IT burnout warning signs

Before Daniel Wilson arrived at Osram Sylvania Inc., he knew he was on a fast train to Burnout City.

His former post at a computer systems manufacturer was rife with project overload and deadline demands that frazzled employees. Users blamed systems problems on information technology workers, who in turn began blaming themselves.

That left Wilson on the verge of becoming a statistic. “I was close to burnout there,” said Wilson, who is now a manager of quality tools and methods at the lighting manufacturer in Danvers, Mass.

Wilson felt the symptoms coming on. To be sure, many IT employees work long hours. But Wilson’s schedule was monotonous, laborious and “without any apparent break,” he said. He’d ply extended hours without recognition from management and without any feeling of accomplishment.

“You just didn’t feel you were making any progress,” Wilson said. The passion was slipping away, he said.

Dissatisfaction at work led to senseless confrontations with co-workers on everything from projects to new job candidates. The tension from work followed Wilson home. He gained weight from lack of exercise. He became emotionally inflexible and short-tempered with his family — all because of his work relations.

“I got very unprofessional about [work],” Wilson said of his bout with burnout. “I now look back and am ashamed of it.”

Until a manager confronted him with his own take on the situation, the lightbulb hadn’t gone on in Wilson’s mind about the changes. But following that review, which included a raise, Wilson knew he was headed for burnout and needed to make a change. He soon jumped ship to work for a start-up and then a consulting firm, before landing — refreshed — at Osram Sylvania, where the environment fosters partnerships between users and IT support.

“Now I’m working a lot of hours, but I feel much more productive,” he said.

Seemingly endless workloads and lack of understanding from client groups and senior management can result in frustration and burnout among IT managers and workers, said Thomas W. Ferratt, associate dean for learning, technology and faculty development at the University of Dayton in Dayton, Ohio, and co-author of Coping withLabor Scarcity in Information Technology (Pinnaflex, March 1999). Companies become susceptible to competitor raids, and recruits get jaded opinions from existing workers, who themselves suffer amid heavier workloads from increased turnover, Ferratt said.

At 3M Co. in St. Paul, Minn., aligning work with employees’ skills and business needs has helped keep staffers focused and turnover to less than 10 percent among its 1,200 IT workers, said Bob Roepke, manager of IT communications consulting and professional development. Ongoing training, competitive salaries, a visible commitment from senior management and support from user groups create relationships that help tether the IT staff to the company in a positive way, Roepke said.

Often, the best way to thwart burnout is to recognize its breeding grounds. At Osram Sylvania, a conversion to SAP AG software could have shaken IT. For a department whose people — some with more than 25 years’ tenure — were focused on “silos of expertise,” the conversion could have created “wholesale change in everybody’s life,” said Mehrdad Laghaeian, vice-president of IT.

Instead, senior managers restructured the company to minimize the impact on staffers. Managers scrapped Sylvania’s hierarchical structure and created a flat organization with three core areas: systems architecture and engineering, projects and project delivery, and maintenance of infrastructure. Teams were created to handle each area with little crossover.

The efforts helped avoid overwhelming people with multiple tasks and kept them focused on the job, Laghaeian said. Assignments are more task-oriented, so they’re shorter in duration. There’s more flexibility among new assignments, which keeps staffers’ focus renewed and fresh, he said. Workers are happy, and thus turnover has never been a problem at the company.

“[Our] concern from the beginning was to design an organization that could minimize the effects of burnout,” Laghaeian said. “It’s an issue we face all the time. We look out for symptoms of burnout and tackle it in a positive way.”