Today’s IT worker: A sad, stressed-out smoker

TORONTO — Put down that Big Mac and stub out that smoke, IT managers. There’s another way to deal with workplace stress: therapy.

Warren Shepell Consultants Corp. is an employee assistance program (EAP) firm that lends

an ear to stressed-out workers. The firm deals with companies in all manner of industries, but according to data released Tuesday, people who work for high-tech firms are among the most depressed.

Poor diet and smoking are merely symptoms of hectic life at an IT company, and may be indicative of more deep-seated anxiety and stress issues. Shepell conducted a three-year study (2000-2002) with 86,000 employees working in 153 Canadian technology firms. Depression was one per cent below the national average of 5.83 per cent in 2000, but climbed to 6.75 per cent by 2001.

“”It’s certainly not hard to correlate some of the changes that were happening in the industry,”” said Shepell president and CEO Rod Phillips. The economic downturn took a serious toll on the IT industry and on the psyches of its workers, he said.

Surprisingly, workplace anxiety actually dipped in the 2000-2001 time frame. Phillips explained that anxiety is most clearly linked to uncertainty. Once it was clear what was happening in the IT industry, anxiety started to go down and depression started to increase.

“”Clearly downsizing is affecting their vision of the future. If you have computers in your background . . . you could get a good job five years ago. It’s not the same now,”” said Fran Pilon, Shepell’s national clinical director.

The 2001 results appeared to reverse themselves by last year, with IT depression dipping slightly below the national average and anxiety slightly above. But almost irrespective of economic fluctuations, IT is a stressful business to be in.

“”One of the problems all IT workers face is there is a tremendous demand placed on them,”” said Ric Irving, an associate professor with York University’s Schulich School of Business. “”Meeting unrealistic expectations and things is extremely difficult. I’d say that’s been part of IT for a long time.”” The job may demand 24×7 availability for support workers and the tough job of explaining technology to those who would rather not hear it.

“”There’s not a lot the business schools can do about that,”” said Irving. “”We can train people to do their jobs and we can train them for things to watch out for . . . How not to shoot yourself when business goes into the toilet? I don’t know.””

Even when business was booming in the 1990s, IT wasn’t an easy industry to work in. People tended to forget that when it all fell apart in 2000, said Stephen Mill, a regional manager with recruiting specialist Robert Half International. “”When things are good, maybe (

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