'I Couldn't Switch Off': How An IT Leader Moved From Burnout To Balance

The modern world depends on IT – heaping stress on the professionals in the sector until they snap.

Tom Allen
clock • 4 min read
'I Couldn't Switch Off': How An IT Leader Moved From Burnout To Balance

It's more than 20 years since Walter S. Humphrey famously wrote, "Every business is a software business." The terminology's changed a bit since then - these days we'd say "technology" - but the message is the same.

Tech underpins every company today, even more than it did in 2001. It keeps infrastructure running, data secure and the business expanding.

That puts massive pressure on IT teams, who are suffering from stress and burnout at alarming rates.

"There's so much dependency on IT working," says Jeremy Cooper, head of IT at Apollo Therapeutics. "Yes, IT is a partner, it's an enabler for the business, but actually, we're also a service organisation. And if we don't work one day, nothing works anymore. It pushes people to the edge."

Jeremy is open about his own experiences with burnout and anxiety as a leader, which "went on for years."

He says, "A lot of my anxiety came from the fact that I couldn't work out how to switch off, and I also couldn't work out how to slow down."

That's common across the industry, thanks to the massive demands and time pressures placed on IT staff, combined with "the personality traits that the industry brings in."

Those traits include perfectionism and problem solving, which "makes everyone really good at troubleshooting," but also means professionals can feel "nothing's ever quite right."

"IT is also a lot of people pleasers, right? It's a service organization. We like to fix things, we like to make people happy. We'll generally keep just saying ‘yes.'

"When do you fit that in? In the evening, probably, when you go to the kids' football match, and someone's still sat on their phone replying to messages and things."

The Messy Middle

The causes change with promotion, but stress is present at every rung of the IT ladder – and, Jeremy believes, it peaks in the "messy middle."

As a new starter, you face challenges you've never seen before – but you also have support from mentors and coaches. As a senior, you have a peer group you can bounce ideas off. But as a middle manager, you have demands coming from above and below, and while there's an expectation you should be good at your job, "often you're not given the tools to really support you and drive you forward."

This can be why a lot of new managers resort to micromanagement: because they know how to do the operational side of the job and that's how they show competency.

"It's not because they need control, it's because they're out of control, and they don't know what their measure [of success] is anymore."

This is also the first time many people face vague, organization-wide goals like ‘support the commercial team to a revenue target.'

"How am I going to do that?" Jeremy asks. "Okay, I'll keep their email up, but I can't go to a hospital and chase a doctor down the corridor."

Dealing With Burnout

Dealing with stress and anxiety isn't a quick process, but there are some quick wins to be had. You can organize your to-do list using the Eisenhower Matrix, delegate tasks and -Jeremy's favorite – get better sleep.

"People sit up until 11 o'clock at night staring at their phone...they wake up in the morning, they check their emails first thing, and then they're in that bad mood.

"[If you sleep well] you're less reactive at work, you're less stressed at work, you're more collaborative, you're more open minded. I bet you'll delegate more work if you're in a good mood, rather than just shutting yourself off in a cupboard and doing it."

In the longer term, taking up hobbies outside of work, or restarting those you dropped because you were too busy, is key.

"Just find something to do outside of work that you love to do, whether it's fitness, playing a guitar or taking up welding... 

"I'm a strong believer in health and fitness... Something that gets your heart rate up, for the right reasons, sets you up well for the day.

"The days that I don't exercise, or the days that I eat really badly, I'm lethargic and grumpy, and I know that I'm not my best form."

Finally, you need to talk to people. Whether it's a therapist, friends, family or colleagues, sharing the emotional load can be a big help.

"I ended up going and talking to the GP and got referred to the mental health unit for CBT therapy. But a lot of it was around just talking through what was always on my mind, what was the pressure, because I think a lot of my anxiety came from the fact that I couldn't work out how to switch off, and I also couldn't work out how to slow down... 

"It started with the NHS, and that made me feel comfortable enough to tell a few friends, and then tell a few people at work, and it's just starting that conversation. There's a lot of help out there for you if you need it, and I think that's important for people to realize when you start the ball rolling. It's bloody scary to get it rolling, but it's the only way."

This article originally appeared on our sister site, Computing

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