Dealing with workplace stress

Between dealing with machines and dealing with people, being an IT manager can sometimes feel like the most stressful job in the world. But letting that stress get to you can cause a lot of harm, from physical problems and mental anguish to decreased productivity. Occupational health experts detail how to stay your happiest and healthiest (yes, even in this economy).


“Stress is like blood pressure — it’s the silent killer,” said Kevin Kelloway, a Canada research chair and director of the CN Centre for Occupational Health and Safety at Halifax’s St. Mary’s University. “A lot of people don’t even realize they’re under that much stress, whether it’s not getting enough sleep or getting a few drinks after work. People are often just not aware.”

He said that becoming more aware of your triggers and working on them is the best way to de-stress.

“Be alert,” said Kelloway. “Knowledge workers think they have no health and safety issues in the workplace. It’s not like they’re going to fall off their chair or something. But when you make your living with your brain, you have to take care of it.”

IT does often have to deal with it from both ends, whether it’s executive demands or users clamoring for help. “When it comes to expectations of IT, it’s always people wanting more for less, and, ‘Oh, we want it faster and better,’” said Nora Spinks, president of the North York, Ontario-based wellness consultancy Work-Life Harmony Enterprises. “It’s on 24/7 and never slows down, making IT unique in that way because the elements often aren’t predictable.”

Then there are the users. “You’re often dealing with people who don’t have a clue what they’re talking about,” Spinks laughed. “You actually have to be really good at managing other people’s stress. And trying not to make them look stupid.”

She recommends that IT staff make sure to try to lead a healthy lifestyle to offset these challenges. This means eating well, sleeping enough, making time for friends and family … and keeping workplace stress to a minimum. Easier said than done, right? There are, however, ways to do it.


First of all, companies and managers should take a proactive role in letting their employees know that a healthy workplace is important. “We need to set aside the assumption that work-life balance is just a North American or women’s issue,” Spinks said. “Everyone has a life outside of work.”

From the business’ side, “a company’s most important resource is its people. Most people don’t see it like that…or the value of preventive maintenance,” said Zorianna Hyworon, president of the Winnipeg-based software-as-a-service company Info Tech Inc., which does online lifestyle assessments via its Wellness Checkpoint tool.

She said that companies are overly concerned with absenteeism. Instead, Hyworon said, companies should keep an eye on presenteeism — how engaged and happy employees are in the workplace and their job.

From the employee side, it’s important to establish boundaries, whether it’s cutting back on overtime, or requesting work-from-home privileges. Taking an interest in employee assistance programs and any work flexibility will also show the company that these programs are worth their investment.


People often feel helpless and get the most stressed out when they feel a lack of control over their environment, whether it’s a lack of flexibility in choosing projects or strict employer rules. “There’s a relation between control and demand. The bigger the gap, the bigger the stress,” said Spinks.

There are ways to take control of your work life, however.

One strategy is to make a preemptive strike against future stress by seeking out jobs and companies that offer more flexibility and suit your work habits and lifestyle. The interview is the first step — they may be interviewing you, but you’re also interviewing them to see if you actually want to work there in the first place.

Sandra Levoy, regional vice-president with the Ottawa office of IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology (a subsidiary of the Menlo Park, California-based staffing firm Robert Half International Inc.), recalls a recent client who went on an interview in which the interviewer stressed several times the amount of overtime required. Was the candidate was okay with that? It was a big, red flag, said Levoy, alerting the client that it probably would be a pretty stressful workplace environment.

IT staffers are increasingly looking for companies that offer more flexibility and less stress. She remembers a recent client who was making $100,000 per year at a high-stress job. “They had two young children and virtually no work-life balance. (The client) ended up leaving for a job that paid much less that offered a better balance.”

The desire to work from home at least some of the time, for example, has been increasing rapidly, according to Levoy. “People don’t want to commute any more, and they want to work at companies that offer that flexibility,’ she said. “Companies are beginning to come around, although it takes time to make changes like that.” And the more employers are aware of the desirability of diverse work options for employees, the faster that flexibility will become more commonplace.

She suggests building the potential to work from home — or other flexibility request — into your job offer. If you’re already working somewhere but would like to have a more flexible work style, she said, it doesn’t hurt to ask.

“It’s important to bring your expectations out in the open, and be sure to ask about how flexible they are,” she said. If you’re a desirable enough worker, there should, in theory, be some wiggle room, provided your request fits with your job description.

Another way to regain control is to feel like a top-notch IT job candidate, ready for anything.

“If you’re unhappy, you can always start looking around for another job,” said Kelloway.

Upgrading your skills and learn new technologies will give you marketable skills and confidence, Kelloway said. “Then, even if the worst happens, you’re ready for it.” And if you stay at your job, you’ll probably be more knowledgeable and invested, and thus — hopefully — happier where you are.

Workflow is another culprit when it comes to control over your workday. That’s why it’s important to take “mini-breaks,” said Kelloway. “For a lot of IT people, it’s a lot of project work. There’s intense bursts of activity followed by a more mellow period. One of the big problems is that workers don’t recognize the need for some slack — people need downtime. They can’t just keep going and going.” By scheduling in time to work on long-term projects or catch up on some busywork, employees will feel less stressed.

From the employer side, companies must consider what they should take control over, and what they should let go. Finding that balance can make the difference when it comes to employee morale, said Estelle Morrison, director of health management with the Markham, Ontario-based human resources, employee assistance and payroll company Ceridian Canada Ltd. “This could mean som

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