What Strategies Can Technical Writers Use to Cope with Stress?

Editor’s Note: The following is the second of a two-part article by Warren Singer that is part of our collection of “classics”–articles that stand the test of time no matter how many technologies come and go.  Thanks to those of you who took part in our “anniversary polls.”  We’ve included the new results where appropriate, and updated many of Warren’s links with additional articles and resources.

In Part One of this article, we defined stress as occurring when we perceive outside demands as being greater than our resources to cope. We noted that an informal poll conducted on the TECHWR-L site  and ratings in the Jobs Rated Almanac indicated that technical writers in general experience a moderate to medium level of stress in their work environment. 

Level 2001 2011
Extremely stressful 7.69% 8.5%
Very stressful 15.38% 28%
Somewhat stressful 36.69% 30%
Slightly stressful 22.49% 25%
Not at all stressful 16.57% 9.5%
Other/none of the above 1.18% 0%

In Part One we also looked at the stressors that technical writers report encountering in their work environment. Based on an informal survey conducted in August 2001, I identified some of the major stressors cited by technical writers:

  • Work overload and time pressures
  • Last-minute changes
  • Difficulty with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)
  • Problems with managers
  • Ongoing learning challenges and limited access to a product
  • Poorly defined and managed projects
  • Computer and tool problems
  • Workspace environment
  • Job security
  • Lack of control over the work environment

Part Two offers some practical suggestions for increasing your ability to cope with each of these categories of stressors. Rather than attempting to cover solutions in depth, this article provides a range of ideas to explore in addressing the stressors discussed in Part One. The “See Also” section at the end of each topic provides links to additional resources related to the topic, which help clarify or expand on the strategies briefly described under each topic.

 

Managing your time and workload efficiently

(2011-13% of technical writers find work overload and time pressures stressful)

“I cocoon myself in my cubicle and force myself to get it done (whatever it is). The stress is high when I’m working, but when it’s done I feel great.” Rebecca Downey

To cope with work overload or time pressures, try some of the following suggestions:

  • Stay organized. Keep a diary or a Portable Digital Assistant (PDA), listing all of your activities, meetings, appointments, and phone numbers, for quick reference. Leave your desk clean and your files organized each day.
  • Handle tasks immediately; don’t procrastinate or delay what you can do immediately. Don’t allow paper to pile up on your desk and emails to go unread or unanswered; handle these as they come in, so that you don’t have to read the same email twice.
  • Plan and prioritize your tasks by importance and need. Keep a “To Do” list of tasks in a prominent place. Check off each item as you complete it.
  • Ask for help from other writers, if possible, and return the favor later. If possible, outsource tasks that cannot be handled in-house.
  • Focus your attention on one task at a time. Schedule a meeting with yourself to complete each task, and then focus only on that task during the scheduled time.
  • Close your door and take your telephone off the hook, if possible, to cut down on interruptions when you are really pressed for time, or come in to work early when there are fewer disturbances. Avoid corridor gossip and long lunches. Cut short unnecessary telephone conversations (e.g., social calls unrelated to your job). Ask to be excused from meetings where your presence is not critical, again if you’re really pressed for time.
  • Find ways to continue working on tasks while you are not at your desk. While waiting for meetings to start, read through notes, email, or printed material. Hold working lunch meetings. Travel to work using the public transportation system, or carpool with others and use the time when you are not driving to read, catch up on email, or make notes.
  • Look closely at your work habits. Work overload may be the result of impossible expectations and demands, but more often than not, it is the result of your own decisions to accept these demands or the result of inefficient use of your time.
  • Don’t commit to more than you can handle. This may sound trite, but many of us are continually over-committing, out of eagerness, desire to prove ourselves, or desire gain new responsibilities. Learn when and how to say “no!”.
  • Install time management software to help keep track of the time you spend on tasks. Then, review your time record monthly to evaluate how effectively you are using your time.
  • Speak to your colleagues or your manager about ways in which your productivity could be improved. For example, you may be wasting hours per day on a task that could be handled automatically rather than manually, or completed in less time using a more efficient tool.
  • Learn to efficiently use the tools you have to complete your tasks (e.g., desktop publishing and graphics programs). Ask your company to subsidize a course in a tool you often use or have problems with. Join online forums that discuss the tools you use.
  • Take a break! When you’re running out of energy or feel swamped, change over to a different activity or take a short walk to recharge your batteries.
See also

The Dovico.com Web site provides several useful articles on time management:

For information on time tracking software, try: http://www.timetrackingsoftware.com

MyLifeOrganized.net (http://www.mylifeorganized.net/)provides personal organizer software and guidance supplementing the Getting Things Done (http://www.davidco.com/) system.  

 

Coping with last-minute changes

(2011-38% of technical writers find last-minute changes stressful)

“Nail down exactly what can be accomplished in the time allowed, and communicate this to the requestor. For the ASAP [As Soon As Possible] deadline, nail down a time.” Sella Rush

The following suggestions may help you cope with last-minute changes:

  • Set realistic cut-off dates, after which changes to features will not enter the documents, but will go into the release notes or into the next documentation release (make sure first that these dates are agreed upon in advance by those involved).
  • Offer to review the user interface for usability. This will give you the opportunity to keep up-to-date with changes.
  • Ask a third party–a colleague or editor–to review the sections that were changed at the last minute. This can help minimize errors and problems.
  • Get support from your manager to ensure timely reviews: Set up a meeting with your manager to evaluate the workflow and review process in your company. The result of the meeting should be an agreed-upon procedure for getting information from Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), and for ensuring their timely review.
  • Consider moving away from printed documentation toward online-only formats, such as HTML, XML, or PDF (provided that this suits your users’ needs), especially if you have several releases per year. This could minimize tasks required for each new hardcopy release, allowing you more time to handle last minute changes.
  • Consider moving toward a modular design, which allows you to slot in updated sections without affecting the rest of the documentation. You may want to start out first with a few documents and see whether this approach fits your users’ needs.

See also
“What to Do While You’re Waiting,” by S. Bruce Carruthers, in the December 2000 issue of Intercom

“Deadline from Hell” by Craig Cardimon, from Halloween Tech Writer Horror Stories week on TechWhirl

 

Increasing Your Access to a Product and Understanding of a Technology

(2011-16% of technical writers find limited access to products stressful)

“When I do not have access to software or system, I request screen shots. When possible, I sit with a SME and observe them using the system. For systems that are in development, request to attend the regular team meetings, get a copy of the specs, establish rapport with the principle SMEs, and absorb as much info as you possibly can.” Laura MacLemale

To cope with limited access to the product and to gain a better understanding of technologies, try the following strategies:

  • Ask your company to subsidize courses and training sessions in relevant technology fields. You can also search the Internet for additional information on most technology topics, or consider investing in an online course.
  • Review any existing product documentation or specifications for information on the purpose of the product, how it aids users to complete tasks, and what features were specified. These documents may also contain preliminary designs or prototypes of the interface.
  • Arrange for times when you can review the product at a testing workstation. Ideally, explore and play with the product on your own so that you have a chance to discover for yourself how it works.
  • Try to observe real users–whether customers or your own field engineers–install and use the product. Identify their real needs, as well as how they use the product to accomplish goals.
  • Make screen captures or take pictures of all interfaces/windows and paste these onto large blank sheets of paper in a tree diagram that illustrates the workflow. Each workflow should have its own sheet of paper. Then ask SMEs to review the workflow.
  • Offer to review the user interface during the early stages of design and try to be part of the interface review process.
  • In the absence of firm details about a product, invest in developing an accurate workflow and outline, into which you can later slot the details.
See also

The Project Kickoff Form: Aid for Launching and Managing New Projects, by Liz Russell

 

Handling Subject Matter Experts

(2011-23% of technical writers find dealing with SMEs stressful)

“Meet with the SME before assigning anything and find out if (a) they are interested, (b) how to get them interested, and (c) if they have the time.” Rebecca Downey

Try the following suggestions for developing good relationships with SMEs:

  • Establish a friendly working relationship with the SME, based on mutual respect. Take the time to introduce yourself informally and stop by occasionally to say hello and ask how a project is going. Ask about his hobbies, interests, and loved ones; spend a “working” lunch together occasionally; help the SME with other tasks (such as writing a business letter or providing links to subjects of interest).
  • Clarify expectations and roles. Discuss review procedures, responsibilities, and expectations. Write down and distribute any agreements, listing responsibilities and commitments, for later reference. If problems occur, then set up a second meeting, to reemphasize or clarify what was agreed upon.
  • Prepare for meetings with SMEs. Read all relevant email communications and notes. Review existing specifications or other documents written by the SME, so that you arrive at the interview as informed as possible.
  • Break down reviews into easily manageable and clearly defined parts. Rather than expecting the reviewer to read through an entire document each time you distribute material for review, indicate the pages or sections that need to be reviewed.
  • Ask the reviewer how she would prefer to provide comments: As email notes, written on a hard copy of the document, with revision marks and notes in the document itself, or face-to-face, among other possibilities. You may also want to provide guidelines about what kind of feedback you need and don’t need. Go over the comments with the SME.
  • Respect an SME’s time constraints; sometimes they really are too busy to respond immediately. If a review date has been missed, remind the SME of her commitment and ask her what you can do to help make the review more manageable.
  • Thank an SME for reviewing a document, and address each comment carefully. Don’t dismiss or become offended with a comment, but deal with the issue professionally. Always communicate positively.
  • If the SME finds it difficult to explain concepts clearly or review information, use gentle prompts for more information, suggest what type of information would be useful to you, and listen carefully to responses. Encourage communication by nodding, summarizing the information in your own words, or asking follow-up questions. Ask the SME to illustrate concepts graphically, by drawing a flow diagram or system diagram to explain the relationship between components or procedures.
  • If an SME is uncooperative, try another source. Companies often have some level of redundancy built into them so that no one person is the only source of information on a project.
  • If all else fails, notify your supervisor. This should always be done in a positive manner, focusing on the problem and not the person.
See also

 

Managing Your Manager

(2011-27% of technical writers find problems with managers stressful)

“I’m very clear with my boss about what I can and cannot do with the given time constraints. I ask him what his priorities are. We come up with a work strategy. I get the job done on time. Everyone is usually very happy.” Lauren Gotlieb Barr

The following suggestions apply not only to managers, but also to SMEs, colleagues, and other employees you work with on a day-to-day basis:

  • View your manager as the first and primary customer for your services. Ask your boss: “How do I know when I’m doing a good job?” Don’t assume that you know the answer.
  • Be clear about your job expectations. This includes the career-enhancing skills that you would like to learn and use on the job, and your expectations for future vertical or lateral promotion within the company. If your boss knows that you are interested in developing in a specific area, she may pass on work related to you in that area that she wouldn’t have otherwise.
  • Build up a good working relationship and rapport with your manager. By listening carefully to requests and being willing to assist where needed, you show that you are a reliable and dedicated employee who can follow through on tasks without having to be asked twice or closely monitored.
  • Be up-front about problems and assertive about your needs–don’t brood on this, out of fear of a confrontation. Provide your manager with the information she needs to make informed decisions. For example, if you need a specific tool to do your job, then provide detailed information to back up your request. If your manager isn’t convinced the first time around or didn’t really “hear” you, try again on another day and provide additional information. Ask someone else to back you up and get involved with the request.
  • Accept criticism, even if you feel it is undeserved. Always tackle the issue or problem and don’t take it personally. Often complaints about specific employees are channeled through their managers, making it important for you to listen carefully to any criticism from your manager.
  • Take the initiative in becoming involved in team efforts. Employees work best when they feel they are part of a team with a common goal, rather than a group of competing individuals.
  • Remember that your manager needs you as much as you need him. By doing your job well, you make him look good.
See also

The Boss Question (http://www.dovico.com/thebossquestion.html)

Top Ten Ways to a Terrible Workplace by Cheryl Voloshin

 

Minimizing Computer Problems

(2011-7% of technical writers find computer and tool problems stressful)

“Put the problem aside for a few hours, despite your deadline. If something’s bugging you, it’s going to continue to bug you until you can rationally think through it. Put it aside and work on something else, and then come back to it later. The solution to what’s stressing you out might be obvious.” Bill Swallow

Using these resources can help you prevent and overcome computer problems:

  • Put aside a seemingly insoluble problem for later, when you are refreshed and have had time to think of a strategy for tackling it.
  • Join online forums specific to the technology or software you’re using. These forums provide tips and resources for using a specific tool and a network of other writers who can be referred to for suggestions or solutions to problems. Refer to Web sites for troubleshooting tips.
  • Cultivate a support network. Besides colleagues or your manager, the support network could also include an outside mentor or a discussion group forum with professionals who can advise you on how to solve computer problems. The best way to build and maintain a support network is by also being willing to reciprocate and offer your support and assistance to others whenever possible.
  • Take a course appropriate to your level in a tool or technology that you use daily, to increase your efficiency and productivity.
  • Set up a backup system that you can use when all else fails. This could be the computer of a colleague, with all the required software, or a computer at the help desk or lab that is currently being used for another purpose. Redundancy and failure planning is an important part of ensuring that downtime is kept to a minimum.
  • Explain to your boss why it is important to have the basic tools you need to do your job. Investing in software may cost your company in the short term, but can pay off in the long term with increased productivity.
  • Hold off buying the latest version of a software application until it has been out on the market for some time. This will enable you to evaluate feedback from other users, learn about problems, and benefit from software fixes before you buy it.
  • Install and configure new software during quieter periods–not during mission-critical periods, when you need the software to work without problems.
  • Use standards-based or widely-used applications (e.g., Word, FrameMaker, Adobe Acrobat) rather than proprietary solutions that make you dependent on a single vendor. Request that the same operating system and software versions be installed throughout the department to ensure everyone who needs to share or access documents can readily and easily do so.
  • Clarify your help desk’s computer support policy. Although system administrators may be familiar with troubleshooting Windows, network setup, and computer problems, most will not be familiar with the ins-and-outs of PDF production, postscript drivers, conversions, or online help compilation.
See also

 

Making the Best Use of Your Workspace and Desktop Equipment

(2011-2% of technical writers find workspace and environment issues stressful)

“Take a 30 minute walk at noon (weather permitting) or at least a short walk.” Rebecca Downey

The following suggestions may help reduce the risks of repetitive stress disorders:

  • Request to bring in a consultant to examine your workspace and work activities, or read up on workspace health topics: Is your chair adjusted to the correct height for your desk? Are your monitor and keyboard placed in a comfortable position, so that you don’t have to constantly reach or bend?
  • Invest in equipment that reduces the risk of repetitive stress injuries, such as an ergonomic keyboard, trackball mouse, UVR (ultraviolet radiation)-protected monitor, and adjustable chair with a hard back.
  • Take a course in correct typing to reduce injuries resulting from incorrect wrist or hand movements.
  • Use voice recognition software to reduce the amount of repetitive typing.
  • Learn to use keyboard shortcuts, which can significantly reduce the use of the mouse (for example CTRL+O to open a file, CTRL+S to save, CTRL+P to print). Programs such as Word allow you to develop macros that can perform many of the routine manual keyboard tasks at a single click.
  • Use a squeeze ball to strengthen your wrists and fingers, and perform stretching exercises for your wrists and fingers to warm them up before you start typing.
  • Take regular breaks from your desk to rest your eyes, back muscles, and wrist tendons and increase your blood circulation.
  • Create a pleasant and relaxing workspace: Keep your desktop free of clutter; put a few favorite pictures on the wall or try a plant on your desk.
See also

 

Enhancing Your Job Security

(2011-21% of technical writers are stressed by job security)

“Breathe deeply. Remember that this is just the day job. Even bad things come to an end. Most importantly–remember that I like my job and that I am good at what I do.” Rebecca Downey

The following suggestions may help increase your sense of job security:

  • Use change as an opportunity to learn new skills and try new things.
  • Prepare yourself for change. Don’t wait for it to happen: Keep apprised of market needs, take courses that can improve your marketability, monitor job listings, and practice your interviewing skills.
  • Make use of your network of contacts and friends. Keep in touch with them and remind them that you are out there. Someone you know may be the source of your next job.
  • Take an active part in your local STC chapter activities. This can increase your professional visibility, and it offers the opportunity to learn new skills and to build up your network of contacts.
  • Seek opportunities to widen your responsibilities at work, making yourself hard to replace. Use a company reorganization as an opportunity to request more responsibility, but don’t wait for this to happen. Volunteer or ask for tasks to be assigned to you.
  • Plan the future direction of your career and invest in continuing education.

Finally, if you are laid off, use the opportunity to recharge your batteries, focus on other priorities in your life, or continue your education. Take comfort in the fact that whatever the current economic situation, technical writing has been rated as a career with good prospects and long-term growth opportunity.

See also
  • Who moved my cheese?, by Dr. Spenser Johnson
  • The Jobs Rated Almanac 2001, by L. Krantz
  • “The Networking Game,” by Patricia L. Cornett, in the June 2000 issue of Intercom
  • “Continuing Education: The key to Your Career,” by Raymond P. Janicko, in the July/August 2000 issue of Intercom
  • “Don’t Wait to Be Downsized!” by Geoff Hart, in the July/August 1999 issue of Intercom
  • “Focusing Your Career,” by Cindy C. Bailey, in the July/August 1999 issue of Intercom
  • “Dealing with Job Loss,” by Theresa A. Leonard-Wilkinson, in the November 2001 issue of Intercom
  • “Create Your Personal Training Plan,” by Rob E. Houser, in the December 1998 issue of Intercom
  • Going from Zero to Superhero, by Jacquie Samuels
  • To Tweet or Not to Tweet? Effective Networking with Twitter, by Ryan Minaker

 

Coping with Poorly Defined and Managed Projects

(2011-61% of technical writers are stressed by poorly managed projects)

“Stay on top of deadlines and documentation expectations in the team meetings. If necessary, keep a running list of the deadlines with your meeting notes. When a deadline changes, the TW may not be the first person notified. Therefore, I have found that keeping a list based on meeting notes and conversations is helpful, even if the date doesn’t slip. That’s the easiest way to maintain control of the deadline.” Laura MacLemale

Try the following strategies for coping with such projects:

  • Accept that a certain amount of ambiguity and uncertainty may be unavoidable. Sometimes it takes time for engineers or product managers to sort out the design of a product and for features to become stable. Budget this into your schedule. Clarify the maturity of the product (is this a demo version, beta, or first customer release?) and base your estimate of the time it will take to complete it accordingly. Ask the following questions:
    • Is this release under controlled availability to specific customers, or general availability to all customers? A general-availability release has usually gone through quality control procedures and is more stable and mature.
    • How long before the product must be shipped? The longer the time to ship, the larger the number of potential changes.
    • How many engineers are devoted to this project? The fewer the engineers, usually the less extensive the changes.
    • What types of changes are required? Cosmetic–related to interface names or text only? Functional–introduces new features and tasks? Fundamental–major changes to work flows, the interface, and the product functionality? Extensive changes to the underlying software with few end-user impacts?
  • Clarify who will be responsible for providing information and reviewing and approving the documentation, and define realistic deadlines for these tasks. Try also to find out the following:
    • How important is the project and its documentation to the SME?
    • What resources (time and staff) does the SME have available to handle the documentation review for this project? If the documentation isn’t a priority or insufficient resources are budgeted for this project, then you will need to make an extra effort to ensure that the project manager is aware of the problem and takes steps to budget sufficient time for documentation.
  • Look out for red flags that indicate a project is heading for disaster: Changes in project owners or SMEs in the middle of a project; project managers who fail to get back to you after repeated requests; and sudden changes in expectations or demands. In these cases, clarify your expectations and try to reach a compromise on how to proceed.
See also

 

Increasing Your Control Over the Work Environment

(2011-16% of technical writers cite lack of control over work as stressful)

“Make friends at work–people you can share your general frustrations with.” [and] “Leave it at work. If you are having a stressful day, leave it at work.” Bill Swallow

“Always try to avoid being in the office a minute more than the required 8-9 hours, try to maintain a healthy family life, and approach your work with a sense of humor.” Shimon Frais

To enhance your control over your work environment, try the following:

  • Adopt a friendly and polite approach to your colleagues and a positive attitude toward your work. Be willing to listen and offer assistance, where relevant.
  • Team up with your colleagues to pool resources, discuss problems, and find ways to increase your control at work. As a group you have much more influence on your company’s policies than as separate individuals.
  • Be proactive and assertive about obtaining your needs. If you need something, ask for it.
  • Set realistic goals. Setting short-term goals that you are capable of reaching provides a means of channeling your energies toward the things you desire and is one of the best means of controlling your stress. Visualize these goals in your mind and work toward them.

See also

 

General Strategies for Coping with Stress

“Close your eyes, take a long, slow, deep breath, and picture yourself kneeling in a sylvan forest glade, every translucent green leaf glowing in the sun, the clean forest air around you, water from a recent rainfall dripping from every leaf….” Geoff Hart

In addition to the suggestions and resources for handling specific stressors discussed in this article, you can implement the following suggestions for improving your general sense of well-being, physical health, and ability to cope:

  • Exercise regularly. A healthy body is essential for dealing with stress. Walking and cycling are examples of inexpensive aerobic sports that stimulate the cardiovascular system and help maintain health. For those with busy schedules, try to set aside a half an hour each day for physical activity. For example, you could take a walk or cycle in the park before work, after lunch, or in the evenings, or attend the local gym or swimming pool.
  • Control your diet. A balanced diet ensures that you have the energy to face day-to-day tasks and stress. Avoid skipping meals or rushing your mealtimes because of work or time pressures.
  • Get sufficient rest. Make sure that you are getting sufficient time to sleep and rest. Constantly cheating the clock may have serious repercussions on your health in the long-term.
  • Have a regular time-to-yourself period. During the week, or once each day, set aside a regular period where you can be by yourself and focus on the activities and hobbies that you enjoy.
  • Treat yourself. Treat yourself occasionally to a small gift, a haircut, or a bunch of flowers–something to tell yourself that you are appreciated and to brighten up your day.
  • Take a vacation. If you are feeling burned out or run down, now may be the time to take a vacation. Remember, though, that vacations can also be stressful. Choose to spend your vacation on activities that are enjoyable and relaxing to you.

Finally, take a close look at your lifestyle and your ways of coping with stressful situations. How effective are your current coping strategies? Are you prone to periods of procrastination or outbursts of frustration? Are you prone to denial, claiming that there is no stress in your workplace? Do you have other stressors in your personal or family life? For some, this may require seeking professional guidance. Dealing effectively with “personal” issues is a vital component of long-term stress management.

See also

Conclusion

There is no magical wand that can dismiss all forms of stress in the work environment. A certain level of stress will always be present, if not always beneficial to our functioning. This article has suggested general strategies for handling specific stressors that affect technical writers and for increasing our coping capacity. By adopting a proactive approach to identifying sources of stress and searching for solutions, rather than waiting for problems to happen, we can help minimize some of the more damaging effects of long-term stress on our health and well-being. Above all, approach your work with perspective and a sense of humor, and team up with colleagues to pool your resources and find solutions.

 

Additional Reading

Books

Cooper, C.L. and Palmer, S. (2000). Conquer Your Stress, London: Institute of Personnel and Development
Hartland, D. 2000. Understanding Stress, Caxton Edition
Patel, C. 1996. Complete Guide to Stress Management, Vermilion

Online

American Institute of Stress: http://www.stress.org
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH): http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/stress/

Warren Singer has several years of experience as both a permanent and contract writer. He currently runs Targeted Writing Solutions, a private consulting business. He can be contacted at warrends@netvision.net.il.

Read more articles from Warren Singer