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Burnout risk during this pandemic

I miss my commute to work. That’s something I never thought I would say! Working from home continually seemed like a dream at the start, an extra lie in each morning followed by the first catch up online in my dressing gown. But over the months I realised that work and life have blended into one, I have lost that separation. My commute gave me that, it was my mental way to separate the two. Many of us are in the same situation, forced to work remotely, we’re ‘always on’ and likely putting in more hours than pre-Covid. This should cause a few alarm bells to go off as burnout could be on the horizon!

I enjoy communicating with people, whether it’s in meetings or simply socially around the office. I miss the face-to-face connection. Zoom calls can only do so much, they certainly don’t help with the casual conversations while making tea. I’ve seen people struggling with this also or for different reasons and to different degrees. We need to be conscious of the dangers of working in situations we’re not used to. Our minds are full of concerns around when will this pandemic end and worries for our family and friends. Our hope can diminish without an end in sight. On top of that work continues which potentially adds more pressure on ourselves. Over time it can have adverse effects on our bodies leading to stress and burnout.

So, what can we do? I recommend watching Ashley McNamara’s video – The Thing About Burnout. This short video (13 mins) is very relevant now. She shares how burnout takes time before it finally hits. As it’s something that builds up there are things we can do to prevent it. Individually we can take steps like getting clarity on your work, stop multitasking, and setting boundaries. Ashley shares more tips each of us can do but I want to focus on her tips for managers.

  1. Be clear about expectations – clarity is often overlooked, but if someone is asked to work on something they don’t fully understand it can cause anxiety, particularly when they are remote.
  2. Help them understand their value – people need to hear the value they bring. This is essential when fully remote and some may be isolated. Share with them about how pleased you are with some recent work of theirs, ask questions and show an interest. Simple for a manager, could make a person’s day.
  3. Enforce reasonable work hours – flexible work is essential, it allows people to work how they are comfortable. Usually there are core hours when people should be around (depending on timezone), but outside of that trust your team. Encourage you team to take breaks during the day, even get out for a some exercise if they’re able.
  4. Don’t send email/slack message after 5pm – for people receiving messages in the evening it can cause confusion or worry about whether they should reply. This is even if you add “reply tomorrow” to the message. Best to avoid unless something is on fire.
  5. Encourage people to take all their holiday time – it’s not easy when foreign travel is restricted, but taking time out is important. You often don’t realise the benefits until after. Be a role model yourself and use your holiday allocation – you need it too!
  6. Have regular 1:1’s & actively listen – team members need this as much as the managers. In the current climate make part of the 1:1 social, ask how they are and their family. Ask questions and show you care about them. 1:1’s are essential normally, even more so when fully remote.
  7. Don’t only recognise big wins. The small stuff matters too – I’m missing being around the office and observing people interact, you learn a lot. Usually good things, where you see people working together on a problem. It’s a behaviour to recognise. There are many other good things that people do that should be shared, it reinforces the positive behaviour.
  8. Remember what’s really important – burnout doesn’t only affect you. Why are you working? Family – find out what means the most to each person in your team and do what you can to help them spend more time there.

These are simple tips that, if carried out, can reduce the risk of burnout in your teams.

Here’s the video:

As leaders we have a responsibility for the people in our teams. Their wellbeing should be a priority for you so find additional ways you can support your teams. I believe maintaining a good level of communication is also essential, as we’re fully remote we don’t want anyone missing out or hearing through a grapevine. For information you receive ask yourself if this should be shared, not everything should be but many items could be useful for people to know. Share these in an appropriate way. I’m tending to avoid sharing via email if I can now as I find it the least interactive. I prefer to use team meetings or team slack channels where you can engage with the team too.

Another area to look at are the processes within in your company, they may also be increasing the chances of burnout. In Accelerate, there is a section on burnout and how DevOps can help. They share the five most correlated factors, which are: organisation culture; deployment pain; effectiveness of leaders; organisational investments in DevOps; organisational performance. Each of these could be covered in some depth but be aware of how your organisation operates could have a detrimental affect on its people. Identifying key areas of improvement in the processes could make a big difference to employee health.

Managers can also be pro-active in looking for signs in their team. Is anyone acting out of character when you speak to them? Are they being distant from team chats? Not every sign will be an issue but having good relationships with your teams mean you’re more likely to spot situations that are unusual. Then you can decide if you need to act. Even GitHub can give you a sign are you can see:

GitHub activity showing lead up to burnout

Jonnie Hallman’s shares more details of his burnout experience on this thread.

Deteriorating mental health is a very present danger, even more so in our current climate. Leaders have a duty to look after their teams and make every effort to safeguard each person (including themselves) from burnout or other mental health risks. We are all in this together. It’s not always easy but thankfully there is plenty of information available to help identify and support people through different situations.

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