Excessive workplace stress has increased dramatically in the past few years of sharply increased competition and "corporate downsizing"--that is, downsizing the workforce, but not necessarily the work. Without effective help, both employees and the self-employed can fall prey to burnout, depression, addictions, marriage breakdown, and a deterioration of physical health. In addition, there are particular occupational hazards which programmers face. Not surprisingly, then, programmers who a few years ago would never have thought of consulting a psychotherapist are doing so now.
The following examples illustrate typical problems.

I first met Malcolm in a couples counselling session. His wife, Wendy, desperate about his increasing withdrawal and his lack of energy for anything but work, almost dragged him in. She tearfully described the almost idyllic relationship they used to have. "The Company thinks they own him," she said. "I want him back!"

Malcolm was a quiet, dignified, highly intelligent man, the product of special education for gifted children and a very prestigious university. His problems began after graduation, when he found himself trying to please a boss with no knowledge of programming and totally unrealistic expectations regarding deadlines. Getting through to his boss about this was no easy task, and he progressively increased his working hours, more and more going without recreation, human companionship, and even meals and sleep. He felt guilty and sad about his neglect of Wendy and their little boy. The more inadequate he felt, the more he withdrew into the one place that seemed manageable--his computer.

Malcolm required emotional support and practical help in the difficult tasks of asserting himself with his boss, gradually increasing his down time, and re-establishing the relationships which had formerly been a source of support and strength. When last I talked to him he was still working hours that would not appeal to me--but his love of life had returned, he was appreciated and listened to by his company, and his renewed family life was a source of deep satisfaction.

Paul had a very different personality. Affable, sought-after, a man with many talents and a great many friends, he enjoyed a satisfying career as a college instructor until his department closed down. Paul got work as a troubleshooter. A few years later he woke up one day to find himself overworked, overstressed, in poor health, and of all things...lonely. Out of town more often than at home, working mostly nights and weekends when the computer systems were not in use, he had been unable to maintain his relationships. Working always in crisis situations, solving highly complex problems, he would lose awareness of his body, maintaining stressful postures, neglecting exercise and sleep, forgetting to eat or even to go to the bathroom.

Paul started a personal stress management program, the first step of which was to set his watch to beep every hour to remind him to check in with his body. Then he quit his job for part time consulting work which gave him more control over his workload. After that he added part time work in a different field which made use of some of his other talents. He is now involved in a satisfying long-term relationship, and again spends many happy hours with his wide circle of friends.

Arthur encountered an even more serious problem.
Hard-working, warm-hearted, and the life of the party, Arthur was well-known and well-liked. Since childhood he had had depressed moods at times, but he handled them himself, not wishing to burden his friends and family. A computer whiz since his teenage years, he had built a thriving one-man business writing and adapting programmes for small and medium companies.

He came to me with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder after spending a week in hospital coming down from a manic episode. While working on a particularly troublesome program for a very demanding client, he had begun to sleep less and less; before long he was acting strangely--running off at the mouth, ignoring warning signals, and exploding over trifles. After an incident of spectacularly dangerous driving his friends scraped him off the walls (fortunately not the road) and physically hauled him in to the emergency department.

Arthur explained in his last session with me some time later: "I used to get so excited and caught up in a project that I would drop everything else in my life; when it was finished I'd feel bored and get depressed, so I'd look for another train to jump on. I've stopped doing that. And I used to have so much of a need to please people and impress them. I always wanted big, high-profile projects--but when I would run into a really difficult problem I would get scared, because I was on my own. Now I don't need to be pleasing and impressing other people all the time to feel good about myself. I feel fine.

"And the other thing that has really made a difference was learning how to get support; when I feel bad there are people I can tell about it, people who I know won't fall apart or start giving advice I don't want. What a relief! I am also doing some of my work in co-operation with associates, which takes some of the pressure off. Before I made those changes the type of work I do was a health hazard for me. I'm very glad I did this."

Wei-Shin graduated top of her class from the University of Toronto. After a frustrating encounter with the old boys' club in her first job, she found a company where she was treated with respect, and was having a satisfying and problem-free career...until she and her husband heard the biological clock ticking and decided to start a family.
When I first met them, Wei-Shin was in the third trimester of pregnancy and under severe stress. Her concern for her baby's health had enabled her doctor to persuade her to see me, despite her traditionalist belief that counselling was something for "weak" people. Wei-Shin was anything but weak. She had done everything possible to get herself into a position where she would not have to do overtime. To no avail. "I never realized it till now," she said, "but in this industry you're not supposed to have a private life--much less a baby."

When I inquired about the feasibility of Wei-Shin's husband taking time off work to care for the child, they both looked at me aghast. He wouldn't know how; they needed his medical plan; what would people think? In the end they decided on the following solution: Wei-Shin would take six months' maternity leave despite the possible repercussions for her career; her husband, who was a teacher, would apply for half time work for the following school year; and Wei-Shin's mother would come from Hong Kong to bridge the gap.

Author's Bio: 

Beth Mares, clinical member, Ontario Society of Psychotherapists, has been in private practice in Toronto as a psychotherapist and marital counsellor since 1987, and offers
telephone therapy to remote communities throughout Canada. Website www.therapytorontotherapist.ca