The IT workforce is hitting a wall, just as empathy has started to run dry. Struck by isolation, the pressure to keep businesses running remotely, endless to-do lists and personal life struggles, business continuity is a weight on IT employees' shoulders.
Six in ten (61%) technology workers say their stress levels have risen since working remotely, according to a Unify Square survey of 600 full-time enterprise employees released in December. Top stressors include missing the routine of being in the office, lack of in-person collaboration and distractions at home.
The threat of burnout lingers, with 54% of the workforce describes themselves as exhausted, according to a Blind survey of 2,200 professionals.
Workers are also unhappy with the technology — and therefore the IT department — used by their organizations. Forty-three percent of respondents to a ClickUp survey have been frustrated by the number of tech tools and apps they use for work; 42% say their company is stuck in the "dark ages" when it comes to adopting new technology tools or apps.
To help employees cope, IT executives and managers can partner to uplift members of the workforce by:
- Eliminating the stigmas around mental health discussions,
- Resetting emotional empathy in the workplace,
- And investing in tools to streamline IT's work.
But first, leaders can work to understand the struggles faced by IT workers across the organizations. Getting at the cause of the emotional strain can help tailor solutions to the workforce's needs. For some, this starts at the help desk.
When employees run into a technical problem, the first point of contact is usually the IT service desk. The employee tends to be frustrated or unhappy, and empathy they may have had toward the IT workforce at the beginning of the pandemic faded, according to Sumir Karayi, CEO of 1E.
"You keep suffering from challenges and problems and over time then you're going to be less and less sympathetic with the people who are providing the service," Karayi said. Running into recurring IT issues or dealing with long wait times to fix a problem, for example, erodes empathy toward staff trying to help.
Add in a neverending to-do list, and IT employees are worn out. "The problem is the brain doesn't multitask very well. It gets extremely stressed from multitasking itself," Karayi said.
Office return plans raise questions
Workers adapted to the so-called new normal and have found ways to cope with pandemic-era changes. But even more change lies ahead as companies consider returning to in-person work.
Many offices are in a transitional phase, deciding what work will look like as more employees get vaccinated. The unknowns can be a stressor on IT departments unsure what technical support will look like in the coming months, according to Scott Gode, chief product marketing officer at Unify Square.
Management also expects IT staff to be up-to-date on the fast-paced trends shaping the technology space, such as 5G, IoT or AI, according to Gode.
"IT has got to do their day job but they've got to do their future thinking night job, too, to be ready to implement these technologies," Gode said.
IT employees already tend to work late getting caught up on projects, missing out on sleep and time outside, according to Janice Litvin, author of the "Banish Burnout Toolkit." Changing expectations from management in the midst of projects only exacerbates the stressors.
Tech workers also miss the water cooler moments that created organic opportunities to blow off steam or vent to colleagues about a problem in passing, according to Litvin. Socializing has become more formal, making it difficult to find emotional empathy at work.
"Sometimes people are not even aware [of] how stressed out they are," Litvin said. Stress could bubble up into outbursts at home or at work. Litvin recommends IT employees check in with themselves each morning to stay in touch with their emotional state.
Journaling or virtual coffee with an "accountability buddy" brings the unknown stressors to the surface where they can be managed.
Helping IT staffers overcome dark times
Management sets the tone on how employees handle stress in the workplace. Erasing stigma around mental health and creating a culture of communicating about emotional well-being, "funnels all the way down through management," Litvin said.
"Many managers get promoted for technical skills, not emotional intelligence, and it's a really important skill," Litvin said. Without emotional intelligence, managers could be putting down employees without realizing it or creating a culture that lacks emotional security.
It falls on leadership to reset the emotional empathy needed to improve IT well-being, according to Karayi. "We have already seen a lot of the barriers break down, but I think the leadership has to engage in a dialogue where people are talking about emotional state," Karayi said.
Leaders set the cultural norm and standards for employees. For example, when management models setting work-life boundaries and taking time off, employees are more comfortable following suit.
"What I think really makes a difference in alleviating stress and also having transparency is having more communication," Angela Bunner, head of enterprise solutions at ClickUp, said. IT can reveal the backlog of tasks they're working on with the rest of the organization so that other employees understand why a help desk request may take longer than usual.
IT can invest in tools that respond in real time, such as automation, to address employee frustrations and take some of the pressure off, Karayi recommended. Investing in self-service functions for employees also helps take some of the brunt off of IT workers and lets other employees solve technical problems before elevating them to the department.
"The key thing to tackle an endless to-do list is to ensure that IT folks can start and finish the job," Karayi.
Leaders can supply tangible benefits such as employee assistance programs to provide the workforce with mental health resources, according to Litvin. It helps people who might be struggling, both preemptively and in moments of intense stress.
Starting smaller, IT leaders can begin every meeting by checking in with staff. Instead of commiserating, leaders can ask everyone to share the best thing that's happened that day or another positive sentiment to set a better tone for the rest of the conversation, according to Litvin.
"For an IT person this is going to sound a little crazy because IT people tend to be very analytical … but if you can help them remember to celebrate the little wins for themselves and for their co-workers, it just in general makes for a happier work environment," Litvin said.