Dealing with stress?
September 28, 2009 12:01 PM   Subscribe

If you give me a checklist of signs of serious stress or depression, I can check off pretty much all of them. Constant anxiety, panic attacks, flares of irritation at trivial things, headaches, feeling the overwhelming urge to break down and cry or just snap and yell at someone, exhaustion, lack of sleep, inability to enjoy my time off and alas heavy loss of libido. How do I cope when I can't escape what's causing me stress?

I have a loving wife (who's still putting up with my unreasonableness!), a reasonable size flat and enough money to get by on, and I get on pretty well with my and her family. I want to try and improve my moods for my wife as much as myself, as I'm surely not much of a fun guy to be round right now.

The problem is work. Without boring you with too much detail, I’m a sysadmin at an English boarding school, and have been in this job for 8 years now. There’s just me and one other guy on helpdesk for 1200 users, 500 computers, numerous student/staff laptops and some 70 odd (virtual) servers. We design, run and support it all, from the printers to the network to the email to the AD to the SAN. The network has kept growing and growing along the demands on the system (new software, more laptops, more wireless, more labs etc). And they also expect perfect reliability from email, internet access, fileserver etc. We’ve pleaded, begged, told management point blank that we need more manpower to keep it running or it will fall over. Nothing changes, if anything it just gets worse. My direct boss is very supportive, and fights our corner, but there’s only so much he can do to help us.

We’ve coped by stretching ourselves thinner and thinner; first was routine maintenance, then it was upgrades, and now I’m juggling 5 different super-critical jobs that all have to be done before anything else, and working 14 hour days (instead of the 9 I’m paid for) to not even stand still. The network is starting to fail, and I’m running out of redundant systems to take up the slack – we had a large surge last week which knocked out several core switches, and we’ve been desperately trying to keep everything running. And of course, everyone blames us when it breaks. And if I do get hit by a bus, their entire network is screwed, as I’m the only one who knows how it really works, as the documentation is limited. It's no way to run a proper network.

So why not just leave? Well, nobody is hiring down here for a start. And if they were, I’d need to move from my current rural area to an urban area, and I’m just about underwater on the flat I bought 3 years ago. And while we have a little money saved up, it’s not enough for me just to blow off work and go on sabbatical. Nor do I have any holiday left, we used most of it on the wedding and honeymoon.
So I’m at my wits end. I’m living day to day, doing my best not to blow a gasket at the next user request which is completely insane (I know you’ve really really busy, so you don’t need to come over today, first thing tomorrow to fix this 16-hours-needed problem will be fine, but it *is* urgent) or have a nervous breakdown. And I don’t know what to do anymore. Even my weekends, I end up thinking about work, I just can’t escape it, or stop worrying about it.
I do very little exercise as I have neither time nor energy, and while I lost 30 pounds before the wedding, I'm steadily putting it back on.

So I have 5 questions, if there’s anyone still reading:

1) How on earth do you cope with high-levels of stress that go on for years without just one day having a nervous breakdown?
2) If therapy is your answer to 1, where do I go, how do I get it in the UK, and how much does it cost (NHS?) – bearing in mind that I’m not broke, but not far off it.
3) How do I manage expectations of senior management that when you try and have 2 guys do the workload of 6, eventually they stop being able to do miracles?
4) How do I politely tell staff – so that they understand - that when I say we’re really really busy, that means *they’re* going to have to wait for their problem fix too, and yes, that does actually mean them personally and not just everybody else, no matter how urgent that their personal printer is out of toner is.
5) How do I stop caring? I take my job seriously, and criticisms of my system personally. If it's failed, so have I. And that stresses me out.

Thank you. (not posting anon as it'd be no great surprise to anyone that knows me that I'm on the verge of a nervous breakdown)
posted by ArkhanJG to Work & Money (32 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Have you considered getting them to hire another body or two?

If you can't lower your work load by putting some on other people, you need to walk away. Period. Some thankless job in IT is not worth wasting your life over.
posted by paanta at 12:23 PM on September 28, 2009

Wow you're me (except I'm the wife). I had two moods, suicidal and homicidal. At least until I got fired. (well, let go because of the economy, really.) It's the best thing that's ever happened to me. Being broke is far better than the hell I was going through before. Say flat out "Hire more help or I'm going to leave you high and dry". Get your co-worker to say the same thing.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 12:32 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

1] You don't. A nervous breakdown is the natural consequence of continuous high levels of stress. It applies to any system, human beings included. To avoid the breakdown, you have to remove the stress or learn new techniques for coping with it. It seems that you've already exhausted all the avenues, by pleading, begging and telling management that you need more manpower. New techniques need to be added that you can't add, and nobody else seems able or willing to do.

2] Therapy will not solve problem #1. Therapy will be useful to help you deal with the fallout from #1. Therapy will be absolutely essential if/when you do have a breakdown, but it can't do anything about your bosses refusals to add more money to the system. See your GP, and tell them clearly and concisely that you fear for your mental health. If they fob you off with "life's like that", ask for a second opinion. Keep doing this until you get some help. Sit in the GP's office until they get you an appointment with someone who can help.

3] Unless senior management have some idea of what the job is like, they aren't going to understand. And even if they do understand, they aren't necessarily going to care. And even if they do understand and do care, they still might not have the money available. Are you familiar with the concept of the straw that breaks the camel's back? You are the camel. They're going to stick straws on your back until it breaks.

4] Quit worrying about their feelings. When a ticket comes in, tell them that you expect the job to take X hours and that the earliest you can do it is X time on X date. Don't apologise or introduce any emotion whatsoever. Telling them you're "really really busy" is nebulous. Giving them a time and date lets them know when you expect the action to be accomplished. How they handle that info is up to them.

5] This is key. Quit caring, and a lot of your other problems will be solved instantly. Try to remember that you are not your job. You are a human being, who has a job. Also remember that this job that you have is driving you insane. To put it another way, say you have a pet snake. You love this snake, but it's the meanest, nastiest snake in the world, and it's trying to bite you. Would you carry on holding it?

Load has to be balanced, or the scales tip. At the moment, you're trying to add scaffolding to prevent that happening. Unfortunately, it is going to happen at some point, and you're going to be stood inside the scaffolding when it happens, if you're not careful. I know you can't afford to leave, but can you really afford to stay? Is this job worth losing your mind over?

[What I would do in this situation is this: take a month off on sick leave, without warning. I'd go to my GP, explain what was going on, and push the "I'm scared of losing my mind" angle. And then I'd stand back and watch the proverbial hit the fan, as the system no longer keeps chugging along nicely. I think it would take something like that to make the higher ups realise how critical this system is, and the time off would certainly be welcome too. Perhaps when I got back, they'd realise how much extra resources were necessary, and provide them. And if they didn't, then I'd walk. My sanity is worth more to me than a mere job.]
posted by Solomon at 12:36 PM on September 28, 2009 [4 favorites]

Let the system fail. Go back to working 9 hours a day, say no to any requests that would require you to work longer than that, and tell people that if they want the system fixed, they'll need to hire someone who has time to fix it. Eventually, the system failure will become critical enough that they'll have to hire someone else or give your team more resources.

No job is worth your health.
posted by decathecting at 12:36 PM on September 28, 2009 [12 favorites]

Research and find a way to start therapy of some kind, any kind, now.

I remember being without health care some years ago, but still managed to find a sliding scale therapist that was associated with the some state run health originizations. I worked with her for several months, a very crucial step and decision.

Experience has taught me that if I can find outside support for the inner turmoil, I can then start to work on solutions to the external conditions associated with the depression or anxiety or whatever.

But you need to start at the core -- developing an ongoing rapport with a good shrink, counselor, etc. that can help you onto the path of coping, management, and proactive engagement with your life. Prepare to give it time. Often people think they will go to three or four sessions and that's the extent of their process. Very rarely is that true. Plan on at least a year.
posted by zenpop at 12:56 PM on September 28, 2009

Quit caring, and a lot of your other problems will be solved instantly. Try to remember that you are not your job.

This, this, a thousand times this. I have been in a similar work stress situation in the past, and the only thing that saved my sanity was taking a deep breath and saying "Fuck this. I don't care enough about shitty reality TV to put myself through this."

I cut back my hours and turned my cellphone off when I went to bed so as not to be constantly harassed by freaked out field production staff.

As it was, the stress and my response to it irreparably destroyed the 7-year relationship I was in, but if I hadn't brought myself to stop caring when I did, it would have detroyed my sanity as well.

A few months later I ended up quitting anyway because, y'know, fuck it, but at least I'm not dead or in an institution.
posted by dersins at 1:02 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Explain everything you've said above to someone at school who is powerful enough to do something about it and who doesn't want the school's IT systems to collapse. They need to know you're working very long days and still not winning because there's too much to do. Be ready with some solid stats showing typical staffing to run an infrastructure that size. If you can show that you're definitely understaffed, they can only argue that they would rather the system fail than hire the needed additional staff.
posted by pracowity at 1:16 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

3) How do I manage expectations of senior management that when you try and have 2 guys do the workload of 6, eventually they stop being able to do miracles?

Stop doing miracles.

Put your foot down as far as your hours. You're paid to work 9 hours a day, 5 days a week, and that's what you'll work. Not a minute more. Arrive at 8, leave promptly at 5, or whatever your scheduled hours are, no matter how critical the issue is. (Unless the issue is literally life-or-death, i.e., a hospital system where a patient will die if it's not immediately fixed, but that doesn't sound like the case where you are.) Assuming you're salaried, theoretically your hours may be "whatever it takes to get the job done," but exceeding your normally scheduled hours is something that should only be necessary occasionally. Your employer is abusing this horrendously by requiring it (whether explicitly or implicitly) on a regular basis.

Figure out how to prioritize your work. Exactly how isn't nearly as important as having some method, and getting your boss's buy-in: maybe it's first-in-first-out, maybe you take into account the status of the person putting in the request (teacher>student), maybe you take into account how many people are affected. As long as you have a system. Then, when you get a request that, according to your prioritization scheme, will not get done for two weeks, tell them it won't get done for two weeks. They need it tomorrow? Too bad, it'll be done in two weeks. Their classes will fall behind schedule? Too bad, it'll be done in two weeks. That's the message to send, but don't be quite that brusque in tone. More like, "We're very very sorry, and we understand how important this is to you, but we have a number of even higher-priority issues which must be addressed first. We wish we could get to your problem sooner, but that will not be possible with our current staffing levels." Always bring it back to the inadequate staff level. Encourage them to complain to whoever it was who decided you couldn't have more staff. Better yet, cc that person yourself.

You may be thinking that you'd be fired if you did this. And I can't guarantee that you wouldn't be. But I think it very unlikely. Consider your own words:

And if I do get hit by a bus, their entire network is screwed, as I’m the only one who knows how it really works, as the documentation is limited.

You. Are. Golden.

They can't fire you. By "can't" I don't mean it's literally impossible, of course, but they're highly unlikely to because they'd be far worse off than they are now if they did. They have more to lose than you do, so you're in control.

I take my job seriously, and criticisms of my system personally. If it's failed, so have I.

Remind yourself: First, no computer system today is beyond failure. It's part and parcel of the complexity of modern computer systems. Second, you did not personally write every line of code in every program on ever computer and printer and server and router in your system. There are thousands of bugs in all that software which will be triggered only under obscure combinations of circumstances, and they are not your fault. Not to mention the possibility of hardware failures: you didn't physically design the computers and servers and routers and printers either, I'm guessing (and even if you did, all parts have a finite lifetime). A large part of your job is correcting other people's faults as best you can. You should not take it personally when other people's faults surface.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 1:38 PM on September 28, 2009 [4 favorites]

Your employer has no incentive to hire anyone else. Start working 9 - 10 hrs/day. Prioritize your work, and give accurate estimates when work is requested. Tell your supervisor you need a budget for ongoing training, since you are doing far more work that you were hired for. Start documenting your accomplishments, record the amount of work, and report monthly on what's getting done. Do a semi-annual report on what's not getting done, like security analysis, planning, etc.

You tell staff that you understand that their need is quite urgent but that you have limited staffing and appreciate their patience.

You don't stop caring. You start caring more about your own life than about a bunch of machines. Users will always want more; it's fine to sympathize, but they really don't care personally that you gave up your sleep/life/health to take care of them.

Go to the doctor, tell the doc this story, and get a recommendation for at least 1 week, preferably 2, of rest. Sleep well, eat healthy, and go back to a healthier schedule. If you still feel depressed, then ask the doc for a referral to a therapist.
posted by theora55 at 1:43 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is the school's problem. It is not your problem. Make them see this.

Write to your boss* explaining the issues you've set out above in a way that gives him the ammunition he will need to take it up with whomever he reports to. Explain that you must put your obligations to yourself and your family on an equal footing to your obligations to the School. Therefore in two weeks time, you intend to revert to the hours specified in your contract, and you will not exceed them under any circumstances. Say it will be to the school's advantage for you to do this, as the likely alternative is that your health will deteriorate to the point at which you will need to take a substantial period of time off work to recover.

You would therefore like to meet with him urgently so that he can advise you which aspects of your work you should prioritise and which you should not, as ithere is already insufficient time for you to deal with all matters within your area of responsibility, and this situation will be substantially worse after this date. Further, you would like his assurance that he will support you in this action, and will himself deal with any complaints that may be received about the declining quality of service provided by your Department.

You are taking this action reluctantly, but do NOT apologise for declining any longer to donate 25 hours a week of your own time to your employer. You are not a charity. You might want to add that you are angry for being forced to take this action, which goes against all your natural instincts and your professionalism.

(Optional extra: there is loads of good stuff produced by the Health and Safety Executive about employers' responsibilities for managing risks of stress among their staff. Check their website and quote yourself some good quotes. Why? The law is on your side - make sure they know that.)

Then, whatever happens in the intervening period, do it.

I am a bursar at a school not dissimilar to the one you're at. We used to treat many of our staff this way. Flogging good people half to death was regarded as good management. Victorian School? - Victorian values. Since I arrived, we don't do it anymore (I hope).

Good luck.

* Trying to be brief - sorry not to write in gender neutral terms: for "he" read "he or she" throughout.
posted by genesta at 1:46 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

I had a period in my life several years ago where I felt overwhelmed. I found myself in a hole with someone shoveling dirt in, then someone else shoveling, then another. When the problems become bigger than the hole, someone gets a face full of dirt.
posted by netbros at 1:50 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

How do I cope when I can't escape what's causing me stress?

Stop trying to escape. When you feel bad, allow it to happen. You're supposed to feel bad in the situation you are in. So let the fear briefly hold sway, then let it go.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:52 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is the list of symptoms that the UK's HSE asscoiates with stress. You need to emphasise to your line manager that you believe that you are showing a number of the signs and (if you are) demonstrating a number of the symptoms. Enlist the aid of whoever is responsible of health and safety in your company. Also bear in mind that you yourself have a legal obligation to look after your own health and safety in the workplace. It really is possible to get yourself to a position where you have a breakdown. I can assure you this is a pretty horrible thing just to see happen to someone else, as has occurred to me recently. It's something that coyuld really impact your health and wellbeing for years.

You are right to think that the underlying issue needs to be addressed if you are to stop any problems reoccurring, but that shouldn't stop you from seeing a doctor and perhaps getting signed off for some time. they may also be able to give you other assistance, stress counselling, sleeping pills if this is affecting your sleep patterns, etc. Your first duty has to be to you. Your company will not give a shit if you end up on the scrapheap, so you have to.

Other things to do: Talk to your line manager and senior managaers if necesary concerning the need for more resources. Talk to your line manager about working to your contracted hours. If you can't make any progress consider raising a grievance but this can be a problem. Are you in a union? They would also be able to advise and perhaps have someone accompany you to meetings with your line manager, etc to negotiate change.
posted by biffa at 1:53 PM on September 28, 2009

take a month off on sick leave, without warning. I'd go to my GP, explain what was going on.


I have been where you are earlier this year and if my family hadn't forced me to see a GP I would undoubtedly be hospitalised by now. I was on the point of breakdown and was still insisting on doing 16 hour days.

Your sanity is worth more than any job, and when you step off the hamster wheel it will scare you how long it takes to get back to being normal. Go to your doctor, explain how you feel. You don't need to push any angle, just say what you're feeling, and experiencing, and they will draw their own conclusion. They will most likely sign you off work, for 1-4 weeks, and ask to see you again befor eyou go back. Sickness usually happens without warning so that is really not your concern. If you do not prioritise yourself now, no-one else will, and then you risk going past the point of no return.

This is important: take this time. Recover, rest, sleep, regain your sanity. If, at the end of it, you feel strong enough to return, do so but on your own terms and in the limit of the hours you are paid for. They do not pay you enough for you to sacrifice your health for them.

Good luck
posted by Skaramoosh at 1:54 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

Having been in a similar scenario in the past (although not IT-related), I would say that it's quite likely that upper management is well aware of the teetery-ness of the system, of your concerns, of your stress, and that you're pounding yourself over the head with a proverbial two-by-four in an attempt to keep everything running. And if you ask upper-management, they'll make noises about your health and well-being (because they have to), and likely about finances and how everybody is stretched thin these days. The fact that they know this and aren't doing anything about it leads me to think that there will be no help coming from that quarter. If your bosses are anything like my old bosses, their attitude is: "you're the one looking after it, deal with it yourself".

This is, incidentally, the exact same scenario lobbyists face when asking politicians for money. Your goal is to get the politician to open the purse strings and throw some funding your way. The direct approach almost never works, and complaining and saying how hard you have things will simply make your audience stop listening. So, how do you make them listen?

Basically, you need to make them understand what's in it for them, and give them a solid rationale for pouring money into your project in preference to another.

So, here's what I'd do, in this order:

1) Ask yourself how badly you want/need the job, and whether you think your sanity and marriage will hold up until you can fix this.

2) If you decide to stay in the job, start by managing your clients' expectations. Like Solomon says, institute a ticket system where an IT problem will addressed on X day at X hour, and not before. You shouldn't need to explain yourself, but do be prepared to stand up to the inevitable wheedling that will ensue. It helps a lot if your boss is onside with this. Make sure you build in sufficient time in your estimates, so you're not completely swamped.

3) Now that you have bought yourself some breathing room, look at what it will take to fix the larger IT problem: new hardware, new software, different network configuration, whatever. Do up a cost-benefit scenario. Be creative. Brainstorm with your co-worker and boss on this.

4) Collectively do up some speaking points. Keep it positive: "IT at St. Boarder's Boarding School is looking towards the future. We envision a connected learning environment where.." blah blah blah. The point is to show leadership, vision, positive outcomes, etc., while at the same time allowing management to infer that the current IT system is none of these things you've just described. It helps if you can do a little sleuthing and find out what management's priorities are, and see where your plan might dovetail into theirs.

5) Build alliances with others who might have a vested interest in seeing the system work better. Teachers, students, whatever. If management hears the same message from many people, they're more likely to take the request seriously.

5) Arrange to give this presentation to the mucky-mucks, whether as a group or simply your manager. Make sure you have a solid workplan ready to go, so that you can whip it out at the first hint of interest from management.

6) Be prepared to try multiple times before management finally gives in.

Best of luck, and do let us know how you get on!
posted by LN at 2:05 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

To clarify, you can give the presentation jointly or get your boss to do it. Go up the chain of command, rather than going straight to the headmaster, if there are several layers of management in your organization.
posted by LN at 2:12 PM on September 28, 2009

I'm also a sysadmin, and trying to climb out of a similar situation. Your first paragraph could have been written by me four months ago. I'm not out of the woods yet, but things have got much better for me and things are hopefully improving.

I was fortunate that the organisation I work for has a counselling service, and I made an appointment when I realised the situation was getting too much - I'd reached the panic/tears/yelling stage, although I was hiding it most of the time. The counselling/therapy for work related stress was about how to think about work, how to think more clearly about problems, bosses, deadlines, and also how to deal with the symptoms of the stress. The counselling was very practical help.

Trying to do too much was very stressful, but I found that trying to stop doing too much was in some ways even more stressful. The counselling helped me deal with that.

Your employers might be able to arrange stress counselling but I know this could be awkward. It might be possible to contact a service in your LEA, or via a union (you may not need to be a member). Your local GP should be able to refer you to an appropriate counselling service.

Remember that what you are suffering from is a work related injury.

Things I found useful: (but may not be suitable for your situation)

Make sure you have a written copy of your warnings and requests for help - email is fine. This is will help your manager help you too.

Can you set an email auto-reply message? If things get busy and requests for work start piling up it helps if you have an autoreply that says something like "We are experiencing heavy demand and currently have limited resources - there may be a delay in responding to your request." This gives you a breathing space, explains the delay, makes it clear that there is a problem. Every message gets the auto-reply.

Great sysadmins tend to become increasingly invisible to the people they support. When a system fails, people see it. When it works fine it disappears. It might take few (real) problems to actually make the situation real to people.

Choose what fails, or better still, get someone in authority to choose. If you don't have time to do everything ask your manager to request some prioritisation from above. Being able to say "I can't do X because if I do the very important Y will fail" can be good.

You probably want to say "yes, we can do that" but need to say "No, we can't do that yet" or "I will need to see if we have the resources". This is incredibly difficult but managing to do it can be like seeing the clouds part and a blue sky appear overhead. 'Assertiveness training' that helps handle these situations can also be available from work counselling.

So far, not as much has failed (yet) as I had feared. When it does, well, I told 'em so.

You care about your work and are trying to do everything the way it should be done, but without enough support something is going to fail. It can either be a project or a system, or your health. No IT system is as valuable as you. Stress like this can weaken your immune system and you can get seriously ill as a result.

Hope things work out OK.
posted by BinaryApe at 2:20 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Firstly, thank you all for you answers so far. It’s been of some help that nobody has told me yet to suck it up and take it like a man. For what it’s worth, I’m a product of my generation – the infamous british stiff upper lip – when I get punched in the face, I stick out my chin and dare them to do it again. It’s some measure of where I’ve come to that I’ve even posted this askmefi at all, it’s been brewing for some time.

In some ways, it’s like walking on a broken leg through a snowstorm – there are people depending upon me, and while it’s very tempting to just curl up, lie down and give up I’m afraid of what will happen to me mentally and consequentially to myself and others should I do so, so I just keep limping along, hoping that somehow things will improve.

For what it’s worth, I’ve already had numerous sit-downs both with my boss, and a couple with the headmaster (and my boss has done the same repeatedly with the senior management) – we’ve presented paperwork and arguments about the level of staffing that is standard in other schools, which is far greater than our own. I’m still sure that while senior management may grasp the problem to an extent, they simply do not grasp how close we are to the precipice in terms of network capability, or they have other constraints that means they are unwilling to actually do anything. Both myself and my boss fear it will take a serious network outage, or my complete collapse from exhaustion before anything is done. I know of at least one other senior staff member that ended up taking a 2 month sabbatical due to stress, and two other departments that are suffering from understaffing levels as severe as ours, yet despite management making the right noises about something being done, nothing changes.

We have already implemented a job ticketing system which autoreplies similarly as suggested, and assigns them a ticket number, and requested that staff enter jobs there directly via email instead of haranguing us directly. We also try to give them an estimated time of repair. Yet when immediate resolution is not apparent, they take their complaints, and how urgent their problem is to senior management, and the directive comes down to bump that job to the top of the list which of course blows the estimates we've already given to other people into a crocked hat. I sit down at least weekly (and this last fortnight, daily) with my direct manager to decide which of the ‘must-do-first’ jobs on my list actually is first. If I’m lucky, I actually get to rush through that job and pull off some barely tested bodge fix. If I’m unlucky, that job is pre-empted by yet another even more urgent job that senior management have decided is now first. I am no longer choosing between urgent and non-urgent jobs, but simply working on the ones that have the most people yelling loudest to management about. This has the unfortunate effect that those users that have real need, but are sympathetic, come after those whose need may or may not be more urgent, but bitch more to senior management – meaning more and more staff now go over my and my bosses head with both barrels, as it's the only realistc chance they have of getting major issues resolved, regardless of the dependecies and additional work that may entail.

I have already cut my hours in the office to my scheduled hours with the agreement of my boss, with great effort, leaving jobs undone, but I find myself unable to stop thinking about work, worrying about work, and researching other fixes. Right now, I have three other tabs open, researching what I’m working on tomorrow at 11pm at night; tomorrow morning, when I wake I will no doubt carry on reading over breakfast and checking email before I set foot in the office. Much as I would like to stop doing this, I find myself unable to let it alone and rest. I’m going to be thinking about it anyway, so I might as well be doing something productive! I am unable to sleep more that 6 hours a night. Many nights, I get less than 5, then collapse at the weekend, to the great distress of my wife.

I did sit down today with my boss, again, and lay it out bluntly the state of my mental wellbeing, or rather the lack of it, and how senior management’s interference with our priorities (and willingness to dump some additional great new project on us near weekly) is actively harmful, and he’s talked, again, to senior management about the risk of my burning out. My boss is doing what he can, and giving me similar advice, and confirming that they do value me, and what I do, and that they understand the pressure is intolerable – yet this is the same tune I’ve heard for the last three years, and their response at most is to ask the staff to give us some breathing room on the mistaken assumption that all we need is a few weeks breathing room to get us back to normal.

We don’t lack for hardware; we have successfully argued the need to put new systems in place, we’ve purchased them or have the ring fenced budgets to buy them – but the great irony is I don’t even have the time now to keep our current system running, let alone actually finish implementing the infrastructure upgrades we desperately need.

Fortunately, I have so far managed to mostly resist the temptation to self-medicate with alcohol, though my alcohol consumption has doubled this week from my usual 3 units a week, despite my best efforts to resist.

Right now I’m trying to face up to the unpalatable choice between my sanity/health, and my fear that should I fail to keep walking on my broken leg, I will not be able to pick myself up again. I would not be the first in my family to succumb to depression, and I did indeed fall to the black dog once before, and it took me years to recover from it. While work may indeed need to have substantial and lasting system failures before something is done, I’m afraid that should I prove to be unreliable now, they will start the process to replace me.
A friend of mine in another technical post advertised a job recently locally – they had 200 people apply, and over 50 met the requirements to fulfil the post. Should I stumble now and eventually lose my job, I fear deeply that I would not be able to find another, and lose my house and take years to recover my financial standing.

It is an unpleasant place to be in, and I’m only just now realising there appear to be few to no palatable solutions.

I will take two steps, both of them personally painful, as they demonstrate my failure. I will put into writing my concerns, professionally and personally, as I have already expressed verbally to my boss and his boss. I will also set up an appointment with my GP urgently, and see what help, if any, he can offer me to help me hang onto my sanity. Any further suggestions will continue to be welcomed.

Thank you again for your time so far in what is a difficult time for me, it has been helpful.
posted by ArkhanJG at 3:09 PM on September 28, 2009

Also, I have never had therapy, and did deal with last bought of depression some 10 years ago on my own. Asking for help in such a way makes me feel a failure, and I'm not convinced I'd get it anyway - it's not like I have an actual mental illness as such, just a level of stress I am no longer able to deal with. We'll see what happens with my GP.
posted by ArkhanJG at 3:21 PM on September 28, 2009

Oh, and we have already implemented a system over the last couple of years where we present our level of accomplishments in detail, and what else we could do with more hardware. We got the bare minimum of hardware/software spend we needed, and I got a real-terms pay cut, same as everyone else. It's the economy, of course.
posted by ArkhanJG at 3:23 PM on September 28, 2009

Firstly, tell the higher ups to stay the fuck out of your department. They aren't running it. You are. When they come down and help you run it, they get to tell you what to do with it. Until then, they stay out. Ignore any orders they send down about bumping jobs to the top of the list. When they start to moan, take a stand and tell them that you have three other jobs to do that are actually more important. That kind of behaviour is intolerable.

I’m going to be thinking about it anyway, so I might as well be doing something productive!

You're feeding the cycle. If you want to break this habit, you're doing exactly the opposite of what you should be doing. You might have cut hours in the office, but you're just spending those same hours doing the same work at home instead. Close the browser. If you need to research stuff, do it at work, when you're being paid to do it. Other jobs will have to wait.

they do value me

Really? Are you sure they're not just saying empty words to keep you on side?

The only thing that is going to keep you hanging on to your sanity is reducing your stress level. The fact that you've already increased your alcohol intake is a big red flag. That's a slippery slope.

One thing to remember is that YOU haven't failed. You've gone far, far above what could reasonably be expected of you. You've done your best, and nobody can ask any more of you than that. That's sufficient. Perhaps not for other people, but it has to be enough for you. If you only have 100 apples, then that's all you can give. There's no magic trick you can perform to create more apples. Once they're gone, they're gone. The faster you realise that you're on your 97th apple, the better.

You're not responsible for anybody else. You have certain dues, of course, but the only person you're responsible for is yourself (and your kids). Nobody else matters. The computer department certainly doesn't matter. Why? because it's slowly killing you, mentally. And quite possibly too, when you have a stroke or a heart attack from the stress.

You say you can't afford to lose this job? Dude, you can't afford to keep it. Life is too short. Why spend it being miserable. I promise you, when you're lying on your deathbed, you won't look back and think about how proud you are to have keep working at this job so long.

it's not like I have an actual mental illness as such

Not yet, no. But when that hurricane arrives, it's going to be a doozy. Now is the time to get the hurricane warning sent out. Not in three months time.
posted by Solomon at 3:37 PM on September 28, 2009 [2 favorites]

You say you can't afford to lose this job? Dude, you can't afford to keep it. Life is too short. Why spend it being miserable. I promise you, when you're lying on your deathbed, you won't look back and think about how proud you are to have keep working at this job so long.

Hay for the Horses
by Gary Snyder

He had driven half the night
From far down San Joaquin
Through Mariposa, up the
Dangerous Mountain roads,
And pulled in at eight a.m.
With his big truckload of hay
behind the barn.
With winch and ropes and hooks
We stacked the bales up clean
To splintery redwood rafters
High in the dark, flecks of alfalfa
Whirling through shingle-cracks of light,
Itch of haydust in the
sweaty shirt and shoes.
At lunchtime under Black oak
Out in the hot corral,
---The old mare nosing lunchpails,
Grasshoppers crackling in the weeds---
"I'm sixty-eight" he said,
"I first bucked hay when I was seventeen.
I thought, that day I started,
I sure would hate to do this all my life.
And dammit, that's just what
I've gone and done."
posted by dersins at 3:44 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nthing what was said by Solomon, Theora55 and Devil's Advocate among others. I've been there and lost a fair bit of health because of it. Never again.

The only thing I would add to their advice is that you have to go cold turkey on the not-caring part. It's clear you value doing a good job; you need to shift the balance to where it now needs to go - valuing your health and sanity even more than pride in your work. So you have to become hard-nosed about your new boundaries, and do it right from the get-go. And the sooner you start, the easier it will be to say no gracefully. Let a few things slide, do a few favours, and soon the stress level goes back up and it's hard to say no gracefully because you're on the edge again.

I too had a supportive boss; he got a study done that said me and my assistant were doing the work of four people. Management agreed, but n the end his boss couldn't come up with the budget for new staff and my assistant and I were gone by the end of the year. My boss took stress leave shortly after. Sometimes having the problem heard is not enough; make sure to keep an eye out for new avenues.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 5:42 PM on September 28, 2009

Someone suggested telling the higher ups to stay out of things and stick to your own priorities. I suggest doing something to accomplish the same goal without running the risk of getting in trouble for insubordination. Whenever they prioritize something higher, do what they say, but follow up with an email listing all the things (or the top few things) that are now prioritized lower as a consequence. If they want to be in charge of setting priorities, fine, they're the boss, but don't shield them from the consequences.

Also, I wanted to agree with the folks upthread who said you need to figure out a way to unplug from work when you're at home. Maybe a simple sort of ritual when you get home, to mark the line between home life and work life. Something as simple as changing your clothes even. If possible, take up a hobby that gets you out of the house and somewhere where you don't have the option of checking on work even if you want to. (I'm partial to the climbing gym -- being halfway up a wall hanging upside down by one hand focuses the mind wonderfully on the activity itself and doesn't leave much room for thoughts of work.)
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 5:46 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

You are not a failure. You are a human being who is being asked to do the impossible. It's good that you are going to your GP (I'm in the U.S., but I assume that means your general practitioner/primary care physician?). GPs are generalists; they are not trained in mental health, so I hope that you can get a referral to a psychiatrist or psychologist.

It sounds like you are obsessing about work 24/7. I can relate to that -- I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and I can relate to a lot of what you are saying. Sometime down the road, you might want to consider seeking out GAD and OCD support groups or reading about these disorders on a reputable medical Web site.

There is no shame in seeking help when you need it, and stress and depression are serious problems. You have to take care of yourself; an employer will use you up until there is nothing left. I hope that you are allowed to take some time off to recuperate and enjoy your loved ones. Be good to yourself.
posted by Sylvie at 6:18 PM on September 28, 2009

How do I cope when I can't escape what's causing me stress?

You can always escape.

It took me many years to realise that, I went down the "don't care" route (more on that later), and I still broke. Stress - real, nasty, ongoing stress; the kind that leads to breakdown & incapacitation - is largely a reaction to feeling out of control of a situation, with no option or hope of escape. You feel you're in a hole you can't get out of, and the only option apparent is to keep digging and make the hole deeper and more inescapable.

As people have said above, one way is to learn to stop caring. This doesn't have to mean totally - you can stop caring about the job situation, and still continue to do a good job by your own measures. As long as you can walk away at the end of the day with the knowledge that you've done your job well, you can learn to stop caring about the big picture. Don't care about the constant demands for "more, better, faster" - care only about performing to your best. Personal satisfaction beats employer satisfaction any day.

Since the situation is so fucked anyway that it's damaging you, it's unlikely to be made worse by doing this - you're either so indispensable that they'll have to deal with that (at least until they can find some other sucker to burn), or you're on the verge of being let go anyway. If the second happens at least you get to walk out on something like your own terms, with your head held high and with your sense of personal satisfaction intact.

Constant anxiety, panic attacks, flares of irritation at trivial things, headaches, feeling the overwhelming urge to break down and cry or just snap and yell at someone, exhaustion, lack of sleep, inability to enjoy my time off and alas heavy loss of libido.

Yeah, that was me. Culminated in me waking up one day curled up in a foetal position sobbing - not waking up and then crying, but actually waking up like that. Not good. Took me an hour before I could drag myself out of bed. Then, when I somehow got myself into the car to go to work, I couldn't turn the key.

After half an hour of trying, I went back inside and called the doctor. Best move I ever made - not because they did much (they didn't, but it did untold good to talk it out with a disinterested party), but because I was admitting to myself that I was actually broken and was trying to fix it.

I can understand how seeking help makes you feel like a failure. To be honest, I still think I'd feel the same in that situation. What helped save me that morning after that morning was getting good and fucking angry! at the people and situation that made me break like that. I wasn't admitting failure - I was going to make those bastards understand and pay for doing that to me.

(I broke down on a Friday morning. Friday night I saw the doctor, who listened and fobbed me off with some mild anti-depressants. Over the weekend, the pills calmed me down enough that for the first time in years I could think clearly enough to organise my thoughts and see what and why it was happening to me. By Monday I was fighting to go to work and rip my boss, his boss, and the state manager a new one...)

People tend to think "stress" is BS; something or a cop-out or a personal failing. It's not. For the most part, when most people talk about being stressed - they've got a big exam coming up, an important presentation to make, or they're working on a major job - they mean "I'm being run ragged, but it'll go away after that's done". That's not "real" stress. The "real" long-term killer type of stress comes from being in a situation you can't see an escape from. The only way to beat that is to make an escape for yourself.

On the upside, after coming through that I no longer fall into the trap of living in fear. Sure, yeah, I worry and get 'stressed' by things - for example, I've got 2 major assessments, 1 minor assessment, and a couple of presentations for uni due next week! - but I no longer fear such things. I know that nothing will ever make me live in constant fear again.

It's just not worth it. Do something about it. Now.
posted by Pinback at 6:32 PM on September 28, 2009 [4 favorites]

Following up on Blue Jello Elf's idea, when you follow up with "an email listing all the things (or the top few things) that are now prioritized lower as a consequence" be sure to CC all the people involved so everyone knows that "Putting toner in Maths Head's printer" is now more important than "restoring English Department's access to databases", and so on, down the line. Management wants to set your priorities? Fine, but then THEY will be dealing with the staff that are upset about being bumped instead of you.
posted by saucysault at 7:09 PM on September 28, 2009 [3 favorites]

Realizing that it's not your failure is going to be crucial in your ability to handle this situation and move on. It's easier to recognize when it's happening to other people. When you understand that no amount of personal skill and ability to triage/prioritize the workload that would be sufficient to deal with the amount of work being dumped on you, then maybe you won't feel as if you failed. You certainly shouldn't feel that way.

It's easy to look back and say "if I'd only done this, this, and this better I might have been able to handle all these tasks," but the reality is that's unreasonable. There's only so much you can do when you're in a position that constantly requires task-switching and dealing with "fire drills" and interrupts.

When management knows that there isn't enough of you to go around, and can't or won't find budget to bring in new people, the failure is not yours. It's probably not your immediate manager's, either. It's an institutional failure and there's little you can do about it -- and again, it's *not your failure*.
posted by jzb at 7:22 PM on September 28, 2009 [1 favorite]

Realizing that it's not your failure is going to be crucial in your ability to handle this situation and move on. It's easier to recognize when it's happening to other people. When you understand that no amount of personal skill and ability to triage/prioritize the workload that would be sufficient to deal with the amount of work being dumped on you, then maybe you won't feel as if you failed. You certainly shouldn't feel that way.

Ditto this.

Should I stumble now and eventually lose my job--

To me, this sounds like an unrealistic fear. Sure, that could happen. But what's the path from a stumble to being laid off? Not every stumble means you fall. And they really, really need you.

Have you told your wife about all of your fears? I wonder if she wouldn't have a different definition of "failure." There are worse things than losing a house. She might prefer a healthy and unemployed husband. Surely your health and your relationship with her are more important than doing the impossible until you crack, in this one insanely impossible job.

I’m only just now realising there appear to be few to no palatable solutions

You're in what engineers sometimes call an over bounded problem. You have been doing more and more, until you can't do any more. Now it seems like there are no options, so you're starting to break. The main option that you consider viable is for them to provide more help. While that is the best (and most fair) solution, that's outside of your control. And it doesn't sound like they're going to suddenly do it. So, I'd search for a new solution that's within your power to control. I'd intensely question yourself when you think you can't do something, since your current way of thinking has ruled out all the options.

It's easy to get locked into survival mode when you're stressed. In fact stressed brains rely on habit instead of their own goals, biochemically. That makes it hard to step back and ask "is this how I really want to live? No. Then how can I live another way?" You talk a lot about what you would consider failure. What does real success look like to you?
posted by salvia at 12:12 AM on September 29, 2009 [4 favorites]

Left field I know - but if they're not going to do anything to give you more staff....

If your boarding school has a sixth form, is there no way you could talk to the head about having placements from some of the brightest and best IT kids? Who could do basic basic things, 2 or 4 hours a week? Someone to do photocopying, logging things?

And look after yourself, and 'speaking as a wife'.... keep talking to your wife about this. And also being british is all very well, but we as a nation have to take tea breaks. Remember that...
posted by Augenblick at 6:00 AM on September 29, 2009 [3 favorites]

As someone who works 80-100 hours a week in IT, I understand all too well. I consider myself very, very overextended ... but honestly, the set of responsibilities you have described absolutely DWARFS mine. It might be the most extreme workload I've ever heard of in our time.

Try some of the things that people here are suggesting, but if months pass and nothing has changed, consider walking away. Otherwise you are going to have some serious health problems not too long down the line. This isn't what you were put here for, and you don't need to give your very life to this job.

And ...
1.) For the network administrator/local stuff:
I was about to suggest the same thing that Augenblick put out there. Perhaps there are 5 or 10 kids at the school who would love to do some kind of internship type of situation setting up LANs, etc.

2.) For the internet applications/virtual servers:
See if your allies can at least get you a couple thousand quid of additional budget, and consider delegating some work to external freelancer subcontractors. Sites such as scriptlance and elance are filled with skilled programmers who will take care of that all-day project on the server for £50. You can quickly develop a working relationship with an external programmer who gets to know your system and steps in to take care of things fairly inexpensively. It might not be the course of action for higher-security applications, but for a lot of other things it might remove some of the pressure.

Good luck!
posted by dacoit at 1:15 PM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

"And if I do get hit by a bus, their entire network is screwed, as I’m the only one who knows how it really works, as the documentation is limited."

Well, it sounds like they need you too much to fire you, even if your job performance started sucking. So the only reason you have to keep up your amazing performance in the face of impossible circumstances is your own high standards for yourself.

Maybe you should relax a bit, stop working so hard, and spend more time goofing off giggling over Bastard Operator from Hell instead.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:13 PM on September 29, 2009 [1 favorite]

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