Measuring IT stress a poser

Union leaders looking to curb stress in the IT workplace see obstacles in defining how new rules can be enforced because of the nature of the industry.

Union leaders looking to curb stress in the IT workplace see obstacles in defining how new rules can be enforced because of the nature of the industry.

The Ministry of Labour is reviewing occupational safety and health legislation, saying staff in many industries are working dangerously long hours.

Mike Ward, national health and safety officer of the Engineering Printing and Manufacturing Union (EPMU) which covers some IT workers, says existing OSH rules are poor and realistic tools are needed to measure worker output. Consequently, he wonders how rules would be enforced. Would it be hours worked, keystrokes made, workloads, or what, he asks.

Ward says groundbreaking work on OSH issues is being done in the European Union, which is “pushing the boundaries as to what is acceptable” (see www.unison.org.uk).

In the meantime, New Zealand managers are making unrealistic demands on staff, working to tight budgets and deadlines to get systems installed, he says. Improved IT systems also means more pressure on all staff to perform.

“People are putting in big hours to get things done. I have friends who work through the night. Management agree to contracts and don’t let staff have time at home. There are worse problems for entry-level [IT] staff. They seem to have to do things out of hours and at strange times when the workforce isn’t there,” Ward says.

Finsec banking union acting general secretary Andrew Casidy says staff cutbacks in the call centre and finance sectors has created such intensity of work, stress is now the number one issue.

Banks and call centres set arbitrary targets, such as products sold and calls taken, and since workers have little control over this, it fuels the pressure, he says.

Some employers are looking at the matter and the Bank of New Zealand is bringing in fixed hours, rather than shifts.

“[However] companies need to remedy underlying causes not just the symptoms,” he says, by looking at how output is measured, etc. Firms should also implement

‘family-friendly’ policies such as four weeks annual leave and flexitime.

However, ITANZ executive director Jim O’Neill says IT is a “24/7/365” business and stress “goes with the territory”, which is why it is well paid.

“IT people are expected to do things the customer needs. There is going to be stress,” he says.

Firms recognise this. Realising staff are their competitive advantage, they, especially the large overseas-owned corporates, try to look after them.

New Zealand companies like Aoraki/Jade also have facilities for staff “others dream of” to help curb stress, he says.

Auckland Regional Council IT head Tony Darby says IT managers often create their own stress by constantly pushing themselves, giving themselves multiple projects to deliver.

ARC’s desktop support staff also faced a “reasonable amount of stress” but it was “a fact of life” and you “live with it”.

Ray Delany, CIO of Waitemata Health, says he “hardly ever” suffers stress because he loves his job and does not take himself that seriously.

Delany guesses he sometimes causes some of his staff stress but they seem to manage it well. His organisation used to have a sign saying “Go Home at 5”, to “make people put in a full day, without burning themlves out in the long run”.

Paul Osborne, general manager of Auckland software developer RPK New Zealand, says long hours and stress are bad for productivity, which is why he and other IT firms restrict overtime.

“It is better to work 40 productive hours than 60 unproductive hours,” he says.

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