how much or how little our views of things are likely to result in feelings of stress. Psychologists call it "perceived control". It's perceived, rather than actual, because you don't have to be "in control", you just have to believe you are in order to have it work wonders.

Let's go back to the mountain. I view skiing as stressful because I have no idea how to do it. On the other hand, I know how to box, so I'll happily climb into a ring with most anyone. For most people, that would be stressful, but I perceive myself to be in control when I box so I experience no stress when sparring.

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