In this posting I shall expand on the amount of stress which is needed to stop people programming, how it differs from the usual understanding of workplace stress, and how giving people good reason to be self-confident can control it.

The kind of stress that people usually talk about in workplace settings might be called extreme stress. For example, the UK Health and Safety Executive offers these bullet points on their page, Why tackle work-related stress?:

  • Work-related stress accounts for over a third of all new incidences of ill health.
  • Each case of work-related stress, depression or anxiety related ill health leads to an average of 30.2 working days lost.
  • A total of 13.8 million working days were lost to work-related stress, depression and anxiety in 2006/07.

That’s serious! Clinical depression and anxiety related ill health are certainly not trivial. What we can take from this is an indication of how much stress is actually running around some sites, but it’s a far higher level than I argue is needed to stop people being able to program. Because most people maintain enough background stress to stop them programming most of the time, we would normally think of a worker who is in fact too stressed to program as “unstressed”. I’ve found almost nothing on the websites of firms who do stress management training (and there are lots of them) about the vast untapped resource of intelligence which is concealed by background stress. A notable exception is one David Lee, who talks about this on his page Employee Stress and Performance:

One obvious implication of this research is that employee intellectual functioning can be very powerfully influenced by their environment. In workplaces where employees feel helpless and disempowered, they are less likely to think in intelligent, creative ways. Another important implication, and this is born out by other research, is that perceived control plays a major role in whether a person is affected by a potentially stressful workplace. Workers in jobs with similar demands, but different levels of control, exhibit very different psychological and physiological responses. With the same demand level, workers in low control workplaces are significantly more affected by their work.

This does not mean that we are doomed before we start. It is true that we can’t build gelled teams where the members are suffering the kind of stress that the Health and Safety Executive worries about, but it is possible to arrange the conditions of an individual team to reduce such stress, even if the rest of the organization continues to pass it around wretchedly.

The Dreaded Jungian Backlash can then be expected, but senior managers can defuse that by simply telling the people who are getting snotty not to worry about it, and just get on with doing their stuff. As soon as they are confident that they are not to blame, they won’t feel the need to translate the resentment they feel because of stress mismatch into microsabotage. They will no longer feel a need to “teach lessons” in case, by omitting to exercise stress-addicted sanctions, they might become “non-compliant” themselves. A few moments of strong leadership can blow this stuff away, but it’s amazing how many line managers are unable to do this because they are themselves trapped in the stress addicted organization’s climate of fear and unmentionables, and react to mounting resentment in a way which endorses and encourages it.

So just as the Health and Safety Executive say, we can back off from chronic, health destroying stress by identifying and removing stressors, and helping people organize their lives in a less stressful way. We also have to manage the Dreaded Jungian Backlash, which (as far as I know) is a novel part of this analysis.

Unfortunately we’ve still not done once we’ve got our teams sitting calmly and not having heart attacks. Even if they were the most unstressed people on their commuter train, they’d still be too stressed to be able to program (unless they happen to be a member of the lucky minority). We have to reduce their stress levels below ambient, and we have to do this without packing them off to a meditation centre in the mountains. It isn’t practical, and they’d probably object. We can’t get any further by removing stressors. Fortunately we can cut over to another trick - displacement.

By carefully working through everything a team member will need to call on, making sure they understand their job, and how it fits together with everyone else’s, and getting them to demonstrate their control to themselves, we can create the perception of control that Lee talks about. As all the self-improvement traditions say, good thoughts drive out bad ones. The worker might have a very stressful life outside, but at work they know where they are, their tools work as advertised, they know the tricks to make their libraries work. So they know they can load up a problem and get on with productive stuff, and as soon as they do that, they’re in flow. (At first, you will have to stimulate juxtapositional thinking. Use The Original Talks as a starting point - the chapters are available through the links at top right of the starting page.)

There’s another interesting point on Lee’s page that’s particularly relevant to software engineers working in open plan. He says:

One group was subjected to a loud noise in the middle of the exercise and told there was nothing they could do about it; they had to “grin and bear it.” The other group was subjected to the same loud noise in the middle of the exercise, but they were told they could have the noise stopped if they chose. The results were both fascinating and disturbing in their implications for organizational performance.

The group that had no control demonstrated a significant deterioration in their thought process during and after the noise. Their thinking became unemotional, unimaginative, and dull. It was as if they became temporarily dumb in order to endure the stressful situation. Even more interesting was the other group’s response. Although they were told they could stop the noise if they needed to, not one person chose to do so. Therefore, they experienced the same amount of unpleasant noise as the group which wasn’t given that option.

An engineer listening to CDs using earphones controls the tune and the volume. A naked engineer is exposed to the torture of waiting for the next phone to ring or conversation to start, and can’t stop them when they do. Earphones are obviously very valuable in open plan, and should never be banned. Going further, a lot of people don’t like the tiny phones which fit into the ear because they chaff, leading to the popularity of light headphones which sit on the ear. The problem with these is that they leak more sound, and this can be annoying to people who are not listening to music. Given the evidence for the debilitating effects of uncontrollable noise generated stress in open plan, I think it would make more sense to allow leaky headphones and suggest that everyone uses them.