Warning: ITcan damage your health

This month's IT Direc- tor's Forum at the Cranfield School of Management challenged IT directors to repos-ition stress...

This month's IT Direc- tor's Forum at the Cranfield School of Management challenged IT directors to repos-ition stress management higher up their priority lists, writes Mark Lewis.

Delegates heard that the price for not doing so could be a badly functioning department in which absenteeism is rife, staff churn is crippling and the threat of compensation claims from traumatised employees is ever present. Worse, their employees could run the risk of prolonged ill health and even death being caused by the department.

It quickly became clear at the Forum that the IT department is uniquely prone to stress. A brainstorm of the causes of stress threw up such issues as complexity and pace of change. As Forum leader, Keith Patching said, "you cost a lot, but you don't deliver". And then there is e-business, which has dragged the IT department into the glare of the corporate headlights, and put pressure on those employees involved with its implementation.

Even more worryingly, Patching used the workplace personality profile tool, the Myers-Briggs theory, to prove that the IT profession attracts the types of people who are most likely to suffer from stress.

The classic profile of an IT worker is of an introvert who trusts senses over intuition, logic over feeling and organisation over flexibility. Individuals who display these attributes, said Patch- ing, are "significantly more likely to suffer from heart disease than anybody else".

In other words, the IT function is a recipe for disaster, in which individuals who are prone to stress are required to function within a high-stress environment.

Patching asserted that stress is all about relative breaking strains. While he admitted that there might at times be a place for exerting positive stress, he counselled delegates against pushing members of staff to their breaking points.

"We have to be careful that what stresses us will not stress someone else", said Patching. What's more, he said, "the more you suffer from it, the less capable you are of dealing with stress".

At a physiological level, Patching defined stress as "that point at which [the hormone] cortisol is secreted into the body in significant amounts". And continual secretion of cortisol could, he said, damage the heart, increase the chance of cancer and cause long-term damage to the memory.

The first step to minimising stress is to engender a culture of honesty, an environment in which employees feel able to air their concerns. "Encouraging people to discuss issues," said Patching, is key to minimising stress, and mentoring is a sure-fire way of helping employees to open up to you.

Once they have established a healthy climate, IT heads should identify those employees likeliest to be affected by stress. This can be achieved simply by considering the types of people your staff members are, although a little knowledge of the Myers-Briggs theory does make the task easier.

Having identified high-risk employees, you must assess whether you can set them specific types of tasks, or even re-sculpt their jobs, in order to minimise stress. Moreover, because lack of control is a classic cause of stress, you must explore ways of giving individuals more control of projects.

Once a dangerously stressed employee has been pinpointed, Patching warned against attempts at amateur psychology. "Understand the role of professional help," he said. "There's a big responsibility for managers to know when to stop."

In terms of halting the build-up of harmful toxins in the body, Patching declared that "physical exercise really is helpful". You're probably not going to lead team jogs every lunch hour, but you can at least try to be aware of staff members who seem chained to their desk all day.

Patching also implored delegates to ensure that the human element isn't lost in their department.

We have been hard wired to respond to that peculiar combination of shapes that is the human face. Having a real human interaction - not just sitting in a meeting arguing the toss - can produce positive hormones such as dopamine and serotonin, which help to break down cortisol, he said.

Underpinning everything else was the concept of adjusting your leadership style to suit different people, and taking care not to assume that your employees require the leadership style you would prefer. Patching challenged his audience to ask themselves, "is my management style and the way I motivate people actually causing more problems than it is solving?".

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