I recently attended the Devops Enterprise Summit in Las Vegas so that I could keep up to date on the latest happenings around integrating devops for companies. This conference was nothing short of amazing, but what I wasn’t anticipating was a theme around IT burnout. The IT Revolutions team who puts on the conference started one of the keynotes on the topic of burnout, from Dr. Christina Maslach who is Professor of Psychology, Emerita University of California, Berkeley. In addition to this powerful session, there was another panel group that happened on Wednesday, that went further into the discussion including the ultimate consequence of burnout, which is suicide.
It’s obvious that burnout can affect many industries but we’re seeing higher numbers of burnout coming from the Information Technology industry and it’s time to address it as a group.
What is Burnout?
I firmly believe that sunshine is the best disinfectant. We have to know what we’re talking about and if we’re dealing with a real situation or if we’re imagining it. So, lets start by defining burnout.
Burnout is prolonged response to chronic situational stressors on the job. -Maslach
Burnout isn’t just this term we’ve made up either. It has its own ICD-10 code (International Statistical Code of Diseases from the medical industry). This is important to know because medical professionals have identified it as a real problem. This isn’t in something we’ve made up in our heads or a name we’ve given to a describe a fake phenomenon. Its a medical condition.
Sure, everyone has a tough day from time to time and that will be the case across every industry. But some industries such as healthcare, and now we’re finding IT workers, have stressors on a consistent basis. Think about it, mistakes as a healthcare worker may cause patients to be injured. Along those lines, mistakes in the IT industry can cause millions of dollars of damage by a simple misconfiguration.
What Causes Burnout?
When we think about burnout the first thing that comes to my mind is how much work is being piled up on you. But according to Dr. Maslach, there are six key categories that contribute to burnout and its not always the individual’s workload. You can get burned out even without a heavy amount of work to do. Maybe you work a steady 40 hour week but you can still be burned out due to other factors in your enviornment. Here are six key areas that can contribute to burnout with your job:
- Workload – We’re working too hard or too many hours.
- Control – Do we have autonomy in our work?
- Reward – Salary, benefits, and appreciation.
- Community – Our relationships in the workplace
- Fairness – Do our policies affect everyone in our company fairly?
- Values – Do we feel a purpose or meaning in our work?
The real key is when your body is unable to cope with the stress created by job demands. For short periods of time, your body deals with stress by releasing cortisol for that “fight or flight” reaction. Over a longer period of time your body has a difficult time sustaining that reaction, and when it does you can feel the effects of burnout.
The Effects of Burnout
Burnout has some serious side effects including suicide. John Willis shared some his experiences with people within the IT industry which had affected him personally, and its worth a read from the itrevolution blog. This is a serious issue. Burnout can cause exhaustion, cynicism, depression and suicide if left for too long. If you’re experiencing burnout, you can begin to care less about job outcomes, lose confidence in your abilities, and feeling hopeless about your situation. In my opinion, workload might be the easiest of the categories to fix because its more easily identified.
It should become more evident that these effects aren’t going to just effect an employee (and their family), but the organization they work for will feel the effects as well. Think about what would happen to an IT organization when the members stop caring about outcomes. How about when they lose confidence in their own abilities? Those don’t seem like the types of competitive advantages that companies are trying to build. The point is that burnout is not a problem just for an individual but employers need to start taking notice of this as well.
Am I Experiencing Burnout?
Another problem I see with burnout is that you might not realize that you’re burned out. Remember that burnout happens over a long time so it can sneak up on you. A difficult workload or having little control over your situation may be something you’ve always dealt with at a job. So, if you start to feel depressed thoughts, you might not be able to pinpoint why you feel that way. Even if you identify that you’re feeling depressed, you probably won’t be able to figure out when it happened or whats changed because its been this way for so long. There isn’t a single event that you can point to as the reason for your feelings.
If you’re afraid you’re experiencing burnout, its worth talking to a support system. Talk to a friend, a co-worker or someone you trust. They might be able to help you identify whats happening. In addition, you might want to go take a survey from Dr. Maslach that helps you to identify if you’re experiencing the effects of burnout.
The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) report is a survey of about twenty-two questions to help identify if you’re experiencing burnout. I took the report myself and it provides helpful information and a graphed scale of where you might be feeling burnout. This report costs $15 but well worth the money to find out how you’re doing. Employers, note that you can purchase these licenses and send them to employees if you want to know how your own employees are doing with burnout. Remember that they probably won’t tell you if they feel this way on their own.
Call to Action for Employers
Burnout can’t always be addressed by the employee. Managers must look out for their employees safety in the workplace and this includes their mental health state. Things like fairness and control aren’t usually things that an employee can tackle on their own.
As an example, some companies provide a reward program to identify people doing a great job. But if that reward must come from the employees manager and some managers can’t take the time to submit their own employees, they may feel undervalued and that the process is unfair.
Employees who feel the effects of burnout may begin doing the bare minimum to keep their jobs which ultimately hurts the company. If the effects get worse, those employees could hurt themselves. During our DOES roundtable, this is exactly what happened to two team members at one company. Imagine how it must feel to be the manager for those employees. So take care of your workers. Maybe you should rollout the Maslach Burnout Inventory to your employees to get a pulse of the burnout in your own organization.
Call to Action for Employees
Take care of yourselves. If at any point you’re having bad thoughts please seek help immediately. From a co-worker, a friend, a doctor, a family member or anyone who might listen. No one wants to see bad things happen to you and this can be fixed. It is not hopeless and we can heal.
Mental health days are not just a fun thing to do to blow off work. They may be an important tool to staving off burnout. You have to take care of yourself as well.
Don’t think that if you’re not working 60 hour weeks or pulling all nighters, that you’re not working hard enough. We’ve had a bad habit in the IT industry to think that we need to work so hard we’re falling asleep at our desk. You’ve probably even seen this in movies before. But, it’s ok to work a normal week and make time for yourself. It does not make you week to do this. It probably makes you better. Rest is just as important for your body as exercise is so don’t ignore it when you feel like you need a break.
Be Vulnerable with Each Other
This is a call to action for all of us in the industry. Be willing to admit when you made a mistake.
Think of this, if an employee always sees an executive being a strong leader with all the right answers, how often do you suppose their employees will be willing to say they need help? If the leaders never make mistakes, the employees may feel like they are inadequate and need to hide their own issues for fear that they may seem weak or stupid. Employees may feel that they don’t know how to accomplish objectives laid out by their perfect leaders, so you’ll work twice as many hours and tell no one about this. This sort of behavior can be detrimental. Co-workers, be honest with your colleagues about your struggles as well. You’re probably not alone in your plight and if you socialize this others may come forward as well to discuss a problem affecting the whole company.
Devops processes tell us that when we see a problem, the group stops and swarms on that problem until we resolve it. And then we move on. This is a group issue that we all need to be involved in and when we see an employee struggling, its our duty to the process to fix it. A burned out employee is not functioning efficiently in our system and we need to fix that issue before moving on.
I AM NOT A MEDICAL PROFESSIONAL! IF YOU FEEL DARK THOUGHTS, SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP!
I want people to start understanding burnout so that they can get the help they need. Understanding the problem is a big step into resolving it and I hope I’m helping this cause if only a little bit. Please add your own comments if you’d like to share and take the opportunity to watch the session from Dr. Maslach from the DOES ’18 conference to get some background. I promise you that if you’re in the IT Industry, you’ll find it fascinating. Let’s figure out how to improve the lives of the IT industry workers.
I’d also like to thank my friends and family for helping me talk through this post as well. You are just as important to my career as any training classes, or work I’ve done to get where I am today. Thank you for being my support system.