Job security among IT professionals has seldom been so low. Between January and September last year, 36,000 IT employees were made redundant in the UK, according to the IT professionals’ trade union Amicus.
Careers in the technology industry have always been fast moving and when you add economic uncertainty to the situation, stress levels are ratcheted up.
Veteran IT director and currently professor of IT infrastructure management at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College, David Rippon recalls the time when his company, Land Securities, bought the younger and more entrepreneurial property business Trillion. "I went on holiday fearing that I might return to redundancy. In the event that is exactly what happened," he says.
Both IT directors had to reapply for one, newly-created uber-director position.
"I was in a competitive situation and lost out. Effectively I was demoted, which was a further level of stress," Rippon says. Then came the redundancy and the realisation that he was expendable brought further distress. "Individuals react to this in different ways. I was under a fair degree of stress," he admits.
Rippon regrets that he cannot dispense an easy remedy to colleagues living and working through a similar experience: "In the end, all you can do is keep your head down and keep on working," he says.
While the best strategy for the workplace might be to keep quiet, Rippon says he found it was important to talk about the situation to family and friends.
"Don’t bottle everything up. You don’t want to turn into one of those men who continue the façade of going into work because they’re scared to tell the wife they’ve been made redundant," he cautions.
With her background in Jungian analysis and as a senior consultant for outplacement specialist DBM, Anne Howarth knows how traumatic redundancy - or the fear of it - can be for people.
She is often on-site when large-scale redundancies are announced and remembers an occasion at an engineering company when an IT employee tried to strangle his manager. "He literally had him over a desk," she recalls.
This is dramatic example illustrates what can happen when an individual allows the prospect of redundancy is to become terrifying.
"Stress comes into play when we’re no longer in charge of our decisions. People mistakenly believe that a job is for life. If we all had the outlook of a contractor who comes in on a daily basis and looks to deliver a good job, there would be no problem," Howarth points out.
She believes that a healthy outlook in the modern economy is to reject the dependency values of employment, where a manager, or company is responsible for validating your output. "Everyone should perform a job to his own level of satisfaction."
In that way individuals are always in charge and in touch with their abilities and skills. "Transferring skills elsewhere, when it comes to the crunch, is no longer such a big deal," Howarth says.
The incident with the engineering IT employee had a happy outcome. Howarth took him outside to walk off the anger and talked through the reality of the employment contract.
"He was furious because he felt very rejected," she says. However, after Howarth took him through a career asset stocktake, he became quite excited about his prospects. He was in a new job within three months.
Personal performance indicators
Keeping a vigilant eye on stress levels enables people to cope better with any economic uncertainty that might arise, advises Clive Pinder, managing director of Vielife, a health and stress management consultancy.
In the fast track of IT, he says people are already vulnerable to stress because it is a fast-moving, immature industry that is not well understood by human resources managers.
Vielife has learned most of the stress and health management lessons from the high-octane world of Formula One racing. "There are important synergies between Formula One and IT. Both are global, big businesses with tight deadlines," explains Pinder.
In Formula One, every two weeks your car has to be on a new starting grid and the consequence of poor performance may be death.
The four indicators of performance are sleep, stress, nutrition and physical energy, and Vielife takes a reading of them all to assess an individual’s state.
While an athlete knows precisely how they are performing at any given time because they know their personal best and their latest times, a corporate athlete does not have this precise indicator, points out Pinder.
He recommends keeping physical activity up when the chips are down, even if it is a brisk 30-minute walk at lunchtime. "IT professionals are sedentary. The nature of their jobs means they are PC potatoes."
Pinder has his own mantra that has seen him through the turbulent dotcom boom to his current stewardship of Vielife. "There are more jobs in this world than I can possibly get fired from. It’s about an attitude," he says.
The value of positive thinking is not confined to the echelons of senior management. Sarah, who worked in product marketing for a medium-sized IT company, faced the double whammy of redundancy and, as a UK resident on a work permit, losing her residency status.
"Faced with the prospect of having to move back to the US after seven years of building friends and a life in London, I was determined not to be made redundant," she says.
Sarah threw herself into the job with even more enthusiasm. With so much inertia around, her initiative stood out and was seen as loyalty during a time when many people resorted to unsavoury Big Brother tactics.
She kept her job - one of five out of the original 30 - and outlived two bosses, a president and a chief executive officer.
How to live with economic uncertainty
- Do a career stocktake List your skills and attributes, both learned and innate. What do people say you are good at? Just as important, what do you know you are good at? Write it down, because that stops you taking it for granted and makes you realise it as an asset.
- Don’t be a PC-potato Maintain levels of physical activity, especially when you are going through a stressful time such as downsizing.
- Talk to family and friends.