Media Release
 
August 29, 2007

Stressed IT workers use various coping mechanisms to deal with relentless demands of updating their technical skills

London, Ontario - The expectation on today's information technology professionals to remain technically competent constitutes a significant source of stress.

A new study from the Richard Ivey School of Business shows that stressed IT professionals who use a balance of problem-focused coping strategies and emotion-focused coping strategies are most successful in dealing with the stress of staying perpetually up-to-date.

Feeling stressed and harried is a normal state of affairs for many people in their workplaces. But the reality for information technology professionals is even more intense as their skills are continually depleted as opposed to accumulating over time.

A recent study by Hsing-Yi Tsai, Deborah Compeau and Nicole Haggerty reveals that IT professionals often think in terms of "running races to keep up" or being in a "constant battle to learn new IT skills."

Not all IT professionals view this requirement to continually re-skill themselves as a threat, but many do. With companies spending 1.5% to 7% of their gross revenue each year on IT investments and innovations; this level of investment puts substantial pressure on IT professionals to maintain and gain skills to put these technologies in place effectively.

The study highlights the importance of monitoring the stress that results from the constant demand on IT professionals to update their technical skills because the threat of technical obsolescence may result in a higher rate of absenteeism, work burnout and a desire to change careers. Managers can help by providing IT professionals with concrete resources such as research time, opportunities to attend courses, and physical facilities that facilitate trial and error.

IT professionals who deploy different combinations of coping strategies end up with different levels of distress. They fared best by using a combination of problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping.

Problem-focused coping strategies:

  • Direct Action: thinking about solutions to the problem, gathering information about it, or actually doing something to try to solve it.
  • Seeking Social Support: exerting conscious effort to find (1) advice, assistance, or information

Emotion-focused Coping Strategies:

  • Seeking Social Support: exerting conscious effort to find (2) sympathy or moral support.
  • Situation Redefinition: trying to see the problem in a different light that makes it seem more bearable.
  • Acceptance: accepting that the problem had occurred but that nothing could be done about it.
  • Relaxation: doing something with the implicit intention of relaxing.
  • Distraction: diverting attention away from the problem by thinking about other things or engaging in some activity.

Heavy reliance on emotion-focused coping strategies suggests an assessment of low changeability of the situation. In other words, people are more likely to use these strategies when they believe that nothing constructive can be done about the stressor and that the problem is something that they must endure.

Companies may also provide support to IT professionals through positive framing of technical skill updating - by framing skills updating in a positive way such as "theme park," while avoiding negative sounding words such as "boot camp."

Companies may also wish to consider optimism as a critical personality trait when recruiting for IT roles that demand intensive and constant technical skill updating because optimists remain more hopeful.

For further information, please contact Deborah Compeau at 519-661-4280, dcompeau@ivey.uwo.ca ; Nicole Haggerty at 519-661-4025, nhaggerty@ivey.uwo.ca  or Hsing-Yi (Phoebe) Tsai at ptsai@ivey.uwo.ca.

Excerpts from "Of Races to Run and Battles to be Won: Technical Skill Updating, Stress and Coping of IT Professionals"

Simply possessing information technology is an insufficient condition for achieving the tangible outcomes in which shareholders are interested, such as improving the bottom line. An organization may be committed to deploying the latest IT but will harvest little from its investment if the potential of the technology is not fully understood and realized. IT professionals play a crucial role in achieving these advantages because they develop and exploit information technology to extract value by delivering the right technological solution to business problems.

The (in)ability to learn and adapt to changes quickly is thus critical for the career of an IT professional. The demand to constantly update their technical skills seems to be taking its toll on the IT workforce; turnover rates for IT workers in the US rose to 10.2% in 2001 from 8% in 2000. One major factor contributing to the turnover of IT professionals is the work exhaustion triggered by constant changes in technology.

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