Avoid burnout

How bad is the IT burnout problem? Pretty bad. Next week, Meta Group Inc. will issue a report that says 71 percent of IT managers surveyed believe employee burnout is a serious issue in their organizations. Burnout means reduced productivity, higher turnover and generally lousy performance — which is exactly what corporate IT shops can’t afford as budgets keep getting tighter and demands from the business side keep getting louder.

Of course, that survey doesn’t actually mean that only 71 percent of IT shops have a serious burnout problem among their employees.

It means the other 29 percent haven’t figured it out yet.

The statistics are part of Meta’s annual “IT Staffing and Compensation Guide,” which also says the way most IT departments are dealing with the problem is by offering skills-development programs. A minority are beefing up their retention programs, raising salaries, offering cash incentives and, in a few cases, even moving employees to completely new locales to try to improve morale.

Those are all good ideas. Some cost more than others, and now is a bad time to look for money to spend. Still, if you’re a CIO, you should throw your support behind solving the burnout problem.

But if you’re an IT manager or team leader, don’t jump into this one with both feet just yet.

Before you look for money for training or raises or bonuses, first understand the problem you’re trying to solve.

Burnout means people have stopped caring. That’s the symptom.

But before you can make your people care again, you’ve got to know what they care about — what drives them.

Raises and bonuses will work for employees who are driven by the money. (That doesn’t mean they’re greedy, just that they keep score with those dollars, and more money makes the game more interesting.)

And training will work for employees who are driven by a desire to learn new things. That category includes a lot of IT people.

But not all of them.

Some employees are driven by challenges. They want to try things they’re not sure they can do.

Some are driven by accomplishment. They get their satisfaction from finishing the job.

Some live for variety — they want to keep trying new things. Some are happiest with stability that lets them keep getting better at what they do. Some want to do small things well. Some want to work on big projects that will change the world.

Some are driven by the desire for praise. Some are driven by loyalty. Some are driven by commitment to the team.

In each case, if they’re not doing what they care about, they’ll get burned out. And if you throw bonuses or training at people who are driven by challenge or variety or accomplishment or praise or team commitment, you’re wasting time and money. That’s not what they care about, so it won’t help their burnout. One size won’t fit all. It never does.

You know what drives many of your people. If you don’t know, ask their former managers and team leaders. Or ask the employees themselves. Just don’t assume the things that motivate you also motivate them. And don’t decide they should be motivated by those same things.

Figure out what each of your people needs, starting with the ones showing the clearest signs of burnout. Then start looking for ways to tweak their jobs so they’re getting more of what they really care about.

Yeah, that’s a lot of fine-tuning. And it’s a lot more touchy-feely than many IT people — in the trenches and in management — are really comfortable with.

But if you want to turn your burnouts around, give them what they need.

Then they can give you the performance you need.