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Friday, March 19, 2010

The hidden dangers of working in IT

Working in IT has a lot of up sides, there is always new and interesting challenges that can be pretty fun to solve. Finishing a product is always exciting. Getting into a solid state of productivity is also a lot of fun, getting that rush of flow going and losing yourself in it.

But there are a number of negative aspects that I don't think many people are fully aware of. Sure most people know one or two but probably don't realize they may be suffering from other side effects of the industry that they aren't aware of.

I have experienced burn out twice in my career after working for 5 years in one job or another and I know it's a pretty common thing in IT. Just yesterday one of my colleagues was telling me about a friend of theirs who was a brilliant developer but got so burnt out he quite and now he works as an attendant in a parking garage.

Everything in life has a positive side and a negative side and while it probably isn't a good idea to dwell endlessly on the negative it is very beneficial to be aware of it and develop strategies to overcome it.

So lets go through the negative aspects of working in IT and look at some ways of overcoming them:

Mental exhaustion - Due to the intense nature of IT work it involves a lot of deep thinking, learning new concepts and hours of intense concentration. This can quickly use up our mental reserves and leave us feeling drained and brain dead at the end of the day. Especially when we are doing a lot of overtime. This in itself isn't so much of an issue but it often leads to other problems for example feeling too drained to exercise or cook a proper meal at the end of the day or do any productive things that can be done in the evening, like socialize and actually live your life!

The best way to deal with this is to work less or take a nap after your work day is over. Don't do constant overtime! Be aware of your mental energy and you will get good at not overworking yourself, there is nothing wrong with taking a break just put up a page of code and pretend you are thinking about it while you listen to some music or something. Pace yourself. I catch a 1 hour train to and from work so generally I deal with this by having a nap on the way home then I begin my evening with lots of mental energy!

Bad health - Humans aren't designed to sit at a desk for most of their life, we were designed to be active and doing things to survive. When working in IT we need to find some time to do some exercise and eat decent food. Beware the trap of too much caffeine and sugar to compensate for mental fatigue and poor health.

You don't need to go to the gym or join a sports team, though these are also good things, but it's important to find something physical that you enjoy and can do regularly. Try different things, personally I do a 10-15 minute exercise routine every morning involving things I can do anywhere like squats, star jumps, crunches and push-ups. Then I like to do something outside once or twice a week, squash, long walks, swimming, riding a bicycle.

The computer is not your friend - No matter how much IT guys fantasize about a sexy female AI we have to face the truth that these don't exist yet. Do female IT workers fantasize about male AIs? I'd love to know the answer to that one!

The fact is working at the computer means we miss out on the social aspect that most other jobs require so if we aren't careful we end up getting very rusty in our social skills which translates to fewer and fewer friends and eventually to lonely unhappiness. This often happens over a longer period of time, so it can be easy not to notice it, until one day you wind up at some party and realise you are struggling to relate to anyone!

Obviously the best way to overcome this is keep an eye on your social life, make sure you get out and meet people. Go to a social event at least once a week!

Life draining - There will always be another urgent system that needs to be built yesterday, don't let companies take over your life. Its easy to lose sight of your bigger life goals when you spend all your days putting all your energy into someone else's code. I live in Australia where we get 4 weeks holiday, this isn't ever enough, here overtime is a social norm so with over time and 48 weeks worth of work those 4 weeks are mostly used to recover, catch up with family, and deal with other real life emergencies that come up like weddings and funerals. We need to live our own lives outside work, follow our own passions, develop ourselves, learn new things, travel and spend time with those we care about. I learnt this lesson the hard way after developing stress related depression. Work does not equal life.

My solution to this is to take big breaks. IT pays fairly well so save up some money, tell your boss you plan on taking 3-6 months off every couple of years. Give them lots of warning. Save a little extra in case they decide to fire you and you need to find a new position when you get back and take back some of your own life. This solution only works if you don't live at the edge of your means, don't get a mortgage you can barely afford to pay off, don't live a hugely expensive life style. Time is worth more than things so buy some of it back off your work. Other options might be working 4 days a week or moving to France where they are only permitted to work 35 hours a week.

Stress - likewise we can get a lot of stress which can come from a lot of areas, deadlines (usually artificial), unrealistic expectations, unclear specifications, even lack of work can be stressful.

I've found the best way to deal with stress is to expect some level, remember IT isn't easy and is a highly important component of many business that they don't fully understand so they are likely to be fearful and stressed and put that stress on you as the expert. Don't buy it. Be really clear on what you can do and how long you think it will take. Raise any issues as soon as you are aware of them. Let people know if you are stuck on something. The main thing is to make sure you assess your own performance and use your own judgment over that of your bosses or co-workers. You are the best judge of how much effort you are putting in not them.

I would love to hear how other people deal with these issues and any other issues you think I may have missed!


  1. Great post. The artificial deadlines one always frustrates me. I like the idea of a nap to boost mental energy. I'll just have to get better at napping, my minimum sleep time tends to be 1 hr, and usually 2. So I'd be waking up at 9 after getting home from work then unable to sleep again.

  2. Hmm, as a woman, self employed, own shop 3 kids and partner, who goes home and cooks a meal every night, sorts out all washing, ironing...You knew where this post was going.
    I do turn over over $200,000 a year so it's not like I sit around all day.
    I have never heard so much whining.Just get on and do what you are being paid to do, and for any woman's sake, don't go home and bore her to tears with your day!

  3. Great article, couldn't have put it better myself. I'm suffering from 'burn-out' but fortunately have an understanding employer.
    I also do the long holiday thing - every couple of years I take off on my motorbike and explore some new countries.
    We need something like that in a high-stress job - not just for the break, but as something to look forward to and make it all feel worthwhile.
    I wish the concept of a siesta had more public support in the UK (it's seen as a comedy thing, or for lazy Spaniards) - it's actually a great idea. My afternoons would me so much more productive if I could have a nap to help digest lunch and reboot my brain.

  4. :::Do female IT workers fantasize about male AIs?:::

    As a female sysadmin I fantasize about having free time to complete side projects instead of juggling 15 projects with changing priorities.

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  7. Jai, your article is relevant and it's always been like this in IT (I've been in IT for 15 years and have seen burnout on a regular basis also people just not taking care of themselves putting work before needs and such.
    Hooray for Ally! Try working in IT for a bit then make a relevant comment. I'm guessing you never bore-ass your spouse with work details? No need to vent because you're just that happy? Bullshit.

  8. Great post! Good points and some great tips. I try to follow the recommendation of getting up every hour or two for a walk. Some do a little exercise like wall pushups or running stairs during the day.

    Ally, you need to make some changes or you will lose connection with your children and husband. You are a prime candidate for burnout or divorce.

  9. Hi Jai

    I have something to add that has been sort of helpful in the last 6 months for me, learning and developing a hobby could work if you cannot have big breaks (I own part of a company and we don't allow ourselves that kind of long breaks)

    My current hobby is photography which one can take as seriously as you wish, there are some other activities, like gardening, playing a particular sport, building models, basically anything that requires patience and concentration away from the computer

    I have to confess, I spend some additional time on the PC editing images, posting them on the web and commenting other's people work as well, but it's also something you can share with friends and be proud of (even print them and frame them!) instead of just creating pieces of code or things that you cannot touch, feel or show to others with pride

    Just my two cents for you and your readers

    Regards and have a nice one

  10. As i sit here at my desk and prepare to do some IT work, I can only notice how relevant your post it too my situation right now. Mental exhaustion has already set in for today and there are so many planned projects ahead for today and its still only 9:30am. It seems like the only thing i want to do when i get home is let my brain harden because to focus any more of my energy seems like its just asking too much.
    As for Ally:
    People must really hate you at work. You seem like one of those oblivious boss's who has no idea of your surroundings. Also since you are a "Oblivious store owner" you do not know IT let alone the standards, In fact in the simplest and saddest way your just a store clerk. So i guess at the end of the day you dont know what mental exhaustion is or will ever be because your brain will never stretch that far.

  11. Awesome !! Awesome !! Awesome article....I was sitting here coding my life away when my wife sends this over to me...Yeah, im taking a 2 hour lunch after reading this.....

  12. Great post.. Will try the napping technique.
    And Miss Ally, you have no idea what this guy is talking about. You sound like a smug bitch.

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  14. Hey Ally, Without us IT guys you wouldn't be making that 200k your bragging about. STFU

  15. I'm an IT guy (well, gal), and there's not a week that goes by that I don't at some point mutter, "I hate computers." But I truly love my job. I've hit the burnout thing more than once, but fortunately my position is varied enough that I can swap something thinkee for something artee or vice versa. It helps that I work with a fairly small group that has no idea what my job is about, so they leave me alone to do it. I have the good fortune to be able to create my own projects and deadlines, so that helps enormously.

    I'm a single mom, and sometimes I work 40 hours in the office and another 20 at home in any given week. My house isn't spotless, but I chalk that up less to my work and more to the fact that I just really don't care that much about spotless. Sometimes I'd rather play WoW than clean. It happens. Sometimes when things are slow at the office I goof off and no one really cares as long as all the systems are up and functional, the web site looks good, and everyone's email is working. I think it's a pretty good trade-off.

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  18. Thanks for all the positive feedback. I had a little feedback suggesting I'm just whining about my job but actually I love my job. Now that I've worked out how to manage some of the hidden dangers. I'm certainly not comparing this job to others, I think ever job has it's own drawbacks but I'm not qualified to comment on other professions.

    Also I'm sorry if I deleted your good comment, still learning the blogger interface :)

  19. So like I've always said you aren't alone,

    Mental exhaustion,
    A nurse is required to answer questions in regard to Medications, drug interactions side effects, whether or not tx is right for them, possible outcomes pos. and neg. This all has to be done at the same time as recalling other drs as well as pts and taking care of the ones in front of you. There is no "one task at a time" you better be giving one a shot while your xrays are coming out of the processor. Are this pt's labs ok ? no we need to change the meds and so on and so forth.

    Health issues,
    So aside from the obvious of dealing with sick and crabby people all day, they insist on coughing directly at you or handing you their specimens in bare hands. Lets not forget the amount of strength it takes to physically move a pt. from chair to bed or elsewhere resulting in lots of sore muscle and nothing less than sheer fatigue at the end of every day.

    It isn't enough to take care of the pt. while killing yourself. You will still be blamed and yelled at for every upset on their miraculous path to 25 again (never mind the 200 pack years of smoking) This doesn't work, why don't I feel better, I don't need that, I'm not as sick as those people.....

    Life draining,
    Yes there is always another call thats an emergency, I know that I've been short of breath for 2 months but now (this second) you have to help me...its Friday at 4:30 now your ready...

    Oh yes there is stress if this didn't stress you out already don't worry they will. Whether its another dr demanding clearance for surgery or a pharmacy telling you to call the insurance company and hold for an hour just to find out that the pharmacy doesn't know how to bill properly. All of this going on while you are putting a puzzle together with only half the pieces. The least the pt could do is take some initiative to help themselves feel better, but why quit now? They've got you to take care of them...

    So in closing, yes all jobs are more than they seem. Until you have walked in the shoes don't belittle. Like was stated earlier in a comment to this blog some of us don't have the liberty of napping after work or even going home because yes then there is parenthood andd all the glory that comes with....sporting events and practice, the occasional dr visit and lets not forget the constant task of feeding them (I am only familiar with boys and I say again Constant) and keeping up with the chores not all of them just those that are absolute necessity to get through the week. So yes I answer you with SUCK IT UP!! Work is hard deal with it or like you said change jobs.

    If the moments that make you feel good about what you do are so few and far between its a sign. I love my job, yes its hard, yes its exhausting, yes its stressful, but I chose this and yes it is worth it to me.

    To the world you may be just one person,
    But to one person you may be the world.
    - Show quoted text -

  20. Great article...Now from a WOMAN'S point of view..and being an IT person, I need to say something about Ally's comment. Your post is interesting as it seems to suggest that only whining men do IT jobs..Ummmm...NO. U cannot compare IT to being a store owner or whatever it is you do. ALL moms have to come home and clean and cook etc as do a lot of dads as well. The fact that you felt the need to tell the world how much you make is just sad...You are the one who wants to whine and vent but just can't do it to the right person !!!

  21. Hi Jai.

    I must say that you have precisely enlisted everything that we, working in IT must be aware of.

    And your last comment is also true: -
    >every job has it's own drawbacks...

    Companies keep on giving us the "work life balance" crap, along with artificial deadlines, and we generally end up working late all the time. So escalation and knowing your limits is also important.

    Having said that, trying to improve your knowledge is also imp! That can save overtime many a times. But we must set some limits to how much stress we can bare and must stop once that level is reached.

    We must have some totally non IT likes/ interests where we can absolutely disconnect from our work things for a few hours every week. That sure does recharge us mentally.

    I came across this statement the other day: -
    Don't stress yourself for someone Else's dream. (not applicable to every project, i understand, and with due respect to Dreams! Talking about unrealistic projects, set up only from the capitalist point of view)

    In the end, We shouldn't forget : -
    It' just One Life! This is it!

    With Best Rgds,

  22. I was a field service tech in the tech industry a lot of late nights and bad food.
    It caught up with me in December serious heat attack I am only 41 recovery has been slow a lot of damage. Get out of the chair and walk simple task.

  23. "or moving to France where they are only permitted to work 35 hours a week"
    Yeah about that... That's in the law. But in most software companies in France, overtime is the rule. They won't tell you to do more hours, they will just set deadlines that you can't meet otherwise. You can do 35 hours, just don't expect a raise or to be promoted.

  24. Thanks, good article, that I needed to read at this moment.

  25. Great article.

    It's true . work is hard and all of us are struggling to find the balance.

    Will definitely take your advice.