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Technologists are grappling with the stress of keeping critical systems running and sustaining operations — as if nothing ever happened.
Daily stress at work is on the rise, from 48% of employees last year to 65% at the end of March, according to a survey from Gallup. IT teams deal with added pressure as focus shifts from in-person processes and into digital services.
The World Health Organization traces the onset of burnout to "chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed," exhibited by reduced professional efficacy.
Mental health problems created or worsened by employee burnout, such as depression and anxiety, can wreak havoc on productivity. WHO estimates the financial toll of lost productivity from these health problems amounts to $1 trillion each year.
For leaders striving to adequately manage stress and burnout among their IT ranks, a stigma-free discussion around mental health and stress levels is imperative. Leading by example, executives need to know when to step back and take time off.
Burnout doesn't just afflict staff. Executives can feel it too.
"Sitting day in and day out here in my dining room can be sometimes challenging, particularly with dogs and kids and everything else," said Michael Zucker, VP of IT at digital consulting firm Perficient, in an interview with CIO Dive.
The executive operates a team of 41 from a house with six kids. At times, from his dining room outpost, he's seen his dog Zoe run inside, tracking muddy paw prints across the living room.
"We made it very clear right at the beginning: Your health and your family’s health comes first."
Chief Strategy Officer at Devo Technology
To streamline his days, he lines up key calls for the early morning, so he can take care of them while the kids are still asleep.
Work issues brought on by the pandemic can also pile on, such as onboarding a recent hire in the company's Atlanta offices. Stay-at-home orders there have been lifted, but in-office attendance remains optional for Perficient employees. No one was there to provide equipment for the new hire, which required an alternate plan.
Zucker has found ways of coping with the stress of frenzied quarantine days: taking regular breaks at lunch or mid-afternoon, squeezing in an occasional run or stepping outside for a breath of fresh air.
A shift to the urgent
At Perficient, the cadence of communications has increased, prompting frequent check-ins with staff on topics that transcend work, and instead focus on how employees are navigating the new realities of the pandemic.
Failure to spot stress could result in physical and mental health risks for the workforce, waning levels of productivity and quality as stressed out teams buckle under pressure.
Sarah Lahav, CEO at SysAid Technologies, said IT workers are tasked with keeping the tech engines running for life-sustaining operations.
Once the pandemic hit, the stakes soared. As did the pressure.
"I thought I was working hard before," Lahav told CIO Dive. "And then COVID came and took it to a whole new level."
"Leaders set the emotional tone for the entire team."
Author, speaker and resilience expert
In the peak days of the pandemic, the scope of IT work for clients shifted toward the urgent, with universities needing to quickly pivot to online classes or offices activating stronger cybersecurity measures to work remotely.
For Lahav, managing the surge in activity required navigating the increased pressure among her ranks. When a staffer came forward to voice anxiety concerns, the person was offered time off and access to a mental health professional.
Proactively managing stress levels helps in the context of a stay-at-home order. That was a central takeaway for Colin Britton, chief strategy officer at Devo Technology, whose company has an engineering hub in Spain.
"We took a very proactive approach making sure that people reached out to everybody," said Britton, in an interview with CIO Dive. CEO Walter Scott has called each remotely-onboarded new hire to welcome them to the company.
Within and across teams, video chats helped provide a space for the company's workers to check in with each other as they grappled with the stress of Spain's strict quarantine.
Though attendance is not mandated, the talks help provide a non-work mental health break in the day. Teams gather online to play virtual trivia games or drawing games, and workers. Pets, children and significant others occasionally join in.
"We made it very clear right at the beginning: Your health and your family’s health comes first," said Britton. "That is your priority." The company's health insurance provider in the U.S. gives staff access to a confidential emotional help support line. Staffers grappling with stress are also encouraged to seek special accommodations with managers.
Keeping burnout at bay
The pandemic is pressuring workers everywhere. IT teams can feel unnecessary pressure to remain available around the clock as they become crucial to their companies' distributed reality.
The haziness of any future projections quickly compounds pressure.
"Our brain doesn't like uncertainty," said Anne Grady, author, speaker, and resilience expert, in an interview with CIO Dive. "It would rather have outcomes it doesn't like than an outcome it doesn't know."
Resilience in the face of stress is "built by developing daily practices," said Grady. Stressed IT workers can benefit from taking a step back and reevaluating which daily habits help — and which ones hurt.
One example of habits that hurt efficiency: Leaders emailing workers outside of office hours can send a subconscious message that employees are expected to respond.
"I thought I was working hard before. And then COVID came and took it to a whole new level."
CEO SysAid Technologies
"Leaders set the emotional tone for the entire team," Grady said. "They're the thermostat."
Conversely, the habit of realigning priorities can help mitigate the effects of stress. "Often we're just so busy being busy that we're reacting our way though the day," Grady said. Paying attention to what's more important and how much bandwidth an issue or task is getting can help stave off burnout.
To help ensure teams can sustain their work in the long run by keeping burnout at bay, Toby Hervey, CEO and co-founder of Bravely, highlights three courses of action:
- Prioritizing high-impact work: Leaders should ask themselves honestly if deadlines and workloads should remain the same as before, Hervey said in an email to CIO Dive. Impact relative to effort is the key metric.
- Encouraging people to open up: Explicitly asking how people are feeling while also sharing personal challenges can cultivate openness and vulnerability.
- Clarifying communication norms: Teammates should have clarity around the hours they're expected to be available. Outside of that timeframe, teams should establish ground rules on how to proceed.
Letting burnout takeover a team will result in an impact to the physical and mental health of workers, as well as falling productivity and quality of work, Bhushan Sethi, joint global leader, people and organization at PwC, told CIO Dive.
Part of the problem is leaders aren't taking enough time off to model the behavior among their ranks. When leaders check-in with their subordinates, they stand to benefit from talking about something not work related. Perhaps chatting about life with kids under quarantine, or how much they miss soccer.
"I think people need that," Sethi said. "People need to see the hope beyond this 18-month period we're all muddling through."
Correction: Toby Hervey's title has been updated to reflect he is the CEO and co-founder of Bravely.