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Stresspensation: Evaluating the Impact of Stress in Career Decision Making



Brad was an incredibly bright young executive with a very promising future. Ever since graduating college, he seemed to take on increased responsibilities in his company like a duck to water. He married his college sweetheart, Nancy, right after graduation and has two small children. Brad's talent didn't go unnoticed in the industry, with several competitors approaching Brad about his willingness to join another firm. He steadfastly resisted, that is until the offer of all offers came his way.

ACME Corp, a larger and more prominent competitor to his current company, wined and dined Brad and ultimately offered him a VP position with a higher salary and better benefits. The offer was too good to pass up so Brad talked with Nancy about the job and they both became enamored with how this was going to advance Brad's career and what they would be able to do with the extra money. Brad joyfully accepted ACME's offer, gave his current company two weeks' notice, and started in his new VP role.

Within a year of joining ACME, he noticed some unexpected side effects of his new position. He was required to be in weekly global executive virtual meetings which could happen at any time of the day or night. He was routinely working 60+ hours a week, missing dinner with Nancy and the kids. He traveled at least once a week, many times to put out fires at clients. His eating habits were horrendous and he wasn't exercising due to his schedule. He began putting on weight. Nancy was frustrated with him not being around and his kids missed their daddy. The stress was unbearable and led to Brad one day grabbing his chest and collapsing during a customer meeting.

While the above story about Brad is fictional, each one of us knows of a Brad (or perhaps is Brad) who made a career choice without considering the effects of the extra stress. The American Institute of Stress (yes there is such an organization) has quantified the cost of stress to employers at $300 billion annually due to things such as absenteeism, accidents, turnover, diminished productivity, and medical costs. Add to that the personal costs of stress (i.e., poor health, weight gain/loss, sleep deprivation) and the relationship costs of stress (i.e., fractured relationships, friends or loved ones alienation, missed school plays), and you have a perfect storm of negative factors which make any kind of work-life balance virtually impossible to attain. In my 30 years of working with career professionals, stress typically takes a back seat to compensation and when considered, it is usually only a slice of the true stress level that the professional will endure. In the first ten years of my own career I saw stress as a given and gave it no consideration when evaluating career alternatives. This was a big mistake and a lesson I learned the hard way. Fortunately I learned it early in my career and was able to make some positive changes. However, some professionals never get it.

To help the professional evaluate the impact of stress when deciding on a career change, I've defined a comparative increase/decrease method to evaluate the impact of stress, based on three stress types:

(a) Relationship Stress

(b) Work Stress

(c) Personal Stress

For each stress type, a qualitative degree of stress is defined as follows:

1 - Minimal Stress

2 - Moderate Stress

3 - Significant Stress

In evaluating the impact of stress, each of the three stress types is assigned a value for the current and new job alternatives, then a comparative increase/decrease assessment is derived for each stress type. Let's put this to an example.

Lets say that a systems analyst (I'll call her Ann) is currently in a job paying $90,000/year and she's been offered a new position paying $100,000/year. On the surface, Ann likes the idea of a $10k raise and looks at the three stress types for each job, as follows:

Current Position

  1. Relationship stress = 2 due to infrequent evening meetings only.
  2. Personal stress = 1 due to ability to keep up with personal interests without sacrifice
  3. Work stress = 2 due to some tight deadlines

New Position

  1. Relationship stress = 3 due to evening meetings and four international trips/year to work with offshore developers
  2. Personal stress = 2 due to having to alter exercise schedule, and having to drop book club
  3. Work stress = 3 due to mission critical deadlines and regular status updates to senior management

When you look at the three stress types the following pops out about the new position:

Stress Type    Current Position    New Position    Increase/Decrease
Relationship      2                   3                Increase

Personal          1                   2                Increase

Work              2                   3                Increase

Ann is now faced with the following decision: Is the salary bump of $10k worth the incremental relationship, personal and work stress she'll endure? Depending on whatever other decision criteria Ann factors into her decision, the answer could be yes or no. Whether or not she takes the job is still her decision; what the process has done is forced her to consider the three stress types and derive data points in which she can use in her overall decision-making.

There are a number of important considerations for you to digest in using this methodology:

First, this is not an autonomic decision-making tool where the numeric answer is the sole job determinant. The impact of stress methodology is meant to bring relationship, personal, and work stress factors to the forefront of your decision making process.

Second, you need to be realistic about stress levels. "Wishing down" a stress level doesn't make it go away; it just sets you up for a letdown (or worse) after you've made your decision.

Third, you need to let your friends and loved ones come up with the relationship stress value and not assume a value for them. The real benefit in the methodology is the thought process and discussions you have along the way. Don't shortcut how your stress type values are determined or you'll miss out on some valuable nuggets.

Fourth, the methodology applies to any type of career change which involves new or different responsibilities, including promotions. Most of us are wired to blindly accept promotions without regard for the additional stress which may accompany the promotion.

Fifth, there will likely be stress in any job change; make sure you look at your steady-state stress level versus the "learning curve" stress level.

Your Go-Dos

When faced with your next career decision, follow these five steps to assess your impact of stress and help you decide on your career choice course of action:

  1. Ask a lot of questions about the job and the degree of relationship, personal and work stress entailed in the job. Seek out others who may have done the job before or others who have some inside perspective.
  2. Look at the job responsibilities (both stated and those you derive through interviews) and determine how much stress each of the responsibilities will create for you. Decide on a 1-3 work stress value.
  3. Write down the personal activities and goals you have (i.e. exercise 4x/week, sleep at least 7 hours a night) and determine how the career choice would impact each of the activities and goals. Decide on a 1-3 personal stress value.
  4. Openly discuss with your friends and loved ones what the career choice would mean in terms of impact to relationship time (i.e. not being home for dinner, availability to help with homework) and ask them to decide on a 1-3 relationship stress value.
  5. Derive the increase/decrease in stress for each of the three stress types.
  6. Decide how you're going to factor the impact of stress into your overall decision.

Remember, the real benefit in utilizing the impact of stress methodology is in the discovery process you'll go through to understand relationship, personal, and work stress drivers for different career choices. Be real with yourself as to how a career choice will affect you and those you love.


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