The best IT managers alleviate work-related stress

If your organisation's talented IT staff can't handle the heat, you may need to hire better IT managers. Here's why.

Read time 4min 40sec
Rennie Naidoo.
Rennie Naidoo.

A study, published in Lancet Psychiatry, found that mental health disorders are costing the global economy nearly US$1 trillion annually.

According to the World Health Organisation, governments spend a meagre 3% of their health budgets on mental health, varying from less than 1% in low-income countries, to 5% in high-income ones.

In IT, stress, exhaustion and burnout offer useful explanations for why many talented IT professionals quit. Studies estimate the replacement cost of an IT professional varies between 90% and 700% of their annual salary.

Work-related stress in IT reduces job satisfaction and job performance, and increases quit rates and human capital costs.

IT staff work under greater conditions of technostress, which aggravates work-related stress. According to scholars, technostress is the stress IT workers feel due to the centrality of the technology facet of their work.

Types of technostress includes techno-overload, which refers to multi-tasking with different technologies, techno-invasion refers to feeling confined to a workspace that is dominated by technologies, technocomplexity means having to learn and work with more complex technologies, techno-insecurity refers to job insecurity in the face of new technologies, and techno-uncertainty refers to feeling unsettled by continual technological changes.

Technostress creates added work-related stress by increasing role overload, role conflict and role ambiguity. Work-related stress can lead to strain on the emotional and physical health of IT staff, leading to work exhaustion, depersonalisation, job dissatisfaction, career switching and consequently a decline in productivity.

The withdrawal behaviours of stressed IT staff are also costly in terms of tardiness, rework, workdays lost, lateness, increased absenteeism, retirement and healthcare costs.

Toxic IT managers are often the direct cause of stress felt by IT staff and often exacerbate the negative effects of stress.

Stressed IT staff are more likely to show withdrawal behaviours such as cynicism, lack of organisational commitment, intention to leave, turnover and job-hopping. Staff who quit also add to hiring and training costs and social capital losses.

Toxic IT managers are often the direct cause of stress felt by IT staff and often exacerbate the negative effects of stress on the key organisational outcomes mentioned above.

Manager support reduces the negative effect of work-related stress on job satisfaction and job performance, and improves IT talent retention.

Our research on IT talent retention has begun to consider the effects of relational factors, such as manager support. Support is the degree to which staff perceive their managers care about their well-being. Our survey of more than 150 local IT professionals shows that manager support can mitigate the risk of work-related stress, increase job performance, increase job satisfaction and improve talent retention.

Employees who receive greater support from their managers have greater emotional and psychological resources for coping with work-related stress. Strong support by an IT manager plays a crucial role in reducing the negative effects of today's demanding working conditions.

In fact, many IT staff value the support they receive from their managers more than the support they receive from their organisation and even their co-workers.

What should next-generation IT managers do?

Next-generation IT managers should inspire staff with a greater sense of meaning about their work, provide better direction and support in times of uncertainty, and empower staff so that they experience greater control over their jobs. These managers will be crucial in retaining scarce IT talent working under stressful conditions.

* Inspire staff with a greater sense of meaning about their work:

Work is a crucial aspect of an IT professional's life. It fulfils more than just financial needs but their self-esteem, status and identity needs. For some IT professionals, work is more important than family, leisure, community and religion. Other IT professionals view work as second to only family or leisure aspects.

However, IT professionals can shift their values about work depending on their perceptions of their manager and organisation. Thus, inspiring IT staff with a greater sense of meaning about their work in times of uncertainty should be a key goal of the IT manager.

* Provide direction and support in times of uncertainty:

Despite innovative job designs in IT based on concepts such as self-management, agility and autonomous work teams, our study provides evidence that the IT manager is still required to provide direction and support during stressful work conditions.

* Empowers staff by providing a greater sense of self-control:

While the technical and analytical skills of IT managers are already necessary requirements of the job, the best IT managers should also have the requisite level of interpersonal skills to encourage their staff to work effectively despite conditions of high levels of stress.

Emotionally intelligent IT managers are more adept at managing their personal emotions as well as encouraging staff to draw from their personal psychological resources.

For example, empowering staff by encouraging greater participation in decision-making during stressful conditions will contribute to improving the overall performance of IT.

To achieve excellent performance in IT, it is crucial that next-generation IT managers develop their interpersonal competencies and understand how to design more empowering work environments that provide effective support for their talented staff.

Rennie Naidoo
Associate professor, School of IT, Department of Informatics, University of Pretoria.

Rennie Naidoo is an associate professor at the School of IT, Department of Informatics, University of Pretoria. He has served a number of clients on several IT projects in both the public and private sectors over a 20-year period. Naidoo is also a NRF-rated researcher. His research interests are broadly about information systems and organisations, with a particular focus on IT value, IT human resources development and end-user issues. He has published articles in leading international outlets such as the Journal of Strategic Information Systems and the Information Society Journal. He lectures topics on IT value and enterprise systems to postgraduates at the university. He is passionate about collaborative research with industry - that is, using applied and basic research techniques developed in academia to solve problems related to information technology in organisations.

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