Are You at Risk of Burnout?

IT pros are spending more time working remotely. These tips can help them keep calm and carry on during times of change.

By Stephanie Vozza

By Stephanie Vozza October 29, 2020

Feeling frazzled? You’re not alone. A recent survey by the professional networking platform Blind and the audio journaling app Journify found that 73 percent of tech workers acknowledge feeling burnout during the coronavirus pandemic. The biggest reasons for their IT burnout? Unmanageable workloads, insufficient rewards and lack of control.

A separate survey by IT support provider Electric found that 71 percent of IT employees are working longer hours and that 62 percent of them are fielding more support tickets, with the most common requests being hardware or software alerts, virtual workstation maintenance, and security or policy management.

“Other than people who are frontline medical workers, IT has been the hardest hit when it comes to job stress and burnout,” said Andrew Shatté, co-founder and chief knowledge officer at meQuilibrium, a science-based resilience training provider.

“We saw many experiencing sleep disorders and a drop in their motivation. The best we can surmise is that a lot were put under pressure when companies moved to remote work. Some IT workers were expected to continue to show up since they were considered essential. That could put an additional strain on them, worrying about their health and safety and the health and safety of the people they love.”

As it turns out, burnout is as real as it is stressful: In 2019, the World Health Organization named burnout as an official medical diagnosis and attributed the occupational phenomenon to chronic workplace stress. Unfortunately, like the other big illness that has raged during 2020, COVID-19, there’s no medical cure for burnout. Instead, it’s up to employees and managers to watch for it and address it when it occurs.

Burnout Symptoms and Signs

Burnout symptoms can be difficult to recognize in yourself, according to Shatté. However, some of the signs include stomach, headaches and back pain, which are associated with burnout and anxiety. Another indication is sleeplessness.

“Anxiety causes a downturn in the quality of our sleep,” he said. “But sleep is essential if you’re going to avoid burnout.”

Feeling chronically dissatisfied with work or personal life, or if emotions arise in ways they weren’t before are all signs of being at risk of burnout, according to Shatté.

“You may be experiencing anger, frustration or sadness,” he said. “We’re also seeing a lot of spiking of shame with thoughts that we’re not meeting our own standards in the world. For example, ‘I’m not doing anything well.’ Or, ‘I’m not a good parent, partner or employee.’ These are signs.”

Because burnout symptoms are difficult to recognize, it can help to keep a journal, suggests Dr. Ted Sun, organizational psychologist and president of Transcontinental University, a nonprofit organization that offers MBA and Ph.D. business programs.

“The human brain is brilliant at making up reasons to justify one’s decisions, even when they are poor decisions,” Sun said. “Using a journal to note down certain thoughts and behaviors, and then reading it to assess a major change, is one self-diagnostic tool.”

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Managers and colleagues may notice an employee’s burnout potential before they do. For that reason, Shatté suggests keeping an eye on your co-workers. In particular, he advises, look for employees who don’t want to join Zoom meetings or who keep their web camera off.

“Look for people who normally aren’t emotional but who seem to be starting to flame out,” he said. “Anxiety and frustration are understandable, and these emotions are normal. But if the person isn’t taking care of themselves, or they’re coming late to a meeting, or they’re procrastinating with their work, they may feel isolated. Disengaging from work is a sure sign of burnout.”

Extinguishing Burnout

Self-care is the first step toward addressing work burnout. “Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, are eating well and are exercising,” Shatté said.

Although healthy habits are always good, they don’t address the root issues, according to Sun, who believes companies must therefore take responsibility, too.

“Leaders should help people develop positive responses to stress in the workplace and focus on empowerment as a mindset,” said Sun, who suggests providing courses on empowerment to employees as well as changing procedures to give them more control over their environment.

“Development of emotional intelligence will be key to positive coping mechanisms. This is a longer-term solution, but very necessary—especially for managers, who need to know how to help their team express emotions and create emotional states within a team.”

Companies and employees should be particularly mindful of IT burnout. The Electric survey, for instance, found that 72 percent of IT professionals have taken on new responsibilities since the start of the pandemic; that means more work hours, new stress and, ultimately, burnout. An effective way to address this is to identify tools or services that could be automated or streamlined in order to alleviate employee workloads, offers Electric CEO Ryan Denehy.

“Businesses should consider first which tasks are actually ‘value-add’ for your in-house team to carry out that might require intrinsic organizational knowledge to complete,” he said. “From there, consider outsourcing the tasks that are highly repeatable or might require less internal strategy.”

There is no silver bullet. Optimizing for employee well-being, however, can have a positive impact on stress and productivity. By watching for signs and revamping business processes, managers and workers alike can address tech industry burnout before it impacts them.

Stephanie Vozza is a contributing writer who specializes in business and productivity. She is a columnist for FastCompany.com, and her byline has appeared in Inc., Entrepreneur and Success magazines. Find her on Twitter @StephanieVozza.

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