CXO

10 sources of IT burnout and what you can do about it

Don't let IT stressors cause you to switch jobs--or worse--find a new career. You can avoid burnout and reduce stress with the 10 tips below.

Burnout is a problem for any line of work, especially for people performing tasks or functions they hate or find utterly uninspiring. IT professionals are at a particularly high risk for burnout due to the challenges of maintaining order in a chaotic, ever-changing world, often rife with stress and unexpected roadblocks.

It doesn't have to be this way. It's a shame when people find themselves driven to making employment or career changes because IT moves too quickly (or slowly). With that in mind, here are 10 major sources of stress in IT along with tips on how to alleviate them.

1. Boring or repetitive work

Nothing makes a career in IT grow stale more quickly than doing the same thing over and over again. Whether it's setting up user accounts, building systems, solving printer woes or —worst of all—the dreaded password reset requests, your job grows dull when it feels like you're living in the film "Groundhog Day." It's still a paycheck, but it comes with a price: lack of career or personal fulfillment.

The solution: Delegate anything and everything you can. A seasoned IT veteran shouldn't waste time resetting passwords or performing low-level work. Automate what you can't delegate. I wrote a piece last year on how to reduce account lockouts and password resets, which includes some advice in that realm.

SEE: Quick glossary: Project management (Tech Pro Research)

2. Pushy/uncooperative users

Dealing with difficult people poses a hazard to any job, but in IT when users face work-stoppage issues it can become especially daunting. Our instant-gratification society makes it hard for people to practice patience and wait their turn.

The solution: Implement a ticketing system to streamline and prioritize requests. Get the support of management if necessary. Work on building interpersonal relationships to bridge gaps with coworkers and get to know one another as actual human beings rather than a faceless email address or instant messaging contact.

3. Lack of training

Not learning anything new at your job means career stagnation, which reduces your interest in the field, and your employment prospects down the road.

The solution: Pressure management to provide adequate training for concepts related to your work and emphasize how said training will improve your productivity and/or the technological environment in which you work. Take advantage of free materials online from sites such as Class Central or edX.

SEE: Web server configuration and management policy (Tech Pro Research)

4. Constant firefighting

Action movies like "Die Hard" are fun to watch because it's interesting to see how the protagonist handles what literally constitutes one issue or problem after another. It's not so much fun in real life when one thing after another breaks, from a technology standpoint, and you have to run from emergency to emergency.

Worse are when multiple emergencies occur simultaneously, and you become the rope in a game of tug of war.

The solution: Use extensive monitoring to analyze systems and alert for minor problems (low disk space issues, high CPU usage, etc.) before they become major problems. Document common problems in your environment and how to correct them via a series of runbooks, which other IT staffers can follow, so that you don't become the sole fix-it person.

Where possible, help users perform self-service by sending out tips on how to solve typical issues on their own to reduce their dependency on you. Advocate for the budget you need in order to regularly replace or refresh equipment to reduce the risk of malfunctions or failures.

SEE: Disaster recovery and business continuity plan (Tech Pro Research)

5. Onerous restrictions/process

Following a process can be a challenge, especially in large organizations. This generally refers to a specific series of steps or guidelines, which must be followed to the letter to reduce risk, such as change management protocols for work on production systems.

Navigating through these requirements can be cumbersome and time-consuming, leaving you with less opportunity to tackle actual work. Worse, processes can be mind-numbing, unfairly complex, or require ridiculous hoops to jump through, such as requiring an overt amount of approval/discussion for routine work.

The solution: Keep in mind complicated processes are a fact of life in any large organization, so switching jobs to avoid it might be a useless endeavor.

That doesn't mean you're stuck living a life of despair. Provide intelligent feedback, and alternative options for complex requirements that explains how the company can safeguard itself against risk in a simpler fashion. Examples of this include reducing the number of approvers for a change, establishing "standard change" tasks with facilitated review/approval conditions and reduce the level of requirements on non-critical systems.

SEE: IT project cost/benefit calculator (Tech Pro Research)

6. Unmanageable workload

Having less opportunity to tackle work is way of life in IT. I've worked in technology since 1993, and I held only one job that didn't involve a back-breaking to-do list; a bank which was being bought out and closing down their branches then laying everyone off.

IT involves an additional burden in the form of unplanned work often taking precedence over planned work. It's very difficult to juggle day-to-day tasks alongside long-term projects, and also being urged to "fish and cut bait" at the same time.

The best laid plans can and do often go awry. For instance, you might come into the office intending to spend the day in the data center installing new servers only to find yourself sucked into an email system problem, which takes up your entire day.

The solution: Keep a meticulous to-do list (it can even be in the form of a simple text document or Keep/Onenote note), and refer to it often. Have an "Active tasks" section and a "Waiting" section (for when you need action from something else or need to let some process finish before you can proceed, like a data restore).

Regularly discuss you workload with your manager. The advice in No. 4 should help reduce workloads and let you focus on a broader range of tasks.

Get buy-in from your manager or chain of management if you can, so that the pushy users in No. 2 will be more patient. Ask for additional resources where possible, like new staff, and outline exactly what benefits these hires might bring, such as reduced wait times for user tickets, a broader range of knowledge to help handle unexpected outages, or quicker server refreshes to implement new hardware or systems.

SEE: System update policy (Tech Pro Research)

7. Archaic technology

Working on outdated systems is frustrating and time-consuming. Nobody wants to support Windows Server 2008 or Exchange Server 2010, much less single-core servers with basic RAM and CPU capabilities.

While I'm a big believer in "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," everything wears out eventually, and new operating systems or servers yield added performance benefits and more modern features.

The solution: Work with management and finance to establish a regular refresh schedule for systems and software, and outline the benefits. This should be approached from a pure ROI (return on investment) perspective, such as explaining how that new server can handle X amount of users and allows you to retire old systems, save space and electricity, and improve user productivity, and so forth.

Vendors often have this type of material available to help promote their products, so it's worth checking with them for assistance.

However, dealing with vendors can lead to challenges, too.

SEE: New equipment budget policy (Tech Pro Research)

8. Vendor frustrations

While many vendors put their customers first and make it easy to get service or support, find discounts or resolve problems, some bigger enterprises are not as user-friendly. Getting in touch with an actual human can become a quest straight out of "Lord of the Rings." Poor documentation (or incorrect/no documentation at all) can hamper your ability to find answers and response times when seeking assistance.

The solution: Carefully vet vendors before purchasing their products. Read reviews and get real-life feedback from friends and colleagues. Avoid locked-in arrangements and don't be afraid to switch vendors if they don't perform properly. Establish SLAs where possible and hold vendors to them. Where applicable, have a dedicated contact at the vendor organization with whom you can work, so that you have a name, number, and email address for your go-to person.

SEE: Vendor relationship management checklist (Tech Pro Research)

9. Interruptions

Interruptions can be among the most soul-crushing, frustration-building burdens to bear in the corporate world. Working in the dreaded open space environment makes them even more prevalent. Even worse, some interruptions are unintentional such as a conversation between colleagues three feet away, which impedes your productivity.

The solution: Wearing Headphones or relocating your office space temporarily will help you meet your work goals. For more tips, I wrote an article five years ago on how to handle interruptions, and it still applies today.

10. Improper executions

Improper executions means planned work, which goes awry when something breaks. It can be very stress-inducting to think you're going to spend thirty minutes implementing a task, which then turns into a four-hour nail-biting ordeal.

The solution: Take time to carefully plan out your work, making sure to test it in a non-critical environment for going live. Consider all of the related factors to what you're doing, such as other system, which rely upon the server you're working on or authentication mechanisms, which might be unavailable during an outage.

When going live do so after hours so you have time to recover from any unexpected mishaps. Always have a detailed verification plan to ensure the work was successful so no surprises occur later. Most of all, have a back-out plan so you can undo undesirable impacts.

Also see

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Image: fizkes, Getty Images/iStockphoto

About Scott Matteson

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

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