Featured in Network World: As IT Job Market Heats Up, Tech Stress Levels Dropby Devin Weakland on November 16, 2015
This article originally appeared on Network World on November 16, 2015.
By Mary Brandel
The shortage of skilled IT workers may be troublesome to hiring managers, but according to a study by TEKsystems, it has resulted in at least one positive side effect for the current IT workforce: lower stress.
“Demand for IT skills is absolutely through the roof,” says Jason Hayman, TEKsystems research manager. “If I’m in IT, I’m not worried about where my next paycheck is coming from. That goes a long way toward alleviating stress.”
According to the talent management company’s annual survey, stress levels have dropped dramatically. For example, only 11% of entry-to mid-level IT professionals and 13% of senior-level IT execs reported high stress levels. That’s down significantly from last year, when 30% and 32% of IT professionals, respectively, reported the work they were doing to be the most stressful of their career.
So, what’s changed?
“It’s a more competitive market, the salaries are increasing, and there’s a lot more money for ,” says Hallie Yarger, regional recruiting director at Mondo. “From a candidate perspective, they’re doing pretty well.”
Pockets of stress
However, not all job titles are feeling the profession’s “Zen moment.” For example, cloud infrastructure, cloud services and DevOps roles can be highly demanding, particularly in some industries, Yarger says.
In financial services, and any highly transactional environment that relies on 24×7 uptime, stress levels are generally higher. “Systems-oriented peole can have serious stress,” Yarger says. “If the server is down, they need to be on top of it.”
That is certainly true for Ski Kacoroski, director of the League of Professional Systems Administrators (LOPSA). “As near as I can tell, stress levels are not down, but either the same or higher, mainly due to a lack of resources and too much work,” he says. “Some technologies such as virtualization have really helped, but I feel like I am still always playing catchup.”
“Responsibility for 24x7x365 systems imposes a higher level of stress,” agrees Paul English, manager of IT, energy, at Vaisala, which makes products for environmental and industrial measurement. English also chalks up stress levels to Seattle’s booming IT industry, where he lives, and the fact that most people in this type of position have operational responsibilities and are on call. Employers are also not immune to asking systems administrators to work 50-plus hours per week, “and employees will often do it even when unemployment in the industry is very low,” English adds.
Meanwhile, security professionals are more stressed than ever, according to Yarger and other sources. With the high-profile data breaches that have occurred in government, retail, financial services and other industries, businesses and consumers have never been more aware of cyber threats, and demand for security professionals has never been so high.
“Among the folks I talk with, it’s very stressful,” says Rob Sadowski, director of technology solutions at RSA Security, a division of EMC. Sadowski attributes this to changing technology infrastructures, which are becoming more diverse, mobile and cloud-based, as well as the threats themselves, which are becoming more dedicated, sophisticated and focused. “Those two things are creating a pretty intense level of activity that can lead to stress,” he says. As the custodians of financial information, intellectual property, personally identifiable information and other sensitive data, security professionals have “a pretty heavy weight on their shoulders,” he says.
Of course, many security professionals tend to thrive on constant challenge, Sadowski adds. At the same time, CSOs tend to have the lowest tenure of any management position, he says, at just 1.5 to two years, whether because they can’t accomplish what they want from a program or budget perspective, or they’re a victim of an incident, he says. So even when they’re galvanizing the organization to respond to a breach, the fact that their job is on the line is another stressor hanging over their heads, Sadowski points out.
A different kind of stress
While overall stress levels may be down, there is always some level of stress. And in IT, the sources of stress are changing. High workloads may not be the stressor that it once was, but another stressor is moving into its place. While keeping up with organizational requests was named the most stressful part of being in IT in 2014 (32% of senior-level and 30% of entry to mid-level professionals), the No. 1 stress this year was keeping up with fast-changing technology (30% of senior-level and 41% of entry to mid-level professionals).
This finding may help explain why overall stress is lower, as it’s a healthier type of stress, Hayman says. “It means they’re able to move away from the mentality that was pervasive during the recession of performing mundane updates and driving projects that are the same old-same old, and shifting into innovative initiatives that help the company stay competitive in the market,” Hayman says. “IT people want to do things on the cutting edge.”
The cloud is another factor driving stress levels down while causing new, albeit lower levels, of it. “Back in the day when I was a network administrator, e-mail was the highest contributing component to the stress factor because if e-mail is down, the entire company is affected,” says Steve Aponte, director of program management and IT for Intelligent Product Solutions, a product design and development firm. “Now that we’ve moved e-mail to the cloud, if there’s a slowdown in connectivity, the idea that we don’t have to — or can’t — fix it takes stress off our shoulders.”
IT still fields the barrage of phone calls about e-mail interruptions, but it’s a different kind of stress, Aponte says. “At least they’re not looking over our shoulder as we try to get it back up. Our responsibility is to nag the person who’s fixing it.” Setting the expectation of 99.9% uptime through a service-level agreement also helps reduces stress, as well, Aponte says.
The cloud has also helped Aponte’s team achieve better work/life balance and more satisfaction on the job, he says. “We have more downtime after-hours because we’re not the ones doing maintenance then. We can also spend more time doing brainstorming and strategic thinking as opposed to constantly putting out fires and addressing server issues.”
The employer role
Employers are also getting better about recognizing and reducing stress, both to combat attrition and compete with others for top talent, both Hayman and Yarger point out. More companies seem to be untethering IT workers from their jobs after work hours. In the survey, just 15% of entry- to mid-level professionals and 13% of senior-level respondents said they were expected to be on-call 24×7, compared with 27% and 61% last year.
Also notable, 85% of lower level professionals and 83% of senior level roles say they are not expected to provide any availability during vacation (compared with 74% and 30% in 2014).
Even traditional organizations are realizing they need to offer more paid time off or stipends for improving health, like gym reimbursements, commuter benefits, meditation rooms or classes, in-house phys-ed courses like yoga and even intramural sports, like kickball and dodgeball leagues, Yarger says.
At IPS, “we get a $400 stipend for an exercise program, and I take full advantage of that,” Aponte says. “Even at some of the customers I’ve worked at, I see wellness programs being promoted. They want employees getting out to the gym instead of sitting for nine hours a day.”
Flexible hours and the ability to work remotely is another competitive benefit, Yarger says. “The top tech companies don’t care if someone is in the office usually, and older corporate clients are starting to adjust.”
According to Sadowski, best-in-class security organizations combat stress by setting up staff rotations so that job duties shift from week to week. “Someone might be a frontline incident handler for one month, and the next month, he’ll work on threat intelligence. The next week or month, he’ll deal with escalations,” he says. “It keeps them from getting into a rut or feeling burned out. They don’t experience the feeling of having a constant queue in one area that’s insurmountable.”
Rotating job responsibilities keeps the work fresh and interesting and also adds a level of cross-training, Sadowski points out. “More people can pitch in when there’s an incident,” he says. “It helps maintain employee sanity, and it also helps the organization.”
“The flexibility to move around in the organization certainly reduces stress levels because anytime you make a change or go to something different – even for people who fear change – it changes your stress level because you’re focusing on something else,” Aponte agrees.
Even if employers aren’t helping to ease employees’ frayed nerves, IT professionals can take matters into their own hands. Both Kacoroski and English have found some valuable stress-relieving ideas in Tom Limoncelli’s Time Management for System Administrators; English has also taken a class taught by Limoncelli.
For people with overloaded workloads, Hayman suggests talking to managers about prioritizing projects or responsibilities; for those stressed by commuting or long hours, it doesn’t hurt to ask for an alternative schedule or flexible workplace considering that both are becoming more of a norm, he says. “IT is much more in the driver’s seat now, and managers will at least listen and possibly make exceptions.”
Aponte emphasizes the importance of extracurricular activities and sociability outside of work, including getting together for dinner with team members. “Building camaraderie with the team has been a huge factor in keeping stress down,” he says. English turns to exercise, occasional meditation and even his outdoor hot tub, especially when the temperatures drop. “It has been one of the better investments in stress management [though] it seemed like a fairly frivolous purchase at the time.”
Gaming is a popular way of blowing off steam, especially among security professionals, Sadowski says. “It emphasizes what they like about their jobs – the intellectual stimulation, planning and teamwork — but is also an escape,” he says. Motorcycle riding is another pastime he sees security professionals sharing in common. “It allows them to turn it off, compartmentalize and separate the two worlds of work and personal life, at least for some time.”
About this author (Devin Weakland)
Devin Weakland is a Marketing Generalist for Mondo.