I’ve been thinking lately about balance in the technology industry and, in particular, the expectations on people to always be “on.” After the recent suicide of a colleague, I’ve been ruminating on the tensions that exist between the idea of work/life balance and the very real need that organizations have for everyone to perform at their very best. It’s a conundrum and one which is something of an unseen epidemic, in my view.

Given these recent thoughts, I was interested in a new piece of research undertaken by PagerDuty which specifically looked at the state of work/life balance in the IT industry. The study was somewhat skewed towards PagerDuty’s own area of interest (incident management and reporting), but more generally it is a good gauge of where the industry is right now.

The headline from the study, which will be concerning to all in the industry is that companies are at risk of losing one in four IT professionals due to poor work/life balance. Of course, staff leaving an organization, while problematic, pales in comparison to staff who suffer mental health issues or resort to suicide fueled, at least in part, by the demands of their role. That said, it is a continuum and the impacts PagerDuty refers to are the start of a potentially worse decline.

The report is an amalgam of findings of three separate surveys of over 800 IT professionals in development, operations and management roles in the US, Australia, and the UK. Worryingly, the study indicates that although many IT professionals agree their work-life balance isn’t the greatest, they believe it’s just part of the job and accept the disproportionate time commitment involved. The fact that people accept that this unhealthy state of affairs is in some way “normal” truly is an indictment of the way our industry works.

Unfortunately, PagerDuty didn’t manage to resist the temptation to focus on the economic drivers around this issue. The company points out that the cost of replacing just one skilled IT responder is $300,000 or more. Riffing on this economic theme, PagerDuty’s CEO, Jennifer Tejada said that:

As organizations continue to integrate digital across their business, the demands of scale and speed places unprecedented pressure on IT professionals to maintain a quality customer experience. Using technology to transform the business operations to meet those demands is simply not enough. Building a company that  crushes the the competition requires businesses to continually guard and improve their employee Operations Health and ensure IT Operations teams perform at their best.

The impacts of this “always on” approach

A world built on the back of digital disruption brings some negative impacts with it. All of those digital solutions require people to be ready to jump if something goes wrong – incident responders must be prepared to engage at any time of the day and initiate remediation efforts if something goes wrong with a critical system.

  • In the US, nearly half (49 percent) reported their sleep or personal life is interrupted between 11 and 30 times a week.
  • Nearly a quarter of all IT professionals (24.9 percent) believe these interruptions adversely affect their work productivity enough to make their jobs unmanageable at times, which leaves companies with an elevated risk of employee attrition.
  • Almost one in four respondents (23.1 percent) reported they are more likely to look for a new job as a result of poor work-life balance.

The Effects of Managing Always-On Digital Services

The inability to manage stress was rated as the number one side-effect of poor work-life balance across all regions. US IT professionals were found to be less able to manage stress compared to their Australian and UK counterparts.

  • Nearly all (94 percent) of IT professionals surveyed who indicated that they are responsible for the management of always-on digital services, said their role impacts their family life. 94.5 percent of IT professionals also believe it impacts their work productivity.
  • IT workers in the US indicated they are most impacted by the management of always-on digital services, with 32 percent indicating this pain point, versus 21.9 percent in the UK and 21.1 percent in Australia.

Finally getting close to the real issue, that of unrealistic expectations on staff, Howard Wilson, PagerDuty’s CCO commented that:

Organizations should adopt solutions and services to proactively monitor and manage the health and wellness of their developer and IT Operations teams…

Well yes, they should. They should also spend some time thinking about their expectations and whether those expectations are in any way realistic.

A global perspective

Living, as I do, outside of the US, but spending lots of time Stateside, I get to see the huge difference between expectations of employees in the US versus elsewhere. Europe is well known for giving its workers lengthy annual leave entitlements and a culture where people actually use their annual leave to disconnect almost entirely. in my own home country, New Zealand, four weeks annual leave is the legal minimum and I’ve only really just reconnected after a month of glorious summer disconnection. In the US, however, annual leave is short, and expectations of employees are that they will be pretty much contactable no matter what.

MyPOV

For sure, PagerDuty and companies like it offer tools that can reduce the burden on IT responders. But to think of this in the context of an economic discussion is wrong. Rather, the industry as a whole needs to think about work/life balance in the deepest of ways and begin to reconcile its expectations within the context of peoples’ own strengths and weaknesses.

We’re facing an epidemic of mental health issues in our industry and unrealistic expectations that assume everyone can handle burning the candle at both ends go a long way to making the issue worse.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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