Career Counsel: How to Avoid Stress and Burnout

Current Job Listings

We all know that CIO stands for "Career Is Over." The wag who coined that acronym was undoubtedly referring to the burnout factor that comes with the job and the consequent short tenure of the average CIO. I’m not talking about the difficulties inherent in systems design and development or data center operations but, rather, the misery of working unnoticed and unappreciated until something breaks down. That’s when the CIO must explain to senior executives that their company is being crippled by aging systems, why their equipment must be retrofitted and/or replaced, and why spending money on IT is a fact of life in the 21st century. And even if the executives can hear and understand the bad news, the CIO is still vulnerable to being axed when the problem can’t be solved fast enough or the technology can’t be aligned with corporate goals within an arbitrarily imposed budget.

That’s your world, and given its pressure-packed nature, you will likely suffer some considerable stress or experience burnout at some point in time. Thus, it is of paramount importance that you know the difference between the two.

Pouring Gasoline on a Fire

Everyone knows that working too hard is stressful and can lead to burnout. But CIOs in senior management positions may also suffer burnout if they’re doing nothing more than watching the divisions they built run themselves! I call this state of being bored witless "supernova burnout." Strange as it sounds to someone working to exhaustion, doing nothing—at least nothing intellectually challenging—can be as disruptive to your mental health as working 14 hours a day like a rented mule.

If you don’t know the difference between stress and burnout, the danger is that you may end up pouring gasoline on the fire. For example, interventions that are "just what the doctor ordered" for stress (rest and relaxation) can exacerbate feelings of burnout. The CIO who is suffering supernova burnout, a term I coined to describe those who’ve achieved success—say, by playing a critical role in the leadership of a company—needs new challenges. Sending him to a resort for three weeks of downtime is robbing him of what he needs: a healthy challenge. It is likely to drive him mad. On the other hand, the rented mule who’s working 14-hour days and has no control over what he does (he’s rented, you see) needs some R&R.

Good Stress and Bad

Stress is a word that is constantly misused. In engineering, stress refers to a force applied to a structure, a bridge or a material such as concrete or bone that causes change (strain, cracking or "failure") in the integrity of the material. This would suggest that psychological stress is a force lurking outside us, like fire, something that would have a uniformly adverse effect upon anyone who comes in contact with it.

But stress does not lurk outside. In fact, psychological stress exists almost entirely in the eye of the beholder. People will experience stress only if they view something as posing a threat of harming them in a physical or psychological way. I, for one, experience threat (and stress) at the idea of standing atop an icy mountaintop on two slats of fiberglass and contemplating what I’m going to have to do to get down to the bottom. Of course, those of you who enjoy skiing find this exciting. And there you have another wrinkle in the stress nomenclature. Psychologists call your elation at being atop a mountain contemplating your rapid descent eustress, the "good" stress that people derive from confronting and overcoming challenges. The way I help clients understand stress is to quote a great thinker, Epictetus, who did his thinking in 40 B.C.: "Men are disturbed not by things but by the views they take of them."

What Epictetus didn’t know was that there is one factor that regulates how much or how little our views of things are likely to result in feelings of stress. Psychologists call it "perceived control." It’s perceived, rather than actual, because you don’t have to be "in control," you just have to believe you are in order to have it work wonders.

Let’s go back to the mountain. I view skiing as stressful because I have no idea how to do it. On the other hand, I know how to box, so I’ll happily climb into a ring with most anyone. For most people, that would be stressful, but I perceive myself to be in control when I box so I experience no stress when sparring.

The Etiology of Burnout

CIOs are very vulnerable to stress. The systems they work with are prey to hackers, viruses and programming bugs and can crash for myriad reasons, all of which contribute to their lack of perceived control. Corporate officers above the CIO often don’t understand the systems the CIO controls, so they may do things out of ignorance that do major damage. This lack of control causes countless symptoms (from hair loss to impotence), but the most common are irritability, poor concentration and a general sense of malaise.

Christina Maslach, a pioneer researcher on burnout, claims that burnout derives from a disconnect between what people are and what they do. To her, there is a spiritual underpinning to burnout: It represents a deterioration in values, dignity, spirit and will—what she calls "an erosion of the human soul"—that occurs when our careers cause us to feel chronically exhausted, cynical, detached from work and increasingly ineffective.

Unlike the person experiencing stress, the person suffering burnout is not anxious but, rather, detached—from work and from his colleagues. You’re suffering burnout when you’re "going through the motions." My burned-out clients, all C-level executives, tell me, "I’m in it only for the money." The other signs of burnout are watching the clock, being passive-aggressive to higher authorities, or fantasizing an escape from work that involves seeing the company suffer when you’re gone. ("We never appreciated Jones’s contribution until....")

The CIO is a prime candidate for the generic form of burnout not because he has protracted emotional demands but because the efforts he expends are not fully valued or appreciated. In effect, the CIO can grow alienated because his contributions go unnoticed. When you have to tell your superiors what those contributions are, the resultant praise (if it comes) loses much of its value. Praise is a funny thing; when you solicit it, it’s worthless. The CIO who has to explain what he’s done is often in the position of bringing pearls to swine and wondering, "Do I belong here?" That’s disheartening, demoralizing and a precursor to burnout.

The other reason CIOs are vulnerable to burnout is that because the corporation is now completely dependent on the technology the CIO provides, he must oversee ever more extensive and complex networks and systems. The responsibility for developing a company’s IT architecture and integrating new technologies is the CIO’s, yet many companies claim to want their CIO to also be a strategic thinker involved in business plans and projections. Far too often this message is not consistent: Although they’re put on corporate leadership teams and told to maintain a strong position there, in the event of a technological snafu, CIOs are returned to their technical role and expected to serve a support function.

The problem boils down to the fact that a CIO may actually do four jobs: strategic planning, IT planning (such as creating architecture), IT oversight and supervision of IT operations. It’s an ambiguous life and one fraught with anxiety (the dominant symptom of not working with clear expectations). Thus, I would wager that most CIOs suffer burnout more than stress. Although the workload is enormous (stressful), they never know when those they are trying to please will be pleased (leading to burnout).

Doctor’s Orders

To inoculate against CIO burnout: No CIO can suffer burnout if he awakes in the morning to clear and achievable goals. What CIOs must do is break the job down into components and appoint subheads for each department that reports to them. This does several things to remove ambiguity—and it makes the value of the work more obvious. In bureaucracies, naming and defining connotes importance. By creating a CTO who reports to you and oversees IT planning, you explain what you are overseeing. Similarly, having a head of IT operations who is there so you’re not pulled from a board meeting the next time a snafu occurs lets the world know you’re more than a technician. You can say, "Fenton’s my guy for system breakdowns." The other thing to do is advertise how you cannot do things without departments. If you see a demand coming—that is, if a new, potential stressor is about to be put on your plate ("Say, Jacobs, my buddy at Systek is outsourcing his IT jobs offshore. Can you look into that?"), be certain to say, "We’ll need a department of "Offshore Employment" to do that given the legal, economic and governmental issues involved. If you tell Kane in HR, I’d be glad to set that up."

To treat CIO stress: From what I know of CIOs, those currently experiencing stress most likely believe they should have more control than they actually do. This belief often comes from self-imposed pressure to legitimize their role. Many CIOs believe that if they are not Superman—if they cannot handle whatever they’re asked to do—they will somehow jeopardize the status of their department. Poppycock. Lou Gerstner parachuted into IBM and gained points by saying, "Hey, I’m a brilliant manager but I don’t know about computers." Roberto Goizueta (former CEO of Coke) gained respect when he said, "Hey, launching New Coke was a big disaster, my fault and I’m sorry!" Vulnerability can be a sign of strength. False bravado is a sign of childish machismo. If more CIOs asked for help, empowered their staff and got work done more efficiently, their departments would flourish. It would prove they are great leaders.

The One-Eyed Man

You may wonder, "Where’s the ball-squeezing exercise for stress?" or "How about getting closer to my staff on a retreat to end burnout?" Stress and burnout do not get treated with "toys" or "quick fix" interventions; situation-specific strategies arrived at through a thorough analysis of your situation work best.

It’s not just walking on eggshells that has you upset. After all, most CIOs can solve the problems they’re called upon to address. What gets your goat is not being understood in time to fix those problems or, if you do, not being seen as a hero. Even if you escape the ax, you might want your career to be over rather than living with a Sword of Damocles over your head all the time. But if you tell yourself you’re a one-eyed man in the land of the blind, that the blind will one day appreciate you, and that on some days you won’t kill yourself to meet all the demands foisted upon you and instead you’ll let the blind bump into walls and suffer contusions, you’re coping. No squeeze balls, no tricks, just what Epictetus said: a different view.

Related:

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

How do you compare to your peers? Find out in our 2019 State of the CIO report