Eliminating Employee Burnout in IT

Nov 17, 2005

P.G. Daly

When you couple the undeniably fast rate of technological change, the current fast-paced business environment, increasing demands to produce "more with less," the expectation of 24/7 availability, and the regular day-to-day personal responsibilities everyone has, it's no wonder that you can almost hear something frying when you walk through the halls of your local IT department. Unfortunately, the frying sounds are not those of fresh omelettes being prepared for a job well done. It's the sound of IT professionals burning out in large numbers.

While business strategies scream for us to innovate, create, and deliver results, the environments we work in do not even come close to fostering this behavior. To make matters worse, the most valuable asset your company has, the people themselves, are usually struggling to keep their heads above water. People are drowning in the demands put on them, which not only prohibits optimal performance, but worse yet, can mean physical and mental unease. All you need to do is visit your local human resources department to learn just how costly in real dollars the turnover, illness, and recruiting is to your organization.

Not sure if this applies to your organization? Well, take a stroll through your department and then answer this quick little quiz.

  • Does anyone in your department look and act like they are living on autopilot? Look in the mirror, do you?
  • Have members of your staff come to work even while they were sick within the last month? Do you drag your ailing body into the office when you're under the weather?
  • Are there people in your group that are expected to be on-call regularly in addition to their regular day of work? Is that person you?
  • Have people in your group been checking e-mail or voicemail during their vacations? Have you?
  • Number of Yes Answers

    1 or 2: Burnout is already alive and well in your area. It may not be too severe yet, so the sooner you can take steps to eliminate it, the better.

    3 or more: You and your staff are experiencing burnout. While it may not seem bad on the surface (after all, everyone is doing it), there is no doubt that it is taking a toll on both each individual's well being , as well as the productivity capabilities of the group.

    How to Douse the Frying and Eliminate Burnout

    Just as you didn't arrive at being burned out overnight, you won't eliminate it instantly. There is no magic pill you can take in between the three e-mails, one page, and two phone calls you are handing simultaneously to make it go away. However, there are definitive things you can do to not only feel better but be more productive on the job.

    On my Web site, I offer a free resource titled "Top 10 Causes of Burnout and How to Eliminate Them" which you may find of value. Let's briefly explore a few of these causes that are most relevant to those of us in IT.

    A Crushing Schedule

    Are you double and triple booked? Do you find yourself always late for appointments? Do multiple deadlines loom with more showing up in your inbox each day? Are you multitasking so much that if you had the opportunity to do only one thing at a time you wouldn't know how to behave? If so, you're a victim of an impossible schedule.

    IT professionals are some of the best, brightest, and most innovative people around. A crushing schedule reduces them to functioning on empty and producing mediocre results. The innovation curve dips sharply down and the fun of "playing" with the technology goes out the door.

    The solution is to simplify. That means removing clutter from your physical environment and creating space in your schedule. Just like your server's CPU would freeze up if the load was too great; the same is true for your body and mind. The catch: unlike with servers, you can't build farms and build in redundancy. There is only one of you.

    Being "Connected" 24/7

    Are you wired to the max? Do you have gadgets galore so someone can page, e-mail, IM, or phone you wherever you may be no matter the time of day? Once upon a time I heard that technology was supposed to make us more productive and allow us to spend more time on the things that matter. I wonder what happened to that fairy tale.

    The solution is to disconnect. While I realize many IT jobs entail the unpleasant task of being on-call, you still need some time each day to totally disconnect. That means turn off the cell phone, pager, telephone, e-mail, blackberry, etc. and just experience being in the present moment with yourself or with someone you care about. It's shocking, but true, that this one little step done for as little as one to two hours a day can mean a world of positive difference in your health and in your relationships. Whether you need to buddy up with the backup support person or trade server babysitting duties for an hour a day with someone, just do it.

    No Balance or Variety

    Is every day just a carbon copy version of the last with the same crises, tasks, arduous commute, and ever looming deadlines? Are you living your days like a mechanized robot just trying to survive and get through the day, week, month, or project? Do you work on the PC all day only to go home and tinker more with computerized gadgets, bypassing any human interaction or physical activity?

    The old adage is true: variety is the spice of life. While we require predictable, reliable, and repeatable behavior from our software, hardware, and gadgets, we are still human beings with a need for diversion. There is much more to living a successful life (and that includes having a successful career) than just executing the daily routine. All areas of your life need some attention — relationships, finances, health and well-being, physical environment, and personal growth just to name a few.

    The solution is to do something, anything at all, that is different from your usual routine to change your perspective and wake up the senses. When you're burned out you don't even notice that you're not noticing. Try a different route to work, different type of food, or even a new activity to engage your mind and show up in the present moment. You'll be amazed at what you find when you are conscious of the here and now.

    What's the Payoff?

    A little effort spent eliminating burnout will go a long way towards making your employees (and yourself) happier and healthier while laying the foundation for an environment that fosters innovation and creativity in a way that impacts your organization's bottom line. Attracting and retaining employees is cheaper than replacing them and with the skyrocketing costs of healthcare, you can't afford not to heed the warning signs of burnout.

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