On Burnout

The not-so-merry go round

There is a lot of talk these days about burnout in our field. A lot of great initiatives to get us tech people to not hide it, not sweep it under the rug.

This is a great start for a more honest conversation about the stresses we all deal with in this industry and yet, a lot of the examples I see of people trying to deal with it is through quitting their current gig, taking a long vacation, then working on finding the next gig.

In the long run, this is not great for companies' overall health and more importantly for a team’s health and morale. There are already statistics about how churn in IT is the highest compared to other fields and if you are at all familiar with all the effort that goes into recruiting, hiring and on boarding in our field, you probably already know that it is an expensive process with a lead time in the months. A lot of what i ruminated over the last few weeks wasn't just my words but also the words of a dear colleague who had to do this exact thing a few years back.

Seeing it

It may be irrelevant whether our industry makes us wanna appear invincible or if this industry just attracts those of us who want to always appear strong and have it all figured out. But I know I always try to do that. Family, kid, plus managing a database layer that has expanded twenty-fold in my three and a half years with my current job.

Let me start with saying that I do not do it alone. Early on we hired consultants to help off load a lot of the DBA tasks. But in the end of the day, I've always felt that I am the in house DBA, I own the performance, management, and health of these systems.

This sense of ownership, while lauded, led me to unrealistic expectations of myself. I was checking work chat all the time, checking email all the time. I had slipped into a pattern of coupling being online/available all the time with doing a good job.

As the months and quarters rolled by, cracks started to appear.

I was having less fun with spending time with developers, talking distributed system architecture. Suddenly, I was having the 'Sunday evening dread'...something I didn't really think would happen working on so many exciting things and interesting problems for so long. I could see the snark levels increase in my conversations..

"yeah I will test this new shiny thing in maybe a few years"

"Sure...we will someday deprecate this old thing!"

Corroborating evidence

Sometimes even though we know something, we need an external source with more experience to confirm to us that it is true, that we aren't just 'not good enough'. For me, a lot of that was talks by Laura Thompson of Mozilla. The first is more directed at managers but it absolutely helped me. The second was at this year's Monitorama. All the signs were there. The decrease in my github activity, the constant feeling that I was fighting emergencies all the time, physical and emotional exhaustion, sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment (Yes, I am now directly quoting the slides)

What to do

Own your boundaries

Being able to separate the time you are working from the time you are not is paramount. In the end, no one owns my well being more than me. I work remote in a different timezone than my team so boundaries were extra important to establish.

I started off by disallowing any push notifications for work hipchat on my phone. Not accepting meetings past 5 PM. Removing work email from the phone and most importantly, the laptop doesn't leave the office room during the week.

What helped me the most was turning off work email on my phone. I needed to accept that email is an asynchronous method of communication and that I shouldn't feel guilty about not checking it every hour including right before going to sleep. I know this may sound incredibly obvious to some but for me the checking work email and work chat from the phone constantly was like an itch and it took me a while to accept that it was an expectation I was setting for myself and that in the long run it was not making me a more productive employee or a better engineer in any way.

Talk to your team

The roles here differ depending on whether you are a manager, or individual contributor. None of this could work without support from my team, including management.

Managers, this is how you avoid churn. You need to make sure your team feels safe saying they need a break and to feel safe taking it. None of this 'unlimited vacation time' nonsense if no one is actually going on vacation. 1:1s are supremely important here. I am not ignoring that a busy team also means an overwhelmed manager sometimes but this is the time where you as a leader must prioritize keeping in touch with the team than anything else.

/soapbox

I am an Individual contributor but I am also one of the more senior team members (in tenure) so accepting that I carry some of the responsibility of setting the tone was necessary. Besides being honest with myself, I needed to be honest with my team. I started letting my project manager and my lead know that I would be staying off chat in the evening. Making sure they have a way to get a hold of me and trusting them that they will truly only use it sparingly and in emergencies. Without that framework and their support, I may know what I need but I would not feel empowered to act on it and I am very grateful that they let me do that and do the same for themselves so we can all continue working together.

Talk to someone

This doesn't have to be a mental health professional although that is also a good thing to do. But in the simpler sense it helps a lot to talk to people who have been or are still going through the same thing, even with a few minor details altered. There is a lot of us in hangops.slack.com who have stories and scars from this. So much so that we have a dedicated mental health channel.

Work in progress

I mentioned in the beginning how I see most people deal with this situation. And there many of us. Does this mean I am looking for a new gig? No. This is not a quitting post :) I like my team. A lot. And I don’t just want to continue working with them but to continue to enjoy it and I want to see them also have a good time working with me. This work in progress has to always start with me recognising what I need and communicating it but I also have a team that has supported the steps I took to ease the stress.

I can't stress this enough. I am still learning how to deal with this. I know now I always will be. It is a fine line between being someone who is honest about their work, always caring to go the extra mile and do right by their employer without sacrificing their sanity and inner peace.

I don’t want to eventually feel contempt and resentment towards that work. I am also not arguing for slacking off in the name of life work balance. Too many companies don't put a lot of value in keeping their employees healthy in mind as well as body and that is a very good reason to look for another gig, and there are companies that are aware of these pressures and challenges but are only beginning to truly acknowledge them and begin a conversation about them.

It is on all of us to not try to be individual heroes/ninjas/rockstars and instead promote teams of healthy, rested, smart engineers with well balanced lives.

Many thanks to Sean Kilgore, Jennifer Davis and Charity Majors for helping put these thoughts to words

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