Seek help before hitting the wall

Published Mar 26, 2013

As a newly-appointed research leader, Wouter van der Wijngaart was becoming more stressed each day. One morning he woke up on the verge of tears. He recognised the symptoms from colleagues who had "hit the wall", and decided to look for help.

A mental tug-of-war between various projects and duties nearly drove Wouter van der Wijngaart to collapse. (Photo: Håkan Lindgren)

On a whiteboard in his office, van der Wijngaart has drawn a simple diagram with x and y axes. One axis is marked "Urgent", and the other is marked "Important".

"It was one of the stress-handling tricks I learned. A way to empty your head and get a clearer picture of what needs to be prioritised," van der Wijngaart says.

It was this very division – the tug-of-war in his mind between various projects and duties – that was driving van der Wijngaart towards a collapse a few years ago. He had been research leader at the Department of Micro and Nanosystems for nearly four years and the number of projects had continued to increase throughout this period.

"I had far too many different things to do,” van der Wijngaart says. “All the things I had to keep track of ended up as a big mess in my head."

Colleagues also struggled

Van der Wijngaart had previously been employed at an IT company where he had seen several colleagues rush headlong into the infamous wall. He now recognised the same symptoms in himself and decided to look for help before he ended up like them.

Seeking help is a giant step, says van der Wijngaart.

The KTH company nurse put him in contact with a psychologist. Three sessions with the psychologist gave him a new understanding of his own reactions.

"She made me realise why I became stressed. She understood it far better than I did," van der Wijngaart says.

The psychologist also provided practical tips for what to do to rein in the stress, such as “emptying" one’s head by placing all tasks in a coordinate system, rated by importance and urgency.

In the top right corner are things that are the most important and most urgent. That is, they need to be prioritised. Organizing tasks this way allows one to put aside other tasks for the time being, as they remain safely recorded in the diagram.

Van der Wijngaart's diagram is blank today. He says he doesn't need it now. "But I know that it's there, should I need it. And I still write things down to avoid having to keep it all in my head,” he says.

It is not uncommon for research leaders at KTH to have upwards of 15 projects running at the same time," van der Wijngaart says. Few people can handle such a work load without problems, he says, so one shouldn't hesitate to look for help when the anxiety comes creeping.

"Asking for help is a giant step,” he says. “Many think that you should be able to handle these feelings by yourself. But consider it this way – you wouldn't assume that you could solve electrical problems if you had never learned about electrical engineering. Handling stress is also something that we all need to learn."

Lacked leadership training

Van der Wijngaart believes that a contributing factor to his stress levels was that as a newly-appointed research leader, he had no actual management training. But he is scheduled to go through the training this spring.

"It should be obvious that younger research leaders should be given such training. And handling stress is an important part of being a leader. But I actually think that these ideas are becoming common here at KTH now."

Today van der Wijngaart is a Professor at the Department of Micro and Nanosystems and Director of the Life Science Technologies platform. His work duties have hardly become fewer or less diverse during the past few years, but he now feels that it is easier to separate what is important and unimportant, urgent and less urgent.

"You also have to learn to say no, which is why I have recently stepped down as Platform Director. It is a really interesting job, but right now I need to be here at the department and focus on my growing group of researchers."

Ursula Stigzelius