Work Stress Factors Among
Information Systems Professionals
University of Winnipeg
4M60 - 515 Portage Ave.
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, R3B 2E9
The purpose of this research in progress is to assess the degree of reported job stress among IS professionals in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada and other Manitoba centres, and to determine which hypothesized factors are reported by a majority of employees as being major contributors to their stress. Analysis will then be carried out to investigate a significant relationship between reported degrees of experienced stress, perceived stress factors, and personal characteristics of the employee, the computing environment (technical and managerial) and the employing organization.
The first phase of this project has consisted of a literature survey and a series of interviews with selected local IS workers. This effort has provided a clearer understanding of factors and issues to include in a "Stress Assessment Questionnaire". The second phase has involved development, testing and administration of the survey instrument. This is still being carried out. The final phase will encompass data entry, data tabulation and analysis along with identification and presentation of noteworthy results.
Insights from this exploratory research should be of significant value to middle and higher-level Information Systems managers as well as to Human Resource staff. Organizations which are expecting a significant contribution to effectiveness and competitive advantage from investments in innovative information technologies should indeed be interested in maintaining a work atmosphere conducive to creative effort. Also, this initial work is expected to give rise to other, related research studies and to initiate practical efforts in education and support for affected Information Systems personnel.
MOTIVATION FOR RESEARCH
"Organizational effectiveness" is a common phrase in today's business management environments. Economic conditions and technological capacity are initiating comprehensive re-organization of many businesses, large and small. The "Total Quality Management" concept is being increasingly promoted. In this setting, organizational Information Systems departments are often themselves being downsized and re-engineered in order to support cost-effectively new organizational structures and strategic directions.
With basic, computerized reporting systems mostly in place, IS professionals are being relied upon to produce, with often demanding deadlines, innovative computer applications which enhance the competitive position. In addition, the IS workers are faced with rapidly and continuously changing technologies and methodologies, a phenomenon likely not evidenced before in history. While technological change has had an impact on individuals in many professions, this change is even more immediate, more direct for the IS worker. He / she is often forced to change working languages, equipment, and even entire development paradigms amidst comprehensive re-structuring with its initial ambiguities and amidst ever increasing demands.
Few professionals are faced with as much direct obsolescence of key skills as are computer programmers. Moreover, the change required in skills and in entire mind set (as, for example, in the object-oriented paradigm) is not a one-time occurrence. As pointed out by noted IS consultant Ed Yourdon in his "career survival" newsletter, today's software engineers face a real dilemma: "What's the point in learning to be really good at something if it's going to become obsolete at the rate of 20% per year?" .
Also, North American computer professionals collectively are facing increasing competition from counterparts in India, South America, Russia, etc., since programs can be written and tested for a fraction of the cost in such locations and transmitted electronically to the required site. Change and uncertainty have undoubtedly characterized the working climate for today's IS professional. Furthermore, the effectiveness of potentially impactful computer applications often depends on successful, synergistic communication between systems analysts (developers) and organizational managers (end-users). As evident in considerable literature, such communication is often severely hampered by profoundly differing perspectives on the organization held by managers and systems analysts. For the IS analyst, there is the pressure to use a (communication) skill in which he often has had little training. On the other hand, the user, often, may have little appreciation for the environment and work detail of the analyst and may impose what the analyst feels are unrealistic deadlines and expectations.
Thus, there is considerable reason to believe that the IS professional (applications programmer, data or systems analyst etc.) today is significantly more at risk of serious "burnout" than his counterpart of 20-25 years ago. In his 1984 effort, Technostress , Craig Brod points out that "high performance (requirements) with high technology can exercise a dangerous influence on the human personality... anyone who is constantly working or playing with computers is at risk". Psychologist Mary Riley points out dysfunctional behaviours arising when "high touch has not kept up with high tech". Khosrowpour and Culpan have published a stress-related study applied to individuals working in computer-related fields. In it, they remark: "Information processing professionals see change in technology as a pre-requisite for their existence, yet the speed of this change can have profound psychological and physiological effects". In their survey with 231 responses, "a large majority agreed with the statements that change in computer technology creates pressure". The authors conclude that " the men and women who plan, design, and monitor these systems have experienced greater technostress in their jobs and environments". Such technostress is not at all likely to disappear in the foreseeable future.
Recently, an April, 1997 article by Robert Glass in Communications of the ACM , reports programmer stress as being "extremely common and extremely problematic" and points out that ".. deep thinking is easily affected by stress". Locally, a number of IS professionals have echoed concerns about rising stress levels in their jobs and have indicated their willingness to be part of a concerted effort to provide stress relief. However, it is felt that before such a problem can be addressed with adequate, practical assistance, the existing problem must be better understood. Although considerable stress research literature exists in the context of organizational management in general, specific stress studies applied to the computer field are not abundant. In addition to the above quoted study, Ivancevich, Napier, and Wetherbe reported on "An Empirical Study of Occupational Stress, Attitudes, and Health Among Information System Employees". Stress management articles, such as the one by Kleiner and Geil, Engler, and Fujigaki have appeared in computer professionals' journals.
This research attempts to expand on the work of Khosrowpour and Culpan in analyzing not only the stress effects of rapid technological change, but also of factors such as re-structuring and / or downsizing of the IS department, apparent obsolescence of skills, stringent user deadlines, and lack of management support. Relationship between geographical location (Winnipeg vs. other Manitoba centres) and degree of reported stress can be examined. Results of this initial effort can provide valuable insight for IS workers, their managers, and also for other Information Systems researchers.
The first phase of this project has involved a survey of stress-related research literature, particularly as applied to work in business organizations. Relevant articles have been collected, classified, and summarized (e.g., Igbaria et al., Li and Shani, Singh, Sonnentag et al., and Weiss). Attempts were made to extract information as to: i) perceived causes of work stress (e.g. Jick and Burke), ii) personal factors related to experienced work stress, iii) categorization of identified stressors (e.g. Ivancevich and Matteson) and iv) effectiveness of efforts initiated to reduce occupational stress (e.g. Newman and Beehr ). Such a preliminary orientation provides an initial frame of reference for current work and could also initiate a "clearinghouse", possibly Web-based, of occupational stress related literature for specific stress management programs for IS professionals in the future.
Stress models applied to IS
In literature attempting to analyze stress within the IS profession, it is accepted that occupational stress is related chiefly to the interaction of the person factors with work environment factors. Ivancevich et al.  propose a model which first identifies Work Environment Stressors as related to i) Job (time pressures, job scope, obsolescence), ii) Role (ambiguity, conflict) iii) Career (development) and iv) Organization (rewards, change, communication). They then identify Person (Individual) Factors such as self-confidence, decisiveness, tolerance of ambiguity and locus of control. Stress ("the physical or psychological condition of a person that puts him or her under strain, and that threatens the person by stimulating him or her beyond their limits") arises from the interaction of Work Environment and Person Factors and results in Outcomes which can be classified as i) Psychological (satisfaction, commitment, tension), ii) Physical / Behavioural
(blood pressure, cholesterol, smoking, drinking) and iii) Organizational (absenteeism, turnover). Young , in his study, has also applied an adapted version of this model. Wastell and Newman  present an eclectic model of work-related stress and organizational behaviour similar to the one above, cast in cause-effect terms. It identifies Sources of Stress at Work (physical working conditions, role factors, interpersonal conflict, over/under promotion, job insecurity and organizational change). These sources interact with Individual Characteristics, Organizational Context, and Work Group Factors, yielding Individual Symptoms (e.g., poor health, absenteeism, resistance to change, ego defense mechanisms) as well as Group Symptoms (e.g., groupthink, internecine strife).
The second phase of the research involves the development of a "Stress Assessment Questionnaire" to be distributed to different types of IS workers in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada and other Manitoba centres (e.g., Portage, Brandon, The Pas, Thompson, Churchill). The questionnaire, to be answered anonymously, is motivated by an adaptation of the model of Ivancevich et al. Work Environment factors considered include location (Winnipeg, or smaller centres), full or part-time work, and type of organization / industry, as well as rapid change in technology and methodology. Person factors include highest level of formal education, motivation factors related to the Enneagram personality types , and degree of emotional dependency on the job. Outcomes consider common physical symptoms as well as commonly experienced feelings. There is an opportunity for the person to assess (on a 7-point Likert scale) the degree of his / her experienced job stress, the degree of severity of common symptoms, and the degree of perceived contribution to this stress of commonly identified factors. Some of these factors are general enough to apply to a variety of occupations, while others are related specifically to facets of IS work.
In addition, respondents are asked for an assessment of their decreased productivity due to excessive work stress and for an identification of four most prominent stress factors. Respondents are also asked to identify and assess stress-relieving techniques which they have tried seriously. As well, they are asked to rank working condition improvements which would likely reduce their stress significantly and to identify most desirable IS stress relief efforts which could be undertaken by employing organizations and professional associations.
Questionnaire distribution has been ongoing since January, 1998. To date, over 60 responses have been received and preliminary tabulations have been done. Over 200 responses are expected at the completion of the survey. Following are initial highlights:
How stressful is your current position?
Stressful - 34%
? - 17%
Not that stressful - 49%
How close to burnout are you?
Not close - 70%
? - 11%
Close - 18%
How reasonable are your deadlines?
Reasonable - 45%
? - 11%
Not reasonable - 43%
Is rapid change a characteristic of your job?
Yes - 67%
? - 11%
No - 22%
Has IS stress level increased in the last 8 years?
No - 10%
Moderately - 23%
Significantly - 47%
Dramatically - 20%
Why has it increased?
Rapid changes, need to perform more with less, increase in computer use, unrealistic expectations of users...
Commonly experienced feelings:
pride in accomplishments
Common stress symptoms:
decrease in energy
Effective techniques for de-stressing:
Are IS managers not aware enough of employee stress?
Yes - 39%
? - 28%
No - 33%
Is there significant absenteeism due to stress?
Yes - 54%
? - 30%
No - 16%
Should there be a specific effort to combat stress in the IS profession?
Yes - 50%
? - 31%
No - 19%
While the above are preliminary results with over 80% of responses coming from one company, some points are noteworthy. It does not appear that stress is affecting nearly everyone of the respondents. There seems to be a group of fairly satisfied workers who are energized by their work. However, a significant fraction is reporting stress symptoms which will likely continue to impede their work performance. Absenteeism may be an increasing problem. Also, it is worth noting that 50% of the respondents favour a concerted effort to combat stress within the IS profession.
Further analysis should provide insight into questions such as: i) what is the motivation level of different types of IS workers, as well as the main motivating factor, ii) how close are the individuals to "burnout", and do they feel likely to develop a serious illness within x years, iii) what are the common perceived stress factors among IS professionals (rapid change, unreasonable deadlines, work overload, lack of feedback etc.), iv) what are the common experienced stress symptoms, v) what are the most common feelings experienced by IS personnel at work, and do these differ with position type, vi) what stress relief techniques have been seriously tried, and with what degree of success, viii) should IS personnel be managed differently than other business personnel, and ix)what are the main working condition improvements that employing organizations could initiate.
Subsequent analysis would provide crosstabulation with various demographic characteristics of the respondents to highlight areas of statistical significance.
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