6 ways to prevent burnout in your IT staff

Running employees ragged is bad for them – and bad for business. Take these steps to lower stress and boost productivity among your IT workers.

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IT pros everywhere feel stressed, and no wonder: Some 81% of CIOs believe that the amount of pressure on technology professionals is higher now than it was just five years ago, according to a 2016 survey of more than 2,500 CIOs conducted by IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology (RHT).

Among those working in the IT trenches, Computerworld’s 2017 IT salary survey found that 46% think their job is either stressful or very stressful, with 18% saying their job is more stressful this year than it was the previous year.

CIOs and HR consultants say tech professionals face long hours and endless demands. Certainly other professionals have similar issues. But IT workers often encounter added stressors unique to their field.

Many are (formally or informally) on call 24/7, expected to respond to system outages at any hour or help users troubleshoot whenever the need arises. They’re juggling multiple projects that users want done yesterday, requiring them to become experts in multiple IT domains while also simultaneously mastering business and soft skills. And to top it all off, they’re expected to keep up with rapidly developing technology advancements. “There’s no sense of completion in the world of IT,” says Craig Kapper, RHT’s district president for the U.S. Southwest.

IT managers need to remember that stress can quickly run even the most talented tech pros ragged. Burned out workers contribute less and often leave altogether. In a 2017 study of 614 HR leaders conducted by Kronos and Future Workplace, 95% of respondents said employee burnout has hurt workforce retention. In fact, 10% attribute employee burnout for more than half of their annual workforce turnover, with another 36% saying employee burnout caused 20% to 50% of their annual workforce churn.

“[Burnout] leads to turnover and poor results. It can get in the way of business,” says Fred Foulkes, professor of organizational behavior and faculty director for the Human Resources Policy Institute at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business.

So what is a tech department to do? In addition to standard best practices such as company-sponsored wellness programs and flexible work schedules, these six strategies can help battle burnout.

1. Watch the clock

Andy Takacs, the CTO at cloud services provider Zumasys, understands why IT professionals are susceptible to burnout: “IT can feel like running from one sort of disaster to another. It requires a lot of people to perform at high levels to get the job done in a competitive market.”

Andy Takacs from Zumasys Sheri Geoffreys Photography

Andy Takacs

Takacs says burnout can hurt productivity and camaraderie among workers as well as retention and recruitment efforts, as tech pros might shun workplaces that don’t offer a good work-life balance. Recognizing the potential consequences of having run-down workers, Takacs says he and other Zumasys managers implement policies to keep burnout at bay. One such strategy is to monitor both the hours that individual staffers put in as well as the amount of paid time off each one has accrued.

“We don’t want people to be at the max of their available vacation time. Instead, we encourage them to take time off,” he explains, adding that managers watch for other signs of work-related fatigue, such as slipping job performance and negative emotions.

Takacs says it’s tough to keep an eye on hours, particularly when overseeing self-motivated high-performers who thrive on sticking with tough jobs until they’re completed. So sometimes he has to take a stand: Takacs says he and other managers have had to encourage people to take days off, and have even informed employees they would be willing to cut off access to email.

Takacs recently took this approach after noticing that the technical support team had gone through a particularly busy stretch and showed less camaraderie than usual. He gave each member an extra vacation day that had to be used during the following several weeks. Then he started working with the team to restructure workloads so the problem didn’t creep up again.

2. Set realistic goals

Joel Jacobs, vice president and CIO at Mitre, a not-for-profit that operates federally funded research and development centers, expects managers to set realistic timelines and requirements for IT projects. Certainly, there are times when managers have to make a big push to get something done, and that can make timelines tighter than usual. But he says hearing managers acknowledge that they’re asking for some stretch goals helps people understand the extra work is neither the norm nor an ongoing demand.

joel jacobs Mitre Corp.

Joel Jacobs

He explains: “I know my staff works a lot of hours, but we’re careful in recognizing when [a project] will take a big push for a finite amount of time. People will work really hard, as long as they think what they’re working on is realistically achievable. If it’s relentless and unrealistic, it will just wear them down or, if they [see things going in that direction],they’ll leave before they burn out.”

IT leaders might find moderating assignments, creating realistic timelines and engaging in honest communication about them tough to do, says Mackenzie Kyle, Vancouver-based regional managing partner for consulting and accounting firm MNP and author of Making It Happen, about practical project management, and The Performance Principle.

IT organizations typically “have a setup that rewards the behaviors that lead directly to worker burnout,” Kyle says, explaining that many IT departments run their workers on full speed for long hours to try to make unrealistic deadlines that, when they’re inevitably missed, further discourage those same staffers.

Kyle says managers should set realistic targets and then divide projects into smaller deliverables, allowing workers to chalk up wins every few weeks so they don’t feel that they’re in a ceaseless grind.

“By giving workers smaller chunks of work, you can give space to have less intense times between sprints; you have a sense that it’s not forever,” he adds.

3. Empower your people

Tech pros don’t want to feel that they’re cogs in a wheel, nor do they want to be micromanaged; rather, they want to feel they’re making an impact and that they have input into decisions that drive results.

That’s the philosophy at online mortgage lender Quicken Loans, according to Teresa Wynn, senior vice president for the office of the CIO at the company.

Wynn says the IT executives and managers at Quicken Loans strive to empower tech pros by creating a culture that allows them to take charge. Management principles, such as giving workers a degree of freedom and support to pursue their own ideas when tackling projects, as well as formal programs like Bullet Time, a weekly four-hour period when IT team members can work on projects of their own choosing, help achieve that goal, she says. These strategies help employees recharge their creative juices, stretch intellectually and try something different from their normal duties – all of which can help them feel energized instead of worn down, Wynn adds.

Reed Sheard from Westmont College Westmont College

Reed Sheard

Dr. Reed A. Sheard, vice president for college advancement and CIO at Westmont College, takes a similar approach to management. He says he, too, finds that workers who feel empowered in their jobs and careers are less likely to burn out. To that end, he supports a culture of continuous learning where employees have the opportunity explore new technologies that can help them grow professionally.

He points to one recent conference attended by several staff members to learn about a new technology important to the college’s IT strategy. Sheard says the workers came back invigorated and excited to use their newly acquired knowledge. “Focusing on servers and patch updates and backup requirements, nobody can do that indefinitely. You need to give people a chance to grow,” he says.

4. Stop the daily grind

A veteran staffer on Jacobs’ team at Mitre had the opportunity to spend part of his workday over several months learning about near-field communication – a technology he wouldn’t use for his regular duties but that interested him nonetheless. Jacobs says the schedule shake-up seemed to boost the worker’s morale, which is why Jacobs promotes such workplace variety.

“Grinding away on one thing too long is exhausting,” Jacobs says. “Moving people from project to project, from organization to organization, from topic to topic really refreshes people, and when they return to where they were, they have a different perspective.”

Jacobs says his workers have several ways to change up their routines. They can seek out new positions at Mitre, temporarily work in other divisions when needs arise, or propose new ways of working within their existing responsibilities if they see ways to bring higher efficiency or higher capability to those processes.

“It’s really about getting people to think about where they can get more leverage,” he says, adding that encouraging opportunities where employees step out of normal routines is good for the employees’ psyches as well as for the organization as a whole. “An enterprise that inspires IT, along with the rest of the company, to bring their best reaps a lot of advantages,” he says, “while those that allow their employees to burn out will lose in the long run.”

5. Create a positive culture

Kapper, the district manager from RHT, says he worked with one company that had about 600 workers on its help desk. Turnover was high among these entry-level tech pros, with workers reporting on exit surveys that they felt burned out by the division’s constant toil.

The company sought to do better by improving the help desk culture, according to Kapper. Managers increased recognition for worker achievements and sponsored lighthearted events such as catered lunches with DJs to give workers a break during the typically slow lunchtime stretch. Additionally, they introduced flexible work schedules and work-from-home opportunities.

“It’s an example of what a company that has a lot of workers who are working very, very hard can do. Now [these workers] want to work there because the culture makes it a great place to be,” Kapper says, noting that the company slashed turnover in half and employees report significantly less burnout.

Baskaran Ambalavanan, former senior HR manager for IS at law firm Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton and now a consultant and panelist with the Society for Human Resource Management, says several key programs can help organizations combat burnout, including flexible schedules, remote work options, training opportunities, and a supportive environment that includes elements of fun. He says it’s important to note, too, that managers at all levels can adopt some elements of these best practices – even if they’re not sponsored at the executive or companywide level.

6. Change course when necessary

Chris Caruso, vice president for IT at PPG Industries, a global supplier of paints, coatings and other materials, says IT workers have had a backlog of work throughout his 35-year career in the profession. Still, he acknowledges that there’s more interest and demand in IT resources and the capabilities today than ever before. “But that’s for us to manage and to throttle the workload,” he says.

Managing employee workloads should – and at his firm, does – include watching for worker burnout, he says. “We have regular processes in IT to identify talent and succession in the organization, and one of the things we do is identify any risk associated with the individual – are they overworked, are they in the ideal position to develop in their career? We actively manage those situations to find out what they need,” Caruso says.

That approach allows management to take action if they see someone who, for whatever reason, is feeling undue pressure, Caruso says, explaining that managers formulate an approach based on the individual and his or her situation. Company leaders might assign a mentor to provide guidance to a struggling worker, he says, or they might assign tasks that provide new challenges or energy to a worker who is feeling stuck in a grind.

That’s a strategy other CIOs and HR consultants recommend, too. Sheard, for example, says he recently had a candid conversation with a star employee who was overworked, reminding him that the extra work will soon lighten and implementing changes, such as elevating his position within the organization, to address related issues over the longer term– steps that helped head off a bigger crisis. “Communication and acknowledgement,” he says, “those make a difference.”

This story, "6 ways to prevent burnout in your IT staff" was originally published by Computerworld.

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