Stress levels rise as IT head counts are slashed

Working in IT is stressful at the best of times but the pressure is now increasing as some departments are being ordered to...

Working in IT is stressful at the best of times but the pressure is now increasing as some departments are being ordered to reduce their head counts.

Citibank's decision to lay off 10% of its contractors and to force the remainder to take 10 days of unpaid holiday could set a trend. And last week's Computer Weekly/SSP survey revealed that the number of advertised jobs for IT professionals was at its lowest level since the 1993 recession.

But none of the firms axing IT staff have announced reductions in departmental workloads - those left are having to pick up their former colleagues' responsibilities.

The cutbacks could not happen at a worse time of year. During the summer departments can expect a 20% increase in reports of IT problems, at the same time as many staff go on holiday, according to Gerry Kennedy, chief executive at Bull Infrastructure and Systems.

"We have seen instances where under-staffed IT departments have been working 16-hour days continuously for a period of over two weeks," said Kennedy.

"In one case, this resulted in a series of mistakes, the cumulative effect of which was both the e-mail and Web servers going down for more than 12 hours."

Responding to the sort of stress generated by staff fearing for their jobs will be a new experience for many of those IT managers that have not been through outsourcing.

Psychologist Karol Szlichcinski said, "IT staff will be suffering the same types of stress from the same causes as other professionals but may be less well equipped to cope with it. Much of each manager's response will depend on whether he sees himself as career manager or as an IT person who has managerial duties.

"Certainly senior IT managers are likely to see themselves as managers and to have undergone human resources training, which will help them deal with stress," said Szlichcinski.

For other managers this could be a difficult time. Managing the stress of a fearful, disgruntled and overburdened workforce is not the same as coping with project deadlines and finding enough staff with the relevant skills.

Stress management consultant David Newth, of the Millfield Consultancy, said IT staff are particularly prone to stress at times of uncertainty.

"The typical personality that goes into IT tends to be a bit of a perfectionist and to see things in very precise terms, in black and white," he explained. "When things are uncertain they will perceive it as a clear-cut situation even if it is not."

With increased workloads it may seem perverse to suggest that staff should be spending less time concentrating on their own jobs, but Newth said it could help employees to cope with the stress.

"IT professionals can get very caught up in their work and it can dominate their lives, especially when there is a lot of stress at work.

"But it is important for them to think about their wider life issues. Managers should be encouraging staff to think about their families and about things outside of work. This will reduce the level of stress, which will mean they will be better able to cope with short-term bursts of stress during important projects, such as when they are required to burn the midnight oil," said Newth.

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