by Sharon Florentine

IT burnout: A productivity killer IT leaders must address

Apr 10, 2020
IT Leadership Staff Management

Burnout is a significant growing problem, especially in IT. And it has the potential to cripple your workforce. Hereu2019s how to handle it.

burn out tired woman frustrated binary exhausted by pablolagarto and people images getty images
Credit: People Images / PabloLagarto / Getty Images

A silent IT productivity killer is on the rise. Negative and disengaged, IT staff members may be a drain on your organization’s efficiency and morale. But your IT pros aren’t to blame, because what they are experiencing is burnout, and it’s a significant, growing problem — as of April 2019 it now has its own distinction with the World Health Organization (WHO) as a legitimate medical syndrome. And it is an IT leader’s responsibility to help identify, prevent, and combat it.

Burnout is everywhere, but IT is hardest hit

According to WHO, burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one’s job or negative feelings or cynicism related to one’s job — and reduced professional efficacy. According to careers website Dice Insights’ 2020 Dice Salary Report, 31 percent of tech pros feel “very burnt out.”  

“Burnout is a result of prolonged exposure to interpersonal, emotional and physical stress,” says Sarah Stevens, SHRM-CP and People Team senior manager at employee experience software company Limeade. “It shows up, individually, as exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy.”

IT in particular is prone to burnout, Stevens says: “Especially in tech and in IT, you have changes in pace, changes in roles, changes in customers. But then people start to distrust and hold resentment toward their organizations if it’s not recognized and addressed. They feel like, ‘I’m not making an impact. My work isn’t meaningful and no one is helping.’”

Burnout is particularly severe among developers. According to a July 2019 survey by Digital Ocean, a provider of developer cloud services, 82 percent of U.S. developers have experienced burnout at some point in their career, with 38 percent attributing it to their workload and 31 percent to hours worked. Not surprising considering that developers often put in long hours and work nights and weekends. A 2019 study by Stack Overflow showed that 77 percent of developers work over 40 hours per week, 13 percent work over 50 hours per week, and 2 percent work over 70 hours per week.

How burnout impacts your business

Burnout isn’t just an individual problem, says Paul Gentile, senior director of product marketing at LogMeIn and a workplace productivity expert. Sure, there’s the issue of professional efficacy and making sure employees are achieving the most they can for their companies and their careers, but in a more general sense, burnout can negatively impact engagement and morale, and it can create a ripple effect that extends to colleagues and customers and thus, your entire ecosystem, Gentile says.

“This can also create retention issues, too. If you have these issues, your customers are going to feel that; it’s hurting your top and your bottom line,” Gentile says. “At the IT level, in so many organizations, IT operates in a silo or a vacuum, and so the organization has to figure out how to help manage that. Because if you can’t, then you have burnout, turnover, lack of engagement and low morale and the business suffers.” 

How CIOs can put out the fire

To tackle burnout, then, CIOs must first address organizational issues that can contribute to burnout in an effort to remove roadblocks that burn IT employees out, says Angelic Gibson, CIO of AvidXchange. According to the Dice report, 25 percent of developers say burnout is related to monotony and a lack of challenges, and 16 percent say it’s because of friction with their boss. That’s true in Gibson’s experience.

“What I’ve found as an IT leader is that if the working environment is full of friction and pain, riddled with constraints, if it takes someone three months to build something that, without those constraints, without that friction, they could create in a month, that drags down their ability to deliver value, and that causes burnout,” Gibson says. “When our processes and policies are blocking someone from unleashing their creative energy, that causes burnout.”

To combat this, Gibson and AvidXchange focus on three core elements: continuous learning, creating and delivering value through innovation, and having a clear vision.

“The first, continuous learning, relates to transformation and innovation,” she says. “If I’m learning, then I know how to improve within those constraints. If I’m improving, that means I know I’m transforming myself, my work and the business. And if I’m improving, then I know I’m innovating.”

All of that, Gibson says, is underpinned by design thinking and a platform mindset focused on scalability. Creating technology that’s nimble, built for change and highly scalable means less friction, and therefore lower rates of burnout.

“Removing friction and creating that value through innovation automatically means your teams will work harder and longer because you’re delivering on those promises,” she says. “All the way down to our architecture and design patterns we ask, ‘Is it nimble? Is it built for change?’ Because we know change is inevitable, and technology ages out so quickly. Our people have to know that what they’re creating has made an impact and is meaningful.”  

And, Gibson says, having a clear vision that looks beyond the present is also key. “It can’t be just about the output of a product, or short-term, it has to be bigger than a single thing. It has to look to the future and instill hope that the organization is moving forward and rising above where we are today,” she says.

Culture plays a role in burnout

According to the Dice Insights report, 29 percent of developers attributed their burnout to a lack of recognition, so it’s up to CIOs to make sure they’re understanding what makes each team member unique, what their strengths are and how they want to be recognized, Gibson adds.

Here, gamification, incentives and regular manager check-ins can be key, says Gentile, adding that a cross-functional emphasis on flexibility and work-life balance can also help mitigate burnout, as 26 percent of respondents to the Dice survey attributed burnout to a lack of work/life balance overall and 14 percent attributed it to a lack of time off.

Linh Lam, CIO of Ellie Mae, says leadership must again set the standard for behavior and make it clear to workers that work/life balance is a priority. Employees will look to their leadership to set the tone and culture of their organization, so it has to start at the top by identifying what burns IT workers out, says Gentile, and make sure that culturally, workers know it’s okay to disconnect and take a break.

Working smarter, not harder

“I value my IT teams as people first, and I have to look at how my planning and expectations impact them,” Lam says. “Obviously there are ebbs and flows in IT; with testing and deployment and new projects, sometimes we do all have to work long hours and go above and beyond. But if someone is always working nights and weekends, and they aren’t able to keep up; if we’re constantly pounding away, our budgets and time are going over and projects are running behind, I have to be the one to pause and find out what’s causing that, and figure out how to alleviate those pressures.”

‘Work smarter, not harder’ has become something of a cliché, but it’s a cultural touchstone across Ellie Mae, and especially in the IT department, says Lam. Leadership makes it clear that it’s not about the number of hours spent in the office or how late into the night work is done, but the value of the output, Lam says.

“One of our executive leaders told me, ‘My family comes first; if I’m in a board meeting and I get a call about my kids, I’m leaving and I won’t apologize for that.’ And because you see that mindset in practice around the office, we all know that’s okay, and we all live that,” she says.

Gentile also recommends IT staff schedule dedicated “flow time,” blocking out chunks of time — he advises two hours each week, at least — to boost creativity and inspire innovation by just letting ideas and concepts flow.

“Knowledge workers, and IT especially, are always distracted, and that can hamper new ideas if they aren’t given time to think freely and just create,” Gentile says. “So you have to schedule time to get into the creative moment when you’re not so focused on acute goals, strategies and process. If your teams don’t have that, it’s going to delay their velocity overall and dampen innovation.” In addition, he recommends encouraging the concept of “slow work,” where workers block off a set amount of time to focus exclusively on one task.

“IT is always being hit from all sides and it becomes sensory overload. Your email’s open, your mobile phone’s blowing up with texts and alerts, you’re multitasking in meetings, there’s Twitter and social media. You have to turn off devices and alerts, slow down, focus, and get one thing done at a time,” he says. “You’re going slow to go fast. If you’re not building in time to do this, then you’re not going to do your best work. You won’t achieve the level of success or deliver the kind of work your company needs to be successful, and you’re going to burn out.”

Get HR involved

Whether burnout is already an issue in your IT department or you want to make sure you head it off before it takes root, remember HR can be a valuable resource and partner for CIOs, says Limeade’s Stevens. Her team developed a “Spotting Burnout” worksheet that helps managers and leaders identify and measure exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy, and a five-point scale to measure and track progress out of a burnout state.

“We realized that one cause of burnout was the imbalance between stressors and demands and resources: People have too many of the former and don’t think they have enough of the latter to deal with it,” Stevens says. “So, one way to help managers and leaders is showing them how to help their workers identify where their stressors and demands are, and then what resources are available to address those. Time off, flexibility, remote work, access to family and friends, hobbies — and making sure people know they can use those as needed.”

Burnout is an organizational issue as much as it is an individual one, and CIOs must be proactive when identifying the symptoms and addressing the root causes to prevent burnout from digging in.