Stress - what's the problem?

At times, even the IT industry can be a stressful place to work. So invited a selection of key IT professionals to vent...

At times, even the IT industry can be a stressful place to work. So invited a selection of key IT professionals to vent their spleen and tell us exactly what stresses them out.

People and money. These are the two of the biggest stress generators in any business environment. And for IT staff there is the added pressure of workload.

Overwork is rife among the UK's IT managers, according to Kate Turner, a director at ICM Research. In a survey of 100 IT directors she found that one in four work close to a 60 hour week as a direct result of the introduction of Internet-based applications to their business. This is the equivalent of working four hours overtime every day.

Don't interrupt me!
Lack of resources is the biggest factor contributing to overwork among IT directors, says Turner. Of those responding to the survey, 58% said they had little time to focus on work due to non-stop demands on their time. Interruptions are a major bugbear.

One IT manager who runs a busy Web site told "I find it stressful when I'm working to a tight deadline and there are constant interruptions. Lack of clear communications is really annoying. When dealing with business managers I think stress occurs because we all have different objectives."

Along with the endless interruptions, Pat Leach IT director at Inpharmatica, a technology-led drug discovery company, finds there is constant pressure on his time because in practice the technology designed to make people's lives easier can have a negative impact on their well-being.

"What causes me stress is having my diary managed by other people," he says. Leach does not have a personal assistant to juggle his diary, so with anyone having access to his electronic diary, work time quickly gets booked up. "I have four to five meetings per day," he says.

The problem is exacerbated by the nature of business demands on IT resources. "Work seems to be very reactive during the day," he observed. "Sometimes it's an unexpected delay or a hitch in the IT infrastructure or pressure from a senior executive."

I am not a geek
Dealing with business managers is a major cause for concern among the IT managers spoke to. Topping the list of bugbears leading to stress is the problem of being able to deliver an elegant IT solution to a loosely defined business requirement.

"There's an expectation of delivery other managers have but what I seem to face is a lack of understanding from the business," says the IT director at one company where IT is core to the business. "For instance, in our business we are called upon to offer massive levels of IT resilience which puts demands on my IT budget."

Lack of influence on the business adds to the frustration. IT is generally considered the "techie's" profession so the viewpoints of business savvy IT managers are often discarded.

"The level of scrutiny I have tolerated when delivering an IT project is often substantial," says one IT director. "Yet in a previous job one of my frustrations was that my right to comment was questioned when business managers met to discuss strategic issues. That's why I left. In my new IT director role, while I have to be far more responsive, I find it less stressful."

Inevitably there are times when IT people come head to head with the business teams. And for one IT director, the situation is exacerbated when he is "flamed" by a business manager: "I find it stressful as an IT director when a disagreement arises with the business on how to achieve a given goal. Sometimes it's a cultural issue; sometimes political but it does not really help when someone sends you a snotty e-mail."

In the public sector there is the additional problem of finding that there's nobody to take responsibility for making a decision. "One of the biggest problems I have is being entrepreneurial in a public sector environment," says Mike Herd, centre director at the Sussex Innovation Centre, based at Sussex University. "There is a lack of people who can make decisions. This can be enormously stressful."

Smells like team spirit
In spite of all the difficulties, there is a surprising level of cohesion within IT teams. As one project manager observes: "I'm fortunate because my team knows what it is doing. Things would be far worse working with buffoons."

He adds that technical competency could become an issue for inexperienced members of a project team: "When I started out in IT, stress came from business managers making assumptions about what we knew. In my first IT job, around the time that Windows was launched, the business expected us to know about it. I was lucky because at the time Windows wasn't being taught at university but I had a PC at home. For those who didn't have experience of Windows it would have been a huge learning curve."

The same would hold true of any commercial programming environment and the computer programming skills taught at university.

The flip-side of the coin is a sense of technical superiority propagated by some people. This can be almost as big an issue as concerns about competence. In one IT director's experience morale does suffer when there is a prima donna on the team: "I have a technical superstar who can deliver systems much faster than anyone else on the team. But he'll stamp into my office and throw a tantrum whenever there's some issue with our network that affects him in some way.

"This is particularly disruptive and stressful for the whole team. But you have to strike a balance: we have to learn to live with such people because some times they are worth the effort.

Stress is obviously common in many areas of business. But the fact that IT people are constantly on call and have to juggle formidable business needs with other commitments, it's a wonder they manage to get any work done at all.

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.

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