|September 25, 2000|
In today's fast-paced Internet economy, business demands more than ever from technology, and IT professionals are feeling the heat. Is your company at risk of driving out its top talent?
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A few years ago, while employed at a financial-services firm, Miller was working on a software project to streamline the company's accounting practices. "We were working six and seven days a week, 12 hours a day," he recalls. The overload not only taxed his waking hours, causing a mind-numbing fatigue, it led to a syndrome Miller dubbed "sleep programming." "You wake up tired because you were so busy all night working on those programming problems in your sleep," he says.
The rollout of the accounting system coincided with Miller's hard-earned vacation to Cozumel, Mexico. He was nervous about leaving, concerned that the system might still have bugs. Miller feared the project was another example of ill-conceived planning by his boss, whom Miller says was out of touch with current technology. The boss' cluelessness, Miller says, typically led him to make promises to company honchos that left the IT staff scrambling to meet impossible deadlines. Miller took his scheduled trip--but, as he feared, system glitches abounded. When he returned, he stayed at the job for only six more weeks. The causes of Miller's job frustration and exhaustion, commonly known as burnout, were unrealistic expectations and over-promises. The result: He quit.
Burnout is nothing new. But the backlash exemplified above may be growing.
IT work has always been stressful. Projects have short deadlines and implementation schedules. IT operations and support require 24-by-7 availability. And every new IT paradigm shift brings with it the need for new skills.
What's different today is the acceleration and volume of IT work, driven largely by the Internet economy. The race by dot-coms and brick-and-mortar companies to compete on the Web has hastened the demand for IT-dependent projects. Also, the IT-project floodgates have opened at many companies that had projects and budgets on hold while year 2000 work was completed.
Exacerbating the situation is a Silicon Valley culture spinning out of control, with stress-induced psychological problems reaching an all-time high (see sidebar story, "Silicon Valley And The Culture Of 'More'"). Also, the influx of foreign workers hired by U.S. companies desperate for IT talent adds its own pressure: Many foreign IT workers, accustomed to long hours in poor conditions, are willing to bear 60 or more hours a week, raising the bar even higher for American IT workers (see sidebar story, "Foreign IT Workers Add To The Pressure").
Cumulatively, this grind is fueling a backlash within IT organizations--at traditional companies and, in particular, at dot-coms--that's manifested in reduced productivity from IT workers, abrupt career changes, even en masse departures when an overworked employee bails out and takes along several colleagues. Worse yet, disgruntled employees might take valued customers.
The good news is that companies are tuning in to the increasing stress levels of their IT workers and taking steps to make things better. Of necessity, many businesses offer flexible schedules, telecommuting, and job sharing. Savvier ones seek to create a corporate culture that espouses mutual respect and shared values, open-door communications and mentoring, creativity and fun. IT workers are getting savvier, too. Many are seeking work situations that fit their lifestyles, such as respect for family time. And some IT workers who signed on for the breakneck pace and promised riches of Internet startups are returning with relief to more traditional work situations.
In terms of job stress and stress-related problems, IT workers have plenty of company. An estimated 1 million workers are absent on an average workday because of stress-related complaints, according to the American Institute of Stress, a nonprofit organization in New York. Job stress is estimated to cost U.S. companies $300 billion annually, including absenteeism, diminished productivity, employee turnover, and medical, legal, and insurance fees.
But IT workers may be contributing more than their share of that amount. At a long-distance communications company in New York, "Hell Week" was the term used to describe the seven days that led up to the launch of its Web site. Bob, the project's manager, recalls what the eight-member IT team faced as it was gearing up: The CEO disregarded the marketing department's estimation of 17,000 hits the first week and demanded instead that the IT staff re-architect the system to accommodate 250,000 hits on the first day.
That fueled a whirl of 14-hour workdays, panicked calls to vendors, rushed dinners at 11 p.m., dog-tired staffers driving each other home at 4 a.m., and a 3-year-old girl playing in the office because her dad, the lead Web architect, couldn't find child care.
The upshot? The IT team made its deadline, but the price paid was both immediate and lasting. The fledgling company and its staff went into the launch stressed and exhausted, damaged by broken professional relationships and an extra $50,000 in expenses, the project manager says. Shortly thereafter, three staffers left, including the CEO. And the Web site, true to the marketing department's prediction, got closer to 17,000 hits in the first week.
Calling IT work a marathon that must be run at a sprinter's pace is both an understatement and faulty, says Elliott Masie, director of the Masie Center, an IT training and E-learning firm. Unlike a marathon, there's no finish line in IT. Projects often come rolling in one after the other, leaving little or no time to regroup. Meanwhile, technology itself has tethered IT people to their jobs round-the-clock. "We've changed our definition of what busy is," says Masie. "Now it's hyper-busy. Everyone's got a pager, a beeper, and 25 E-mails a day."
For S-B Power Tools Co., a tool manufacturer in Chicago, eight back-to-back network projects cost the company three key network people, says Mark Appelhans, director of application development. The consequence of those departures: more pressure on the remaining staff. "It puts a burden on everyone," Appelhans says. "The jobs still have to get done."
Worse still, sometimes a drop-everything-this-is-mission-critical project disappears in midstream. Management may know why, but the reasons are not always communicated to programmers who gave up nights, weekends, and family time.
Illustration by Richard Downs
Photo of Miller by Gary Gelb
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