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Thriving in a Demanding Environment - Coping Strategies of IT Professionals

Authors:
1
Thriving in a Demanding Environment Coping Strategies of IT
Professionals
Jana Mattern (jana.mattern@wiwi.uni-muenster.de), Monideepa Tarafdar
(m.tarafdar@lancaster.ac.uk), Stefan Klein (Stefan.klein@uni-muenster.de)
Complete Research Project
Coping Strategies of IT Professionals
Regarded as being at the forefront of the digital workplace, employers in the information
technology (IT) services industry cultivate the image of providing excellent services and
having a highly talented workforce. In the sociotechnical system of IT professionals,
technologies and individuals working with those technologies are mutually influencing
each other (Niederman, et al. 2016). The rapid changes in this industry have created the
need for IT professionals who can continually re-skill and keep pace (Gallivan, et al.
2004). At the same time, research shows that turnover among IT professionals is high, often
due to an elevated level of stress and exhaustion experienced by them (Shropshire & Kadlec,
2012). A plethora of articles deal with antecedents of IT professionalsturnover behavior
(e.g., Ghapanchi & Aurum, 2011; Moquin, et al., 2019). Surprisingly, there is very limited
research taking a resource-oriented view and examining coping strategies of IT
professionals. The high turnover rate calls for identifying coping strategies that can help IT
professionals tackle the stress they experience. Our study thus aims at answering two
questions: (1) Which stressors do high performing IT workers face? (2) What practices do
high performers adopt to cope with the conditions? (3) Do the coping strategies vary across
IT professionals experiencing varying levels of stress?
To answer the first two questions, we examined the literature to identify potential job
stressors of IT work and coping strategies applied by IT workers. We next undertook semi-
structured interviews with 27 sales consultants of a large IT service company to understand
what causes stress at work and how they cope with their situation. Due to the space
limitations of this extended abstract, we are not able to give an overview of the identified
stressors of IT work, but will focus here on how the IT professionals coped with factors
that created stress at work. Details about findings on stressors of IT work are available from
the authors.
Only few IS studies have applied a coping theory perspective (Batthacherjee et al., 2018).
However, these studies have focused on coping with the adaption of a new technology as
an disruptive event, while we focus on occupational stress and related coping strategies
more broadly. For the identification of the coping portfolios of IT professionals, we
distinguish between problem focused coping (altering the source of strain) and emotion
focused coping (altering the emotions arising from the source of strain) (Folkman &
Lazarus, 1980) strategies. We compare the coping portfolios of employees with different
strain levels (i.e. the negative outcomes of stress for the individual).
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Method and Analysis
Our sample consists of IT professionals working at the sales division of a large IT services
company, which we are calling Beta, specifically five female and 22 male individuals, aged
26 to 57 years (M = 36.7). We collected information regarding the job stressors and coping
strategies via semi-structured interviews. To assess the physiological strain level, we
measured participants’ heart rate variability (HRV). A high HRV shows that the individual
is able to adapt fast to changes whereas a low HRV is associated with a reduced variability
over shorter periods and correlates with chronic strain since physiological functions
responsible for relaxation and regeneration are underdeveloped (Kim, et al., 2018). To
assess the psychological strain level, we analysed the semi-structured interviews and coded
the level of perceived strain into four categories (table 1). In our analysis, we compared the
different strain categories to examine whether individuals with different strain levels
experience different stressors and apply different strategies.
Category
Qualitative data
High
distress, low
HRV
High strain: Participants are at their maximum and cannot sustain their current
workload.
I think I´m somehow on my maximum. There is no way I could take over
more load at this point.(P31)
Medium
distress,
medium
HRV
Medium strain: There are short periods during which they perceive their work as very
stressful but the rest of the time they do not: Sometimes its hard to find time for
family or personal activities but it is always a short period in fact. I have an okay
balance between my professional life and my personal life.(P75).
Low/no
distress,
high HRV
Low strain: They have learned strategies, which allow them to establish a manageable
amount of workload: I really guard myself as well. So m quite conscious also having
enough rest, or keeping the periods off within high stress level limited(P33)
Eustress,
low HRV
Low strain: They like the complexity and that their job requires them to learn something
new every day: “
There is always lots to learn, lots to do. I just generally find it
interesting and stimulating. that keeps me going.(P39)
Table 1. Classification of participants regarding HRV data and interview data.
Findings
Based on both, the qualitative and quantitative data, we identified four categories of IT
professionals, depending on their strain level. Distress refers to stress that creates a threat
whereas eustress is stress that creates a challenge or opportunity(Tarafdar, Cooper, &
Stich, 2019, p. 12). Being general stress concepts, those categories are also applicable for
IT professionals. We also identified eight coping strategies, problem focused and emotion
focused through the interviews.
Coping Strategies
Preparing for the week in advance. IT professionals try to gain control over their travel
duties and schedule their week in a way that they reduce their journeys as much as possible.
To be prepared for the workweek and reduce a certain amount of unpredictability, some
employees take a short look at their emails on Sunday evening.
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Organising. Some participants organise their day in a way that it remains achievable and
prioritize between the things they have to do to fulfil a certain task and the things that are
nice to havebut not necessary for closing a deal.
Creating periods of non-availability. Some employees create periods during which they
are not available, for example by having separate phones for work and private use. For
successful periods of non-availability it is important to openly communicate them:I try to
avoid calls after 6 p.m. I simply say, I dont have time then.(P24).
Detachment activities. There is no universal detachment strategy to switch off from the
job. Rather, the participants apply a portfolio of different strategies to their workday like
doing sports or reading a newspaper. “When I go to run outside, for me its important
because in some way I switch off. In that hour I dont think about work.(P21).
Emotional detachment. Emotionally detaching refers to calling it a daywithout having
a bad conscience. IT professionals relativize the importance of their job in comparison to
their health and are aware that its only ICT, there are not people dying over there.(P33).
Being passionate. All participants in our study emphasize that they like what they are
doing. They make an effort to see the positive things of their job even in stressful periods:
“The amount of work required to understand some topics is very high (…). You are less
under stress the more you are passionate and you like the topic.(P14).
Networking. Since politics and tactical decisions influence corporate life in big
companies like Beta, knowing the right people can be very helpful. This enables employees
to get in contact with the right people for promotion or information: “What my manager
actually does very well is help me to get around the organisation.(P33).
Maintaining a trustful relationship to the manager. Many participants stress the
importance of a good emotional relationship to their manager. To avoid a poor managerial
support, they try to maintain a trustful relationship to their manager. In order to be able to
know what their manager expects from them and to fulfil those expectations, they regularly
ask for feedback on their performance.
Differences of Coping Strategies between Strain Categories
To identify differences in the coping strategies, we compared the statements of each strain
category regarding the coping strategies (table 2).
Level and type of stress
Coping strategy
High
Distress
Medium
Distress
Low/no
Distress
Eu-
stress
Preparing for the week in advance
()
()
Organising
Creating periods of non-availability
()
Detachment activities
Emotional detachment
Being passionate
Networking
()
()
()
Relationship management
Table 2. Coping strategies for each category. : applied, () : applied to a certain extent, : not applied
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We found differences in coping strategies between employees with high distress, medium
distress, low distress and eustress. We saw that individuals with high distress apply the least
coping strategies, and those with very low distress apply the most coping strategies. Our
findings thus suggest that employees with a high physiological and psychological well-
being use a larger portfolio of coping strategies.
The categories of medium distress and eustress are comparable regarding the number of
coping strategies, but differ in which coping strategies they use. Individuals with a medium
level of distress make use of strategies that create distance to the stressor like establishing
periods of non-availability or engaging in detachment activities. Employees with signs of
eustress do not apply those strategies but instead use more emotion focused coping
strategies, i.e. caring for a trustful relationship to their manager. Only individuals with a
very low level of distress apply all coping strategies named in the interviews and they are
the only ones who detach emotionally from the job. Apparently, emotional detachment is a
crucial factor for not only surviving but also excelling in a demanding work environment.
Discussion
Although research has already revealed several stressors of IT work, research on coping
strategies is sparse. We tried to close this gap and examined coping strategies for IT work
stressors. We saw that the IT professionals used the coping strategies for dealing with
specific stressors instead of applying a certain strategy to cope with all stressors.
They applied problem focused coping (Folkman & Lazarus, 1980) to alter the physical
and cognitive stressors. Physical stressors of IT work refer for example to the extensive
connection to ICT that employees manage via detachment or the creation of periods of non-
availability or to being on the road during the week, which they tackle by scheduling their
week in advance. Cognitive stressors refer to cognitive overload through a high workload
and an unpredictability of the working day which are managed by organising their day so
that it remains achievable. The external factors that dictate the IT professionalsday cannot
easily be modified and are deeply and unchangeably ingrained in their job (e.g. high
learning demands). Therefore, the employees applied emotion focused coping strategies
(Folkman & Lazarus, 1980) to change the emotions that are associated with the situation
for example by staying passionate about their job or engaging in emotional detachment.
We furthermore observed interindividual differences in the use of coping strategies. We
found that individuals with high physiological strain levels (i.e. eustress and high distress)
do not apply coping strategies that cover gaining distance to the stressor. Individuals with
eustress are not perceiving their situation as stressful and therefore might not feel the urge
to detach. Instead, they apply other strategies that help them feeling mentally energized,
through social support by a large network and a trustful relationship to their manager.
Individuals with a high distress do not apply many strategies at all. Employees with a
medium level of distress integrate especially problem focused strategies in their workday.
In comparison to participants with a high level of eustress, they feel the need to detach from
the stressor, which reduces their physiological strain level but does not lead to a very high
mental well-being. Employees with no distress apply all coping strategies. Apparently, a
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low level of physiological and psychological strain is only achieved by applying a large
portfolio of different coping strategies so that employees can cope with every stressor in a
particular way. Since they are the only ones who apply emotional detachment to their
workday, our findings suggest that a holistic detachment is necessary for sustainable well-
being. Only when detaching mentally and physically, IT professionals can stay healthy and
perform at a high level over an extended period instead of a rather temporary feeling of
being energized (i.e. eustress).
Conclusion
Based on a multimethod approach, our study contributes to literature on coping in IS by
(1) identifying the portfolio of coping strategies of IT professionals; (2) linking the coping
strategies to stressors of IT professionals and (3) identifying differences in coping portfolios
for different levels of distress as well as for eustress. Our findings can furthermore help
human resources departments in developing programs for sustainable high performance.
Human resources should support IT professionals in their learning process for example by
means of mentoring programs involving low distressed employees as role models. Also,
facilitating an organisational culture that acknowledges periods of non-availability and
detachment helps to retain the highly valued IT professionals.
References
Bhattacherjee, A., Davis, C. J., Connolly, A. J., & Hikmet, N. (2018). User response to
mandatory IT use: a coping theory perspective. European Journal of Information
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Folkman, S., & Lazarus, R. S. (1980). An Analysis of Coping in a Middle-Aged
Community Sample. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 21(3), 219–239.
Gallivan, M. J., Truex III, D. P., & Kvasny, L. (2004). Changing patterns in IT skill sets
1988-2003: A content analysis of classified advertising. Data Base for Advances in
Information Systems, 35(3), 64–87.
Ghapanchi, A. H., & Aurum, A. (2011). Antecedents to IT personnels intentions to leave:
A systematic literature review. Journal of Systems and Software, 84(2), 238–249.
Kim, H. G., Cheon, E. J., Bai, D. S., Lee, Y. H., & Koo, B. H. (2018). Stress and heart rate
variability: A meta-analysis and review of the literature. Psychiatry Investigation.
Moquin, R., Riemenschneider, C. K., & Wakefield, R. L. (2019). Psychological Contract
and Turnover Intention in the Information Technology Profession. Information
Systems Management, 36(2), 111–125.
Niederman, F., Ferratt, T. W., & Trauth, E. M. (2016). On the Co-Evolution of Information
Technology and Information Systems Personnel. The Data Base for Advances in
Information Systems, 47(1), 29–50.
Shropshire, J., & Kadlec, C. (2012). Im Leaving the IT Field: the Impact of Stress, Job
Insecurity, and Burnout on IT Professionals. International Journal of Information and
Communication Technology Research, 2(1), 6–16.
Tarafdar, M., Cooper, C. L., & Stich, J. F. (2019). The technostress trifecta - techno eustress,
techno distress and design: Theoretical directions and an agenda for research.
Information Systems Journal, 29(1), 642.
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