IT Employees Less Happy, Working Less Hard

Jan 8, 2010

David Needle

The recession caused plenty of disruption in the overall U.S. workforce and the IT ranks were not an exception. According to a new survey by the Corporate Executive Board, the percentage of IT employees making "high discretionary effort" plummeted in the first half of 2009 to 4.6%, part of a longer-term downward spiral affecting the entire workforce, not just IT.

In its most recent findings, IT fared worse than average, experiencing declines in discretionary effort starting with 10.5% in the second half of 2007, dropping to 7.4% in the first half of 2008 and actually bumping back up to 8.2% in the second half of that year. In the first half of 2009, the percentage dipped to 6.5.

CEB, a non-profit, Washington-based advisory firm, defines discretionary effort as employee's willingness to go "above and beyond" their basic job responsibilities by helping others with heavy workloads, volunteering for additional duties, and looking for ways to perform their job more effectively. The firm surveys about 150,000 workers each quarter with a series of behavioral questions about their jobs. Of those surveyed, CEB, which counts many Fortune 500 firms among its clients, said about 10,000 work in IT.

IT Anxiety, Distrust to Blame

Jaime Capella, a managing director in CEB's information technology group, said he thinks there are several reasons for the drop in discretionary effort among IT workers. He also notes the drop in IT is consistent and is showing no signs of significant recovery in early findings for the second half of 2009, the report on which is due out next month.

"The whole debate about whether IT matters and whether commodity IT work can be outsourced undermines the importance of the IT staff and is a cause of anxiety," Capella told He also said the "leadership bench" is not as strong as it could be in many IT organizations; particularly in the middle management layers. Capella said there is a still a disconnect between business executives and IT, with the business side not really understanding the value of a strong IT organization.

"As recently as five years ago, you had a layer of management that looked at IT as a black box they really didn't understand," he said. "I think it's starting to change, but it won't happen overnight."

In tough economic times, you might intuitively think workers would be making the extra effort to keep their jobs―and that certainly does happen. But Capella said that one group of valued staff he calls "high-potential employees" aren't necessarily vested in going the extra mile.

"In tough times, it's the high potentials that are looking for other jobs and other opportunities," he said. "The way a lot of these restructurings have gone, with companies pushing to make things happen faster than ever, has fueled a sense of distrust among some of the most critical employees, some of whom end up looking for opportunities elsewhere."

Analyst Charles King agrees: "I think there's a fair bit of anxiety fatigue out there," King, principal analyst with research firm Pund-IT, told "The IT space has been under pressure for a while now, dating back to late 2007 when some of the vendors were already signaling signs of trouble in the economy. And many of those companies repeatedly cut staff and resources, which does not inspire confidence."

Tags: productivity, recession, careers, staffing, confidence,

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