Stress Relief: 11 Ways to Prevent Burnout and Improve Work-Life Balance

CIOs share practices they employ on and off their jobs to make their workloads more bearable, reduce stress, improve their work-life balance and prevent IT career burnout.

In 2006, Chris Loope was working as a consultant implementing a new ERP system for a client. The 18-month project required Loope to clock 80-hour work weeks and to travel frequently between his home in Dallas and his client's office in Atlanta.

To relieve his work-related stress and blow off steam, Loope says he smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, drank and partied hard. By the end of the ERP implementation, he was a poster child for burnout.

Loope knew he had to change his work habits and his lifestyle, especially since he and his wife, Renee, were trying to have a baby. So he started running.

"I had to run a lot to quit smoking," says Loope. "You trade one addiction for another."

Loope made another dramatic life change: He and his wife moved to Atlanta, and he took a new job, as CIO of EmployBridge, the specialty staffing firm that had been his client when he was working on the ERP implementation.

Today, at 38 years old, Loope is a picture of health and contentment. He wakes at 5:10 every morning and goes for a run. Depending on his work schedule, he runs anywhere from 3 miles to 10 miles at a stretch. He says the runs keep his stress-level in check, give him time to mentally prepare for his work day, and help him focus on finding innovative technical solutions to whatever business problem EmployBridge may be facing. (For example, on his runs he designed a job application tracking system that has helped his company weather the recession.)

"There is a lot of stress [in IT]," Loope says, "and if you don't find a constructive way to deal with it, you're going to burn out."

Exercise is just one of several ways CIOs and IT professionals alleviate stress, prevent burnout and maintain work-life balance. The four IT leaders interviewed for this story say their stress level is manageable, and they work hard to keep it that way. In addition to exercising regularly, they have clear priorities in life that prevent work from consuming them. They've also set clear boundaries inside their homes delineating when they will and will not do work. Staying organized on the job and delegating responsibilities to their IT staff are other ways they manage stress, prevent burnout and maintain work-life balance.

Make no mistake: These CIOs are not slackers. They're committed, diligent employees, but they're not slaves to their jobs. Nor are they constantly tethered to their laptops and smartphones. They aren't afraid to unplug, especially on vacation.

They've simply figured out how to balance work and family, and they're reaping the many benefits of doing so: They live more fulfilling lives and enjoy better health, improved relationships with family and co-workers, and better performance on the job.

Lee Pepper, CIO of Foundations Recovery Network, a drug and alcohol treatment center based in Brentwood, Tenn., suffered from the stress-related illnesses of high blood pressure and high cholesterol until he started training for triathlons last year. He says his activity inspired his CEO and CFO to get in shape: Now they all swim at a local YMCA three times a week during their lunch breaks.

"You have to constantly fight on a day to day basis for work-life balance," says Loope. "If you allow it, work will intrude into every part of your life as a CIO. You have to constantly prioritize, delegate, allocate resources and set up systems to protect yourself."

Here, Loope, Pepper and other IT leaders share their advice and techniques for managing stress, maintaining work-life balance and preventing burnout.

1. Structure your time.

Weekdays, Todd Thomas sticks to two separate routines—one for work and one for home. The CIO of Austin Radiological Association gets up at 8 AM and immediately checks his e-mail for any issues before getting ready for work. By the time he gets into his office at 9, he knows his meeting schedule and his priorities for the day.

The fewer the surprises, he reasons, the lower his stress.

When Thomas returns home from work after 6 PM, his first order of business is changing into casual clothes, which helps him transition from business mode to relaxation mode. A self-described "avid computer gamer," Thomas then hits his Xbox, which he says "takes a lot of the edge off" after the workday. When his wife gets home from work, they catch up over dinner, and he gets back on his Xbox for a few hours after she goes to bed.

Loope structures his work weeks to keep his workload bearable and balanced. Certain meetings are scheduled for specific days. For example, every other Monday, he meets with his facilities, IT operations, IT applications and outsourced help desk teams. Wednesday is his "work-life balance day": the day he works from home. (Everyone on his staff who works in a traditional office gets one work at home day per week.)

Loope uses his work at home Wednesdays to catch up on work, prepare for presentations or do "deep thinking" on a tough problem. He never schedules any meetings or conference calls on Wednesdays. Because he doesn't have to commute the hour to EmployBridge's office in Atlanta, he goes for a longer run in the morning, and in the afternoon he picks up his two-and-a-half-year-old son Nathan from daycare and brings him to the pool or to the park.

2. Stop attending pointless meetings.

Meetings are among the biggest drains on productivity in the business world. That's why Scott Archibald, managing director of Bender Consulting, advises IT professionals to assess what they contribute to or get out of the meetings they attend. If their sole purpose is to fill a seat, they should find ways to get out of those unproductive meetings so that they can free up time to focus on the work that really matters or to work a 10-hour day instead of a 12-hour day.

3. Avoid late-night conference calls.

When Archibald worked for HP before moving into IT consulting, he often had to participate in teleconferences held late at night to accommodate clients or team members in far-flung corners of the world. These conference calls put an added crimp in Archibald's already cramped life. He realizes late-night conference calls may be unavoidable for Fortune 500 IT leaders, but he recommends "sharing the pain across geographies": one month the U.S. staff is on the call during off-hours, for example, while the next month it's Europe that has to do the call at 11 p.m.

4. Be organized.

Lee Pepper is able to balance his job as CIO of Foundations Recovery Network with being a husband, father of two boys (ages three and six), and training for triathlons by being organized and disciplined. Pepper, who prides himself on not needing an executive assistant, says his iPhone keeps him on schedule, in touch with his team, and abreast of meetings and deadlines.

He shares his organizational skills with his IT staff and encourages them to use project management software to stay on top of their work. The more organized they are, he says, the more organized he can be.

Pepper also requires weekly status updates from his staff so that he isn't caught off guard by a project that's suddenly in the red zone. Knowing that IT professionals can be afraid to send weekly status reports—especially when their news isn't good—he's created a safe environment for his staff where they can tell him if they're behind or struggling. This culture of openness minimizes surprises, which can otherwise cause Pepper's stress level to spike.

"In technology, I could say I'm under no stress today, but I could get a phone call and our Exchange server could be down or we could lose our financial server and have no back up, and my stress level could be really high," says Pepper. "That's how it is in technology: There are things outside of your control."

5. Trust your staff and delegate work to them.

Several years ago, Thomas restructured his IT department at the Austin Radiological Association, in part to reduce his stress and to more evenly distribute staff management responsibility. At the time, his organization was flat, and all 25 staffers reported directly to him. He reorganized the department so that he only has four direct reports, and the rest of the IT staff reports to his second-in-commands.

Another change Thomas made to reduce his stress and improve his work-life balance: He no longer goes on call. When he first started working for the Austin Radiological Association 13 years ago, he was one of three members of the IT department, and he was on call every three nights. Now that he has a bigger staff, he no longer needs to go on call.

Pepper also recommends delegating as a stress reduction and work-life balance improvement tool. He knows that if he wants to stay sane and prevent burnout, he can't do it all.

"Sometimes, especially with a small company, you as the CIO don't have a team that's as big as you'd like, and you take responsibility on yourself," he says. "I've been fortunate at Foundations that I've been able to build a team of people I can rely on. For all of our major processes, I make sure I have a primary and secondary contact for each one, and I make sure I'm not the primary or secondary."

6. Know your priorities in life and set boundaries that help you stick to them.

The IT leaders interviewed for this story balance the often competing priorities of work and family by making their spouses and kids a priority and by limiting the amount of work they do during "off" hours.

For example, when Loope comes home from work at 6 PM, his priority is spending time with his son. He doesn't think about work again until after Nathan goes to bed, when Loope does a final check of e-mail.

"Now that Nate is two, he's very interactive and playful," says Loope. "I can't let that time pass. I can't let that two-year-old, three-year-old, four-year-old time pass. When I get in the door at 6, everything stops until Nate goes to bed at 9."

For Archibald, because his job requires him to travel frequently (two to three times a month for two to four days per trip), the IT and management consultant says he tries to stay away from work when he's with his wife and two teen-age daughters. If they go out to dinner on weekends, for example, he doesn't answer business calls or e-mails via his smartphone (the only exception is if his company is on a tight deadline).

"I do a lot of travel, so when I am with the family, it's good to be just with the family. I enjoy that time," says Archibald. "You have to set boundaries in terms of what you need to do for your job and what you need to do for yourself."

One of Pepper's family's boundaries is their 'no-laptop, no-iPhone at the dinner table' rule. "I have to be very cognizant not to be on the phone when I'm eating with my kids or reading to my kids," he says, adding that he's trying to set a good example for his two young boys. "My boys emulate everything my wife and I do. We don't want them to be 10 or 12 years old and too busy texting when we're trying to have a conversation with them."

7. Take up an immersive hobby.

If you're a workaholic and can't bear to completely disconnect from the office, taking up a hobby that makes it impossible to do work can be helpful.

"I find that I gravitate toward activities where I'm in the wilderness or in an area that doesn't have [cell phone] reception," says Archibald, an avid fly fisherman and triathlete. "If you can't adhere to your own boundaries, get into an activity that will force the boundary on you."

He adds, "Nothing beats fly fishing to get away from it all."

Loope enjoys running, backpacking and hiking for the same reason that Archibald is into angling. He notes that checking e-mail and taking business calls on his smartphone is next to impossible when he's jogging at eight miles per hour.

Thomas's immersive hobby is gaming. He loses himself in action RPGs (role playing games) and classic RPGs that immerse him in other worlds and take his mind completely off work. He says he'll often sit down at his console at 10 PM, and before he knows it, three and a half hours have past.

"Anything that transports you to someplace else, whether reading, which I also do, or computer games, is beneficial," he says.

8. Get physical.

You don't have to compete in triathlons like Pepper or Archibald to reap the physical and emotional benefits of exercise. Getting outside for a walk during lunch breaks can be as therapeutic for Archibald as a run. Even though he might continue to think about work on his walk (or run or bike ride), getting away from his office helps Archibald clear his head, and the physical activity energizes him.

Pepper says the time he spends away from work training for triathlons forces him to be more productive on the job and gives him time for big-picture thinking.

"CIOs don't always get time for strategic thinking," says Pepper. "Sometimes the demand is always fire fighting or what you're going to do that day. When you're on a long run or bike ride, you get to work out a lot of things in your mind."

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