Stress is on the rise within the workplace. According to figures from the Health and Safety Executive, five million British workers say their job is stressful, with 500,000 experiencing work-related stress at levels that make them ill. Many factors have contributed to these high levels of anxiety and pressure, with technology featuring significantly.
"Technology, the Internet, the Web are creating stress for people because it's all overloading them," explains Professor Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST). "IT, rather than being our support system, is becoming another form of stress for people. Particularly e-mail - it ties people to machines too much and takes them away from other people."
IT departments are particularly vulnerable to stress. Staff are responsible for ensuring the smooth running of the technology needed by all the employees within an organisation to do their jobs. The IT director has to decide what software, hardware and systems are to be used, which carries with it significant responsibility relating to the success of the business.
Couple this with factors which affect employees in general - such as working long hours, coping with the pressures of modern family living and job insecurity - and it is easy to see how IT staff could be affected by stress.
Reading the signs
Professor Cooper says there are several fundamental signs that indicate someone is stressed. "You need to assess the physical signs - colds, flu, are people drinking or smoking more than usual?" he asks. "Is there a change of behaviour in the group, is anyone more withdrawn, are people not concentrating, are they more angry, are people now saying no to things they would have previously said yes to?"
It is common for someone who is suffering from stress at work to try to hide it. "I think we are all big people outside and small people inside," says Jacqueline de Rojas, managing director at Ascential Software. "I think we put across this façade, 'I can cope', but that's because everybody else in the business is managing."
What can we do to beat stress?
De Rojas believes having an interest outside work which enables us to have time to ourselves is imperative. She, and her managerial team decided last year they would run the Dublin Marathon. "To run a marathon is not just about turning up on the day. It means training and that means time for yourself. And that is such a huge, huge release of pressure. You could just spend time on your own," she explains.
But marathons are obviously not going to be right for everyone. The IT manager of an Internet start-up, who asked not to be named, follows de Rojas example on a less energetic scale. "If I have a lot of things to do I tend to take a five-minute break, go for a walk and get some fresh air," he says.
In the context of the IT department there are more specific issues which can be addressed. One IT director responsible for a team of 35 people at a medium sized technology-lead firm believes the IT director is not properly equipped to manage a team. "One of the things I find frustrating," he says, "is that we are not adequately trained to manage people."
He has a point. Your average IT director or manager has achieved a position of responsibility by technical merit, rather than managerial skills. This could lead to stress being put on the manager, which could very easily rub off on his or her team.
Get a strategy for dealing with stress
Once stress has been detected it needs to be dealt with quickly and that means identifying and rectifying the root cause. Most large organisations will have a dedicated person within their human resources department to deal with stress-related issues. For smaller organisations, managers need to keep a close eye on their teams and encourage them to take time out every so often and discuss issues that are worrying them. I
T managers should also practise what they preach. With the economic climate still looking bleak, stress in the workplace is unlikely to disappear but it can be reduced effectively.
Is stress a real problem for you?
Do you believe work has become more stressful or are people just too sensitive these days?> Let us know with an e-mail.
This was first published in November 2001