Help your IT team avoid burnout

See how to make your IT team more effective by monitoring workloads and teaching employees to watch out for signs of burnout in this excerpt from the IT Manager's Handbook.

With IT so critical to today's organizations, the demands on staff can be enormous. Glassy-eyed programmers, cases of Jolt soda, sleeping bags under desks, and 3 a.m. pizza deliveries have become routine.

IT demands are heavy because:

  • Virtually every aspect of an organization is dependent on IT and its services.
  • The tasks and their solutions are hard, complicated and intense.
  • In the digital world we now live in, the workplace is often 24/7 and the demands are non-stop. The technology allows people to work 24 hours a day, squeezing in time for sleep only when the body refuses to stay awake.
  • The lure of a complex technical challenge often excites people to work 20 hours a day. In the early days of developing the Macintosh, Steve Jobs handed out T-shirts that read: "Working 90 hours a week and loving it."
  • IT staff is needed during working hours to ensure systems are running as they should and responding to problems. However, the staff is also needed during off-hours because that's often the only time that certain work (e.g., maintenance, upgrades, etc.) can be done.
  • Unlike the days of assembly-line labor, the work of IT isn't measured in products produced per unit of time. So there are no clear external indicators of when the work is "complete." (Bill Gates, in his book, Business @ the Speed of Thought, said, "The IT job is one where you get an 'F' if you fail but only a 'C' if you succeed -- this stuff is supposed to work, right?" p. 322.)
  • Highly energized and motivated employees may not even realize the condition they are getting themselves into. While it may be tempting to push your staff, or allow them to push themselves to the limit, it's important to remember that you won't get much work out of them once they've hit that wall.

Be as clear as possible about your real priorities

It takes more than just stating that something is a priority for everyone on a team to realize that it is a priority. If coding a specific interface is a critical task for a larger project, you have to say so. But also remember that your actions can dilute your words.

If the status of the interface barely gets mentioned during staff meetings, or only one person is assigned to work on it part-time, even though you say it is a priority, you'll be sending mixed signals. You can demonstrate the task's importance by focusing on it during meetings, reallocating additional resources to it, sacrificing lesser priorities for it, and so on.

Make your employees aware of the dangers of burnout

Often, people most susceptible to burnout are the ones unaware of the problem. They work like dogs for two years and then they crash.

Outline the prices employees can pay

When making them aware of the problem, outline the cost of burnout:

  • Deterioration of health
  • Errors on the job
  • Relationships with co-workers deteriorate
  • Problems at home with family and with relationships
  • Loss of job

The short-term gains for working weekends for two years in a row don't outweigh the long-term losses of any of the above.

Deal with the situation

As the manager, you need to be more aware of the problem of burnout and take steps to monitor and avoid the situation:

  • Be very clear about your performance and productivity expectations regarding your employees. Define clear measures and metrics and communicate them clearly and often. Get real commitments from your employees regarding time lines and deliverables. And make sure they feel safe in telling you when your expectations are unrealistic.
  • Be very conscious of the levels of effort all of your team members are putting out. And don't think in absolute numbers. A 10-hour day may not seem like a big deal to you, but it can be an enormous commitment for a single parent or a person just coming off working three demanding projects.
  • Spread the effort around. The amount of IT work is endless -- as a manager, you have a responsibility to your company and your employees to carefully allocate work across the board. Certainly people have different work outputs, just as they have different working and communication styles. Your job is to consider the team as a whole, each person as an important part of that whole, and get the jobs done within that context.
  • Make changes in personnel to reflect the needs of the jobs your team must perform. Need more people? Ask for them -- and do so with concrete, numerical evidence of why you need them.

    Is one person on the verge of burning out because the company has overworked her? Shift that person's responsibilities. Is one person over his head in his job? Look for other places within the company that this person can contribute. (Care needs to be taken when doing this, as the employee may not understand.) In general, the IT world isn't for the fainthearted.

  • Be aware of how much different people can give. Some employees can only deliver 40 hours' worth of work in a week, even if they are at their desk 60 hours. Others can easily double their efforts, for short times, in response to direct requests. Often, running at top speed isn't the fastest way to get there.

    Be sensitive to what motivates your employees, as well as their needs and limitations. Recognize that people can only be pushed, or even push themselves, so far. Recognize when they can be pushed further, and when you have to insist they take a break. Do this well, and you'll be rewarded with a far more productive and motivated team.

IT Manager's Handbook Printed with permission from Morgan Kaufmann, a division of Elsevier. Copyright 2007. IT Managers Handbook: Getting your new job done, 2e by Bill Holtsnider and Brian Jaffe. For more information about this title and other similar books, please visit www.mkp.com.

Click here for the chapter download.

This was first published in June 2010

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