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Management Owns Burnout

October 14, 2021

Burnout at work is something more than stress and high workload. When you cross the threshold into burnout this can lead to actual physical responses in the body of those suffering. This is an individual issue and cannot have blanket solutions, however, if you're a manager of people, keeping your team as far away from burnout is one of your most important responsibilities. Workload, deadlines, and thus stress, are from you - their manager. Aside from stress and other more obvious burnout causes I've found that lack of expectations, lack of clarity, and lack of being able to change what your team feels is wrong with the organization are all ways your team can find themselves down that path. These are all things that you can control, or directly help with. This is all about managing a team of software developers because that's what I know, but I hope some of the ideas here can be used anywhere.

A choice

Everything is not an emergency at work, but it feels that way doesn't it? Running a business is hard, no matter the size and scale, and those tasked with running a business are typically completely surrounded by fires that demand attention. The biggest fire tends to get the most. If you happen to be responsible for that biggest fire you'll feel the pressure to put that fire out immediately, without question, and without thought of consequences to your team's current work or roadmap. This type of environment will not only cause burnout on your team, but among leadership, and probably even for you stuck in the middle of a storm. If this sounds familiar, it's because this is what happens at many companies. There are literally libraries full of solutions, but I think it's as simple as providing your leadership with a choice.

Before we can talk about that choice, we have to set ourselves up for success by seeing into the future. You know your team: how quickly they work through that backlog, how much is in the backlog yet to do, and what the company wants you to focus on first. With this information you can rank the work and give approximate estimates of time each chunk of that work will be, with the help of your team by giving you approximate estimations of effort. Now we have a list of things to do in order, a stack-ranked list, with an approximate understanding of how long it will take us to accomplish. Now you start advertising this with your leaders and by doing so you build trust. You earn their trust by showing them how the team succeeds, and having a great story when the team doesn't quite meet your estimated timeframe.

Now that you have your fires, your stack-ranked list of work, and trust in the team, you have everything you need to give your leaders a choice. The next fire that gets too hot for leadership to handle you can now sit down with them and look at your list of work and make some tradeoffs. Conversations that come out of these tradeoff meetings are typically very fruitful as we're talking about solutions rather than trying to find new ways of saying impossible. Now you can go back to the team and explain what this new priority is, why we're doing it now, and let them determine how this new problem will be solved. They're not going to be worried about solving this new problem in addition to what they planned to work on, and everyone understands the reasons why. These types of interruptions, even if done properly, always cause some grumbling and discomfort. If done this way all the expectations are laid out in the open and all questions are answered, the team now has clarity. This is a healthy thing, and these changes are inevitable if not normal.

The opposite of this path is one I've seen many times before. You're expected to get interrupted constantly by all the fires around you and put those fires out while at the same time expecting all the same work you had before get done without a change in due dates. This will destroy a team through burnout in short order. It's one of the most difficult tasks you can have as a manager to start pushing back on the company's leadership and force them to make a choice given finite resources. However it's one of the most effective ways you can keep a team from being the tip of the whip when the company gets burned by a new fire.

Background radiation

Your bad habits will become your team's burden. Do you work long hours? Now your team thinks this is expected of them. Do you send emails/slack messages late at night? Your team will expect they should be answered after hours. Do you reply to emails and messages while you're on vacation? You get the idea. No matter your title, if you lead a team and are responsible for their careers, you are their boss. With that title comes unsaid expectations that you might not think you're responsible for, but you very much are. If you want your team to have a good work/life balance, and you want things at work to be calm, you must lead your team by example.

Burnout doesn't just come from massive systemic problems, but from these thousand tiny cuts that add up to deadly background radiation. These are things that often go unspoken because they are small, yet add up over the life of a team in ways that can cause severe reactions. If they see you doing all of the things that are counter to having a life outside work, they will follow you to the detriment of their health. This doesn't have to be something obscene that we hear horror stories about from the industry's worst offenders - it can literally be something as simple as replying to a message while you're on vacation. Your team keeps a close eye on what you do, how you act, and will emulate these behaviors even if you don't explicitly ask them to.

It's been said, and I agree, that a company's culture is effectively: who is rewarded, and who is punished. Are you rewarding people for working the weekend, or going the extra mile for jumping on a call while they were on a family vacation? I absolutely do not, in fact if I see someone doing these things I will take them aside and correct the behavior. On top of this, I am very careful to model the behavior and boundaries that I want them to have with the company. I know they're always watching, and I know I have a direct cause and effect on the day-to-day grind that is writing complex software for a living.

Modeling boundaries

I talk to my team about boundaries with work a lot. If you have no boundaries it's a recipe for burnout in short order. I make sure I model what I consider the ideal boundaries to have so my team can follow my lead. Of course no one will have the same boundaries with work, but there are several that I take very seriously: communication expectations, the amount of time you work every day, what you do during non-working hours especially on vacation, and pushing the business for space to do what the team thinks is right.

When setting expectations around these boundaries, sometimes it's best to literally tell your team in detail what you expect them to do. I do this definitively with communication expectations. I let everyone know that we should rely as much as possible on async communication - and Slack is in that category despite it being "real-time chat". So they can feel free to turn off all communication channels when they're not working, or need some heads-down time. I tell them that I have zero expectation for them to reply back to any inquiry until they're working at whatever time that is. I make sure this is a two-way street, not just one where I get back to them whenever I can, their time is just as valuable as mine. They're not required to keep any work-related apps on their phones. I have some on mine, but I explain that if I can help when I'm not working and I have time I will jump in so I'm not a bottleneck, however rare that is. So they can send me a message at any time and not feel guilty about bothering me, if I can help I will when I have time. Same goes for me to them. All of this, I reiterate, goes double for vacation time. So I turn off all communications when I'm on vacation to make sure they feel comfortable doing the same.

One of the most important boundaries a manager can show to their team is how much they work in a given week. I'm a parent, partner to a spouse, and normal human being: I work around 40 hours per week, sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less. My team knows what hours I'm active for, my calendar shows the time blocks they can meet with me, and they know when it's outside that time I likely won't respond until I can. If I'm pulling 10-12 hour days, this example bleeds down and it wears down. There are exceptions to this rule, sometimes the heat is real, but these are exceptions and rare ones at that. The important part is how I act when I'm not working. If I'm always working, or if I'm always available even on vacations, this will be emulated even if I tell my team not to, and then burnout.

A not-so-secret place that leads directly to burnout is being unable to affect structural problems within the organization. Some of these problems will be solved if you simply get out of the way and empower them to make the necessary changes, whether they be technical or cultural. Other times the team or individual will need your help tackling issues that range from pay disparities, to silos that have been erected in the organization. This, to me, is the "meat and potatoes" of managing a team. In my short experience, I've found these types of things just involve finding the right person, bringing a strong case for change, and being persistent. If you let your team go where it needs to go, and back them up when they need help, they will see that and feel that. This is the core of gaining your team's trust to accomplish what they feel is important. As long as you're leading them toward the objectives the company feels is important, while letting them discover the path, you're going the right direction - one that leads the opposite direction of burnout. If you don't feel like you have the authority for this type of thinking, just ask or do it - likely no one ever has before and you'll be surprised at the results.

It's not enough for managers to make sure people are "on task" all day long, in fact I don't do that at all. Our world is in the midst of a paradigm shift that's been happening for some time. This is your job as a manager: own burnout. Without owning it, you won't be in control of it. I promise you, in today's market, you will lose your top talent to companies and teams that take this seriously. This is the work, and it's deadly-important.

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