Hot To Avoid Burnout In Your Tech Team (And In You)
Management of people is probably the number one priority for any tech leader. Finding good people, providing the individual with sufficient autonomy to flourish and of course, aiming to build a team that is significantly greater than the sum of its parts.
A key pillar of managing people is to spot signs of discontent or burnout, and it’s crucial for you to give permission for the team to look after themselves.
This article looks at how culture creates the environment for burnout, and how you can manage it on behalf of your team, and yourself.
Part of the process of minimising stress and burnout is around creating a culture that encourages reasonable hours, the need for breaks, vacations, exercise and healthy eating. The press is currently full of Jack Ma (Alibaba) and his support for “996” and the culture of working 12 hours per day, 6 days a week but is that the world you want to build for your team?
But much of the culture, particularly within emerging and fast growth companies, is carved out by the founders and senior managers. The DNA of your company culture is forged early and can be very difficult to shift.
We covered the issue of managing with compassion with this earlier blog, but one of the risks in managing others, is neglecting yourself and for senior tech leaders, the real risk of failing to recognise your own exhaustion and potential burnout.
How you behave as a tech leader and manager is likely to be reflected in the culture and team that grows around you but also, what about the impact on you?
What does burnout feel like?
Ask people what it’s like to feel burned out, and you’re likely to hear some of the following:
“I’m frustrated! It’s quite impossible to do a good job, and the situation just keeps getting worse”
“I have lots of anger, and nowhere to take it.”
“I have lost my enthusiasm for work I liked.”
“I’m scared — is the job going to last?”
“I am getting more depressed every day on the job — and questioning whether I should stick with it.”
“I’m feeling overwhelmed, overloaded, overworked — and trapped.”
These are not positive emotions for any member of the team, not least for you.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the causes and impact of burnout.
Causes of Burnout
Each person expresses burnout in a unique way, but basic themes are the same:
Erosion of engagement with the job
What started as an important, meaningful, fascinating work becomes unpleasant, unfulfilling, and meaningless.
Erosion of emotions
At first, there are positive feelings of enthusiasm, dedication, security, and enjoyment. Then, these fade away and are replaced by anger, anxiety, and depression.
Failure to fit in
Individuals see this imbalance as a personal crisis. However, it is the workplace that is in trouble.
As the word erosion suggests, burnout is a gradual process of loss. This happens when there’s a mismatch between the needs of the person and the demands of the job. The demands of the workplace shape an individual’s experience. Then, the individual’s performance affects the workplace and all the people in it.
Thus, the erosion process has something of a chicken-and-egg quality — does it begin with the person or the job? — however, popular wisdom usually lays the blame on the individual.
We feel this is the wrong way to approach the problem of burnout. This kind of thinking won’t help us deal with burnout. The job context is as much a part of the downward spiral as the individual is, so it needs to be a part of any solution.
Erosion of Engagement
People don’t begin a job feeling burned out. At the very least, they hope it will provide a steady income and some security. They thought it regardless of whether they are thrilled about the actual work itself. In the best circumstances, people begin by feeling fully engaged with their work.
They feel energetic, ready to commit time and effort to the job tasks. The felt sense of accomplishment. The activities make them feel competent and effective.
Energy, involvement, and efficacy.
These are the direct opposites of the three dimensions of burnout. When burnout begins, the sense of engagement begins to fade. There is a corresponding shift from these three positive feelings to their negative counterparts. Energy turns into exhaustion, involvement turns into cynicism, and efficacy turns into effectiveness.
Erosion of Emotions : Frustration and Anger
Frustration and anger are the emotional hallmarks of burnout. You feel frustrated because you are blocked from achieving your goals. You cannot overcome the obstacles in your path. It happens either because you lack enough resources to do your job or because you lack control over the work.
You are not given the rewards you expect.
Not surprisingly, you feel ineffective.
However, you also feel exhausted as a result of wasted time and effort. The anger accompanies your frustration. These adverse fuel reactions toward people and cynicism about the job.
Having these adverse reactions, you may blame others for your problems. Then, you will respond to them aggressively and punitively. This is especially likely if your anger has been aroused in a context that you perceive as unfair. Furthermore, if you are angry, you are likely to be more rigid in how you do your work and less open to new alternatives.
Hostility results when people feel humiliated or embarrassed about the job. Hostility happens when people aren’t treated with respect and trust. It also happens if their work is not valued, their self-esteem and sense of competence are threatened. People begin to feel alienated from the workplace. They may even attempt destructive acts in retaliation such as theft or sabotage.
Fear and Anxiety
Fear and anxiety are two other negative emotions that contribute to burnout. These feelings are especially likely when people lack control over their work and when the job environment is uncertain or threatening one.
Worrying about the Future
This is the situation that many people face in the workplace today. There is common wisdom that people work better when they compete with others. However, worrying about the future may be a significant distraction. This may cause them to work with less attention, energy, and commitment.
Absence of Positive Emotions
However, burnout is not just about the presence of negative emotions. It is also about the absence of positive ones. When you feel engaged with your job, your work is enriched by your excitement. You welcome challenges and experience job satisfaction. You enjoy your relationships with others and take pride in enacting your values.
These positive emotions foster commitment and motivation. If the work makes you feel good, you’ll want to keep doing it well. Also, when you’re feeling good, you’re willing to put in extra effort, do something special. You’re creative and open to new solutions.
The enjoyment of success can balance out the pain of failures. It just happens whether the successes are big or a small appreciation from others. However, when positive feelings erode to the point of offsetting the negatives, cynicism worsens. Everything is judged and experienced negatively with distrust and hostility. The half-full glass is always empty.
People Problem rather than Job Problem?
Because burnout is so visible in the emotions and behaviors of individual employees. The common wisdom is that it is a “people problem” rather than a job problem.
Burnout = Weak
People who experience burnout are weak. They lack the psychological resilience needed to manage the work demands. The work world is a rough arena in which only the fit survives; burnout is a failure to survive.
Burnout = Irrational
People who experience burnout are irrational. Some people complain about everything. Moreover, burnout is just another way of complaining.
Burnout = Psychiatric Disorder
To others, burnout is a psychiatric disorder. Burnout is what clinical depression looks like when the patient manages to make it work.
Burnout = Symptom of Problems at Home
Alternatively, burnout is a symptom of problems at home. It may be difficulties with a marriage or with children wear a person down, reducing the capacity to work effectively.
Expectations of working hours
This is a classic cause of burnout, particularly within the start-up environment.
Being last out of office becomes almost a badge of honour, or dishonour if you’re first out.
This is almost always a culture set in place by the founders and often with utterly selfish motivations, work the team harder and harder for a reward that many will see little of — including the founders, when you consider the failure rates of start ups.
How to Avoid Burnout?
Interesting interview with Slack co-founder and CTO, Cal Henderson asked him how he prevented burnout;
“Listening to audiobooks. I listened to 140 books last year. Because an audiobook requires proper mental focus, it forces me to stop thinking about whatever I was thinking about before”
Workplace weariness costs businesses heavily so you have to mitigate the risks for your team and for yourself.
– Know your team well : get to know them as people and find out what makes them tick in and out of the office. We’re not talking overt intrusion here but it’s amazing how one or two social events allow people to express themselves and feel welcome. The better you know your team, the easier to spot changes of behaviour.
– Lead by example : Don’t just implement sustainable work practices for your team, live them for yourself. Don’t take on every burden yourself, delegate, communicate and if you don’t feel you have peer support, consider working with a mentor who can help give you a steer.
– Know thyself : The more comfortable you are in your own skin, the better you will recognise warning signs yourself. Understand what you want from life, from this moment in your life and beyond. Confirm your own non-negotiables, not just internally but with your team and peers. I need to collect my daughter at school — that’s a non-negotiable I won’t compromise on and it helps me retain my own equilibrium.
– Build meaning : Start ups, Fast Growth, Tech Teams, High Profile Products … all of these arenas are typically environments for high expectations, deadlines and burn out. Open door communication, buddy relationships, mentoring, outlets to discuss and debate in a positive, non deadline environment. Create buy-in, meaning and vision for each individual to share in where they and the group are heading. A happy and productive team relieves the pressure on the leaders and managers.
– Build a diverse team : Similarly, diversity has been shown to increase profitability. It also encourages a greater cultural mix and input.
– Find your outlet : Don’t hold onto everything yourself. Create an outlet to discuss the pressures. Find people you can share stuff with — Colleagues, Mentors, Friends. You might think you’re the only one suffering at the moment, but bags of others out there who will empathise and help.
– Don’t give up on the holidays : Not matter what pressure, get away from the office on a regular basis. Long weekends, music festivals, family holidays, tech free breaks. Crucial for maintaining your own good mental health and avoiding burnout.