The warning light is flashing brightly and rapidly. A team member who has always completed tasks flawlessly and on time is now consistently falling behind on work. Even more troubling is the fact that the staffer appears to be oblivious to the problem.
While there are many reasons why a once reliable employee may suddenly begin working less effectively — such as illness or personal issues — the cause is often more straightforward and usually easier to resolve: a crushing workload.
Staff burnout is a problem that can afflict workforces of all types and sizes. A 2017 survey conducted by workplace tools and services provider Kronos revealed that 46 percent of HR leaders believe that employee burnout is responsible for up to half their annual workforce turnover. IT is no exception. "If IT continues to work in an overwhelmed state, it's inevitable that [staffers] will burn out and eventually quit," warns Adrian Moir, senior consultant and lead technology evangelist at Quest Software, an IT management software provider. "When IT has a proper work-life balance, [staffers] are more likely to stay with a company and produce higher quality work."
With IT leaders facing a burnout plight that has every chance of becoming an epidemic, it's important to nip the challenge of overwhelming workloads in the bud. Here are seven expert tips to help you understand the problem and help affected staff members get back on track.
1. Understand the problem
Many IT leaders fail to understand why employee burnout occurs, or the destructive impact it can have on their organization. Complicating the situation is that many managers confuse staff silence with satisfaction. While some employees will speak up when they feel overwhelmed with work responsibilities, many will withhold their feelings, fearful of being viewed as weak, lazy or indifferent to their team's mission.
"Some employees even try to cope by stretching beyond their skillset and capabilities when they should be asking for help instead," observes Kevin Hansel, CIO of identity management technologies provider SailPoint Technologies. "Managers have to be aware of all of this and ensure that they're in tune with their employees so they can help identify these issues quickly before they become too significant to overcome."
Adding to the problem is the fact that many IT leaders feel pressured by their business colleagues to squeeze maximum returns out of limited budgets. Given the huge number of products they're asked to maintain, a growing number of IT staffers are now struggling to keep pace with demands, notes Marc Sollars, CTO of systems integrator Teneo. "More and more, IT staffers are expected to be generalists, but often aren't given the right skills to be able to successfully do their jobs," he adds.
The results of tighter budgets and heavier workloads are predictable. "If an overwhelmed IT staffer continues to work without help, they could potentially become disruptive to their colleagues, team and/or environment," observes Phil Lloyd, principal consultant of business transformation at Sparkhound, a digital advisory services firm. "They may even develop health problems that cause them to take time off, creating a significant impact to the delivery of their work." Finally, reaching the end of the rope, many overloaded staffers choose to take a fast exit: They toss in the towel and quit.
2. Detect the warning signs
Because many staffers struggle under burdensome workloads in silence, it's up to IT managers to recognize burnout warning signs long before the situation reaches a crisis level. Perhaps the most common burnout indicator is a sudden dip in productivity. "This can be caused by a major tech problem that's hard to solve, which can be a common occurrence especially when working with new and emerging technologies," explains Sharon Mandell, CIO of executive advisory firm TIBCO.
An abrupt negative change in staff behavior can also be a clue that all is not well. "You'll start to see previously engaged co-workers withdraw from conversations to avoid taking on new tasks," says John Chancellor, senior technical architect at AHEAD, a digital transformation advisory firm. "Deadlines will start to slip significantly, and body language will change from relaxed to tense around the office."
3. Examine the root causes
When addressed early enough, most burnout issues can be resolved quickly and effectively. Hansel notes that common methods of assisting overwhelmed employees include shrinking workloads to a sustainable level, reprioritizing projects, reducing task complexity, assigning a mentor to help and investing in efficiency-enhancing tools. "Managers should also strive to maintain an environment where authentic two-way conversations can take place and employees can feel comfortable communicating their concerns freely," he advised.
Training can prepare staffers to meet the challenges presented by new technologies. It's never a good idea to simply pile tools and technologies onto teams without providing sufficient training, Sollars says. "This is a struggle for many organizations, because they want to implement the most cutting-edge products," he notes. "In reality, it can take several months for their teams to be able to develop the skills to properly use them, depending on the complexity."
4. Implement preventative measures
The best way to counter staff burnout is by creating an environment that frees teams from mindless, time-wasting chores. "IT pros are often so bogged down by routine tasks that they don't have time to work on value-added projects that move the needle for the organization," observes Jeff Atkinson, CIO of INAP, a data center and cloud services provider. "Burnout becomes a real risk when workers begin feeling their energies are being allocated to the wrong types of activities or not producing anything meaningful."
In INAP's 2018 The State of IT Infrastructure Management survey, 58 percent of IT professionals agreed with the statement, "I am frustrated by the amount of my time taken up by routine tasks and busy work." An even larger number, 77 percent, supported the claim, "I could bring more value to my organization if I spent less time on routine tasks like server monitoring and maintenance."
Investing in automation can help staffers focus on the critical tasks that make the best use of their abilities. "It's not a matter of automating everything and having IT left thinking, 'What should I do today?', but instead enabling them to empower the business and be proactive," Moir explains.
Burnout risk can also be reduced by keeping team members steadily informed about their project's progress and goals. "Ensure that your employees can see the forest for the trees, understand their role in the big picture, and where both the routine and non-routine activities make a difference," Atkinson suggests.
5. Be helpful, not confrontational
When engaging a burned-out staffer, it's important to remain positive and assistive not angry and threatening. "You should never begin the conversation negatively, or attack the individual," Lloyd cautions. "This could potentially place the IT staff member on the defensive, creating additional stress."
Lloyd suggests that a quick problem-solving session can get the team member back on track. "Speak with the IT staff member about what they are working on and how they are feeling," he says. "Work with them to identify the best way they can be helped and why they think the proposed solutions would be most helpful."
Still, while compassion and empathy are useful tools, it's also important not to downplay the seriousness of the situation. Telling the overwhelmed worker that things will soon get better, or that hard work is just a part of the job, is the wrong approach. "The problems are usually much more complex, and simplistic responses like these will only convince the employee that you aren't offering a realistic solution," Hansel says. "A manager's job is to help identify why the employee is feeling overwhelmed and to come up with strategies that help them overcome those issues and be successful."
6. Work collectively
When burnout strikes multiple staffers, it's advisable to invite all of the affected team members, or even the entire team, to collaborate on finding a resolution. "Make them a part of the solution," Moir suggests. "If they all contribute to the way forward, they will all have a sense of relief and accomplishment knowing that they're working to make things better."
Overworked team members fully understand the issues that are driving them over the edge. "Use their knowledge and get their input to help solve the problem," Moir advises. "Making time for team meetings and one on ones are great for driving discussions around areas of stress and finding ways for everyone to work together to relieve pressure."
7. Stay aware
Ignoring burnout is never a good idea. "It won't go away, and misused or overwhelmed talent will inevitably churn," Atkinson says. "Be in tune with your teams and ensure all staff members have a channel for fairly voicing their opinions about roles, procedures and operations."
More often than not, burnout is a sign of management failure. "It's on us, as leaders, to recognize these things and create release valves," Mandell says. Stressed out staffers often view asking for help as a sign of weakness. "It's up to us to let them know it's actually a sign of strength and self-awareness."