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Stress and Strain

Stress and Strain

Type A personalities and long hours contribute to IT stress

William Cross sees stress as a major problem for IT employees, who often must deal with sudden problems the same way emergency first responders do. Cross, the CIO of Seminole Electric Cooperative Incorporated in Tampa, Florida, first became interested in the topic more than 20 years ago after attending a stress management session at a user group meeting. His doctoral thesis in information sciences at Nova Southeastern University was on the relationship between stress and programming. He found that the more stress a programmer deals with, the lower the quality of the code. In a wide-ranging Q&A, Cross covers off the whys and hows of stress on the job and how to deal with it - whether it's you or your staff.

What makes IT a stressful occupation? IT is a stressful occupation for a lot of reasons. One of the big reasons is we work very closely with computing equipment that in today's world doesn't fail. That's high stress because if there are errors, they are probably ours. We also have this high desire to please others and that tends to get IT people to put in more hours and take things more seriously then perhaps another group.

Is this stress across the board, or are some IT jobs less stressful than others? Certainly, jobs vary. There are some jobs that are more stressful than others. Some of it is how the person reacts to the job. There are jobs in some tech support areas, for example, that may be more stressful than a job in a scheduling group or a computer operations group. But they all have different stresses.

Does IT attract people who like stressful jobs to begin with? I believe so, yes. I believe one of the things that gets us into this business is that attraction.

What, then, are some of the shared personality characteristics of someone in IT? The two prominent ones are high need for recognition and praise, and the lowest social need of any group. The third one is that IT people tend to be almost exclusively Type A personalities.

Is part of that stress a result of insufficient communication skills? Certainly. It goes back to the low social need - IT people don't really feel comfortable dealing with many other people. And so you combine that with our tendency to give our computers human characteristics, and if you look at a lot of us we talk to our computers like they are people. The problem is, if you have this personal relationship with the machine - and you know your boss does the same thing - when your boss sends you an e-mail it's his way around having to talk to you.

How do you recognize stress in your employees and how can you tell when they are under too much of it? People that are under stress have certain manifestations of that. They tend to be less emotionally stable. They tend to react strongly to small things that they might not react to under other circumstances. A change in schedule may be a crisis if somebody is really stressed. Those are characteristics to look for. They tend to make more mistakes, although I'm not sure that's a clear enough indicator, because people make mistakes for other reasons. But people who are under high levels of stress tend to be less focused on the job.

What is the relationship between stress and the quality of the work? In a software development environment, the higher a person's stress, the lower the quality of their product. There is approximately a 15 percent correlation between stress level and quality. It's an inverse relationship - as stress goes up quality goes down.

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