Many IT workers face dangerous stress: CIO

'Take it easy' is the motto of a US CIO who studied the effects of stress on programmers for his PhD. Patrick Thibodeau reports

When it comes to testing an IT system, William Cross, CIO of Seminole Electric Cooperative Florida, uses an approach that his staff describes as “brutal”. But it’s a system Cross hopes will avoid sleep-disturbing middle-of-the-night production failures — part of a larger effort to keep his staff from getting stressed out.

“I work very hard to make sure that my staff doesn’t work overtime,” says Cross. “We go to great lengths to help keep people from being called on nights and weekends.”

The reason: people who work in the middle of the night are more prone to mistakes, he says.

Cross has a PhD in information

sciences, and he did his doctoral thesis on how stress affects programming. He found that the more stress a programmer deals with, the lower the quality of the code they produce.

Cross says his interest in stress and IT began in the 1970s, and he has pursued it ever since. In addition to running IT operations for his large utility company, he holds sessions at the regular Share IBM user conference about reducing stress and explains why high levels of stress are prevalent among IT workers. He tells them in frank terms that the stress is a danger to them.

According to Cross, IT workers have high divorce rates and personality types that can be cauldrons for stress. They tend to avoid people but have a need for recognition and praise, a “very seriously flawed combination”, he says. IT workers often work long hours and deal with systems that can cause frustration.

“Stress is a big deal with us,” says Cross, who warns that IT workers face health problems if they don’t address it.

Many in the audience at his presentation at the most recent Share conference nodded their heads as he listed some of the problems IT workers face. But he also detailed steps they can take to reduce stress, such as practicing breathing exercises, setting priorities, avoiding negative people and office gossip, and ensuring that they strike the right balance between job and life. “Your job is not you,” he told the audience.

Cross says he also practices what he preaches to his own staff, and often reiterates “the importance of getting away from the job”. For those workers who are “job addictive” and put in too many hours at the office, Cross says he will tell them to take time off.

It’s an approach that works, he says. “We have an awful lot of people who have been [at Seminole Electric Cooperative] for a while because they want to be, and that retention kind of speaks for itself,” he says.

One Share attendee, IT consultant Jamie Giovanetto, says Cross’s presentation rang true.

“If this convention centre was open all night, that PC workroom they have for the volunteers ... there would be people in there all night,” he noted at the conference.

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