IT Career Burnout: What To Do When the Thrill is Gone

Seven practical ways to reignite your passion for your IT job, as suggested by IT leaders who've experienced burnout first-hand.

Burnout is as predictable in an IT professional's career as the long hours that precipitate it. The demanding nature of IT jobs, coupled with a perceived lack of respect and appreciation, leads many IT professionals to lament, à la blues great B.B. King, that "the thrill is gone." Many eventually wonder whether a career in IT is still the right choice.

These days, even more IT leaders seem to be suffering from burnout, judging by the experiences they recently shared in a conversation on CIO's LinkedIn forum. It's no wonder: The recession has forced them to spend the last 18 months focused on the more tedious aspects of IT management—namely cost-cutting, politics and more cost-cutting.

The burnout conversation was kicked off by an IT director wondering if there was anything more to the CIO role than "paperwork, politics and squeezing the last penny out of every dollar." The IT director, who did not wish to be named in this article, asked his fellow CIO Forum members what keeps them going in their jobs.

His query elicited an outpouring of empathy and support: When this story was reported, 54 IT leaders from all over the world left 60 comments commiserating with the IT director's experience with burnout and offering advice.

Here are their top seven suggestions for reigniting one's enthusiasm for IT while on the job and for battling burnout.

1. Take pride in your team.

Developing your staff members and observing their camaraderie makes all the politics and bureaucracy that otherwise grinds you down worthwhile, say several IT leaders.

"What keeps me coming in each day, other than the family-man responsibilities..., is my team," wrote Julian Lamb, the head of technology at Tony Ferguson Weightloss. "We get these (young) people and build them into professionals capable of keeping the company running. If we're good at what we do, we try to shield them from the constant carping and criticism that is our lot in IT, and we try to install in them the best of our own work ethic, so that perhaps [they can] reach the work life balance that escapes many of us."

Added Mark Cobb, global IT manager at Accenture: "...what still excites me is when I take a step back and look around my office...and see the people that I have employed laughing, joking, going out to lunch, arranging events for evenings together—all the while doing a fantastic job and working really hard. ...that's where I get my kick, from knowing that I am at least in part responsible for that happening."

2. Look for a new challenge on the job.

In his post that sparked the discussion about burnout on the LinkedIn CIO Forum, the IT director noted that he used to love working in IT. He didn't mind the 14-hour days because, as he put it, "New technology, new ideas, innovation made it seem as though anything were possible."

But after 12 years in IT, the IT director's time is now spent on "paperwork, politics and squeezing the last penny out of every dollar," he said.

To reclaim the excitement that once compelled him to work those long days, the LinkedIn CIO community recommended identifying a new challenge. That might be developing a strategic plan for the IT department and working with one's team to implement that plan, or identifying new ways that IT can make a substantial impact on the company, such that IT becomes a center of innovation inside the enterprise and not just a service provider.

Jayashree Raju, a senior vice president of IT for an investment bank, suggested exploring new functional areas in one's company, particularly where IT is not being fully utilized. "This will also broaden your scope and understanding of non-IT areas/new business divisions," she said.

A public sector IT director noted that he had to develop new challenges for himself after successfully reinventing an IT department. He wrote that his new mission was to keep his IT department at the top of its game and to continually be on the lookout for the next great idea or accomplishment.

"While there is enough to do just maintaining the day-to-day operations and handling administrative tasks, as an IT leader, keep your eyes on what's next and beyond," wrote the public sector IT director. "That's the exciting part of technology: Who knows what's next."

3. Keep a pet project

Another remedy for the drudgery of paperwork, politics and cost-cutting is to maintain a pet project. It's a solution that works for Rod Carr, director of IT for a U.K. utility.

"I always try to keep one or two personal 'pet projects' on the go, which get me all fired up," wrote Carr. "It could be a trial on some long range tech, coaching a manager onto the next level of competence, or just going on tour around customers and operating sites."

He added, "Leading an IS/IT function should, on balance, be fun. (After all, we have computers, money, and nobody else *really* understands what we do—the possibilities for personal fulfillment are endless.)"

4. Promote your work.

Burnout can stem as much from a lack of appreciation as it does from dealing with budgets and bureaucracy. A potential remedy for that situation is to promote one's work, according to Josette Rigsby, an enterprise architect at VHA. She believes IT suffers from a lack of appreciation because so many people in the business don't understand what IT does. If IT departments engaged in some tactful bragging about the revenue-related contributions that they make to their enterprises, they might get more appreciation, she thinks.

"If you feel that IT is driving—or at least substantially benefitting—the organization's revenue stream, you might want to consider how your accomplishments are being marketed," Rigsby suggested. "A lot of time when we are fixing things, we forget to brag. ...In organizations where IT services aren't seen as directly tied to profit generation, we have to work a little harder to make our goodness known."

5. Give yourself a pat on the back.

If no one inside your company is giving you the recognition you deserve, you owe it to yourself to celebrate your accomplishments. Wesley Jensen, senior manager of sales engineering for XO Communications' Midwest and Eastern markets, notes in the CIO Forum that he keeps a file on his computer named "WIA,"—an abbreviation for Wes Is Awesome. "It reminds me to fill it with new accomplishments, changes that I have made in my organization, and new technologies or process improvements that I have instituted."

Such a file will come in handy at review time, or if you need to update your résumé quickly, should you get so burned out that you decide to look for a new job.

6. Delegate your dirty work.

If you have the money in your budget, Steven Stern, CIO of Great Harvest Franchising, recommends hiring someone to do the work that bores you, whether it be paper work or number crunching. It's likely you can find someone who's thrilled by the work that puts gray hair on your head.

No money to hire someone? Perhaps you can delegate it to someone on your staff. Either way, says Stern, you can spend your time doing the work that excites and challenges you, such as rolling up your sleeves and building a new system.

7. Remember why you originally went into IT.

Recalling why you embarked on an IT career may give you perspective on why you love the field so much—not to mention why it may be worth putting up with the daily grind.

One CIO Forum member used this tactic while he was in the U.S. Army, when dodging bullets caused him to question why he ever went into the military*. What kept him going in the Army and what keeps him going in his IT job today, he said, is that he believes in what he's doing. "I feel it is/was worthwhile even though a lot of times the actual experiences suck worse than a vacuum cleaner," the former infantryman wrote. "I know in the end the situation will be better than if I had not been there to do something."

If all else fails...

If these on-the-job approaches to dealing with burnout don't improve your feelings about your job, it may be time for a vacation or, if possible, a longer sabbatical. It might also be time for a new job or even a new career.

Peter Tutak, manager/director of global infrastructure at PATH, wrote in the CIO Forum that moving from the for-profit sector to a nonprofit reenergized him. Meanwhile, Peter Caton, a project manager at Customer Management Technologies in Australia, shared that he was so burned out a few years ago, that he left IT altogether. Ironically, Caton's 18 months away from IT made him realize how much he loved the field and he eventually reentered it.

Follow Meridith Levinson on Twitter at @meridith.

Correction: A previous version of this story noted that the CIO Forum member who shared his Army experienced had enlisted in the Army. In fact, he was commissioned as an officer. The current version of this story reflects that change.

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