IT career burnout: What to do when the thrill is gone

Burnout is as predictable in an IT professional's career as the long hours that precipitate it. The demanding nature of IT jobs, coupled with a perceived lack of respect and appreciation, leads many IT professionals to lament, à la blues great B.B. King, that "the thrill is gone." Many eventually wonder whether a career in IT is still the right choice.

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These days, even more IT leaders seem to be suffering from burnout, judging by the experiences they recently shared in a conversation on CIO's LinkedIn forum. It's no wonder: The recession has forced them to spend the last 18 months focused on the more tedious aspects of IT management--namely cost-cutting, politics and more cost-cutting.

The burnout conversation was kicked off by an IT director wondering if there was anything more to the CIO role than "paperwork, politics and squeezing the last penny out of every dollar." The IT director, who did not wish to be named in this article, asked his fellow CIO Forum members what keeps them going in their jobs.

His query elicited an outpouring of empathy and support: When this story was reported, 54 IT leaders from all over the world left 60 comments commiserating with the IT director's experience with burnout and offering advice.

Here are their top seven suggestions for reigniting one's enthusiasm for IT while on the job and for battling burnout.

1. Take pride in your team

Developing your staff members and observing their camaraderie makes all the politics and bureaucracy that otherwise grinds you down worthwhile, say several IT leaders.

"What keeps me coming in each day, other than the family-man responsibilities..., is my team," wrote Julian Lamb, the head of technology at Tony Ferguson Weightloss. "We get these (young) people and build them into professionals capable of keeping the company running. If we're good at what we do, we try to shield them from the constant carping and criticism that is our lot in IT, and we try to install in them the best of our own work ethic, so that perhaps [they can] reach the work life balance that escapes many of us."

Added another forum member: "...what still excites me is when I take a step back and look around my office...and see the people that I have employed laughing, joking, going out to lunch, arranging events for evenings together--all the while doing a fantastic job and working really hard. ...that's where I get my kick, from knowing that I am at least in part responsible for that happening."

2. Look for a new challenge on the job

In his post that sparked the discussion about burnout on the LinkedIn CIO Forum, the IT director noted that he used to love working in IT. He didn't mind the 14-hour days because, as he put it, "New technology, new ideas, innovation made it seem as though anything were possible."

But after 12 years in IT, the IT director's time is now spent on "paperwork, politics and squeezing the last penny out of every dollar," he said.

To reclaim the excitement that once compelled him to work those long days, the LinkedIn CIO community recommended identifying a new challenge. That might be developing a strategic plan for the IT department and working with one's team to implement that plan, or identifying new ways that IT can make a substantial impact on the company, such that IT becomes a center of innovation inside the enterprise and not just a service provider.

Jayashree Raju, a senior vice president of IT for an investment bank, suggested exploring new functional areas in one's company, particularly where IT is not being fully utilized. "This will also broaden your scope and understanding of non-IT areas/new business divisions," she said.

A public sector IT director noted that he had to develop new challenges for himself after successfully reinventing an IT department. He wrote that his new mission was to keep his IT department at the top of its game and to continually be on the lookout for the next great idea or accomplishment.

"While there is enough to do just maintaining the day-to-day operations and handling administrative tasks, as an IT leader, keep your eyes on what's next and beyond," wrote the public sector IT director. "That's the exciting part of technology: Who knows what's next."

3. Keep a pet project

Another remedy for the drudgery of paperwork, politics and cost-cutting is to maintain a pet project. It's a solution that works for Rod Carr, director of IT for a UK utility.

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