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The Few and the Stressed

The Few and the Stressed

Rapid change, tight deadlines and heavy workloads are the workaday stuff of IT staff. They can also be a recipe for stress, even depression. How do CIOs manage the stress levels of their teams so they remain effective and on task?

Brian Dickinson has three rules when he organizes get-togethers for his IT staff: Do it regularly. Do something different. And, most of all, make it fun. So, for Dickinson's staff, it's not always schooners at the local pub or curries at the Indian restaurant up the road; instead, it might be an afternoon of lawn bowls, a pool tournament or game of darts. Dickinson, who is Graincorp's information services manager, says his goal is to build team spirit and at the same time give his team of 37 a chance to let off steam. Letting off steam is one way he believes stress can be kept in check.

Not that there is anything wrong with stress of itself - it is after all a normal human response to a deadline; a manifestation of the "flight or fight" response. It is a heightened reaction, not a medical condition.

While some stress is okay, unrelieved stress can be a problem, triggering depression or anxiety - illnesses affecting a million people in Australia each year, according to Dr Nicole Highet, deputy CEO of depression task force Beyond Blue. That incidence of depression parlays into six million working days lost a year. Unrelieved stress can also be a trigger for suicide. Professor Ian Hickie of the University of Sydney warns that the group most at risk of committing suicide in Australia today is males aged 25-45, often with families and mortgages - precisely, he says, the same group that dominates the IT workforce. He says workers who feel they have some independence or autonomy - such as contractors - may feel more in control and better able to deal with stress. However, staff who feel they have little control of their destinies, especially those in highly volatile workplaces, could feel more at risk.

Jack McElwee, IT director of Consolidated Press Holdings, says all work environments can produce varying levels of negative stress, and he does not believe that the IT profession is any more susceptible than any other. "On the positive side, IT professionals are predominantly challenge driven and often thrive in a crisis, which indicates they generally can handle pressure situations well. Like all professions, though, these pressure situations can take their toll if they are too frequent and not properly managed," he says. "On the negative side, IT professionals have a tendency to be overly analytical, so become bogged down in the details and are often relatively poor at time management, cumulatively resulting in missed deadlines and significantly increased stress levels."

Although McElwee does not believe IT workers are more at risk than other staff, he does acknowledge that he has, "encountered many different situations where people have failed to manage the stress, resulting in prolonged sickness, and with near fatal consequences unfortunately in a couple of cases". The worst cases, he says, were people who felt they were trapped in a work situation over which they had no control but were highly dependent upon. "Interestingly, in a few other cases that come to mind they were people who were crisis junkies and wore the 'Red Adair' [troubleshooter] label as a badge of honour but eventually burnt out."

Dickinson is more of an agnostic when it comes to the issue of stress. He believes it is in danger of becoming a blanket term for dissatisfaction. "I've had people say to me that they were away because of stress, but it's sometimes to make a point. They've had business users hassling them and it's nothing to do with stress; they just want to make the point that they are annoyed with it." If someone does take extended periods of time off work for stress they have to provide a doctor's certificate and Dickinson works with the human resources department to resolve the issue. He would rather nip it in the bud.

Since Graincorp purchased 60 percent of Allied Mills, the IT departments of both groups also get together regularly for a social event. "My department is fairly relaxed. We do some long hours and some hard yards but we go out together every six to eight weeks."

Every year Dickinson also invites his direct reports and their families to his home for a social event.

"It's something that I have found works. They still acknowledge that I'm the boss. But they get the chance to let off steam and they seem to respect me for it." Dickinson acknowledges that as the business grows it will be harder to get the team out together, but for now it works.

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