10 tips to help CIOs reduce stress

Too much work-related stress is unhealthy, but reducing it may be easier than you think.

stressed man busy over worked overload burdened
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The role of CIO can be a stressful one, and living under stress is something everyone should avoid. That's because overexposure to cortisol and other hormones that are released in times of stress can lead to health problems including anxiety, depression, sleep problems and heart disease.

The good news is that there are plenty of things you can do to help remove the stress associated with a C-level position. Here are some tips from fellow executives.

Security stress

Tip 1: Know your network architecture like the back of your hand

A key to a good night's sleep is knowing exactly what you're responsible for -- how many data centers you have, where they are, where your critical applications are located and so on -- says Jeff Schilling, CSO of cybersecurity company Armor. "I am always surprised when I meet a CIO or senior IT leader in an organization and they can't describe their IT architecture," he says. "I lose sleep at night if I don’t know how my network is put together and what I need to do to protect it."

He suggests that to be in a position to do this you may need to make an investment in tools that help discover and track infrastructure in a change mManagement database if you don't have them already.

Tip 2: If you don't know it, block it

The last thing you want on your network is activity that you're either not aware of or uncertain as to its cause. But thanks to next-generation firewalls it's now possible to get a complete handle on what applications are in use on your network, and who is using them. What's more, you can control who can use what, and block everything else, says Rick Howard, CSO of enterprise security company Palo Alto Networks.

"If a CIO already knows the authorized applications and the users that run them, then any malicious behavior that pops up, like Command & Control activity and unauthorized data exfiltration, is by default an unknown application that can be blocked automatically," he says.  "Impact: CIO stress reduction."

Tip 3: Get serious about policies

It's exposure to risk that's a significant cause of CIO headaches, but IT security is all about risk management.  By judiciously applying appropriate policies to regulate what systems and data different users can access -- both internally and externally -- you can reduce these headaches, says Andrew Wertkin, CTO at software defined networking software company BlueCat Networks.

[Related: How to deal with a manager who hates you]

"Put controls in place to limit access to services or systems that aren’t necessary to support the business and your risk exposure goes down dramatically," he says.

Management stress

Tip 4: Network, network, network

One of the best ways to reduce job stress is to connect with other CIOs to share your challenges, exchange advice and see what other people are stressed about and how they deal with it, according to Kendra Von Esh,  a former CIO at Veolia who is now executive strategic advisor at Coupa, a cloud-based spend management software company.

"You may gain new perspectives, and you may find that your situation is not so bad after all if your peers are also experiencing the same or perhaps even worse challenges," she says.

"You'll also get the opportunity to experience some empathy, while realizing that you are not in this IT world alone," she adds. "And who knows, you might even find another opportunity that is less stressful than the one you are in now!"

Tip 5: Don't let keeping the lights on ruin your sleep

Many CIOs feel that their budgets are stretched to the limit by the challenges of keeping existing systems running -- leaving nothing for new projects to support changing needs as the business evolve.

But Geoff Webb, a vice president of global software company Micro Focus, says new approaches to application re-use, and a better understanding  of the role of DevOps, mean you can do much more with very little resources. "There are more and more ways to better leverage current investment in core business applications and data to build the next generation of business services," he says.

Tip 6: Mix with your colleagues

As a CIO you have to come to terms with the fact that the rest of your business almost certainly doesn't realize the complexity of your role as CIO — from managing both front- and back-office customers to keeping up with the ever-changing landscape of technology and service offerings.

So Kendra Von Esh says one way to reduce stress is to meet with colleagues frequently to inform them on progress, updates, and changes and to set overall expectations. "This will ensure that your business is not surprised by changes, plus they will appreciate the regular updates individually instead of at monthly or quarterly management update meetings," she says.

Tip 7: Let the cloud do the work

Cloud service providers often have vast experience and high levels of expertise running commodity software, so why not take advantage of cloud services whenever appropriate, says Von Esh.

"Outsource the stressful parts of IT because hosting hardware, managed services and SaaS solutions can help take the stress off of you and your staff and put it somewhere better, faster and cheaper," she says. "Instead focus on revenue generating activities and how you can turn your organization into a profit center rather than a cost center."

Personal stress

Tip 8: Ration yourself

It may sound obvious, but making sure you are working on the right things by prioritizing your activities in line with your company's  IT goals can go a long way to helping your life become less stressful, says Cynthia Stoddard, CIO at data storage company NetApp.

She also advises against trying to be everywhere for everyone.  "While it’s important to be available, don't instantly give people your attention unless it's absolutely crucial in your business to offer an immediate human response. Instead, schedule time to answer email and return phone calls."

Tip 9: Take timeouts to recharge

Steve Phillpott, CIO at hard drive manufacturer Western Digital Corporation, recommends taking a break from technology for a few minutes every now and again rather than gritting your teeth and ploughing on with your job without relent.

"Rather than allowing technology to cause you stress, know when to step away and recharge.  If you are tempted to check your email during this break, take an extra few seconds and ask if refreshing email for the umpteenth time will really make a difference," he says.  "When you return to technology, you will have renewed energy."

Tip 10: Don’t forget to take a vacation

Your team and your business will benefit if you are mentally and physically strong, and that means taking a rest from it all now and again -- however indispensable you may feel you are.

That may take a little planning, but it's not impossible, says Cynthia Stoddard. "To ensure your vacation is stress-free, create and communicate a straightforward plan for your team that sets expectations and covers the 'what ifs' and 'must dos' while you’re out," she says.

This story, "10 tips to help CIOs reduce stress" was originally published by CIO.

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