Working in tech? Five tips on avoiding burnout

Exercise, mindfulness, and more: tech leaders explain how they take some of the pressure off.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor

"Our minds run constantly. Mindfulness is about taking the time to spend a few moments on yourself and to focus inwardly," says CIO Neil Pearce.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Modern IT leadership is all about managing change. From overseeing operational IT concerns to driving transformation programmes, CIOs have to deal with ever-increasing pressure from all directions.

So how can IT leaders manage the stresses and strains of the role?

ZDNet speaks to five CIOs and gets their best practice tips for avoiding burnout.

1. Find the space to relax

Neil Pearce, CIO at Travis Perkins, says the busy nature of the role means IT leaders can be guilty of not creating enough space to slow down. Pearce uses the meditation technique mindfulness to take time out.

"As an IT leader, you need to decompress and reconnect," he says. "Our minds run constantly. Mindfulness is about taking the time to spend a few moments on yourself and to focus inwardly."

Pearce uses an app called Headspace at least a couple of times a week. Each session lasts about 20 minutes. "The app guides you through a meditative practice -- it's designed to stop you from thinking too much," he says.

"I'm quite a results-oriented person and it can take a while to get into it. You just have to let the process run itself. But once you're used to it, you come away feeling good. I find mindfulness to be really useful."

2. Surround yourself with a great supporting cast

Matt Peers, CIO at global law firm Linklaters, says the key to avoiding burnout is to enjoy your job. "You have to understand what your priorities are," he says. "Work is high up in my list of personal priorities -- and I like doing what I do. Therefore, I'm more than prepared to dedicate a lot of time to work."

CIO happiness, suggests Peers, is also related to the quality of people in the technology organisation. "If you haven't got a team you can rely on, it's a problem," he says. Peers directs specific attention to support, warning other CIOs not to underestimate the importance of a strong, internal service desk.

"Too many CIOs believe outsourcing the desk is a good cost-saving measure," he says. "Getting great people in those roles means you sleep easier because you know any issues are being dealt with in the right way."

The key to happiness, says Peers, is recognition that working in IT means unpredictable things can happen. Careful planning becomes essential, even for activities during downtime, such as cycling.

"Do exercise in the morning," says Peers. "The likelihood of your day being disrupted in IT is high, so the belief you'll find time in the afternoon is often too much of an assumption."

3. Look to change your working environment

Toby Clarke, interim head of IT at Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, says running is the best way for him to relax. "I enjoy getting out and just letting my mind wander," he says. "Going for something like a lunchtime run is the best thing in the world. Being fit and healthy really does help."

CIOs can sometimes find the opportunity to get away from work is reduced by day-to-day operational concerns. Modern IT leadership, acknowledges Clarke, involves a large amount of multi-tasking. IT leaders looking for relief should look to change their environment in order to reduce the stresses and strains of work.

"I like to get out of the office and work somewhere else," he says. "You're still being productive but a lot of the stresses are left behind. You can then be very focused on the most important priorities."

4. Be comfortable with the decision-making process

Neil Moore, head of ICT at Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service, says CIOs can manage stress by understanding the risks associated with the choices they take. Being able to make critical calls with confidence is crucial.

"You have to ask yourself what you believe would be the worst thing that could go wrong so that you understand the potential risk," he says. "If you make a decision, but you know either choice creates benefits for the organisation, then that approach removes a whole lot of stress from the decision-making process."

Moore refers to his organisation's digital transformation programme and his recent decision to select Office 365 over Google Apps as the key productivity suite. The Fire Service ran a two-month trial of both services with eighty members of staff.

The decision to implement Office 365 was a close call and inevitably came down to which service provided the best fit, particularly in regards to the requirements of finance staff. The key to stress management, says Moore, is being comfortable. "The decision I've made in terms of Office 365 doesn't keep me awake at night because both solutions would work," he says.

5. Make a commitment to invest in yourself

Mark Ridley, group technology officer at venture builder Blenheim Chalcot Accelerate, says you must find a way to switch off. "As a CIO, you're often on the hook 24/7, so being able to find some time for yourself -- or with your family -- is absolutely crucial," he says.

One of Ridley's key passions is rock climbing. "I go climbing a few times a week and it's the only time my phone is absolutely nowhere near me -- it's obviously pretty bad news to be disturbed by a phone when you're at the top of a climbing wall," he says.

CIOs are often into outdoors sports and Ridley suggests the geeky nature of these activities is appealing. "As a mountain biker, I used to weigh every component that I'd put on the bike and I enjoyed working out how to make the most of the kit. It was all about percentage improvements," he says.

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