How to Manage Staff Burnout in IT Projects and Service Operations

IT projects and service operations make for a hectic, challenging work environment.  Considering the pace, burnout is an all too common occurence.  Will staff members speak up? Some may be reluctant and that is certainly understandable.  And when they speak up - if they speak up - it may be too late - the problem may have already taken hold.  It's best to act before that happens.  Read on to learn how.

Watch for the Burnout Warning Signs

A smart, attentive and proactive IT manager will quickly recognize the need to monitor all aspects of staff morale and performance, and will learn how to detect the warning signs before they become readily visible to others who may care to see them.   (Also Read:  Making Criticism Constructive and Productive)

  • Attendance Changes - sudden, chronic lateness or an increase in absenteeism.
  • Productivity Changes - decreases in the quantity of work accomplished over a period of time.
  • Performance Changes - decreases in the quality of work accomplished over a period of time.
  • Attention to Detail - small, but noticeable mistakes and omissions in work completed, marked by their unusual nature (i.e. things that have been done correctly in past are now slipping through the cracks).
  • Procrastination - a fixation on minor details and routine tasks at the expense of riskier, more complex activities.
  • Relationships - a reduction in socialization and team activities, marked by conflicts, arguments and withdrawal from group activities.
  • Attitude Changes - a negative shift in attitude towards the job, the organization, end-users  and co-workers, marked by anger sarcasm, irritability, fatigue, sensitivity to criticism, or indifference.
  • Perceptions - a general feeling that IT is unappreciated and taken advantage of by the organization as a whole.

You See the Signs – Now What?

Once you have identified the signs of a burnout problem, what can you do to prevent a full blown burnout disaster?  Burnout can occur on a "team" or individual level.  Team burnout occurs as the overburdened group reacts collectively to difficult projects and work environments.  Individual burnout can be brought about by underlying emotional or physical problems.  These situations should be escalated immediately to management and human resources.  When individual or team burnout appears "environmental", you should look to the working source of the problem.

Take Action To-Do List

Burnout is most often the result of a unusually heavy workload, exacerbated by short timelines, long work hours, demanding end-users, and negative perceptions of IT as an organizational entity.  In consideration of these issues, the following tips and tricks can be used to relieve the pressure and hopefully shift the workplace dynamic.

  1. Seek out every possible process, procedure and tool for efficiency and productivity.
  2. Set realistic schedules for projects and other activities - allow for the unexpected problem that may cause delays.
  3. Let your staff have some downtime - do not schedule work for every weekend, and encourage staff to go home "on time" as often as possible.
  4. Be visible - show your staff that you are in the boat along with them.  Even if you cannot contribute to an installation on a technical basis, be there to provide moral support.
  5. Set aside "cool-down" periods after every major project - allowing staff to regroup and savor the accomplishment.
  6. Consider the consequences and impact on staff before making promises and commitments.  And be prepared to quantify and communicate those consequences.  At the very least, said consequences can be used as a bargaining chip in service and project negotiations.
  7. Take advantage of remote access technologies for off-hours support, and to allow for flexible work schedules and telecommuting.
  8. Rotate on-call schedules as often as possible.  And "not on call" should mean just that ... give your staff some time to clear their heads and refresh their perspectives.
  9. Take every opportunity to publicize IT successes, making sure management and end-users are aware of the contribution that IT makes to the organization.  These facts can be very useful to bolster any effort to minimize demands for unreasonable support.
  10. Create and enforce realistic Service Level Agreements.
  11. Maintain proper systems documentation and problem tracking databases to leverage prior experiences and facilitate problem resolution.  This will allow a greater number of staff members to share off-hours support duties.
  12. Set limits on off-hours contacts, and get management concurrence to enforce those limits.  Not every problem is an emergency and certain boundaries must be accepted. Recognize and reward long work hours whenever possible.  Depending upon your circumstances, you may be able to offer additional vacation time, personal time, allow staff to attend free seminars or trade shows (frequently offered by vendors), or just have a team party.  (Also Read: Ending Projects on a High Note).

For more on this subject see How to Motivate Your Project Team and How to Avoid the Most Common Management Mistakes.

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