Five ways to prevent digital transformation burnout

A frustrated IT team suffering from burnout, viewed from behind glass.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The rise of transformative technologies, most recently generative AI, has meant that businesses have had to move fast to capitalize on new opportunities and remain competitive. 

A paper silhouette of a head with a paper flame over where the brain would be, to indicate burnout on a brown background.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Can businesses use AI to beat burnout?

Digital transformation spending is forecast to grow to $3.9trn in 2027, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 16.1%, according to IDC estimates published last November. The acceleration in spending is inevitably leading to some businesses feeling the need to adopt each and every new innovation. The downside to this is that tech teams are under increasing pressure to implement and manage these technologies.

In their haste to avoid getting left behind by their competition, businesses risk pushing their teams too hard and putting them into burnout, which in turn can jeopardize their digital transformation strategies altogether. IT workers are under strain due to the pace of workplace changes, according to a 2023 report by Gartner, as employees struggle to keep up.

Andy Venables, CTO at managed service provider (MSP) PopX, has experience working on large international digital transformation projects and has seen firsthand the toll a project can take on employees. 

“There’s usually a requirement from the business to get to value as quickly as possible, and this can mean that the initial onboarding and go-live stages can be frantic. This is often at odds with what is practically achievable,” Venables tells ITPro. “Trying to do too much too soon can have a detrimental impact as it can divert attention and resources away from growing the business.”

Research by Gigged AI on the impact of burnout on digital transformation published [PDF] last September, found that 72% of UK businesses surveyed have a digital transformation project underway, yet 30% claim there’s too much work to do and not enough people working on the project to ensure that it’s completed successfully. 

Leaders looking to stave off digital transformation burnout, which can harm workers and put one’s digital transformation project at great risk and lead to spiraling digital transformation costs, should follow these key steps. 

Focus on the project objectives

According to Russell Crowley, co-founder of MSP Principle Networks, digital transformation burnout often occurs because “the people delivering the project become exhausted and disillusioned with their objective”. For all the effort digital transformation teams put into delivering a project, it needs to be exciting and rewarding, otherwise they might not be engaged enough to deliver the desired outcomes, he adds. 

Gen Z employees in particular can benefit from a clear purpose in the workplace, with workers from the same cohort also demanding employers are honest with them. Setting out a clear timeline linked to meaningful corporate missions is key.

Andy Whitehurst, CTO at IT consultancy Sopra Steria UK, argues: “Ideally, objectives should be meaningful and about more than just lining stakeholders’ pockets. For example, projects that can deliver clear and tangible value to society, or to the environment, are going to people’s attention for longer, especially the more junior members of the workforce.”

Communicate any project changes 

Regardless of the outcome businesses are hoping to achieve, they need to bear in mind that digital transformation is “a continuously evolving digital agenda”, as Crowley puts it, and therefore it’s inevitable that objectives are likely to change along the way. 

Leaders need to ensure that they’re keeping their teams in the loop to prevent digital transformation burnout, updating them on the progress of any changes to the project. Collaborating with the HR department can also ensure that the right digital and technical upskilling is provided during the onboarding process and as part of employee development, says Tavier Taylor, CTO at the Chartered Management Institute (CMI). “Job descriptions need to be updated to reflect new roles and responsibilities and there should also be pay increases reflecting these new responsibilities,” she adds.

Appoint someone to rally project support 

While employees don’t need their hands held during a project, they will inevitably have concerns and questions along the journey. Leaders should consider having a dedicated person within their team who can address concerns and create a supportive environment that can help rally project support and boost team morale. 

“Appointing someone who can help you to look beyond the project delivery can transform the work atmosphere. This role could involve organizing regular team outings and feedback sessions, which can significantly reduce stress levels,” says Geoff Shepherd, CEO at digital transformation specialist SRVCD.

Taylor adds that the appointed person “should be identified and introduced to staff early on, to make the process simple for employees to reach out and ask questions.”

CIOs take responsibility for convincing shareholders to invest in digital transformation, but must also have a good range of soft skills to keep digital transformation burnout at bay. This doesn’t mean that CIOs alone have to shoulder the burden of rallying employee support, as a greater range of leaders within a business can get involved in good mentorship schemes and promote a healthy environment for employee mental health.

Celebrate project successes 

With digital transformation teams often working flat out, small acts of recognition can go a long way, says Shepherd. This could be celebrating weekly achievements, the completion of an individual project, or simply a personal triumph. 

Whitehurst agrees with this: “Openly celebrating success and reporting transparently on the incremental value delivered to date will keep team members engaged. This will help prevent them from burning out during long and challenging projects.”

Know when to slow the project's pace 

No matter how well a project has been going, or how often the small wins are celebrated, leaders must know when to take their foot off the accelerator. 

According to Kin + Carta’s 2024 Leadership Priorities in Tech report, 35% of more than 800 leaders expressed anxiety over AI and machine learning (ML) due to the technologies moving too fast. By trying to keep pace with technological developments, businesses can end up overburdening their teams.

“Leaders need to be attuned to their team’s capacity and adjust timelines and expectations to keep the team engaged. This can ensure the quality and sustainability of the transformation process,” says Shepherd. “Accepting your team’s need for a slowdown when there are high levels of stress should be in every leader’s playbook.”

Rich McEachran

Rich is a freelance journalist writing about business and technology for national, B2B and trade publications. While his specialist areas are digital transformation and leadership and workplace issues, he’s also covered everything from how AI can be used to manage inventory levels during stock shortages to how digital twins can transform healthcare. You can follow Rich on LinkedIn.