As I See It: Survey Says . . .
October 29, 2007 Victor Rozek
One of the manifestations of human curiosity is our endless need to survey public opinion on every conceivable subject from voter preference to Viagra usage. Periodically, people are asked to identify which professions are most stressful, and I’m always surprised when bomb squad doesn’t top every list. Apparently, whether you’re a member of an exceptionally stressful profession depends entirely on who is asking and answering the questions. Yahoo recently featured links to several survey results listing the most stressful and depressing jobs. According to one survey, the top five stressors in ascending order were: medical intern, air traffic controller, miner, policeman, and inner city high school teacher.
OK, so they didn’t talk to any bomb guys, but it still makes sense. Medical interns are treated like Guantanamo detainees–insulted, deprived of sleep, and forced to answer impossible questions on demand. Air traffic controllers are expected to conduct an aerial chess match in which all the pieces move at 200 miles an hour and are packed with hundreds of mortal human beings. Miners have to wonder if the next chunk of rock they remove will be the one that brings the mountain crashing down upon them. Policemen, given what they see every day, probably wonder if humanity is even worth protecting. And inner city high school teachers are likely to envy cops because they’re armed, and miners because they made wiser career choices.
While IT didn’t even make the top 10 in the first survey, it was numero uno in another one. Yes, sitting in a comfortable chair, staring at a fantasy-provoking screen saver beat out wrestling boa constrictors and emptying septic tanks on the stress-o-meter (OK, I made up that last part). In fact, according to a study commissioned by SkillSoft, an online learning provider, “a staggering 97 percent of people working in IT claim to find their life at work stressful on a daily basis.” Maybe IT people should contact those stressed-out medical interns and see if they’ll share some meds. As for the non-stressed 3 percent, they’re probably not stressing because they’re already on drugs. Or between jobs.
Even consultants–those digital cowboys who wear the good suits and drive the hot cars–are feeling the pressure. Four of five said they felt stressed “before they even enter the workplace.” Tell that to a cop entering a meth lab. The poor consultants were anticipating another tough day of “juggling complaints,” enduring “pressure from managers,” and having to meet those annoying “daily targets.” Of course, if there were no complaints and no pressing deliverables, there would be no need for $200 per hour consultants. But I digress.
A quarter of IT professionals took time off to deal with their stress; and a third blamed their managers for the undue pressure, complaining that it was hard to get work done when managers were “constantly on their backs.” Employees also blamed their managers for “lack of support, interruptions, and bullying behavior.” Maybe a few days teaching in an inner city high school would provide them with new insights for what lack of support and bullying behavior really means.
The survey of 3,000 workers was inspired by a report from Gartner (the information technology research and advisory firm), which revealed that untrained computer users cost an organization “five times more to support than a well-trained worker.” And that support responsibility falls on IT professionals and apparently creates exceedingly high levels of stress–so much stress in fact that in this survey IT workers rated higher than medical professionals who came in a close second with 96.8 percent reporting daily stress.
Individual stress factors are themselves rated and divided into two categories: work related, and colleague related. Workload tops the list of work-related laments, followed closely by “feeling undervalued.” It probably won’t come as a great surprise to IT professionals that there is too much work and too little appreciation. What is surprising is that managers consistently fail to understand the value and power of expressing gratitude. Other surveys have repeatedly shown that appreciation can make up for any number of ills, including low wages and poor working conditions. Plus, appreciation builds loyalty, a virtue in short supply in an environment where labor is increasingly treated like an avoidable evil. Besides, expressing gratitude is ridiculously simple and costs nothing but a few moments of time. Still, it is doled out as stingily as water in the desert.
Other stressors include deadlines (37 percent reported difficulty meeting them); being asked to take on other people’s work (31 percent resented it); and working long hours. The first two complaints would account for the third, and to some degree being asked to assume an unfair workload and working long hours is the curse of the competent. “Lack of job satisfaction” was also reported by 28 percent of those surveyed who said they preferred to work elsewhere. Why they stayed to suffer all that stress and abuse is not clear, but unless misrepresentation was involved, job satisfaction is not the job’s fault. The harsh reality is: If you don’t like your job, your job doesn’t care.
The list of colleague irritations was topped by “others not pulling their weight.” Of course, “others” probably think the complainers aren’t pulling their weight either, but the survey made no distinctions. Lack of support, interruptions, and bullying by managers and colleagues were also prominently mentioned. Yes, a paucity of support and constant interruptions can be annoying, but the surprise here was bullying. Bullying? Are we still on the playground? Apparently, people have such poor interpersonal skills they permit themselves to be browbeaten. If only Mom were here to help.
What can we conclude from this survey? For one thing, we’re getting soft. When IT tops the list of stressful jobs, either the wrong people are being asked the questions or our concept of stress has been warped beyond recognition. Being unemployed and not knowing how you’ll make your next mortgage payment is stressful. Being a single parent and working for minimum wage is stressful. Handling toxic waste, rocketing into space, or working in a violent prison is stressful. By comparison IT is Club Fed, complete with high tech toys and no bars on the windows.
For another thing, we complain about a lot of things that are under our direct control. When people fail to set clear boundaries and don’t speak up for themselves, they’re apt to feel stressed and unhappy; but even if they change jobs, they will simply carry the source of their unhappiness with them.
Incidentally, the most depressed people, according to the survey, are those who work tending the elderly. Something we can all look forward to. It would be ironic if it wasn’t so sad. The elderly are the ones who have real reason to be depressed. They probably don’t need depressed care givers infecting them with more depression.
Every job has its stresses and certainly IT has its share–demanding users, annoying coworkers, and ungrateful managers. It’s full of unreasonable deadlines, understaffed projects, and everything is always urgent. But it is also populated by mentally tough and disciplined individuals and the ones I know wouldn’t describe their profession as substantially more stressful than any other comparable profession.
But if IT stress is truly too great, the least stressful professions surveyed were forester and bookbinder. Forester? How about enduring mosquitoes the size of the Starship Enterprise, and months of rain, and lobbyists who have greater influence on forestry practices than biologists do. And as for bookbinders: boy, I’ll bet those paper cuts are murder.
Perhaps it is the times, not the jobs, that produce excessive stress. The anxiety of the workforce may well reflect the things that have been taken away, rather than the things that remain. It is a manufactured uncertainty that afflicts the middle class: the absence of job security, the loss of guaranteed pensions, unaffordable healthcare, looming inflation, downward pressure on wages, and the knowledge that there is a ruling oligarchy that will not raise a finger on your behalf and would gladly strip you of the last shred of security if it meant more profit for its uber-wealthy constituents.
That’s enough to stress a lighthouse keeper.