When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Keep a Sense of Humor


According to newly released survey data, U.S. workers in privately held companies tend to be less stressed than their counterparts in other countries around the world. Other recent research suggests that IT workers in particular are less stressed than workers in other professions. So the survey mavens would have us believe that if you're a U.S. IT worker, your job is relatively non-stressful.


These survey results don't surprise me, because I've been around IT professionals for 20 years, and I have a good sense of what those findings really mean. What I've learned is that it's not the case that IT jobs in the U.S. are inherently less stressful. It's just that U.S. IT workers tend to be particularly good at handling the stress.


Let's look at the data. The results of a November survey released yesterday by Grant Thornton International, an accounting firm based in Chicago, show that the five most stressful countries for workers in privately held companies are China, Mexico, Turkey, Vietnam and Greece. The global average stress index was 56, and the U.S. came in at 50. By comparison, the index for China was 76, and Sweden, the least stressful country on the list, came in at 23.


Moving to IT workers in particular, according to the 2009 Jobs Rated Report produced by CareerCast.com, not one of the top eight most stressful jobs lies within the realm of IT. Those jobs are:


Commercial Airline Pilot
Advertising Account Executive

Real Estate Agent
Physician (General Practice)
Reporter (Newspaper)
Physician Assistant


On the other end of the scale, the eight least stressful professions include two IT jobs: computer systems analyst and software engineer. And the only two jobs you could have that are less stressful than computer systems analyst, according to this research, are actuary and dietician. Here's the list:


Computer Systems Analyst
Software Engineer


Computerworld's 2009 Salary Survey of 5,000 IT professionals at all levels, meanwhile, found that less than half (47 percent) consider their jobs to be either "stressful" or "very stressful." And despite the economic craziness of the past year, only 25 percent of respondents said their job was less stressful a year ago. Sixteen percent said it was more stressful a year ago.


Next page: We should get more credit for our great senses of humor


To anyone who hasn't spent a career in or around the IT profession, the numbers would suggest that IT is a relatively low-stress career field, despite the fact that the work is quintessentially mission-critical. Yet we all know that the very nature of the job is such that it's necessarily high-stress. Regardless of what you do in IT, if you get something wrong or if something goes wrong on your watch, the ramifications are disruptive at best, and potentially catastrophic.

My contention is that IT professionals tend to be wired in a way that enables them to cope with stress more successfully than people in other professions, so when asked, they're inclined to minimize the stress level. It's like an individual's threshold for pain: When a doctor asks a patient to describe his pain level on a scale from 0 to 10, one person's 2 is another person's 8.

There may be any number of reasons why IT workers might have a high threshold for stress, but my observation is that a lot of it has to do with the fact that the typical IT professional has an amazingly good sense of humor. I've heard countless IT pros say that you just can't make it in this profession without a sense of humor, and I'm convinced they're right. Simply put, people in IT tend to have an unquenchable ability to laugh.

That observation was crystallized this week at the Midmarket CIO Forum in Orlando, where CIOs and other IT executives from around the country gathered to share their experiences. Despite the severe challenges that virtually every CIO is facing in these times of economic hardship, and the seriousness of the technology issues confronting them, there was simply no room on anyone's agenda for somberness. To the contrary, the refreshing, uplifting sound of laughter could at one point or another be heard in session after session, in meeting room after meeting room. The healthiness of that can't be overstated.

And for what it's worth, I've spent almost a third of my life outside of the U.S., and I've come to recognize that one of our best attributes as Americans is that we tend to have the fortitude to laugh. We're certainly not the only ones, but we're definitely in the top tier. So it's probably not really the case that U.S. workers as a whole are under relatively low stress, either.