Burnout is possible in any industry. But it seems to be especially rampant in tech, a space bursting at the seams with inflated expectations and ever-accelerating trends. Nearly 60% of tech workers said they were currently feeling burned out at their workplace, found a study by TeamBlind.
Limiting burnout and supporting employee mental health is essential, not only for the workers’ sake but for the business as well. During this period, which commentators call the Great Resignation, if employees don’t feel respected, they will likely seek new opportunities elsewhere. Ensuring the needs of engineers are met is a vital target amid an ongoing cloud skills drought, a talent gap to which the DevOps space is certainly not immune.
I recently met with Eric Mader, senior solutions architect, AHEAD, to understand the root causes of burnout as it relates to DevOps. According to Mader, burnout can be caused by many factors, including work-life imbalances and conflicting egos in the workplace. But above else, burnout is most often caused by management setting unrealistic targets that aren’t based on empirical team performance data.
So, what can cause burnout in DevOps? First, the workplace culture can significantly contribute to burnout. In most remote working models, explained Mader, it isn’t easy to ascertain the correct work-life balance. For example, there may be an unwritten expectation to immediately respond to Slack messages or quickly get back to emails after-hours or over the weekends.
An “always on” attitude can lead to unhealthy work habits. And while this isn’t necessarily unique to DevOps, it is sometimes unavoidable due to the high connectivity required to perform the job. Another potential contributor to burnout is the team dynamic, noted Mader. “Every team seems to be unique in its own way,” he said.
Although Agile and DevOps involve very technical work, at times, ego can get in the way of a healthy team dynamic. For example, in many tech teams, there is often a “guru,” such as a senior developer or tech lead, that everyone goes to for advice, Mader said. This person might end up doing most of the work (both technical and interpersonal) and usually feels the most burned out. Or, other wanna-be leaders might take on an unnecessary command-and-control role.
According to Mader, perhaps the biggest contributor to burnout is the insistence from executives that tech workers consistently outperform their previous output—especially when past team performance data does not support these goals. Setting achievable goals is great, but when deliverables are out of scope, it’s a recipe for burnout.
Part of the pressure to increase velocity is the constant illusion that “faster and more is better,” said Mader. Value is often attributed to the number of items achieved in a sprint instead of the quality of each point. For example, a team might deliver 200 story points of work in a sprint, but only 30 of these points carry a significant amount of value. Or, a leader might see a team accomplish 60 points of work in a sprint and then encourage 200 in the next one.
These sorts of high expectations suffer from basic capacity problems. And the added stress quickly realizes itself as a burden, contributing to burnout, explained Mader. He encourages technical leads not to force more work but instead, “focus on the highest-value work based on the empirical data you have.”
Mader shared some tips on how to avoid burnout in DevOps teams. Here are some simple yet effective ideas to maintain happier engineers and a more productive, healthier team relationship.
Snuff out the always-on attitude. Organizations need to walk the talk when it comes to mental health awareness. Therefore, ensure employees know that their life boundaries are respected. Encourage this by honoring time off for holidays, paternity/maternity leave or personal vacation. Discourage emailing on the weekends and encourage turning on ‘Do Not Disturb’ alerts on team chats and work email accounts.
Prioritize what gets automated. There’s a misnomer that any automation is good automation. In fact, over-prescription of software development automation can lead to some negative consequences. “I’ve seen many DevOps teams that focus so much time on automating low-impact business processes,” said Mader. Instead, prioritize automation projects that affect more people and those that would be continually used.
Try out the ‘Fist of Five.’ Ensuring everyone’s voice is heard helps avoid a toxic working environment. One tactic to quickly gauge reaction in team meetings is to use what Mader calls The Fist of Five: One if an idea is totally off base and five if an idea makes total sense. This simple practice could ensure everyone gets to contribute input on new projects.
Take the quietest person in the room aside. Only the squeaky wheel gets the oil, Mader noted. With that in mind, take aside the quietest person post-meetings to gather their input—you might be surprised. Junior folks who may be less apt to speak their minds typically have a less-institutionalized mindset and could suggest more innovative ideas.
Use empirical data to inform future goalposts. Finally, Mader encouraged DevOps teams to “use empirical evidence to back up on where you’re going in the future.” Specifically, in the DevOps sphere, empirical data takes the form of metrics like mean-time-to-recovery, or SLAs, SLIs and SLOs.
Remember that even if a team did accomplish a certain number of goals in a sprint, it doesn’t mean they can produce the exact same results the next time around—they could have been pushed to their limit to produce past results. Thus, managers should aim to move the needle on metrics progressively, not in giant strides that upset morale.
Nowadays, DevOps teams are spoiled for choice—there are countless tools on the market and an endless stream of best practices and methods. Even within a single company, the DevOps toolset may vary considerably from team to team. To help make sense of it all, Mader encouraged DevOps leads to simplify the transformation journey by setting guardrails and adopting a more opinionated approach around what tools and processes you take on.
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