Stress levels in the IT department are on the up. Anton Levchuk, marketing director of Famatech looks at the causes and suggests a simple technological solution for keeping the collective IT blood pressure under control.

Dentists might have the highest suicide rate by profession, but the highest stress levels can be found in the IT department. Last year a Skillsoft survey found that 97 per cent of IT managers claimed to feel stressed about their work on a daily basis.

That puts them above teachers, fire fighters, paramedics, policemen, engineers and - one to bear in mind at the next company get-together - above sales and marketing professionals.

Further examination of the results shows that - in anticipation of another day juggling complaints, pressure from managers and daily targets - four out of five IT consultants feel stressed before they even get to the office. A quarter of IT experts are under such enormous pressure to perform at work they have taken time off suffering with stress.

It's not so much an IT department as an IT pressure cooker.

So what makes IT so stressful? Everybody enjoys a good whinge in the pub after work, so is it just that IT professionals are particularly good at exaggerating the horrors of the working day?

The answer has to be an emphatic no. Wherever you fit into the IT pecking order, the chances are, there's very real and almost constant pressure being applied.

So, workers on the IT front-line - the systems analysts, project designers, and programmers - have to manage client expectations, while juggling resources and attempting to meet a series of unlikely, if not downright impossible, deadlines.

They have to deal with a wide range of interested and often interfering individuals, with different priorities. And, on top of all this, they have managers with an eye firmly on targets - both internal and external - and a desire to see the project come in under budget.

But bad as it can sometimes be on the project-delivery side, it is at the help desk that the heat is really turned up. The Gartner Group claims that supporting untrained or under trained desktop users costs five times more than keeping a well-trained worker up and running on their PC.

One harassed soul from the survey explains why: 'I spend most of my day fielding calls from people who don't even have a basic knowledge of computers and printers. It is amazing the amount of time I spend teaching people where the on-off button is. And when I do actually find a technical problem to solve, I have my manager breathing down my neck wondering why I have a backlog of complaints.'

Aside from the content of the call, the behaviour of the caller adds its own unique set of pressures. Stress is a pretty contagious disease. And a user, who is provoked to anger by a malfunctioning piece of equipment, is likely to pass on their anger to the help desk. As a result, four in five IT support workers have been verbally abused by callers. And about one in five admitted to receiving calls that were so bad that they considered quitting on the spot.

Unlike their colleagues in systems analysis, help-desk workers often have very little control over workload or workflow. IT plays such a central role in most organisations that most employees have some form of personal relationship with it, and almost every function relies on it working at optimal levels.

So there will always be a constant stream of calls ranging from the mundane to the challenging. But added to that will be the deluge of irate demands should a universal system stop working. Woe betide the help desk worker if the CEO is denied access to his email - even temporarily.

One of the more philosophical members of the Famatech user forum equates the problems of the IT department with a wider demand for speed and immediacy.

He points out that even when shopping for groceries we demand a far faster speed in service. As we become accustomed to improvements in the time it takes to accomplish our various daily tasks, we don't find ourselves with more available time - we just fill it with new tasks that we didn't have time for in the past. This in turn creates more internal stress and a sense of entitlement - we expect to have everything working when we need it.

'We are impatient with any interruption in our routine because it reduces the time available to meet all the demands we've placed on ourselves,' he continues. 'Collectively this adds pressure to an IT department that there will be no interruption in access to the internet, or the hardware that is our lifeline to it.'

On a more practical level, a shortage of competent staff also ratchets up the pressure and the user/ help desk support ratio does not work in the IT expert's favour, particularly in medium-sized and growing organisations. As we know from endless reports of skills-shortages, raw talent is getting rarer and hence more expensive. Managers are reluctant to invest in extra support staff even when their company - and its head count - is growing.

Finally, there's the way that the IT support function is measured. The old argument about quality versus quantity is endlessly debated when it comes to any support function. But, in general, IT staff are measured in terms of response time, the number of issues dealt with every hour, and the number of outstanding complaints. Customer satisfaction and quality of response are lower down the list.

The good news is that one of the key user demands is also one of the ways to relieve the pressure. When asked how service desks could be improved, users suggested doing away with automated voice systems - which probably wouldn't help much - and giving support staff the technology to solve problems remotely - which almost certainly would.

Remote administration allows support staff to maximise their time as it gives them immediate access to all the PCs, laptops and mobile devices they support. No more dashing around the building, or indeed various offices and sites, just seamless support instead.

In addition, remote administration means that 'blind' help is a thing of the past. Instead of talking the user through various screens without being able to see what is happening, IT staff can explain what they are doing while users can watch them control the problem PC.

This means that repair calls become more like a training session, which is more efficient in the short term and is likely to reduce the number of service calls made in the future. This obviously reduces the amount if time that IT support staff spend on more routine tasks, freeing them up for more critical and challenging issues, but also enhances the user's productivity.

More generally it improves everyone's relationship with their IT. The PC is no longer a completely alien machine that doesn't do as it’s told, but a familiar tool that responds to user demand. The result is less stress for everyone.

Of course, remote administration is not a miracle cure. Bad management, bad work practices, staff shortages and unreasonable requests all play their part - and remote administration isn't going to cure them. But it can, and does, have a calming effect by making support quicker, easier and more efficient.