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5 Ideas to Soothe IT Staff Burnout

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on the mental health of students, faculty and staff alike. But IT in particular has borne the brunt of keeping institutions' technology infrastructure afloat through relentless change, often in the face of budget cuts and staffing shortages. Here are ways to help mitigate stress and better support IT teams during this challenging time.

silhouette of stressed woman sitting at laptop

Throughout the pandemic, IT teams have been heroes at their institutions, stepping up to support remote learning and administrative work while having to work remotely themselves. Yet taking on all this extra work has come at a cost: More IT workers are feeling overwhelmed and stressed out.

In January 2021, Educause conducted a survey of more than 1,500 higher ed IT and technology professionals to gauge the sources and impacts of their stress. Asked which workplace factors were contributing to their stress over the past year, the top answers were "additional responsibilities or increased workload" (43 percent) and "insufficient staffing in key areas of my work" (38 percent). The third factor chosen the most was "uncertainty about the future of my institution and/or career" (30 percent).

The recognition that IT teams receive for helping their institutions has to be balanced with some of the concerning results of the survey, said Mark McCormack, senior director of analytics and research at Educause. "People are exhausted. They're taking on extra work — in many cases without additional resources or staff, or while facing budget cuts. They have stepped up and saved the day; they've done some fantastic things, but we recognize that working under some of these conditions is not sustainable. There's an opportunity for the institutions to step up and invest in these teams, to give them the support and the resources they need."

Faced with an increasingly stressed-out IT workforce, CIOs are trying to find innovative ways to boost morale, maintain work/life balance and enhance communication among teams. We spoke to three IT leaders who offered the following five suggestions, based on their own experiences over the past year and a half.

1) Enhance Communication

Some CIOs say transparency and more frequent communication have been key to keeping their teams together. This is especially true for colleges and universities facing budget cuts. In May 2020, two months after the pandemic hit, Ohio University CIO Chris Ament was forced to lay off eight people out of his 175-person IT staff. "That was a not very friendly reminder of the reality of the situation on top of the extra workload, and on top of people dealing with personal issues around the pandemic," Ament said. "We took an approach I would call radical transparency — being as open about everything as we possibly could, so that people felt like they had information. That was the best tool we had to mitigate the stress as best we could, and I think it was pretty effective."

Orlando Leon, vice president for information technology and CIO for California State University, Fresno, increased the number of check-in meetings with his direct reports and with the whole division of approximately 90 staff members. "During the summer of 2020 we did weekly check-ins of 30 minutes where I would give a brief update, and then I would do an open Q&A," he said. "I continue to host open virtual walk-in hours and I let employees make appointments if they want to just chat about any topic at all. Some people like to do one-on-one sit-downs with the CIO."

Showing authentic empathy also is important, Leon noted. During the protests after George Floyd's murder and incidents of anti-Asian violence, he wrote personal notes to Black and Asian-American employees and encouraged them to share their feelings. Leon's team also had members who lost family members to COVID. "That made the pandemic feel even closer to home," he said. "We sent flowers and reached out personally to offer our condolences and offer help."

Mitch Davis, vice president of information, technology & consulting and CIO at Dartmouth College, started a regular presentation he called "the CIO Show" to update staffers on campus developments and connect them back to the activities of the IT department. He also focused on maintaining in-person connections. "I actually did this thing where anybody who wanted me to have breakfast with them during COVID, I would ride my motorcycle out to wherever they were, and I would buy them breakfast, even if they lived 90 miles away," Davis said. "It makes it feel like you're still connected."

2) Provide a More Flexible Workplace and Schedules

Some campuses are making remote work and flexible schedules a permanent change. Ohio University's Ament is co-sponsoring a campuswide Flexible Workplace Project. He said there are two reasons it makes sense for the CIO to co-lead such an effort: "One, our IT organization had in the year before the pandemic undertaken a pretty intentional and aggressive adoption of flexible work, so we were ahead of the curve in that space," he explained. "It was an effort to promote work/life balance and reduce stress. We were thinking of how we recruit and retain really good people. The other factor was around employee engagement — the satisfaction that keeps people engaged and productive. We want to create a workplace environment where people really want to be. Before and during the pandemic, our experience has been that we get a lot out of people when we give them more in terms of autonomy, trust and authority to act in a flexible way. The workspace is just one of the dimensions of that."

Ohio University is defining the dimensions of when and where employees work very broadly. "The driving principle we have is that so long as it doesn't reduce the service we can provide, or availability or teamwork and collaboration, you can do it," Ament said. "Most of our employees, especially in IT, rate this very high on their list of values in terms of workplace issues. I think most of our IT staff will probably end up working on campus between one and three days a week, depending on their personal preference and their job duties."

3) Attitude Shift: See the Pandemic as an Opportunity

Dartmouth's Davis, who leads an IT department of 155 people, has tried to accentuate the positive and remind his team that the pandemic has allowed them to show off what they can do.

"My first thought was that we have got to find a way to get through this in the best way possible, and then show strength," he said. "As a CIO, I wanted to convey to IT staff that working remotely isn't as big a problem as they might think it is. Most IT people at some point in their lives have worked remotely. Our tagline is that we're not going to just survive COVID, we're going to thrive."

He noted that the IT department has gained credibility, made more connections across the institution and gained influence over the past year and a half.

For some of the COVID-related projects, Davis sought volunteers. "That is how you can engage people. Don't tell people to do things. Ask them." For instance, the college had about 40 students who couldn't find internet service. "We had volunteer IT staff do research and find ISPs to connect them," he said. "We capture those success stories and share them."

Davis admitted that the shift to widespread and ongoing remote work is a leap into the unknown. "I tell my team that it's very important that they give us feedback. If something doesn't work, we need to know immediately because we can change it. And what we're going to do is reassess it again in a year and make some more changes. But in a year's time, we'll have all this understanding under our belts as to what was productive, what was not productive, what worked for people and what didn't."

4) Focus on Employee Time Management

Setting healthy boundaries around meetings gives people the space to get their work done, noted Educause's McCormack. "People are aware that that getting e-mails from your boss late at night or over the weekends — those habits are not conducive to a healthy work/life balance."

Fresno State's Leon said he was concerned about his managers getting meeting fatigue. "Most of my managers, especially since we're short-staffed on the management side, are in meetings five to eight hours a day," he said. "We tried to strategize about how to reduce the time in Zoom meetings. We would occasionally do a normal phone call. We'd try ending meetings early whenever possible. I would bring up the topic regularly first to make it okay to talk about, and then check in and see if there's anything else we can do. I wanted to be sure everyone felt okay to bring up concerns anytime."

Leon also encouraged employees with tips about ergonomics and taking breaks. "We didn't check in on them or micro-manage their time to say you must be at your desk, so that they were actually able to spend time with their kids or take a walk."

Dartmouth IT teams also try to limit their time spent on Zoom, Davis said. "We don't have set time limits for meetings. If we get it done in 15 minutes, we just leave. And that is why Zoom is valuable. If you try to make Zoom work like you used to work in person, with an hour-long meeting here and a half-hour meeting there, then it's actually a detriment, because you're not getting your work done. We do take about five minutes at the beginning of the meeting to socialize, catch up on things, communicate with people and then roll up into the meeting."

By cutting down on the hour-long meetings, Davis said, it gives you time to process what was said. "I think what happens with Zoom fatigue is that people go back to back to back with meetings and the human brain can't process all the information, so it's actually destructive. If you're trying to give people the opportunity to think about the meaning and maybe solve some problems and come up with a different idea, that's gone."

5) Support Career Advancement

Another approach to addressing burnout is to highlight career pathways as much as possible. Ament said Ohio University has created a variety of internal programs run by the IT department to both support leadership development and career advancement.

"If people want help figuring out what their next career move is, they have a path to do that," Ament said. "We've prided ourselves on being able to hire up when we fill positions. We do competitive national searches, but we also take some pride when we have an internal person who is the best candidate. I'd say about half of our more senior-level positions are filled from junior-level positions. We recently had five service desk employees who were promoted into more senior-level positions from our entry-level support jobs."

Another challenge CIOs will face is motivating full-time remote employees who don't even live near campus. Ohio University has hired about 20 people during the pandemic, and about a third of those people do not live within commuting distance. "It's uncharted territory," Ament said. "We have been talking a lot about how we engage people who aren't on campus. How do we make them feel connected to a place they've never been? We're trying to learn about that. Time will tell."

Even prior to the pandemic, Dartmouth has made career development a priority, Davis said. "We have people getting MBAs, master's degrees and PhDs. Some of them are now teaching at Dartmouth." Anybody in IT can write a grant, he added, and as long as they qualify, they can be the principal investigator. "A lot of our staff now are running their own grants or are co-PIs on other grants with faculty members," he pointed out.

Promoting women in IT also has become a priority, Davis said. "During COVID we learned that people can contribute in new ways. Some of our highest performers were women who had never been given the opportunity to lead because of the way the department was set up before I got here," Davis added. "You have to recognize people who step up."

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