Stress. We all have it. We all cope with it—although some of us are better at it than others. And we all have to learn to live with it. However, for the IT support professional, stress seems to be getting worse. This is my theory on various causes of stress for support pros and several techniques for dealing with each cause.

It’s my assertion that stress is brought on by three basic factors:

  1. Lack of control
  2. Lack of time
  3. Lack of resources

There is a certain amount of overlap between these factors (one can even argue that time is a resource and so belongs within category 3), but I will explain how to deal with each category on its own.

Lack of control
Feeling out of control stems from our inability to fully control our environments. Deadlines, new projects, and unexpected outages can leave you overwhelmed and stressed out. Help desk staff can feel particularly vulnerable in this area, as each new incident sends you off in a different direction. While the nature of IT support makes it impossible to maintain total control over the workload, maintaining a certain level of control can significantly reduce your stress level. Here are some techniques that you should find useful:

  • Control your inputs. You may receive input from several sources (phone, e-mail, or walk-by). If you’re willing to accept all forms of input at all times, you’ll often find yourself overloaded. Try dealing with only phone calls during certain times of the day, e-mail messages during other times, and have an open-door time for walk-by requests. If breaking your day into such sections is difficult, start less ambitiously and try it one hour at a time. Take the last 20 minutes of each hour to respond to e-mail requests and leave the first 40 minutes available for phone calls.
  • Single-task. Avoiding multitasking may be difficult, if not impossible. Although managing multiple issues can at times be quite exciting, it can also be very stressful. I occasionally stop juggling and focus on just one task at a time. This offers two benefits. It improves the quality of output per task, and it enhances your sense of accomplishment by allowing you to cross off yet another item on your list, providing you with positive (self) feedback.

    There are many tools to help you track tasks currently on your plate. I find Outlook particularly helpful. You can use Outlook’s task list to track your high-priority items and then tackle them one at a time. Once you’ve finished a task, make sure you mark it as complete. You’ll be amazed how rewarding it is to see how much you accomplished over the course of a single week. Seeing this progress can help restore your sense of control.

  • Say no. Learning when to say no to more responsibilities is a skill that takes experience and moxie but is probably your greatest tool for gaining control of your environment. There’s no specific technique to saying no; just practice saying no when you’re feeling out of control.

Lack of time
If you were given a year to complete a task that you fully understand, you wouldn’t necessarily feel any stress because of the assignment. If on the other hand you had until the end of the day, or the next hour, your stress-o-meter may register several notches worth of anxiety, depending on what your other priorities are. There may never be enough time in a day to do all the things you need to do, yet there are techniques to help you accomplish more.

  • Avoid repetition. So often the issues that chew up our valuable time have already been dealt with multiple times before. “How do I use the outline feature in Word?” “Why can I browse the Internet while in the office but not from home?” “What name should I give to a new workstation joining the domain?” are samples of questions I’ve heard over and over again. If you document your responses to such questions and make them available for future reference by yourself and other support staff, imagine how much time you can save. If your organization uses call- or incident-tracking software with a knowledge base or common solution component, I strongly encourage you to use it. It may take some time to set up the system initially, but the long-term timesavings can be significant.
  • Manage your time. Time management is the topic of endless books and courses, but in terms of IT support, what can be done? Deal with your messages once. Regardless of whether it’s a phone message or an e-mail message, don’t handle it until you’re ready to. But once you do accept the message, deal with it. This means replying, forwarding, or simply deleting. An obvious temptation to avoid is filing. When you file the message to deal with later, you may find that you never deal with it or that you begin feeling overwhelmed once you start perusing your filed items.
  • Own your personal time. Don’t let work interfere with your personal time (lunch hours, evenings, weekends, etc.). There will be times when this is unavoidable, but do what you can to stand firm on what is your time. You will find that you will gain the respect of your colleagues, manager, and customers, and it will greatly help to reduce your stress levels. In your calendar, book your lunch hour as busy so that you won’t get booked for meetings during that time. Also, set up your calendar to reflect your true working hours and avoid taking appointments outside of those hours.

Lack of resources
Resources can take on numerous forms, including people, skills, and equipment. With the fast pace of business today, you must be empowered with the proper resources to do your job. If you don’t have the authority to obtain the resources you need, go to the person who does. He or she may tell you there’s no money for your request or it doesn’t have a high business priority, but you should be persistent. You may not get everything you ask for; however, here are some tips to help guide your requests:

  • Get decent equipment. Don’t try doing tech support while using a 133-MHz processor but, instead, use the OS you have to support and make the most of remote assistance software.
  • Access the right resources. Getting access to the resources you need to provide quality technical support is priceless. Three great resources I use regularly are Microsoft TechNet, TechRepublic’s TechProGuild, and Windows & .NET magazine. Sure these cost money, but the payback is huge, and you might be able to convince your company to foot the bill.
  • Get trained. You’ll notice I didn’t necessarily say certified; that’s a completely different issue. But it’s important to get the training you need to do your job correctly. Not only will this benefit your organization, it will help you cope, because you’ll be better equipped, which therefore reduces stress.
  • Use your team. So often we needlessly bear the entire weight of providing support on our own shoulders. Look for assistance from someone who may already know the answer. Assign responsibilities to others when possible. One great tip for doing this is to create tasks in Outlook and use the Assign button to pass a task onto someone else. I’m not suggesting you shirk your responsibilities but rather just delegate when it makes sense.

I’m not a shrink, and there are probably endless papers written about the subject of stress, but from my experience as a help desk analyst and manager, the techniques I’ve discussed in this article can go a long way to reducing the stress that comes with the job.

The stress factor

How to you deal with the stress of working in IT support? Do you think IT support is a stressful job? Post a comment to this article and let us know how you handle the pressures of the IT profession.