Burnout is increasingly common during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here’s how to cope effectively
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we all work, connect and live. Many teams have been forced to transition their work into their homes and to learn ways to organize and execute that they aren’t used to. For product and engineering teams, development now occurs in isolation; meetings are held via email, messaging app or calls; and decisions are made asynchronously. The feedback loop we are used to has slowed and often links in the chain are broken. Additionally, our working environments have changed dramatically—many of us are working from unfamiliar environments unsuited to focused work, while juggling the needs of those we live with who also need space to work or who may be learning to operate without a job or school to go to.
This is a new kind of stress that most of us have never before experienced. Expecting to complete projects in the same manner as before while working in a different environment and moving at the same pace is inevitably going to cause burnout. On top of that, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many businesses—especially online retailers—to ramp up their project development and even start brand new projects to adjust to the new normal.
Burnout is more common within organizations than many like to believe. It can’t be measured easily by the number of hours worked or the amount of sleep one gets. It is more often related to prolonged stretches of elevated pressure and to operating from a place where you start each day feeling behind, fighting against quicksand. Burnout can cause exhaustion, trouble sleeping and an inability to focus. It can also have an impact on a person’s mental and emotional well-being, creating a state of fragility born from overtiredness and frustration.
These symptoms can lead to a loss of empathy, a rise in conflicts and a decline in performance. Burnout can also cause people to feel unsatisfied with their job and question their role and purpose within an organization. Not only does this affect employees, but it also has a negative impact on the entire business. A survey from Gallup showed that burned-out employees are 60% more likely to take a sick day, and more than twice as likely to be actively seeking a different job.
Now more than ever, it is important for leaders to be watchful for burnout among their teams and to take proactive steps to protect team members. When performance goals are missed, it is far more effective to readjust expectations and set new timelines than it is to count each day that slips past the old one.
We are all going through an unprecedented time, which takes its toll on employees in different ways. If a teammate is struggling with their work or difficult in their communication, there very well could be factors going on outside of the current work situation that are contributing. Old processes should be reviewed and new ones invested in to make workflows purposeful and more effective in the current climate. It is common for employees who are experiencing burnout to view their performance as a personal failure, which leads to demotivation in their job.
Engineering teams can alleviate the stress that leads to burnout by actively and visibly reinforcing the value that the team is delivering and by ensuring progress is achievable, measurable and frequent. An agile workflow can be a great way to do this. By incrementally releasing features and achieving milestones, the team can avoid an endless push. By measuring the results of those changes, the team will see the value that they are delivering and gain greater confidence in themselves. For engineering teams who are responsible for production systems, finding ways to minimize the noise in your monitoring can help reduce context switching and give everyone more all-important sleep.
One way to achieve these results within your organization is to make feature flags a core part of your workflow. Feature flags allow for engineering teams to operate with greater autonomy, as code developed by one engineer can be released before its dependencies are completed, safe in the knowledge that the code will not be exposed to users. They allow for enabling the code safely and incrementally, minimizing the stress of releases and giving teams an escape hatch should an issue occur.
The benefits of feature flags also extend to measurement, as they are the enabling tool for conducting experiments as a team no matter where you are. Experimenting, especially in the form of A/B testing, allows teams to get a better understanding of customer behavior.
As people are isolating themselves from physical spaces, our digital spaces are changing rapidly. The measurement of that change is driving the success of businesses around the world, and teams that understand that can gain greater motivation for the work that needs to be done. For companies that are struggling in these uncertain times, effective measurement and control of your development can help focus efforts toward the areas of your product that are best addressing your customers’ new needs and behaviors.
As our teams have spread apart, it is more important than ever to work together. Validate projects early, deliver work incrementally, measure accomplishments and progress and empathize with your teammates. The risk of burnout is greater now than ever.