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Impact of long working hours on IT professionals and ways to cope with stress

11/01/2019

impact of long hours and stress for IT professionals - ways to cope

Sometimes, and in small doses, a little stress is good for you.

But being under stress for long periods, is not. It causes tension, anxiety, anger and mild depression. It can damage your physical health, too.  

So, we were worried to find out from our survey of IT professionals,* that 60% of them think IT’s become an increasingly stressful industry to work in.

In fact, the stress has got so bad, 1 in 6 (16%) say they’re thinking of quitting it altogether.

What’s pushed them to the edge, exactly? Turns out it’s a combination of things.

Why are IT contractors so stressed out?

GDPR

It may have begun as a marketing headache, but GDPR soon became ‘A Nightmare on IT Street’. After all, cracking the GDPR code was always going to end up being down to the IT professionals, wasn’t it?  Who else could translate the regulations? Or put everything in place?

GDPR day was a while ago now (on 25 May 2018) giving most firms time to tidy up their databases. But mis-using data – even unknowingly – remains a worry.  And for 20% of IT consultants GDPR’s still a really big stressor. 

Client pressure

Anyone in a service industry knows customers always want more, for less. Not surprisingly, 15% of IT contractors say they’re under this kind of pressure from clients. 

Of course, GDPR hasn’t helped. It’s created extra work. That’s great, if you’ve agreed with clients in advance that GDPR work’s paid for on top of your usual contracting fee. Not so great if you haven’t.

What’s more, 14% of IT consultants say clients are now expecting them to be ‘on-call’ 24/7.

Being available outside regular working hours to deal with problems or urgent requests is all well and good if it’s on a rota-basis. But if it’s ongoing, the stress of never switching off from work completely can really get you down. Long-term, it can harm your mental health.

Cybercrime

Cybercrime is everywhere and looks set to stay. At the start of 2018, cyber-attacks were up by 63%, according to the Office of National Statistics So, it was no great surprise to hear that the rise in cybercrime is piling on the stress for nearly a quarter of IT consultants (24%).

Trouble is, as anyone in IT knows, you can take any number of steps to protect your firm. But if hackers want to get into your IT system, they can and will.

What’s making things worse, though, is that attacks aren’t just increasing, they’re getting more and more sophisticated. AI and machine learning are just two of the latest weapons in a cybercriminal’s arsenal.

Now, more than ever, clients rely on their IT team to keep systems strong and cyber defences maintained at all times.

And that means? You guessed it. More stress.

Long work hours

But IT contractors’ stress is also down to long working hours.

61% of IT contractors and small business owners work between 35-48 hours a week. That’s about 8 hours more a week than people in full-time employment.

You’d think working for yourself would mean you have a better work/life balance, wouldn’t you? Sadly, of course, it’s not always the case.

Whether you’re running your own business, or you’re freelance, independent IT contractors usually have to wear several hats. On top of your ‘day job’, you’re finance director and marketing manager. And if you employ staff, payroll, HR and line management are down to you, too.

Clocking up an average of 44 working hours a week, the UK’s IT professionals are a hard-working lot.**

But while all of them put in longer-than-average hours, those working remotely or in app-development, are most likely to be first and last at their desks.

The reason app developers are among the most overworked in the IT industry is because of the huge demand for apps. There’s no sign of it slowing. Far from it, in fact. Mobile apps are expected to generate $188.9 billion (over £140 billion) globally by 2020. Which explains why app/web developers are among the most overworked.

Logging-off time

What’s more surprising is finding out that those working remotely are notching up so many extra hours.

One of the advantages of going freelance is not being tied to working in one place. And most of the IT contractors we surveyed say they split their time between working on-site for clients and working from home.

Thing is, this freedom has its drawbacks. Because depending on where they are, travelling to and from your client’s premises can really eat into your working day. And that, of course, means you end up having to catch up on work in the evenings – or at weekends.

But it’s not the IT consultants working on-site for clients who put in the longest shifts. It’s those working from their own office (or at home). These contractors work an extra 2 hours a week. Which is adding nearly 11 days a year more to their working life. That’s 9 hours more, according to the Office for National Statistics, than the national, full-time average across all sectors.

But, as anyone who’s worked from home knows, when your office and home are in the same place, it can be hard to know when to down tools and ‘log-off’.

Trouble is, all this overtime takes its toll.

What working long hours does to your body

We all know working long hours makes you unproductive. Ford Motor Company proved that back in the 1990s. And more recently, scientists have proved your brain can only focus for so long without needing a proper break.

What’s more worrying is that long work hours, combined with stress and physical inactivity, are seriously bad for your health. In fact, a recent study goes so far as to suggest that if you work more than 39 hours a week, your job could be killing you.

There’s also evidence that, as well as affecting your short-term memory and mental skill, working long hours increases your risk of heart disease. And, of course, no matter how good your posture is, sitting at a desk, staring at a screen for hours, is bad for your spine.

Without regular exercise, all this sitting down can lead to weight-gain – maybe even obesity, if left unchecked. And that’s a whole heap of health risks you can do without… like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer and stroke.

Sleepless and snappy

Yet nearly 1 in 6 (16%) of IT consultants say their heavy workload leaves them no time to spare for taking exercise or for enjoying their hobbies. And the same number say they’re suffering from sleepless nights and fatigue.

More time spent at your desk often means less time to sleep. And you can probably cope with this if it’s a one-off – or maybe even a two-off. But if this cycle continues over a drawn-out period, fatigue sets in.

Fatigue is the kind of bone-tired, weariness which makes concentrating much harder. But it doesn’t just affect your performance, it can weaken your immune system, too. And that means you’re more likely to catch every nasty bug doing the rounds.

If you’re self-employed, being unable to work because you’re constantly under the weather, is going to end up costing you – in lost earnings.

Fatigue also makes you tetchy. So, it’s not surprising 1 in 10 IT contractors admit to being more emotional and short-tempered than usual.

All work and no play

But the thing is, all work and no play doesn’t just make your life dull, it has a knock-on effect on those around you. If you’re having to work long hours, you’re bound to be neglecting friends and family.

As many as 1 in 5 IT professionals (18%) owned up to missing out on social events because of their workload. And this isn’t just family meals, or ticketed events, like concerts or shows. It’s really important things, like their child’s school play.

Does an IT contractor’s salary make up for the stress?

For over half of IT professionals, the answer’s yes.

A career in IT can be a highly paid one. Depending on your experience, graduates can expect to earn between £20-30K a year, according to Glassdoor. And while the sky’s not necessarily the limit, experienced IT professionals, who carve a niche for themselves, can make around £70-80K.

But the pay’s not enough for everyone. 18% say that with the pressure on to deliver clients more for less and having to be on-call 24/7, the rewards need to be higher.

The gig economy’s affecting earnings, too. Nowadays, so many people are taking other jobs on the side as a way to make ends meet, the market’s flooded with freelancers. Nearly half (46%) of IT contractors are worried the competition’s driving down prices.  

No wonder so many are thinking of quitting IT.

But thinking about quitting the industry is one thing. Doing it’s quite another. And as some of these pressures may be unavoidable, how about taking steps to manage your stress? That way you can limit its effect on your physical and mental health.

Ways to cope with stress

If you’ve always got a lot on your plate, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. But a few, small changes in outlook and lifestyle can make a big difference to the way you cope with stress.

Take a breath

There are short-term stress-busters you could try, like stress relief breathing. You can do these breathing exercises (which can be as simple as counting your breaths) anytime, anywhere and with little training. Once you’ve got the hang of them, you’ll be able to de-stress in under 5 minutes.

Tense time

You can also try progressive muscle relaxation, or PMR. With practice, you’ll find you can quickly relax all your muscles, releasing the tension in your body that builds under stress. PMR’s also great way to help you nod-off if you’re struggling to sleep.

Leg it

Take a walk - a change of scene and a bit of exercise all in one. Walking gets your body moving which is great for anyone whose work means they sit all day long. It also shifts your focus, taking your mind off things.

Problems seem to have a way of working themselves out when you’re out on the tramp. If the amount of stress you’re under is bringing you down, there’s even more reason to get out and about. Walking’s been proven to fight depression.

Scent sense

Another mood-changer is aromatherapy. Light a candle or run yourself a bath using products containing essential oils like lavender, and you’ll be surprised how much calmer you begin to feel. Put an aromatherapy diffuser on your desk and you could be soothed all day.

These are all quick fixes, but there’s no reason they can’t end up being part of your daily routine.

There are other anti-stress activities you could try to include, too:

Body booster

You know that saying, healthy body, healthy mind? Well, it’s true. Putting your body through its paces physically, can have a really positive effect on your mental fitness.

Regular exercise, according to the NHS, relieves tension, anxiety, anger and mild depression which often go hand-in-hand with stress.

How? By pumping you full of endorphins, those feel-good chemicals in your brain. As well as acting as natural painkillers (handy, if you’re suffering from back pain after hours sitting at your desk) endorphins help you sleep. And getting plenty of sleep, in turn, reduces stress.

So, making time to exercise is vital. It’ll increase your energy levels. And it’ll improve your alertness and concentration, too, making you more productive when you are at your desk.

Feel-good know-how

There are other ways to produce these ‘feel-good’ chemicals in your body. Meditation and yoga can also trigger the release of endorphins.

Yoga lowers your heart rate and blood pressure, increases your muscle strength and keeps you flexible. It also reduces levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. A great stress-buster, yoga helps balance the connection between your body and mind. The poses themselves help prepare the body for another great de-stressing device – meditation.

If you’re a beginner, you’ll find lots of advice on the internet on the different techniques. But whichever one you choose, meditating for as little as 10 minutes a day can reduce anxiety. And it’ll  improve your cardiovascular health at the same time.

Drawn from ancient buddhist and yoga practices MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) is designed to combat the effects of long periods of stress.  It’s been around since the 1970s, but now, even the government’s got behind it.

After doing a course in MBSR, people say they feel more engaged with their work, less anxious, have more energy and sleep better.

Worth looking into and making time for? We’re not experts. That’s up to you to decide. 

But as insurance brokers, what we do know is, if you’ve got the right cover, you’ve got one less thing to worry about.

Make sure you’re covered

Working long hours impacts your performance. And the fatigue which comes with drawn-out periods of overwork means there’s more risk you might make a mistake. That could cost you.

Professional indemnity insurance covers you if clients claim you’ve made a mistake. Even if you haven’t. It pays to fix what’s gone wrong, your legal costs and compensates your customers. 

And depending on your policy wording, it can also cover loss of documents or data, virus-spreading, dishonesty by a member of your staff, confidentiality breaches and third-party equipment going wrong.

With that kind of cover, you’ll have fewer sleepless nights.

* We surveyed 135 professional IT contractors and small business owners in May 2018.

**This figure is based on an average of each time period (i.e. 35-48 hour week) equalling an average of 41.5 hours and multiplying that by the number of respondents in each group (i.e.82). Completing this across all hours and dividing by the number of respondents in total, is 44.093 hours (8 years and 8 months).

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