by Joseph Flahiff

How IT leaders can reduce stress and increase productivity

Jun 01, 20155 mins
CIOIT LeadershipPersonal Software

Are you doing these two things that are slowing you down and adding errors? If your organization is going to be nimble, you need to be ready to respond quickly to change. There are two things I frequently see that keep organizations from being nimble.

If your organization is going to be nimble, you need to be ready to respond quickly to change. There are two things I frequently see that keep organizations from being nimble:

You think you and your teams can multitask. You can’t.

You have key people, each with a special skill on a project. Their skill is vital to the entire company, but what they do won’t utilize all of their time. What do you encourage their managers to do? You encourage them to start another project, but even that won’t take all of their time, so they start another project.  Now these key people have three projects going at once. It isn’t much. It seems reasonable. You think, “We hired them for their expertise; we should optimize their time and utilize that expertise for the company.” It seems to make sense. However, starting more work is the opposite of what you should do. For half a dozen reasons, this kind of multitasking will actually make the work take longer:

  1. When multitasking, errors increase by 40%, and those problems have to be fixed
  2. Multitasking causes stress and can dramatically impact employee health
  3. There is lost time when switching between tasks
  4. People lose the sense of flow, and their attention is unfocused
  5. Multitasking inhibits creativity, a necessary attribute of knowledge work
  6. You lack slack so you are not available when needed

In my work with teams, I help them see how trying to work on multiple items at the same time actually makes them less productive.  It seems counter intuitive, but you can get more done by trying to do less. What you should be trying to do is get the right things done, one at a time.

You think you and your teams work better under pressure. You don’t.

We often believe we work better under pressure.  Heck, I believe this one from time to time.  It seems I get more done when I have a deadline. While it may be true for some kinds of work, that you do accomplish more when you are under pressure, the same is not true of knowledge work. If you are involved in knowledge work (all IT is knowledge work), then the most important thing you do is creative thinking. A classic study (Dan Duncker’s Candle Problem) shows that when we are under pressure, it takes more time to complete problems that require creative thinking. Putting ourselves and our employees under pressure actually makes the work take more time, and the solutions are not as creative.

Not only are we less creative, but the added stress has a direct impact on health which increases absenteeism and further delays your efforts. Work consistently, and work at a sustainable pace. Working under constant pressure activates your autonomic nervous system and releases cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are not supposed to be in our system for very long. Fight or flight is a quick state to get us out of danger. Extended exposure to these hormones can have numerous negative impacts on your health, including:

  • Heart attack
  • Hypertension
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Stroke
  • Reduced effectiveness in your immune response system
  • Arthritis
  • Depression

Don’t risk it. Reduce the stress in your organization. 

Customer expectations are increasing daily in your industry. I can say that because it is true in every industry. If you are going to have a nimble organization, you must be not only capable of adapting to these changes, but you must be optimized to handle a constant barrage of changes.  If you are optimizing for limited resources instead of optimizing for delivery, and if you are constantly pushing, pushing, pushing by trying to do more by cramming more into your life, you will not be nimble.


What do you do? Are you trying to multitask? How many projects do you have in process, right now?  How about your department? Are you trying to do too many things at one time?

What about the stress level in your organization? As the CIO, you hold the power to change things in your company. You can have a direct impact on the health of your employees. Imagine that. You will also have a long-term impact on the cost of healthcare. 


Take a look at your portfolio of work.  Imagine what it could look like if you reduced the amount of work in process and got more done. Put half of your projects on hold. If you are currently planning on hitting planned dates, cutting half the work should bring those projects in early. This will reduce the stress and improve overall morale. The act of getting work done will spur inspiration to get more work done.  


Start a conversation with your leadership team about how much work the organization takes on and how much stress there is. Share this article with them. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.