Users overworked, stressed out

IT looks like the hottest job ticket around with pay packets escalating to meet a widening skills shortage, but its practitioners are stressed out and overworked.

More than half the 1400 IT executives questioned in a Meta Group survey identified rising workloads as the number-one stress factor among IT professionals.

This was followed by lack of skilled IT staff, longer working hours and the need to adapt systems from a variety of vendors creating more complex projects and greater workloads.

Other sources of stress include office politics, balancing work and personal lives, and commuting.

BT Finance information manager Tony Forward concurred with the survey, attributing stress to the increased pace of technological and business change including e-commerce.

"There are new demands in technology to manage; 20 years ago IT was far simpler with fewer choices in applications and an environment limited by smaller budgets," Forward said.

"The environment is far more complex now and business customers are more computer literate.

"Staff are also more demanding and have greater expectations; they want applications they read about in the business press which might be fine for one person but when you have 2000 users in an enterprise it's a different deal altogether."

Forward said it is certainly true that skilled staff shortages are a problem and pressure increases with greater responsibility and more senior roles.

"As I've moved into more senior positions so has the stress, but I do think workloads have risen generally," he said.

Clayton Utz IS manager Paul Campbell has noticed a gradual increase in workload during 13 years in the IT industry.

Campbell said his role requires a far broader range of skills, including the ability to communicate effectively.

He said explaining technical problems in basic terms and the ability to set priorities is critical.

Campbell said technology's wider use leads to greater expectations and "a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing" because staff do not realise the complexities of putting systems in place.

"Integrating systems is my current priority because we are trying to remove duplication, which is a big job," he said.

"There may be a business case to implement new applications in our marketing section with plans to hook this up with the finance section at a later date; but it's always harder to do these things later or in half measures, so everything has to be addressed in advance."

Campbell said he recognised the dangers of working long hours, admitting personal life pressures arise if there isn't a balance.

"It is easy to become robotic and cold if you don't get enough leisure time," he added. Claiming increased workloads are not unique to the IT sector, Citibank's head of technology, David Madden, said everyone is expected to deliver at a faster rate.

He said the pace of change is quicker and IT involvement in a range of business projects is more constant.

"There is definitely an ongoing challenge with sourcing skilled staff and this will continue for a few more years to come; we try to address that issue internally by exposing staff to IT," Madden said.

Despite the shift toward working with more vendors, Madden said Citibank is using fewer than it did previously as the company's focus has become more specific.

"We are actually using fewer vendors but I think this is cyclical," he said.

"If I look at my peers, the pressure is greater in every area of business because we are coming to terms with changing technology with fewer resources, but at the same time have to deliver at greater speed."

CSR Timber's IS manager, Owen Aubrey, attributed increasing workloads to Y2K and GST.

Despite being one-off projects, Aubrey said they have created a backlog of projects for many IT professionals. He said combining the IS group with business units allows "technology to have a voice".

"I sit on the executive team which is not an uncommon trend these days because IT has to have a business perspective," Aubrey said.

CSR has replaced numerous legacy systems with a single enterprise resource planning system, which has simplified Aubrey's professional life and reduced problems significantly.

He said organisations need to offset stress by providing flexible leave time.

"There is plenty of overnight and weekend work in IT, so flexibility is crucial; if staff think a company will give and take they work harder," Aubrey said.

The Meta Group survey found companies offering perks such as flexible hours, telecommuting and additional paid time off as quality-of-life incentives to offset stress.

Training budgets had also doubled for IT workers with businesses spending on average $US1000 to $US1500 per employee compared to $US500 to $US1000 last year.

A stress management specialist with 15 years experience, Debbie Ayres of Workplace Partners said stress burnout was a real issue for the IT industry.

"In an industry where IT skills are hard to source you want to avoid burnout," she said.

"The consequences of burnout are more costly than providing more flexible leave time in the short term."

Ayres said jumping the communication barrier is a huge stress for IT professionals.

"The greatest stress I have seen for IT managers is translating highly technical concepts to users; this creates a lot of stress in an IT department because there is dissatisfaction on both sides," she said.

"Putting IT people in business units as partners is effective because they have more time to get specs right and there is ongoing dialogue.

"The stress is getting others to recognise the framework those in IT have to consider, namely time, costs and risks."

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