IT burnout: 5 warning signs

IT leaders and experts share the subtle and not-so-subtle signs of burnout - and how to get yourself and your team members to a healthier place
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For many people, January is the time to come back to work after the holidays refreshed, recharged, and ready to tackle the challenges ahead. But for the majority of tech professionals, a brief respite often means coming back more stressed than they were when they left. Those pressing deadlines, never-ending to-do lists, and feelings of burnout are all still there, right where you left them.

Burnout and stress – due to heavy workloads, long hours, and lack of resources – affect 64 percent of tech professionals, according to ISACA’s Tech Workforce 2020 report.

“The IT burnout problem is real, and the first thing we need to do in order to address it is to accept it as a fact and work to better understand it,” says Chris Dimitriadis, ISACA past board chair and group chief services and delivery officer for Intralot.

In the digital transformation era, tech professionals are under constant pressure for new technologies and faster implementations – a perfect recipe for burnout, says Dimitriadis. “Technology is the key enabler of business, with the proliferation of new technologies presenting more and more opportunities to achieve competitive advantages and cost optimizations.” At the same time, he says, time to market is a key differentiator when it comes to achieving business goals.

[ Want advice from top CIOs on solving talent challenges? Get the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report: IT talent strategy: New tactics for a new era. ]

Leaders: If you are lucky enough to count yourself in the refreshed and recharged category, make it a resolution this year to tune into the subtle and not-so-subtle signs of burnout listed below – before they cause you to lose a great employee or derail your plans. If you are burned out yourself, consider the accompanying tips, which can help you and your team get to a happier, healthier work-life blend in 2020 and beyond.

5 signs of IT burnout – and what leaders can do to help

Warning sign: Uncharacteristic behavior

“Burnout happens when employees seem to no longer care,” says Sandy Michelet, director of human resources for Sparkhound. “They stop engaging, happiness begins to decline, and apathy rises. Sometimes they even start to complain about physical ailments and exhaustion. Other examples such as shutting down or tensing up could be signs of burnout. Uncharacteristic behavior is the main burnout indicator. Changes such as missing deadlines, appearing tense, or communicating in a more curt tone of voice could be signs of burnout.”

Solution: Lead with empathy

“Be mindful, compassionate, and empathetic in your approach to the situation. Empathy is almost always the best way to break through defense mechanisms. It’s important to note that everybody is different and people have varying thresholds. Try to meet them in a place where you two can relate. Maybe their situation has happened to you before, and talking about how you dealt with it can help,” says Michelet.

Warning sign: Low morale

“Lack of morale is a massive contributor to burnout. If your team is feeling underappreciated or undervalued, if they’re expressing frustration that nothing they do seems to be enough, or that their accomplishments aren’t recognized, they could be on the road to burning out,” says Mark Hill, CIO of Jefferson Frank.

Solution: Recognize great work on your team

“If you want to keep your team healthy and happy, you must shout about their achievements and contributions,” says Hill. “Everyone wants to know that their efforts are valued and that their work has had an impact. Ideally, there should be cross-departmental recognition programs in place so that the whole business recognizes that great work by IT. Exposing staff outside of your department to the work you’re doing and giving non-IT employees a way to show their gratitude goes a long way to reducing the IT vs. end-user barrier that can build up and push employees towards burnout. Even the smallest of gestures or rewards can make sure your department feels appreciated; even when times are tough and stress is high, this can be the difference between a busy but happy team and a burned-out one.”

[ Questioning whether you have IT burnout? Read one IT pro’s account of his symptoms – and solutions: See IT burnout: A personal story. ]

Warning sign: Complaints around processes

“I watch out for when a team or an individual’s stress begins to bias towards frustration about processes rather than the primary responsibilities of the role,” says Ben Cronin, COO and co-founder of LightStep. “Something is wrong at that point. If the frustration is coming from a capable individual, complaints about process often are a sign they are not being equipped with what they need to do the job being asked of them. Perhaps there’s a gap in information sharing, a lack of clarity or misaligned goals for the team, a lack of prioritization on incoming requests, or something else that quite simply makes the job harder than it needs to be. What could be challenging work, in the positive sense, can then quickly become overwhelming work.”

Solution: Slow down and find the core problem

“Push potential solutions to the side until you solidly understand the underlying problem. An overwhelmed team member will be desperate to get back in control of their workload, which can lead to hasty attempts to fix the symptoms instead of the root issue. As their leader, help them step back. Gather data, talk to different people, and listen. If you solve for a symptom, you’re likely shifting the bottleneck elsewhere, possibly on to another team or individual. If you can find the core problem and make the workload manageable again, there’s a greater chance you can find a way of increasing your organization’s overall efficiency,” says Cronin.

In these situations, he adds, it’s easy for leaders to accidentally jump into micromanagement territory. Doing so could have the opposite effect on team morale.

“Despite best intentions, if you try to solve the problem for your report by telling them what to do, it could come across as a lack of trust in their assessment of the situation or their ability to do the job. For me, there are two discrete options: Empower them to solve the problem themselves, or explicitly take ownership of the issue to get their stress levels down.” 

Warning signs: Low performance, turf wars, and boredom

“Working professionals strive to unlock the right formula to learn and grow, take on responsibility, and feel challenged, but not to the point of being overcommitted. The latter leads to burnout,” says Renee Orser, vice president of engineering at NS1. “Burnout stems not only from the prolonged strain of always being ‘on’ at work, but also from not having proper limits or balance in tasks and the right mix of responsibilities. Some signs of burnout are low performance by someone who used to be a high achiever; repeated asks for help with projects; individuals not taking ownership of responsibilities; turf wars; or boredom around particular tasks.”

Solution: Make time for creative work

“When people are constantly racing to a finish line, jobs can become less imaginative and more rote, bringing a greater risk of fatigue. One solution to preventing people from hitting a wall while under pressure is to designate periods of time for creative exploration, such as to solve problems and work on side projects outside of usual assignments,” says Orser.

“Twice a year, we bring our engineers together for a half-day to solve problems that stem from anecdotes directly related to customer experiences,” she continues. “Teams work on projects typically outside of their purview, which brings diversity to their daily experiences. At the same time, they feel rewarded by solving customer issues. Learning to think differently about a particular scope of work allows teams to find solutions not anticipated previously and allows engineers to expand their own critical thinking and innovation skills.”

If boredom or frustrations in their current role persist, perhaps it’s time to sit down with the employee and discuss changes to their role, Orser suggests. “As teams form and grow organically over time with changing complexities in their tasks, a company can end up with inconsistencies and imbalances across the team. This presents an opportunity to reassess and realign talents and responsibilities,” she says.

“If that means new roles open on a team, a manager can modify the way the group is operating, allowing higher performers to take on new responsibility and try leadership roles. They can then backfill the roles people have outgrown, or add in skills and specializations from new hires to fill identified gaps. The key is to amplify new talent and capabilities, rather than retain talent in existing roles.” 

Warning signs: Apathy and cynicism

“IT pros are expected to crank out strings of code at a breakneck pace, all while juggling multiple projects. As a result, lots of professionals in IT, including me, have suffered from some burnout,” says Kacper Brzozowski, CTO at ResumeLab. “My first signs of burnout [appeared] on the horizon when I started to feel apathy toward my work. Specifically, I caught myself feeling depersonalization and cynicism for my day-to-day duties as a CTO. After some quick research online, I understood that burnout was upon me.”

Solution: Encourage and support time off

Brzozowski coped with his symptoms of burnout by going off the grid, which is something leaders can encourage their teams to do.

“If you’re having a hard time outputting robust strings of code, the best thing you can do is unplug for a while,” says Brzozowski. “It doesn’t mean you have to go to the Bahamas for two weeks. All you have to do is cap the usage of your smartphone and/or laptop after hours. For example, you can delete your Gmail and Slack apps so you aren’t tempted to check your devices for emails or Slack updates when you get home. Another option is to have a couple of long weekends – taking Friday or Monday off – to torpedo your stress levels.”

Michał Abram, head of IT at Zety, believes in the power of rest and supports his team in taking time off. “Your brain needs to rest to function normally, process changes, and start again with a bang,” says Abram. “Take a few days off and indulge in something you love. Work burnout is a common phenomenon, and every good manager should be able to understand the issue. Just be honest and come talk.”

If time off is not possible – or would only contribute more stress for the person suffering – Abram offers his staff both online and in-person counseling services to get to the bottom of the problem and implement small changes right away.

[ How strong is your EQ? See our related article: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ] 

Carla Rudder is a community manager and program manager for The Enterprisers Project. She enjoys bringing new authors into the community and helping them craft articles that showcase their voice and deliver novel, actionable insights for readers.