By Debby Young

With escalating pressure to downsize, many IT departments are doing more with less, and consequently, employees struggling to hold on to jobs are often overworked and burned out. It’s a no-win situation for both staff and managers. Lean staffs often boast the best talent, but burnout will lead to low productivity and even resignations. CIOs must address the possible loss of good talent and costs of replacing staff in tight budget times before they begin to occur.

To avert burnout and avoid the ensuing manpower and management issues, you need to critically examine workloads, resolve conflicting demands placed on your staff, and boost communication.

Leveling overwhelming workloads
A common complaint among IT professionals is that they’re given more to do than is possible and “no” is never an acceptable answer. When they have more work than is reasonable, and insufficient resources, the frenetic pace creates a demoralizing Alice-in-Wonderland feeling among IT professionals of “running as fast as you can just to stay in place.”

“This environment is a classic breeding ground for burnout,” said Dr. Jo Ellen Moore of the Department of Computer Management and Information Systems at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and author of numerous articles on job burnout. “Work exhaustion sets in, job satisfaction plummets, and people start looking for a way out.”

Moore said that a frantic pace often causes IT staff to “plow forward” without taking time to hear and assimilate other perspectives that might improve the outcome of an IT project.

“Faced with challenging deadlines, the project leader and [team] members are so determined to keep moving through problems and uncertainties that they are reluctant to share negative information with decision makers—those who have authority to allocate additional resources to get things back on track,” she explained.

In a survey conducted among members of the Association of Information Technology Professionals, Moore learned that many IT employees experiencing burnout consider taking another job at a much lower salary to eliminate their job stress. IT managers have to try to prevent morale from reaching that level by implementing specific plans and programs.

“In these times, CIOs need to really show that they value [their] staff by creating a team culture and by making every IT employee feel that they are part of a mission-critical team,” said Patricia Kennedy, COO at Atlanta-based staffing firm Acsys, Inc.

Moore recommends regular sit-downs with project teams in which you can talk with staff about the realities of the projects—what’s falling behind and the toll it’s taking on the workers’ ability to do their jobs effectively—without staff fearing repercussions or appearing as failures. Managers, she advised, need to lay their cards on the table, too, sharing what they know about task priorities and which resources the team can avail itself of to get the project back on schedule.

Another complaint among IT professionals is that management frequently changes priorities, forcing the staff to switch directions at a moment’s notice. Hot projects get relegated to the back burner, and tabled jobs suddenly get the green light. Shifting deadlines and unrealistic target dates all add to the frustration.

When staff can’t see the rationale for the changes, it heightens their sense of uncertainly and insecurity, according to experts. With eroding confidence in leadership, morale plummets and your staff finds it harder to remain productive and stay focused on project goals.

Improve communication
One expert believes that top-down communication is the key. Dr. Sherry Ryan, assistant professor of the Business Computer Information Systems at the University of North Texas, recently conducted a study of IT professionals in conjunction with the Department of Veteran Affairs on the issue. IT managers and CIOs have to avoid putting valuable IT professionals in what they perceive as a no-win situation, she said.

“Management needs to convey its goals, directions, and values,” said Ryan. Job satisfaction tends to increase when employees feel that senior leadership has a clear idea of where the project and company should be going, she noted.

That’s because exhausted, burned-out IT workers, according to Moore, “tend to connect their exhaustion to what they perceive as poor management decisions.”

By including staff in the decision-making loop—providing details on why changes are being made and discussing issues from other arenas that affect the project—managers can change workers’ perceptions.

“Management may in fact be oblivious to the perspective of the IT professional and as a result is making poor decisions,” said Moore.

Moore and her coauthor, Dr. Lisa Burke of the Department of Management and Marketing at Louisiana State University Shreveport, have conducted an assessment of limited-perspective bias in IT. They recommend that supervisors and subordinates routinely share justifications for decisions and actions. They also strongly suggest that IT managers hold regular “reality check” sessions and frequent one-on-one communications with staffers to enhance understanding on both sides of the table.

“This is the basis of a very effective reasoning method of influence, where persuasion is based on facts and needs,” said Moore. Citing recent research on the relationship between performance and stress, Moore and Burke note that, “Individuals who rely primarily on reason and logic to influence others are rated as highly effective by their bosses, and they report low levels of job-related stress and high levels of job satisfaction.”

The costs of burnout
Along with the potential to lose star players, managers also need to consider the costs that accompany burnout scenarios.

Sharon Jordan-Evans, president of Jordan Evans Group, a California-based retention strategy firm, said the average cost of replacing talented IT workers is twice their annual salaries. This includes hard costs like headhunter fees, relocation costs, and job position advertising. It also touches on soft costs like customer and business lost, slowdown in productivity while the new employee comes up to speed, orientation, and training.

Averting burnout with better communication and being more sensitive to the heavy workloads of IT pros will help you avoid potential rehire costs. And as Moore points out, when IT workers feel the goals of the department and the company are fair and reasonable, morale goes up. That means productivity stays steady, which is a vital element in a competitive market.

Debby Young is a freelance high-tech business writer based in Framingham, MA.