Between Bumming and Burnout: Finding a Work-Life Balance

As workers seek time off, the BlackBerry keeps sounding the alarm and pulling them in. In an age of constant connectivity, how can an IT worker catch a break and still maintain the level of service the 24/7 enterprise requires?

Today it seems that everyone is talking about work-life balance, throwing about catch phrases such as "work to live—dont live to work" and "escape the rat race." Yet beyond the inspirational mantra comes the reality of IT infrastructure and services that demand 24/7 attention. The pressure of this service level is leading many workers to wonder if they have any hope in balancing their lives.

Mark Gardner, director of desktop services at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, said he is plugged in almost all hours of the day.

"I stay at work until I am done—not usually later than 7 p.m. But, I am on and off my BlackBerry until I go to sleep," he said.

Gardner admitted that he is not very good at scheduling time off for himself, but his primary concern is to be reachable in the event of an emergency.

"Part of the role I am in is the point person when theres a crisis. I wouldnt be doing my job if I wasnt around, or at least I wouldnt feel like I was doing my job. I dont want the people I report to to know whats going on before me."

"I had my laptop plugged in last night at midnight while on vacation; I used my BlackBerry while at a reception," Gardner admitted.

"Wireless devices make it easier [to be contacted] because you are connected, but you also end up feeling like you are not actually getting away from anything. Id like to go to a place with no BlackBerrys," he said.

Gardner explains that the people who go far [in an organization] and are often promoted show a lot of personality and drive. But the further you go, the bigger the expectations are.

"I look at how many hours my boss works and Im not even sure I look forward to that," he said.

The wish for decompression time, or at least greater flexibility of work schedules, is growing. According to a compensation and benefits report by the Toronto-based Hudson Highland Group, released May 17, one in three workers wanted flex schedules as part of their overall compensation. Twenty-two percent said, given the choice, they would choose additional family benefits, including parental leaves and personal days, over job training (13 percent) or supplemental insurance (16 percent).

"People are more interested in having a well-balanced life," Peg Buchenroth, Hudson managing director of compensation and benefits, said in a statement.

Companies that arent sensitive to the demands they place on employee schedules may eventually lose some of their best, warned Ryan Gilmore, a branch manager for IT recruitment firm Robert Half Technology, in San Jose, Calif.

"We are coming out of the downturn we had quite a while back, and workers are in higher demand. Companies that are not hiring with the growth of the organization or using temporary help are going to have burnout among their staff," he said.

In addition, Gilmore advised that managers create an environment where employees can express if theyre overworked. He said this was especially important among technology workers, who take pride in doing whatever it takes to get the job done.

"A lot of people dont admit burnout. A lot of them are working excessive hours and doing the job of more than one person and not getting recognized for it. When you like your job, you might not mind working a little bit harder, but if you begin to feel like just a cog in the wheel and theres little communication between you and your manager, this breaks down. Its the job of the manager[s] to reach out to their staff," he said.

Meanwhile, the threat of outsourcing has done little to soothe fears among IT employees in the post dot-com-bust era that their jobs may not always be safe. Many react by working themselves to their limits, or beyond.

"If youre a developer and you see this reality of companies saving money by sending jobs abroad, its a fear, and you might react to it by pushing harder. Its all about knowing how to utilize your resources," Gilmore said.

Next Page: Rising workloads.