Decent management communication and support, plus personal development for the people can combine to help prevent a lot of the issues which lead to pressure and stress. Take time to do this and you will have a less stressed IT function - contributing more to the business!
Do you think your industry is the most affected by stress? According to a survey carried out by SkillSoft an amazing 97% of IT people surveyed claimed to feel stressed in their work on a daily basis!! (Ranking just ahead of those in the medical/caring profession.)
Whatever the industry, whether IT providers, an internal IT function, or those using third party IT support, it will have an impact. There is a duty of care towards employees. Recently, Intel had a judgement against them for being liable to contributing to an employee’s depression brought on through overwork. (In this case, the employee was in more of an administrative role, but the principle is still true.) The initial damages are GBP 16,000 with more to follow for future loss of earnings and special damages - not to mention the legal costs plus the cost of time to the organisation.
What makes IT so pressurised? Are those working in it really such wimps and unable to cope? If we think about the nature of much of the work it is easier to understand. Those at the "front-end" of IT projects, including the systems analysts, designers, programmers, project managers have their own sets of pressures. They have to deal with managing client expectations, resource planning or juggling, a range of interpersonal interactions and probably impossible, or improbable, deadlines. On top of this, they have their own managers pressuring them because of their own targets - and inability to cope with their own roles.
Those in a support role have a different set of challenges. They have a constant stream of calls, some with technically challenging (and stimulating) problems and many which are banal. Regardless of the complexity of the issue, the person making the request is likely to only be thinking of themselves - expecting an immediate response with a solution and will frequently be unreasonable and impatient. The IT support function is often a thankless area, with little or no control over the workflow or workload. Management often measure the function with quantitative factors such as response times or numbers of outstanding issues or complaints. Only the more enlightened look to measure effectiveness in terms of quality of response - and customer satisfaction with the way their problem was resolved. As for understanding, support and encouragement offered from the organisation and management, that is often lacking!
There are often unrealistic expectations on those working in IT. In the wish to offer good service, those involved do not feel confident or competent to manage these expectations whether from customers, management or themselves. Often, the communication within the function and with those who are the stakeholders is not as good as it could be. Too many over-promise at the beginning of a project and create pressure from there, rather than being realistic about timescales. Many people reported their managers were on their backs a lot of the time rather than supporting and leading - which adds to the pressures.
What are the consequences? Over a quarter of those responding to the survey had taken time off as a result of feeling stressed. That has a major knock-on effect. Where stress is building at the front-end of projects there are potential problems with people working longer hours, which in turn leads to increased tiredness and other pressures, irritability, poor communication and quality problems or mistakes happening. This causes an impact on morale and motivation with the possibility of absence growing, creating further pressures on the team and individuals.
Reality says that IT is a function which has special pressures on it. However, it is not helpful to just nod sagely and do nothing. (Remember - 97%!) For organisations it makes commercial sense as stress, and its consequences, is costly and impacts business performance directly and indirectly. For management, it creates more problems and pressures if allowed to spread and it can be expensive. For customers it leads to frustration with the poorer service. For the people in the teams concerned it becomes demotivating and can lead to them beginning to suffer.
What can you do? Consider carrying out a risk audit using the HSE criteria. Addressing these areas can help you identify where the real issues are.
* The culture of your organisation - how does it approach work-related stress?
* Demands on people, such as workload, levels and schedules.
* Control over their work and the way they do it - how much say do staff have? Are managers reasonable?
* Relationships - how do you deal with issues such as bullying or harassment? (Another point, up to 1 in 5 people report they have been bullied at work.)
* Organisational change - how is it managed and communicated?
* Understanding of role - do individuals understand their role in the organisation and have clear definitions?
* Support and training from peers and line managers for the person to be able to do the core functions of the job?
Managers can benefit from looking at their own skills and attitudes - and the way they manage their people, workloads, customers and expectations of all concerned. They need to be supportive and facilitative. Developing the ability to run interference for their own people, absorbing unreasonable demands of senior managers and from customers will be a great help. Also, learning to spot the symptoms of stress building and doing something about it will be beneficial.
The personnel within the IT functions can be supported in a number of ways. Adjusting workloads might be a start. Finding ways of giving them more control over aspects of their work could be useful and also measuring their effectiveness differently. Give them practical skills around interpersonal and influencing skills to deal with the cross-section of people and situations - and reinforce these. The other area which they could be encouraged to improve is to their own self-awareness around pressure and stress management and to manage themselves differently. Where we have worked with organisations and groups in these areas, the individuals have often made significant progress.
So, are IT people wimps? My opinion is that they are not. I do think that they are often facing both a wide range and an on-going set of pressures from a variety of people. Looking at their roles, people’s expectations of them, and the actual work expected from them can identify areas to improve things. Creating a clear SLA (service level agreement) will establish some clearer expectations. Decent management communication and support, plus personal development for the people can combine to help prevent a lot of the issues which lead to pressure and stress. Take time to do this and you will have a less stressed IT function - contributing more to the business!
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