IT Stress: Management, Empathy, And The Kindness Of Strangers - InformationWeek
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1/19/2015
10:06 AM
David Wagner
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IT Stress: Management, Empathy, And The Kindness Of Strangers

Stress makes us more likely to forget how the other guy feels, which is not good for the modern IT department.

If you manage in a group bigger than four or five people, you need to know exactly how stress is going to change the way your own team responds to each other. A new study shows that people have less empathy for strangers when they are stressed than when they aren't. And, whether we like it or not, in big teams or departments, some of the people you manage are total strangers to each other.

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The joint American-Canadian study, conducted in part at McGill University, tested both mice and humans to find that when stress hormones were blocked by drugs, both the rodents and people were more empathic. For instance, students were asked to watch someone experience the pain of holding his or her hand in a bucket of ice. They were likely to rate the pain of the person they watch as high and were likely to touch their own hand in sympathy -- unless they were under stress. Then, they were far less likely to see the pain in a stranger.

So what's an IT manager to do? Invest in a bunch of anti-stress drugs? The good news is the study also found that if the subject played a fun video game with the stranger before the test, they were more likely to be sympathetic. The researchers believe that a simple stress reducer was enough to make a person more empathic.

With increasingly dispersed IT colleagues, often working across time zones and even across oceans, your own teams are often going to be strangers. Even if they aren't, IT workers are being asked more than ever to be part of cross-functional teams, to work more closely with "the business," and to otherwise work with strangers.

We often advise CIOs and IT managers that the best way for IT to act is to feel the business's pain. It isn't a good time in the state of IT management for your employees to lack empathy. If they do, you're liable to hear them make fun of other departments, care less about serving them, and do less to actively reach out to teams to serve the business.

And if you happen to serve clients outside the office, the risk is even greater. Some people may not consider someone who works at the same company to be a stranger. But when a stressed employee goes into a client's office, all they're seeing are strangers.

[What to know more about the hazards of stress in the workplace? Read Burned Out Workers Are Dangerous.]

Of course, you can't always invite your clients or line-of-business executives in for a quick video game tournament. You're going to have to find a way for your team to manage stress. The American Institute of Stress says 25% of people view their job as their main source of stress in their lives. Forty percent of workers reported that their work is "very or extremely stressful." Eight in 10 report at least some stress at work. Shockingly, 14% say they have felt like striking a coworker.

Managing workloads will help. Taking breaks, too. Encourage music and fun at work (in reasonable doses). Most importantly, you need to help your employees be aware of this issue. It is easy to pass this kind of thing off as office gossip and team-versus-team rivalry. But there will be times you need your team to buckle down and focus on the needs of someone else. Encourage them to listen to fun music on the drive to the client's place. Tell them to find their happy place before the big meeting. Just being aware of the effect of stress might be enough to overcome its ugliest manifestations.

In other words, have a little empathy for your team. Make them happy when you need them happy the most, and they'll put their best foot forward when you need them cooperating the most. What do you think? Is empathy an important part of your management tool belt? How do you de-stress your IT team? Do you think your team could use a little more empathy for the strangers inside and outside of your company? Comment below.

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David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Enterpriseefficiency.com. Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, ... View Full Bio
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yalanand
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yalanand,
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1/24/2015 | 9:43:31 PM
Re: IT Stress: Management, Empathy and the Kindness of Strangers
@Stratustician: Not always. If you make too much friendship with a person, they end up asking you for a favour, and in the technical department, it is these favours you have to get away from, because they include doing others work while others can run different errands outside the office building. Of course a little interaction is necessary, maybe a bit of support to have a fun workplace, but not too much. 
yalanand
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yalanand,
User Rank: Ninja
1/24/2015 | 9:40:20 PM
Re: IT Stress: Management, Empathy and the Kindness of Strangers
@xerox203: Games have been linked to developing cooperative nature in human beings. That is, if they play MMORPG and other team based games. Another thing is that stress related disorders seem to affect those in this kind of a technical field. I've seen coal miners ticking away to a failing lung and I've seen technical department people having it worse, so much so that they took to smoking cigarettes because they couldn't cope up with the stress. 

I think companies should include yoga and other exercises for their employees to feel a little less stress.
yalanand
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yalanand,
User Rank: Ninja
1/24/2015 | 9:35:19 PM
Re: IT Stress: Management, Empathy and the Kindness of Strangers
@SunitaT0: The question we really need to ask here is, should technical jobs really be that hectic? I know many people who enjoy most of their time in work doing nothing and I know many people who leave technical jobs because of stress. If there was any labour management here, then I think the stress would have decreased, even if the hours of work didn't.
SunitaT0
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SunitaT0,
User Rank: Ninja
1/23/2015 | 10:54:15 PM
Re: IT Stress: Management, Empathy and the Kindness of Strangers
@Stratustician: I'm working in one of such firms that have good work life balance. When I say "good" I mean that I have to work 9-10 hours every day, maybe more, but I am entitled to going to all those social events that take place, and also other team building activities, which are a lot of fun if you ask me. 
Stratustician
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Stratustician,
User Rank: Ninja
1/20/2015 | 2:46:34 PM
Re: IT Stress: Management, Empathy and the Kindness of Strangers
I agree, I think also part of it is that especially in tech, often the corporate culture leaves a lot to be desired which only adds to a lot of the stress facing employees.  One of the ways I've seen this fixed is to have more social events so that teams which normally are siloed get a chance to better interact with others.  The more comradery that exists between employees, there's a better correlation to job satisfaction, which leads to lower stress and hopefully better work/life balance.

I think many employees are stuck with the ivory tower syndrome which can often lead to extra stress which definitely can rear its ugly head in terms of overall lack of empathy to others.
zerox203
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zerox203,
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1/19/2015 | 9:08:05 PM
Re: IT Stress: Management, Empathy and the Kindness of Strangers
It seems this is a topic we just can't get away from. The linked article from the American Institute of Stress does a good job of explaining why - most people experience job stress daily, and it seems like the modern environment is more conducive to it. Times and conditions may change, but stress is the one constant... and in the age where we can address just about every other little inconvenience and roadblock in the workplace via technology (in fact, the always-on mentality is contributing to stress), it seems weird that the dangers of stress are often relegated to being the elephant in the room. Work-life balance is not a tickbox to be checked off on a list; work-life balance is your life. If your work-life balance is bad, your life is bad. Why do we allow people to live bad lives for the sake of their jobs, and more importantly, why do we seem to want to when we'd get their best work otherwise?

Maybe technology can be the answer as well as part of the problem. Drugs for everyone seems like a stretch to me (although no doubt they have their use and there are some who need them). It's interesting that the study notes they used a video game rather than a traditional (re: board/card/etc.) game. Do you have any idea why, Dave? The game was described as a cooperative music game - maybe it's this innately cooperative element that fast-paced interactive games allow that gives them an edge over other games or forms of interaction. Working together to accomplish a goal gives you immediate knowledge about someone, their tendencies, their attitude, and makes them seem friendly to you - in other words, you can't dodge it with questions about the weather. Maybe there's something useful to be gleaned from that in the role of other interactive and collaborative media in reducing stress.
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