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This Labor Day, will IT workers demand some new rights?

August 27, 2014

Do IT workers need their own labor movement?

We celebrate Labor Day to mark the gains American workers have made, namely shorter days and weeks. But for the modern professional class―particularly IT workers―the issue has become more complex than needing shorter work days. Shifting expectations of when workers should jump online or respond to email have affected IT pros across the board, particularly senior-level professionals. As most Americans head into a relaxing three-day weekend of beach trips and barbecues, many IT workers will remain chained to their phones and computers, on call to solve problems that arise or just answer inquiries.

Many IT workers report the expectation or need to be on call 24/7 has caused great stress–enough to cause them to consider other work. A recent TEKsystems poll of IT pros showed the immense expectations placed upon them:

  • Vacation: Almost half of senior IT pros report they’re expected to be available 24/7—even while on vacation 
  • Expectations of availability: Just one in 10 senior IT workers are expected to be available only during business hours

  • Three-quarters of all IT professionals are motivated to find a new job because of workload stress

  • Overall, 58 percent of IT workers reported they’d actually take a pay cut to reduce their stress

Of course, online connectivity isn’t all bad, as many workers have unprecedented flexibility to work from home. But the ability to unplug completely from work is important to both workers and their employers. While the benefit of having IT available in case catastrophes arise has obvious benefits, workers suffer a subtle long-term drain on mental function that can hurt their work. In order to function at peak mental levels when we work, we need to experience true downtime.

Adding to the complex nature of this problem, many Americans report that they prefer to remain accessible while off work. However, a University of California at Irvine study showed that workers denied email access for five days reported significantly lower levels of stress and better concentration. And Harvard Business Review research showed while workers who check email from home tend to report feeling positive about being able to do so, they also report higher daily stress—suggesting that don’t see or understand the effects of 24/7 work accessibility.  

Yet, many companies report that they don’t expect this level of availability from their employees; in fact, some are taking steps to discourage or even ban after-hours communications.

How can employers reduce IT workers’ stress and retain top talent?

With a tight IT labor pool, companies can’t afford to lose their best workers. Taking a few steps to decrease the stress of always being on call will help retain workers—and clear their minds to perform better while at work.

In addition to managing their own expectations about when workers will be available, employers need to define expectations about after-hours communication. Here are a few guidelines your organization might want to try:

1. Create and advertise your policy. If you’re not defining your company’s communication expectations, other people are, and those implicit norms are just as powerful as written ones. You'll need to create and support your policy with frequent reminders.

2. Limit after-work communications from leaders. If the boss must send a 10pm email, she should preface it with something like “Don’t respond to this until tomorrow.”

3. Cut down on all email traffic so people’s in-boxes don’t blow up on vacation. Discourage workers from using the “reply all” function and remove people on vacation from email chains. Discourage staff from replying all on innocuous messages like “thanks” and “got it.”

4. Agree to call employees if there’s an after-hours emergency. Knowing they’ll get a phone call if they’re urgently needed frees workers from incessantly checking their emails.

Have some tips for managing the stress of 24/7 accessibility? Want to share your frustrations about being on call all the time? Please share your feedback in the comments section or on our LinkedIn page.

Lisa Dare is a marketing writer for TEKsystems who enjoys learning about IT from some of the smartest folks in tech (seriously, these folks are scary-smart). Lisa frequently blogs about IT career advice and the lighter side of tech, and loves to kayak, play with her son and avoid cleaning chores while off work. 

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