OK, if you’re stressed out by work at the moment, that’s probably a pretty annoying title. The last thing someone who’s stressed wants to hear is that it’s their own fault. Not just because that’s hard to accept, but because you’re probably surrounded by plenty of colleagues, who would whole-heartedly agree with you, when you say:
“There’s just not enough hours in the day. If I don’t work overtime, it won’t get done.”
“If you want something done right, do it yourself.”
“It’s this place – it’s just chaos. How are you supposed to get anything done, when we keep piling on more?”
“It’s management making all the wrong decisions. And we’re the ones who have to deal with it.”
“I spend all my time fire-fighting and fixing other people’s problems!”
This was me just a few years ago. If I didn’t say them out loud, I definitely thought them – over and over again. I was working as an engineer for a big, global car company in the UK.
I was the most stressed I’d ever been; sometimes dreading going to the office, where I was often one of the first to arrive and the last to leave.
Overtime became an on-going habit and things going wrong seemed to be the accepted norm. Instead of pulling together to solve problems, many of us would play blame games and seek to protect ourselves, for fear of being lumped with even more problems and delays.
To make matters worse, I had a chronic physical condition, which had started in my previous job, and which would flare up with stress. Before I knew it, I’d been signed off work and spent 3 weeks on my couch.
It was the wakeup call I needed. And the perfect timeout to reflect and to ask myself some serious questions. After much pondering, I realised that:
It wasn’t the job, it wasn’t the people and it wasn’t the circumstances that were causing my stress. It was me.
By trying to do it all myself, to please everybody, to avoid failure – and all the while not asking for help, for fear of being seen as incompetent – I had created my own internal hell.
Although at times, I’d felt “motivated” by the thought of being the hero, and stopping the brown stuff from hitting the fan, I realised that even then, I was driven by an underlying sense of fear. This had become my pattern; no matter what I did and where I worked.
I’d quit my previous job to travel the world and “find myself”; to finally let go, to give up control and let life show me the way to my true calling.
Instead, I felt more lost than ever; not knowing who I was anymore, having identified so closely with my career and my achievements and deciding to leave both behind for…who knows what.
I discovered deep-seated beliefs of unworthiness and of not being good enough, which felt stronger than ever, having left the busy distraction of my job. It seemed I’d escaped the office stress, only to discover much deeper negative emotions; ironically whilst lounging around on beautiful beaches in Southeast Asia.
In other words, I’d found external paradise…but hadn’t lost the internal hell. I’d heard it before, but had never understood it so clearly:
You take yourself everywhere you go.
Meaning, you can’t escape from yourself. But rather than feeling trapped by that thought, I felt empowered. I knew the only person that could turn things around was me. And so, I did.
Fast forward 3 years.
I’m an Agile Coach at a fast-growing tech company, where I get to help people work in new ways that feel good to them and that maximise the value and meaning of what they do. Basically, it’s all about bringing out the best in people. On the side, I’m also a Life Coach. I help my clients to discover who they really are and what they really want in their lives and careers. I help them to see themselves from new perspectives, to envision their amazing new lives and careers, in vivid detail, and then find concrete, feel-good ways of living their vision today.
I can honestly say I love my work. And that work stress is a thing of the past. But I didn’t get here by escaping. I got here by falling in love with the very same job that stressed the hell out of me, which ironically inspired me to change careers. How? By realising it wasn’t about “managing” my stress; but not creating it in the first place. Here are the major steps I took and my top self-help tips along the way.
Step 1 – Being kinder to myself
Once I was off my couch and back at work, I made some really small, but significant, changes.
Instead of checking my work emails on the commute to work, I read an inspiring, thought-provoking book.
Instead of rushing in the mornings, I took my time. I treated myself to a nice, comforting breakfast and a tall, tasty cup of coffee.
Instead of powering through the day, I took breaks when I felt like it – I chatted to colleagues and even went for lunchtime strolls. (It’s amazing what fresh air and walking can do).
The result? I had a lot more energy and was even more productive! And I actually started to enjoy my mornings and lunchtimes.
Self-help Tip #1: Build your day around you. Spend just a few minutes at the start of each day and ask yourself “what do I feel like doing today?” and do it! The sooner in the day, the better. You can start with just one small thing at first – as long as you feel like doing it and you’re doing it for you; not other people.
Why? To build a habit of putting yourself first and to inject a little enjoyment and “me time” into your workday.
Step 2 – Shifting my focus to what I love
Nice breakfasts and lunchtime walks were great. But that was just the beginning. It’s funny – the more you start to enjoy your day, or at least certain parts of it, the more sensitive you become to the not-so-enjoyable parts. I became a lot more aware of which aspects of my job were draining my energy and which aspects gave me energy.
Put simply – I loved working with people, but not products. People energized me. Products didn’t.
I loved coming up with more effective ways to communicate, collaborate and find win-win-win solutions (where the company, our suppliers and our customers win). Building strong relationships, communicating well, and bringing the right people together, were things that came naturally to me and therefore energised me.
So, I made that my focus. I spent a lot more time and energy on those things and less on trying to fix nitty-gritty problems with our products.
As a result, I started to really enjoy the work itself and not just my break times!
Self-help Tip #2: Find the parts of your job you love – and do more. Walk through your typical workday and list all the stuff you usually do – when, where, with whom etc. Then go through each one and ask yourself “does this give me energy or drain me of energy?” In other words, is it an “energy gainer” or an “energy drainer”? Then ask yourself, “how can I do more of my energy gainers? And how can I let go of, or transform the energy drainers so that they aren’t so draining anymore?”
Why? Because in my book, work isn’t meant to feel like work…or at least in the new testament!
Step 3 – Re-shaping my job
This step, I guess, was the formal version of step 2. The more I focused on the good stuff, the more I got a taste of how easy and enjoyable work could be. Not just for me, but for those I worked so closely with.
I wanted to not only focus on the good stuff – but to only do the good stuff! I made a carefully crafted pitch to my manager (and his manager) to convince them they needed a ‘Continuous Improvement Leader’ and exactly what my new role would involve. Basically, I would work on people; not products or projects.
They were impressed. “Show us what you’ve got” were the exact words from the Senior Manager. Although I got the blessing, I didn’t get the job title. But I didn’t let that put me off. Instead I used it as an opportunity to put my best improvement ideas into practice, on real projects – still working as an engineer – but playing a more leading role. They also put me in charge of the team’s strategy, which allowed me to shape the bigger picture whilst making improvements on ground-level.
Self-help Tip #3: Your ideal job may not exist yet. So why not create it yourself? And then ask for it? The worst you’ll get is a “no”. And in any case, you’ll stand out from the crowd for taking the initiative. Start by taking your “energy gainers” list and ask yourself “how would my job feel if I only did this?” Close your eyes and really imagine it. What would your work day look like? Now go one step further. Imagine that you’re still at the same company, but job titles no longer exist. You’ve just been hired to help them succeed. Ask yourself, “if I had the choice of doing anything I like, what would that be?” Put all your points together and see if you can make a new role description. What would you call the role? Then ask yourself, “what would it take to start tomorrow?”
Step 4 – Drinking flat whites and chat lattes
Yep. You read that correctly.
Staying focused on what I love also meant enjoying longer coffee breaks – sometimes just to chat, but often to bounce around new ideas with my colleagues. One of which ended up saving the company over 20 million Euros! (One of those win-win-win solutions I loved so much). My colleague and I got invited to an executive board meeting, where we were presented an award that they’d just created. Tailor-made role, tailor-made award! Not bad for a few flat whites and chai lattes.
A big part of my work stress had come from thinking I need to be chained to my desk and working the whole time – as long as I did my 8 hours a day, bar the 30-minute lunchbreak, I’d earned my paycheck. And if I didn’t, I felt guilty about it. Like I was slacking off. But my newfound approach said otherwise.
I wasn’t paid to work. I was paid to add value.
And that had little to do with the number of hours I put in. In fact, I’d already learned that overtime had been counter-productive to my results, my clarity and my creativity. It turned out that giving myself more time and space, and not feeling guilty about it, produced results way beyond what I’d imagined.
Self-help Tip #4: Don’t work harder. Don’t even work smarter. Just don’t work at all. Stop! That doesn’t mean quit your job. It means, when you do what you enjoy, it doesn’t feel like “work”. Working smarter is often about being more effective and getting more done, with less time and effort. Whilst I am saying the same thing, those things are a byproduct of doing what feels good, not a goal. And feeling good means feeling good in the moment. It means being in your flow so that what you’re doing feels effortless. Even doing what you love can feel like work if it doesn’t feel good in the moment. For example, there are plenty of self-made, passionate entrepreneurs who will tell you they love what they do, but who often feel exhausted from never switching off. The point is, if you stay “switched on” to what feels good, you will never work another moment again.
Step 5 – The big move
So, whilst I was at the top of my game and thriving more than ever, my company wasn’t – and had to make thousands of job cuts. Nor was the UK, with Brexit looming just around the corner. To make a long story short, it was time to move on. I’d built so much positive momentum and wanted that to continue. My German partner and I decided to move back to Berlin, where we’d first met, years earlier.
She had a job lined up, but it took 2 months to find mine. I saw the move as an exciting opportunity to leave engineering behind, after 12 years, and do something completely new.
At first, I thought of setting up my own business, but that felt like too big a leap for me. I liked the idea, but I wasn’t ready yet. I also wasn’t prepared to work for a big corporate again. Then I thought, “why not work for a small startup company?”. That felt like a winner. It would be the ideal bridge between big corporate and self-employed entrepreneur. I had no clue what type of startup company or exactly what my role would be. But it didn’t matter. That was enough for me to get myself out there at meet-ups and networking events and just see what came up.
Just one day after I arrived, an ex-colleague of mine, who knew I was looking for a job, sent me a job advert he’d seen online. I’d mentioned to him that I wanted to work for a startup; but nothing about the type of role I was after. The job title was called ‘Scrum Master’ – something I never knew existed, but turned out to be the perfect combination of all the aspects I loved, without the ones I didn’t! It was the closest fit to my ‘Continuous Improvement Leader’ role I could’ve imagined. In fact, it was better.
I was blown away. But it didn’t stop there. I didn’t get that job. That was just the start. What followed was a slight obsession with this magical role – I went to meet-ups and networking events to connect to people who were already in that world and found out about Agile Coaching. An Agile Coach is like a broader version of Scrum Master. A bit like a General Practitioner is to a specialist. It sounded absolutely awesome. Not only would I be focusing solely on people, but for certain Agile Coaches, your level of influence could be company-wide. That was exciting!
But many told me:
“You’ve got to start as a Junior Scrum Master and then work your way up to Agile Coach.”
“Expect to take a pay cut. No one will take you seriously until you’ve got your qualifications.”
“You’ll probably have to work for a consultancy or get an unpaid internship.”
I knew they were talking from their own experience. But somehow, I didn’t buy it. I knew I had what it took and that it wasn’t just about hard qualifications. So, I did not let it stop me from applying for Agile Coach jobs. In the end, I got one online qualification, which took around a week, just to put something on my CV (Curriculum vitae as in resume) and pass the 3-second scan!
I landed 3 interviews with 3 companies and got accepted by my favourite one – it’s now been almost 14 months and it’s still the best career move I’ve ever made. Having discovered my talent and passion for coaching, I decided to train as a Life Coach on the side. Which, given it can change lives, is one of the most satisfying jobs in the world.
Self-help Tip #5: Know clearly what you want and why. If it feels good to you, it is good for you. People are generally well-meaning and have good intentions, when they give you advice or warnings. But no one knows better than you. So, trust your heart and follow your curiosity. Don’t be afraid to explore, to research, to ask questions and to form your own opinions and ideas. It all helps in getting you clearer and more focused.
Once you’re super clear on the role you want, the industry you want to work in – or even if you want to be an entrepreneur – start telling everyone and anyone about it. You have to own your decision and speak with confidence and conviction. And the more you do it, the more solid it will become for you.
Here’s one exercise that helped me, before becoming an Agile Coach. I wrote down at the top of my page “What excites me about being an Agile Coach?” Then I listed everything that came to mind and felt exciting. Then on the next page, I wrote “Why I’d be an awesome Agile Coach” – and again, I wrote everything down as it came and continued, as long as it felt good. That’s the key to these types of exercises. They’re not about thinking, but rather feeling. Let’s face it, finding and pursuing what you love involves feelings!
So, in the end, the most fundamental source of stress, which no amount of work-life balance and working smarter can fix, is not doing what you love. I believe we’re all capable of getting there. But sometimes, you just need to get out of your own way.
It is amazing what can happen when you do.