Richard Ivey School probes IT worker stress

A Canadian graduate school study suggests companies should start investing in IT-specific employee assistance programs and offer more peer support for technology professionals who are struggling to manage their stress levels.

The study, Of Races to Run and Battles to be Won: Technical Skill Updating, Stress and Coping of IT Professionals, also recommended companies look for optimism as a key personality trait when recruiting for IT roles that demand intensive and constant technical skill updating. The results of the study, which was conducted by a group of researchers at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business, will be published in an HR management journal later this year.

Nicole Haggerty, an assistant professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business who worked on the study, said the research did not involve a large survey sample but instead focused on in-depth interviews with 14 people, which she said resulted in more than 100 pages of transcripts. Subjects were probed on the kind of workload they had, the amount of learning on the fly they had to do and the coping mechanisms they used to avoid frustration or burnout.

“We spent a lot of time with these people,” she said.

The researchers found the most successful IT professionals used a combination of problem-focused and emotion-focused coping strategies. An example of the former would be taking direct action through research to resolve an issue, while emotion-based coping relied on seeking distraction, relaxation or social support. Not surprisingly, emotion-focused coping can be tougher for IT people, Haggerty said.

“Technical people are pretty good at working with their peers. There are inherent sympathies – everybody commiserates,” she said. “It’s seeking social support outside of that group (that’s difficult).”

Haggerty said she hoped to see more firms offering programs or retreats that would give IT managers more resources to deal with their stress. This happens within other areas of a business, she said, including marketing or finance departments.

“When you’re trained from a technical perspective, there isn’t HR 101. There’s database management 101,” she said.

The project was originally started by Hsing-Yi (Phoebe) Tsai, a PhD student who previously worked in IT at a vocational school for a one-year period. She said her background is in the management of information systems, and the majority of her ex-classmates are still in the field. She originally started looking at the notion of IT careers becoming obsolete in 2002, but changed direction to look at stress-related issues.

“In some way I was often surrounded by IT folks in my previous life (before joining the PhD program). I guess that’s one reason that I am personally interested in this particular occupational group,” she said. “Writing something about them is one way for me to say that I care about them.”

Although all enterprise executives could say they’re stressed out occasionally, Haggerty said IT professionals are in a somewhat unique position.

“In other fields, you build up skills so that they become a capital asset that increases in value. In technology, the learning curve can be competence-destroying,” she said. “Instead of building up their skills, they’re trying to maintain them. That increases the amount of stress they have. And the amount of stress they have comes from outside the firm.”

The study noted that heavy reliance on emotion-focused coping strategies suggests an assessment of low changeability of the situation. In other words, the study said, people are more likely to use these strategies when they believe that nothing constructive can be done about the stressor and that the problem is something that they must endure.

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