While encouraging peak performance can benefit both the employee and organization, extended periods of time in "overdrive" can lead to burnout.
Even if you have formed positive working relationships with your IT staff, they may not always let you know when they feel overwhelmed. In fact, your best employees may never speak up because they see it as a sign of weakness or failure to admit that they can't keep up with expectations.
What follows are some strategies that can help:
Pay attention. Observe activity within your department so you can take immediate action at the first sign of problems. If stress levels are too high, there may be a noticeable change in behavior among your best employees.
For example, your top Intranet developer may start to deliver sites and applications behind schedule or a database manager may make careless mistakes with his or her work. Other telltale signs of burnout include an increase in interpersonal conflicts and negative attitudes.
Read between the lines. If you aren't already doing so, request that those reporting to you provide weekly activity reports. These updates can be a particularly useful tool for determining when someone may be in trouble.
Sometimes the clues are subtle; people may focus exclusively on first-tier priorities and overlook routine responsibilities such as monitoring backups. Or they may make small progress on a number of IT initiatives but never completely finish any of them.
As soon as you detect a potential problem, take action. Meet with the employee to determine the best remedy for his or her situation. The goal is for staff members to have enough time to address a balance of first-, second- and third-tier projects.
Delegate carefully. You may be tempted to give assignments to the same reliable employees you always do; however, in doing so, you may be overburdening those staff members while losing a valuable opportunity for others on your team to develop new skills.
Use delegation as a way for your top performers to cross-train employees who have expressed interest in a particular area. For instance, an IT manager might help a junior network engineer oversee a server upgrade. You'll build bench-strength for the team and keep your staff challenged professionally.
Offer genuine support. It is one thing to tell your employees to come to you when they need assistance and quite another to take action when they do. Managers, in particular, may be reluctant to say anything to you out of fear of negative career repercussions.
So, make sure you consistently demonstrate that it is safe to seek help when people are overwhelmed by their workloads. Solicit employee ideas for solutions. Then, follow through by redistributing projects to other staff, reorganizing job responsibilities, bringing in contract IT professionals to alleviate the workload or providing access to training.
Lighten the mood. Humor can help you counteract elevated stress levels. Finding a way to laugh about the unexpected problems with a software upgrade (if you can!), for instance, will aid in alleviating tension and creating a more positive environment for everyone. Just be sure the levity is appropriate for the office and the situation.
Encourage balance. Finally, be sure to remind IT staff to take breaks and vacation time. When employees are overloaded, they may feel a need to skip scheduled time off, believing they will get more done. However, it's far more likely that productivity and motivation will decline and burnout will increase.
Set the example for employees by periodically stepping away from your desk yourself.
You probably won't be able to eliminate stress entirely, but you can implement measures to reduce the impact of peak workloads and prevent burnout. Promoting open communication with your employees, proactively identifying potential problems in the group and taking responsive action will show your staff that you care while keeping the team on track.
Katherine Spencer Lee is executive director of Robert Half Technology, a provider of IT professionals for initiatives ranging from e-business development and multi-platform systems integration to network engineering and technical support. Robert Half Technology has more than 100 locations in the North America and Europe, and offers online job search services at www.roberthalftechnology.com.