It wasn’t long after Rich Trivett started working in the pressure cooker of Silicon Valley in the early 1990s that the strain started getting to him. He was young, fresh out of the University of Waterloo, but soon found himself suffering from ulcers and chronic back pain — middle-aged problems.
work, providing technical support at the Santa Cruz Operation, a Linux/Unix software company, was nerve-wracking and long — 12-hour days were not uncommon. A demanding and insensitive manager made things worse.
“”But part of the problem was that I didn’t know how to manage myself,”” says Trivett, a Canadian from New Brunswick now back in the province working as a business systems analyst for Fundy Computer Services Ltd. (FCS) “”I just didn’t know how to deal with the stress.””
Trivett eventually learned. He learned the importance of exercise, recreation, taking breaks when the pressure builds — and of demanding support from his employer.
He eventually gave up the chiropractors and acupuncturists he’d started seeing and went on to have a successful career. Trivett was luckier than many.
In some organizations, booking off sick when you’re not really ill is jokingly referred to as taking a mental health day. But for more and more workers and their employers, the relationship between mental health and absenteeism is no joke.
A two-year-old study by the Toronto-based Business And Economic Roundtable On Mental Health says depression costs the combined U.S. and Canadian economies $60 billion (US) a year — more than half in lost productivity. The Roundtable estimates that about 10 per cent of Canada’s 14 million workers have the disease.
And clinical depression is just the tip of the iceberg. The Ontario College of Physicians says 70 per cent of doctor visits are stress related. Chronic stress and anxiety can result in ulcers, back problems and worse, driving up absenteeism, reducing productivity and blighting careers.
The problems cut across corporate functions and industry sectors, but a recent study by Toronto-based Warren Shepell Consultants Corp., a company that provides confidential employee counseling services, confirms what many in this industry have long suspected —that technology workers are harder hit by stress-related mental health problems than most. And the situation appears to be getting worse.
“”It’s not a huge discrepancy,”” Warren Shepell president and CEO Rod Phillips says of the findings. “”But a higher level of workers in high-tech companies are accessing our services for depression — higher than the (cross-industry) norms.””
The study is based on an analysis of how employees of Warren Shepell’s high-tech clients — computer, software and IT services companies — use the firm’s services, but IT workers in mainstream enterprises are in the same boat, Phillips says.
They too are under intense pressure to keep up with new developments in complex technologies and face hard deadlines and long hours.
Not only are technology workers under more stress, they may also be more susceptible to its effects, suggests Diane Beattie, CIO at the London Health Science Centre in London, Ontario. IT workers tend to be detail-oriented, analytical and methodical, Beattie notes. “”There’s a strength in that on the one hand, but it can be an achilles heel too.””
When deadline pressures mount, technology workers have to stick to their ordered routines and sweat the details —however urgent the schedule.
The good news is that there are proven ways to reduce the negative impacts of workplace stress on technology workers. Implementing an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) like Warren Shepell’s is just one, but a good one.
The fact that Warren Shepell could base its analysis of the high-tech sector on as many as 153 companies with a combined 86,000 employees is an indication that technology companies already recognize the problem and are willing to take steps to counteract it.
Or it may just be an indication the problem is out of hand — EAPs, after all, mainly help employees only once they’re in some difficulty.
Preventive measures may be more to the point. Intuit Canada, the Edmonton-based company that produces Quicken home financial and QuickTax income tax return software, goes further in this regard than most.
“”There are a number of things we do,”” says Stephen Quesnelle, director of Human Resources for Intuit Canada & the UK. “”To begin with, though, you have to understand — and acknowledge — that when it’s crunch time, stress levels are going to be high.””
For Intuit’s 50 to 70 software developers, crunch time comes at least once a year when they have to produce a new version of QuickTax. Missing the deadline and releasing the software on, say, April 31 “”just won’t do,”” Quesnelle notes wryly.
The company is “”respectful of the need for release,”” Quesnelle says. Intuit’s facilities include a gym where employees can take breaks to play basketball or floor hockey. There’s a fitness room and a lounge with a fireplace. And most radical of all, Intuit provides nap rooms.
“”They have to follow the rhythms of their bodies,”” Quesnelle says. “”If they’ve done a lot of hours, they can say, ‘I just need 20 minutes of shut-eye,’ and go down and use one of the nap rooms.””
For Beattie, the key is making sure employees strike the right balance between work and home life. That notion of balance is built right into LHSC’s mission-vision statement and it’s something managers in her 150-person department take very seriously.
When problems do occur — which is very rare, she says — it’s usually when an employee is under pressure from a looming project deadline and also has to deal with stressful situations at home.
But if somebody in the IT group has a new baby at home or a sick loved one, managers generally know about it and make adjustments, Beattie says. And LHSC IT workers, like employees at Intuit, can also use flex hours to accommodate family situations — coming in and leaving early or late.
LHSC makes it easy for them to take work home too — providing laptops and secure access to office systems. This may seem like a retrograde step, but it’s better than employees being at the office day and night.
Meanwhile, managers keep an eye out for employees who seem headed for trouble. “”If they do see someone burning the candle at both ends,”” Beattie says, “”they’ll tell them, ‘Hey, it’s time to go home, this can wait.'””
Ultimately, the answer may be to teach technology workers how to, as Trivett puts it, manage themselves. “”When you’re in that kind of environment,”” he says, “”you can put a lot of pressure on yourself.”” Learning how and when to ease up is vital.
And as Trivett notes, “”That’s not something they teach you in college.””