Heavy workloads, recession fears stress IT professionals

IT professionals taking on more work in light of the current economic climate identified rising workloads as the greatest source of workplace stress, according to research from Robert Half Technology.

The IT staffing and consulting firm has released results of a poll of 1,400 CIOs that asked what stresses IT professionals most. More than one-third (36 per cent) reported increasing workloads as the primary source of workplace worry.

The pace of new technology followed, with 22 per cent, and office politics taxed some 18 per cent of respondents. The survey revealed that other stressors for IT professionals include work/life balance issues (11 per cent) and commuting (7 per cent).

“Too much work may sound like a relatively good problem to have in today’s uncertain economic climate,” says Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of Robert Half Technology.

“But overstressed IT workers are unlikely to perform their best. The pressure of mounting workloads, combined with ever-evolving technologies and office politics, can quickly erode morale and adversely affect productivity.”

The survey results should not be shocking, considering the pace at which IT budgets are being cut and hiring plans frozen in response to recent economic turmoil.

In June, for instance, the Society for Information Management polled more than 300 IT executives about their plans for IT spending in 2009, and in early October released results that showed 44 per cent planned for bigger budgets and 43 per cent intended to increase staffing. Three-quarters of those polled also expected to see IT staff salaries increase in 2009.

Yet a more recent tally from the CIO Executive Board revealed strikingly different spending plans. The late September survey of some 50 CIOs by the association for IT executives showed that more than half of those polled have put nonessential projects on hold and about one-fourth have decided to freeze IT hiring. And 61 per cent of those surveyed admitted they were re-evaluating their 2009 budgets.

“For the average company, the trend is a lot of caution going forward. There is too much uncertainty around the bailout and the national election for IT leaders to be confident in new investments,” says John Estes, a vice president with IT staffing and consulting firm Robert Half Technology.

This caution will translate into more work for existing network executives-without any wiggle room in their budget or access to more personnel. The idea of donning multiple hats isn’t a new one for many IT shops, but today’s economy is changing what used to be a quick fix into standard operating procedure.

John Turner, director of network and systems at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., said during an interview earlier this month that his IT budget has been directly impacted by the current economic crisis.

“Our operating expenditure budgets have been frozen and cut, and we currently have a hiring freeze in effect,” he reported. “There is an obvious direct financial impact to our institution when there is this amount of uncertainty in the market.”

Janco Associates in September declared that financial firms’ woes, would “glut the IT job market.” According to Janco’s estimates, more than 230 IT professionals at Lehman Brothers who make US$250,000 ($305,244 CAD) or more a year will be out of a job by year-end.

At Merrill Lynch, more than 180 IT professionals making more than $250,000 a year will be without work as well, Janco says.

IT professionals say they have seen workloads increase and job performance suffer. A recent discussion in Network World’s online community showed that taking on more work could prove beneficial to some IT professionals, but others argue it could cause premature burnout.

“While I commend all those IT people putting in the extra effort, they need to understand that they are downgrading their worth. If you’re a salaried employee, you are paid based on 40-hour weeks.

All this added responsibility (skills) usually translates into 60-hour weeks or more, with no increase in pay,” one comment reads. “I have seen a lot of people burn themselves out, become experienced in everything and good at nothing.”

Get Used To Pitching In

James Kritcher says his organization in the past 12 months has retracted requisitions for additional personnel as a result of the business climate. As vice president of IT at White Electronic Designs in Phoenix, Kritcher personally pitched in to head up the company’s enterprise risk management (ERM) program.

“Certainly one factor in my assumption of these tasks was a hesitancy to incur the costs of hiring a new person to perform them,” he explains. “I had the knowledge and was willing to take them on because it will give me additional credibility with my IT peers as well as the company’s board.”

One caution, however, is to not take on too much. Kritcher says he tries to approach additional work with realistic expectations and choose duties that seem a natural add-on to his primary responsibilities. For instance, his ownership of the company’s ERM program evolved from his work in IT disaster recovery planning.

“You have to ensure your IT responsibilities don’t suffer,” he says. “Because as much as doing more work can help your credibility, if you don’t perform, your reputation can take a hit-even if you had the best intentions.”

At Metrocorp Publications, IT has been asked for quite some time to put off non-essential projects such as desktop operating system upgrades.

“For the past six months, we have been asked to hold off on all investments that are non-essential to provide a cushion for the economic downturn our management expected would come,” says Chris Majauckas, computer technology manager for the Boston company that puts out Boston Magazine and Philadelphia Magazine.

Since reducing an IT staff of two employees isn’t feasible, Majauckas works to find ways around spending money-even taking on mechanical and electrical assignments such as modifying cubicle design and rewiring the area for staff.

“Before I look to an outside vendor, I assess if I can perform the job and save the company a few thousand dollars,” he explains. “It makes me more valuable to the company and hopefully if it comes to cutting staff, management will think twice about reducing my position to bring in a contractor.”

If economic turmoil doesn’t always force IT to cut budgets and slash staff, it certainly reminds them to eliminate redundancy in duties. Bruce Meyer, director of network services at ProMedica Healthcare in Toledo, Ohio, says his organization is currently consolidating functions performed on the voice and data side under his purview going forward.

To date, the voice and data network engineers operated independently of each other, but as ProMedica rolls out voice over IP, the opportunity to streamline operations presented itself.

“No one is losing a job necessarily, but everyone is tight now so we are trying to get more out of the staff we have,” Meyer says. “Consolidating this Layer 1 functionality-a jack is a jack and cable is cable and it’s all in the same closet now-prevents us from having two people doing the same thing and adds more efficiency to our staff.”

Others say the current economy simply shines a spotlight on how IT is expected to operate normally. For instance, a company looking to establish a director of business applications or manager of ERP systems might opt to reassign existing staff instead of hiring a new employee regardless of Wall Street’s status.

“It’s the nature of IT now to blend responsibilities and create dual roles in part because some of the technical capabilities can be applied across IT domains, but also because it simply doesn’t make sense to spend US$80,000 ($97,677.10 CAD) per year to hire a full-time employee when you can get the job done by making that role one-third of someone’s job,” says Chris Holbert, CIO and COO at LaunchPad Communications in Los Angeles.

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