Stress and Technology Support

Why do we get stressed? When don’t we get stressed? People often remark that IT staff have a capacity to project calm in the face of computer crisis. On the one hand, this attitude is a deliberate strategy to help the user feel a sense of hope that their computer problem will be resolved. On the other hand, it serves as a coping mechanism for IT staff, who face dozens of problems that require resolution each day. If we stressed about each one of these, the pressure of our jobs would be intolerable. Finally, we have enough technical expertise that we have seen most technical problems before. Knowledge about what may be going on — or at least a high level of comfort with ambiguity — helps us feel like we are in familiar territory, and that we will likely be able to solve the problem. The same may be said for veteran teachers and school administrators. Despite the complex demands of their jobs, they have the experience to avoid stress about each and every challenge that appears during the day.

In Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Robert Sapolsky explores the physiological causes of stress. He starts with an observation: despite their dangerous lives, wild animals do not exhibit the indicators of stress that humans do — ulcers, high blood pressure, heart disease. Freed from the threat of being eaten by lions, shouldn’t humans exhibit less stress than zebras? Sapolsky found that stress is a result of the high level of physiological awareness known as the “fight or flight response.” Senses are on high alert and the body is ready to move quickly if need be to escape imminent danger. This adaptation is essential for zebras, but the duration is extremely short. Animals are on high alert for only a period of minutes, then they return to an unstressed physiological state. Humans, though the expansion of their cognitive abilities, have misapplied this adaptation to the routine tasks of daily life. We remain stressed for extended periods of time, a condition to which our bodies are not well adapted, leading to chronic physiological breakdown.

What can IT staff do to reduce stress, both to themselves and their customers? Adopt an orientation that most technical problems can be solved or at least ameliorated. Project optimism. Respond quickly to the support needs of users, so that they feel well supported. Devote at least one-quarter of your department resources to training and communication, so that you build the capacity of users to help themselves. Keep systems running smoothly, so that you are not constantly putting out fires, and users gain an expectation that technology works.

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