Few professions can be said to be stress-free. Everyone at some point or another has to face a deadline or a shift in management that can cause stress levels to swell. For IT professionals, however, stress is more often the norm than the exception.
Rod Phillips, president and CEO of Warren Shepell Consultants in Toronto, has found that in many ways stress levels have increased since the dot-com era. He said the amount of merger and acquisition activity, downsizing and the demands placed on individual workers are putting them in a tough spot.
“There’s also the stress of technology itself affecting people, with the idea of being available all the time through your Blackberry or your pager or with e-mail,” Phillips said.
These factors affect everyone, Phillips said, but IT workers have to juggle these stressors along with the pressure of making upgrades, and often working around the clock.
As well, they are forced to keep up in terms of training and education at a pace matched by few industries.
Another big one is the gulf that exists between the technology-savvy IS department, and the rest of the organization. Phillips said the role of IT workers is not always well understood, especially by the more senior people.
“It can be a very stressful environment when you know what needs to be done and you have to communicate with someone less literate in technology, who also happens to be your boss,” he added.
Harley Spiller, a Winnipeg-based software architect for a large organization, said that dealing with a boss can be stressful.
“If a developer has a week to get two weeks of work done, it can be very stressful to either tell their boss that they can’t get it done, or to actually work the extra hours and do [it],” he said.
Hung Ha, a software developer at Bayer Diagnostics in Toronto, agrees that deadlines and market conditions are the two biggest stress factors in his job, but adds that it comes in waves.
“The week before a deadline is much more stressful than the week after, but we have a release almost every month, so it’s a cycle,” he said.
Although Ha tries to keep his work at the office, he often finds that the stress follows him home.
“We’re not machines that can turn off a button and leave the stress at work. I just try to do other things to relieve it,” he said.
Spiller has experienced the stress of IT as a programmer and designer, but also as a project manager, which comes with its own challenges.
And as a mentor to other IT staff, Spiller has had to face the challenge of letting go of a project, which can be stressful.
“Many IT professionals have a strong need to control all elements of their work and it’s hard to give up that control to other people. There’s a fine line between mentoring and doing too much of the work for the person you are mentoring. That can be really stressful. I often recognize that it would get done faster if I were doing the work, but there would be no value to it,” he said.
According to Phillips, stress can be contagious in an office environment, and is something of which managers should be aware. That’s why it’s important to identify stress as a serious issue, and how, if it goes unchecked, it can negatively affect the workplace.
A number of things can be done to help reduce workplace stress, Phillips said. The first thing is to be willing to address the problem without turning into an amateur psychologist.
“Deal with the performance part of the issue. If an employee is missing deadlines, is missing a lot of work or has performance issues because of stress – work-related or not – it is legitimate to deal with that,” he said.
Secondly, employers need to be patient.
“Understand that if Bob’s been a great guy for three years, but he’s been a jerk for the last three weeks, he’s probably still a great guy. Find ways to be helpful for him. We are all complex individuals with a lot of things going on, and we often forget that the people working beside us are not only colleagues but also mothers, brothers, daughters and husbands,” he said.
Phillips stresses the need of creating a good work-life balance in whatever way works for the individual.
Ha finds an outlet for his stress in running and going to the gym. Spiller reduces his stress by spending time with his family and bookmarks some alone time to read or walk.
“I think it’s the responsibility of every person to lead a balanced life. You can go home and veg and worry about your day or you can take action,” Ha said.