Q&A: Type A personalities, long hours contribute to IT stress, says CIO

'IT people don't really feel comfortable dealing with many other people,' says William Cross

BALTIMORE -- William Cross sees stress as a major problem for IT employees, who often must deal with sudden problems the same way emergency first responders do. Cross, the CIO of Seminole Electric Cooperative Inc. in Tampa, Fla., first became interested in the topic more than 20 years ago after attending a stress management session at a user group meeting. His doctoral thesis in information sciences at Nova Southeastern University was on the relationship between stress and programming. He found that the more stress a programmer deals with, the lower the quality of the code.

In addition to working as an IT manager, he is active in Share, an IBM user group. He's conducting sessions at this week's Share conference on the importance of reducing stress. Cross spoke with Computerworld about the issue today. Excerpts from that interview follow:

William Cross, CIO at Seminole Electric Cooperative

William Cross, CIO at Seminole Electric Cooperative

What makes IT a stressful occupation? IT is a stressful occupation for a lot of reasons. One of the big reasons is we work very closely with computing equipment that in today's world doesn't fail. That's high stress because if there are errors, they are probably ours. We also have this high desire to please others and that tends to get IT people to put in more hours and take things more seriously then perhaps another group.

Is this stress across the board, or are some IT jobs less stressful than others? Certainly, jobs vary. There are some jobs that are more stressful than others. Some of it is how the person reacts to the job. There are jobs in some tech support areas, for example, that may be more stressful than a job in a scheduling group or a computer operations group. But they all have different stresses.

Does IT attract people who like stressful jobs to begin with? I believe so, yes. I believe one of the things that gets us into this business is that attraction.

What, then, are some of the shared personality characteristics of someone in IT? The two prominent ones are high need for recognition and praise, and the lowest social need of any group. The third one is that IT people tend to be almost exclusively Type A personalities.

Is part of that stress a result of insufficient communication skills? Certainly. It goes back to the low social need – IT people don't really feel comfortable dealing with many other people. And so you combine that with our tendency to give our computers human characteristics, and if you look at a lot of us we talk to our computers like they are people. The problem is, if you have this personal relationship with the machine -- and you know your boss does the same thing -- when your boss sends you an e-mail it’s his way around having to talk to you.

How do you recognize stress in your employees and how can you tell when they are under too much of it? People that are under stress have certain manifestations of that. They tend to be less emotionally stable. They tend to react strongly to small things that they might not react to under other circumstances. A change in schedule may be a crisis if somebody is really stressed. Those are characteristics to look for. They tend to make more mistakes, although I'm not sure that's a clear enough indicator, because people make mistakes for other reasons. But people who are under high levels of stress tend to be less focused on the job.

What is the relationship between stress and the quality of the work? In a software development environment, the higher a person's stress, the lower the quality of their product. There is approximately a 15% correlation between stress level and quality. It’s an inverse relationship – as stress goes up quality goes down.

What can an IT manager do to alleviate some of this? An IT manager can be sensitive to his employees' situations. And one of the things you can do is use the "management by walking around technique" and know what your people are facing. A lot of stress isn’t necessarily job stress. You can't alleviate personal stress, but if you are sympathetic or empathetic it may help a little bit. You can give people time to deal with the things that are causing them problems. You can assure that your people work a normal work week -- and you probably need to enforce that periodically by telling someone to go home.

How much stress is caused by factors that may be outside a manager's direct control, such as offshore outsourcing of jobs? I studied that. Interestingly enough, somewhere in the neighborhood [of] 40% of the impact is caused by on-the-job stress; 60% is caused by personal, life experience stressors. The manager can, of course, deal more directly with the on-the-job stress things. You can't eliminate them, because deadlines will always exist, customer demands will always exist. But you can deal with some things like unreasonable demands. You can deal with expectation by having the [worker] set the goals and the deadlines, or at least participate in that setting, rather than just dictating. One of the most effective techniques in leveling the stress is participant management -- let your people participate in the process. You pay them a lot of money for their brain power and it's kind of foolish to ignore it.

You're obviously sensitive to the issue of stress, but let's say another manager isn't, and the employee is worried about his stress level. How does that employee communicate his concerns about excessive stress to his manager? You can, of course, try to talk to your manager, and your manager may be sensitive to it if it's brought to them. Many companies have employee assistance programs that are private referral -- they can go talk to someone who is a professional in dealing with stress levels and get help without the company being aware that they are fighting that battle. And one of the big problems, I think, is a lot of the very serious stressors are also very personal. If you have a serious disease you may not want to tell the people at the office if you can avoid it. IT workers have people problems just like everybody else and then we layer some of the other problems of the IT environment on top of the people problems.

For IT workers who don't deal with their stress levels, what are there risks? The higher your stress level, and the longer it stays that way, there are serious medical risks. If you have a high stress level, you have an 80% chance of contracting some significant illness in the next two years [and] your chances of being sick are much higher. If you're sick, your stress level will go up again and you may be too ill to be able to perform the job.

How did you get interested in this? Many years ago, I went to a stress management session [at an IT user conference] and the speaker scared me to the point that I decided that I better get my stress levels under control. And so I started a process to do that, and as I did that I became interested in the subject of managing stress and have pursued for it for 25 years.

What are a couple of simple things that an IT person can do to get better control of his/her stress level? Easy things. Exercise -- and that doesn't mean you have to run a marathon, but walk, ride a bike, walk your dog. Other things you can do are learn to relax, learn meditation, learn breathing exercises, participate in your religion -- all of those things are very effective stress managers.

Is your workplace a stress factory, or are workload issues well managed? What can be done to ease IT workers' stress? Post your thoughts and read what others have to say in our Career Forum blog comments area.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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