Managing the burnout burndown


Anjuan Simmons speaking at DevRelCon London 2019

Burnout is a recurring point of discussion amongst dev rel practitioners. What can we do to recognise and avoid burnout before it’s too late? Anjuan Simmons shares practical advice in this talk from DevRelCon London 2019.



Anjuan: Good afternoon, I hope you all have been enjoying the conference. And I wanna start by saying two things. One is, yes, usually my wife is here with me doing this talk, but with her college professor duties, teaching classes and our kids and their schedules she could not make the trip across the pond to be here. So, you’re stuck with me but I’ll try to do her part, I’m not as good, but she’s really great and I hope that she sees it someday. I hope that she knows that I miss her and that she thinks I did a good job.

The second thing that I wanna say is that I love developers. I don’t know know if we say this enough, I love developers and not just the developers who are like me because I was a stereotypical geek. I grew up playing Dungeons & Dragons and I had a Commodore 64 that I loved to play with and I used to put together model airplanes, but the geeks who are cool who are like professional soccer players who play in rock bands, the developer diaspora is broad and wide and deep and I don’t know if we give it enough respect. So, I love developers and I love the privilege every day of working with great developers. And I think the only thing that is second to my love for developers is building software. I love shipping code. There’s just something cool about turning ones and zeros into business value for end-users and it’s just really cool to be able to just take something that really exists in the ether and turn it into joy for our customers.

A lot of the press has caught on to this. We have a lot of press accounts about the mythology of a couple of people in a garage who created these multi billion dollar companies and we see news articles about that. And there’s a lot of press about the developer experience and all of these great, almost mythological companies that have been built on software. But there is a side of software development that doesn’t get the same play in the media and that’s the fact that there is a lot of stress in being in software development and a lot of people are surprised by this because it’s not like we’re doing construction, you know. The people who built this building, who built the QE2, they paid a physical cost for their work. But there’s often an emotional and an intellectual cost to building software. And in fact there’s a dark side to building software that we don’t really talk about. And there are a couple things that are behind this.

One is we have to always be current, there’s always new technologies and new tools and new frameworks that we have to learn. I know when I started my career in software development 20 years ago the things that I was using back then don’t even exist anymore. You know, there may be books with animals on the covers that talk about them, but there aren’t a lot of people who are still using those technologies. Maybe the people who are using Perl, I think Perl’s around still, but, you know, not the version I was working in. And we have deal with containers and Cloud and serverless and know escrow databases and there’s just a lot of change that creates stress. There’s always the feeling that am I keeping up? Am I current with the state of the art? And then there is the always be shipping, and I’m sure you’ve heard this term. I’ve used this term with my software development teams because the idea is that if we are shipping code, if we’re always shipping value to our customers, then we are proving our worth to the business. That we’re validating the fact that engineering exists to serve the business and so we always wanna be shipping.

But any system that is always on will eventually fail and it’s really important that we manage the stress in software development to prevent our teams from failing. I know that having worked in software development for a long time I’ve been a victim of burnout. I’ve been at the point where I just don’t know if I can go forward and I’ve had to do a lot of work and learn what stress is and how it affects me in order to get my stress levels under control. And that’s really a big reason why my wife and I wrote this talk because we’ve experienced the consequences of not managing stress and we’ve experienced burnout.

You know burnout is an interesting term because literally engineers who burnout, they burnout, right? They burndown valuable things, they burndown quality by eventually introducing more and more bugs or regressions into the code base. They burndown architectures because often to try to satisfy the fact that they’re feeling so disappointed and down they’ll start using frameworks that aren’t even on the roadmap. It’s like we’re using React, why are you running Angular? And so often they being to burndown a lot of the structures that we put into place for the team, but then they go out, they go out of repositories and you can almost see the commits begin to slow down to make fewer and fewer commits to the repository or they go out of the tools that we use to stay close to each other. They go out of Slack or they go out of whatever you use for messaging. And so there is a real cost to burnout. And I found that always be shipping will turn to always be slipping as you slip past multiple dates for shipping your software.

So burnout is a real challenge. My wife and I did some research and we wanted to go through and share a lot of what we’ve learned with burnout. And so a few of those things are, the burnout problem. Burnout is something that I think people have heard about but I’m not sure if they have a good definition. So, we looked into the literature and we came up with a couple of sources and so we looked at, “World Psychiatry,” which came up with a great definition of burnout. And so it is a psychological syndrome that leads to three major consequences. There’s exhaustion and I’m sure that many of you have been at work and no matter how much coffee you’re drinking, you’re on pot two, and you still feel drained, right? So, that’s one symptom of burnout. And then there’s cynicism and detachment. You begin to think that aahh I’m just, why are we even doing this? Does our software even matter? But then you have a sense of ineffectiveness and a lack of accomplishment and that means that no matter what you do you feel like it’s just not enough.

Those are the three major symptoms of burnout. But we wanted to give a more working definition and that is simply the feeling that today’s resources are not enough to meet tomorrow’s demands. Has anyone ever felt that? You don’t, yeah exactly, so many hands. I just don’t feel like I have enough today to do what I know I need to do tomorrow. And so what are the dimensions of burnout? Well, there are a few, right and I mentioned them at the top, but I really wanna put a pin on this. There’s the exhaustion, the feeling that aahh I just, I just can’t do it. I just don’t have enough energy in my tank to get through. But then there’s also depersonalization and that’s almost like when you go to an emergency room and maybe you have a mate who’s gotten hurt and you go to the front desk and then you say, hey my friend is at the hospital what room are they in? And they say, oh, the broken arm? They’re in room three, right? To that front desk person people have just become body parts. Not really people who need empathy and care, depersonalization. But then there is a feeling that I don’t have the feeling that I’m accomplishing things that I’m really getting things done and those are the dimensions of burnout.

Now that we have this working definition I wanna go through really how wide-spread is burnout? And I saw a lot of hands in the room, but there’s actually research that Gallup did, actually last year, and they found that in a study of 7500 full-time employees that 23% reported feeling burned out at least sometimes. But then another 20% said that they feel burnt out very often, or always, and 44% said the felt burned out sometimes. Now what does that mean? That means that about two-thirds of full-time workers experience burnout on the job, that’s 66%. That’s the majority of people at work feeling burned out. And I’m sure many of you have, in the next cubicle, or across from you, or if you’re remote on Zoom, you can almost see it on people’s faces that they’re paying the burnout cost, they’re not managing their stress very well.

Then you might think, you know what, we have a very highly-engaged workforce. People come to work and they hangout in the break room and we have foosball tables, we have a keg in the break room, people love working at our company they’re really engaged they’re not burned out. Actually, Cambridge did a study and they found that even highly-engaged employees deal with burnout. Now what did the find? They find that the people who are optimally engaged are actually burned out and considering leaving. That’s right the people who are every meeting, every, out there working an event, who come to the retreats and they lead the karaoke, those people may be planning their next exit. And you think that, no, there’s no way, they’re everywhere. Well, they won’t be anywhere soon. In fact, the highest turnover intentions were reported by the highly engaged-exhausted, meaning that they’re highly engaged, but also highly exhausted, and those are the people that are eyeing an exit which is counterintuitive.

And so I talked about the definition of burnout and how widespread it is, but there are real costs, to people who are going through burnout. And so the Mayo Clinic diagnosed a few things and so there are a couple of things where I just, wow, just feeling tired and having stress and having elevated blood pressure. You can almost, if you went up to someone burned out, if you took their temperature, and measured their blood pressure, and measured their heart rate, you can almost see the effects, you know, in their body. But then you have just the progression of their mood from being sad, to being terrified, to just often having outbursts of anger and I think we’ve all, maybe you’ve seen a couple of like yelling matches breakout at your job and I’ve had the misfortune of having one of those happen in the past year. And then you have people who are either bedridden, or they go to the emergency room ’cause they’re just so tired and exhausted from burnout. And there are corporate costs to burnout as well.

Harvard did a study and they found that there’s between 125-190 billion dollars a year spent on consequences from burnout. And that’s the fact that the costs were, the biggest factor were high demands at work was responsible for 48 billion dollars of spending. I don’t know how much money you have in your bank account, but that’s a lot of money all caused by burnout.  And so you may think about all these costs, there are these individual costs, there are corporate costs. In fact, some deaths have been linked to burnout. And you may be thinking, is this talking about burnout or about Thanos? So many people gone.

Because burnout is so widespread there are often common solutions. And I like to break these down into corporate solutions and individual solutions. And so corporations often try to make their work places very posh experiences and I’m sure that many of you have walked into a corporate workplaces, maybe you work at a office. And I’ve been fortunate just as a speaker and I’ve walked into GitHub in San Francisco, Mailchimp in Atlanta, Prezi in Budapest, and I’ve seen these really immaculate well-laid out, well-appointed offices. In fact a lot of these offices are meant to make developers feel like royalty, but you know sometimes royalty turns up at the Red Wedding. And then no matter how great the coffee is it’s not gonna be enough to address their problems. And so corporations often bring in coaches and they bring in all these different. They might have, you know, go out into the yard and play soccer, but the challenge of hoping that corporations can solve burnout is that corporations exist to make money, corporations exist to be profitable. And often that profit motive blinds them to what’s going on with their employees. And so corporations often are very limited in what they can do to prevent burnout. And if the economy goes down, or if the company hits a bump in the road, one of the first things that are cut are a lot of the burnout prevention programs that corporations try to do.

But then there are things that individuals do. Individuals try to address burnout in a couple ways. Some of them do, they do escapism. They take a nice vacation and they try to get out and go and see great places around the world, but we almost turn vacation into work. You have people who are trying to get the best picture of themselves at the Grand Canyon, or in front of the Vatican, and people are even falling off of cliffs trying to take the perfect selfie, right? And so we try to do so much work to show how much we’re not working. And often that, those individual efforts are limited because people can only do so much to address their burnout.

My wife and I thought, well, since corporations are really constrained in what they can do, and individuals are constrained in what they can do, what’s a simple framework that we can come up, based on the research, based on what I’ve seen work in my life and what I’ve seen worked with the developers that I’ve had the privilege of managing, how can we help them? And so this from Merck is meant to be very lightweight, meant to be very simple and it’s also meant to be one that you don’t have to have a lot of privilege to enjoy. Now for this framework I’m gonna go over things that corporations can do if they can, but also I’m gonna try to give a what we call, the one thing you simply must do.

Before I go into the framework I want give you a sense of where this came from. Now, I’m a manager, I’ve been a scrum master and I’ve worked with a lot of scrum teams and so one of the tools I’ve used as a scrum master is a burndown chart. How many of you have used a burndown chart before? Yeah, okay there are a lot of hands. For those of you who have not I’m gonna explain it very simply. A burndown is just a chart. So you have one axis and that’s time. Typically we do two-week sprints, lasts 10 days, and then the Y-axis is work. In this example, we have 50 units of work, a unit can be whatever you want it to be. The idea is that you have this ideal line and so that is if the work is evenly burned out and done over the course of that 10-day period then we get it down to zero and then we’re done. But the reality is that as the sprint goes on, work goes down as people get things done and the amount of work not done goes down. That’s simply what a burndown chart is. And the idea is that that work, under the line, is work that you’re burning down. And as I’ve looked at burndown charts I realized that as someone who cares about developers that I needed to burndown more than just work. That if I was going to be someone who would be protecting and helping my developers I needed to burndown three things.

I’m gonna go through those three things throughout this talk. So we have the burndown barriers and that means that the research shows that one of the best things to do to create a burnout-resistant team to help your developers deal with burnout is relationships. The connections that we build with other people are extremely helpful in addressing burnout. And so it’s really important that we develop connections, that we maintain that human need for engagement. And I really am a fan of really meeting in-person and corporations can help by maybe having, sponsoring meetups after work, or providing ways that teams can get together, or there are those gift cards that require two people to use them so you give the gift card out and then two people have to go to either on Amazon, or go to a store and use it. And so there are a lot of things that corporations can do to help the developers who work there to connect with each other. But the one thing you simply must do is just get out and then meet with people in person because it’s so important that we get out of the often virtual environments that we work in and meet together.

There are numerous studies that show that when you like something on Facebook or on Twitter, that the prefrontal cortex, that part of your brain that gets off on that, there’s that rush of dopamine, ’cause you think that I’m liking things and maybe I’m commenting on things, that’s one part of your brain. But the other part of your brain that really craves connection it ignores that. So people often are on social media all day, but they feel lonely, they feel like I’m so detached. So it’s really important to just get out and go in physical space and just be present with people, just be in the same space with people. And one easy way to do this is to just say, you know what this is the biggest problem I have this week and just share it with that group and then let them talk about it. And they may not solve the problem, but by talking about it you’ll feel better about how you’re thinking about the problem, right?

We have to burn down barriers. Next what we need to do is burn down distractions. No, so I’m a big fan of the idea that we have a finite attention. And in a world of distraction that is a hard message to preach ’cause we always wanna be ka-om-en-geer-a okay I’m in Slack, or I’m in Confluence, or I’m in GitHub, or I’m doing all these things, or I’m on Facebook, or Instagram, or whatever tools that you use. There’s so many things that can distract you. But your attention is finite, that means that you can actually use it up. And it’s so important that we learn the importance of focus, the importance of picking the one or two things that are really valuable and focusing your full attention on those things. And I found that as someone with a spouse, and kids, and teens, and all this work that I really have to understand what are my values and I have to align my work and my attention with my values.

So everyone in here you’re probably doing a lot of things and there are a lot of things that are taking away from your attention, but you have to do the work to figure out what do I really value? What’s really important to me? And it’s probably not more than two or three things and then get rid of the things that aren’t on that value list. The people you follow on Twitter, or the people that you follow on social media, are they along with your values? Maybe you should whittle down that list of people that really advance your values. And it’s really important that we try to find ways that we can help and corporations can help by having private rooms that you can go into to get away from the scrum of what’s happening in the work pit, or you can try to find ways to help people concentrate.

But the one thing you simply must do, and I really recommend this, and that’s take a break from social media. Get off Twitter, get off Facebook, just totally turn it off. And I know that, I see some faces that are saying, what? You can do it, if not permanently just do it for a month. Put it on your calendar and say, you know what, for the month of January, and if it’s a new year, I’m not gonna be on social media and you’ll be amazed at how different you see life without all the distractions, the pings, and who’s liking my stuff, who’s Retweeting my stuff, you can focus on things that really are valuable that really bring you joy because they are tied to what you care about.

Now, after we burndown distractions we have to burndown illness. You have one body you can’t get a new one at least until we get cloning done or we can upload our brains into robots. So take care of your body. Our health is such a big way to manage the stress of burnout. And it’s really important that we treat our bodies well and I know that it’s always hard to do that because there’s always something else to do and there’s so much work, but your body’s gonna tell you that I’m done and you won’t do much work if you don’t mind your health. So it’s really important that we take the time to mind our illness, that we take the time to make sure that we’re managing our health. Because burnout takes a physical toll on the body.

So what are some of the things that we can do to burndown illness? Well, you can stay hydrated, I know there’s a lot of water around here and I walk around usually with just a bottle of water to make sure that I’m staying hydrated. Get enough sleep. How many of you get enough sleep? I see a few hands, right? Yeah, I mean, I know I need eight hours and so I go to bed early to make sure I get my sleep. And so those simple things that probably your, your mum or some, your teachers at school taught you, yeah, they are actually really important. And by minding your health, and optimizing your health, that goes a long way toward giving you the resources you need to avoid burnout. It’ll mitigate the stress and help you stay out of burnout. And so that’s really important. And corporations can do, they have a role to play. Some companies sponsor gym memberships, or they may even have a gym on site, or they have competitions where there are softball teams, or soccer teams. But the one thing you simply must do is take a walk, walking is free. If you live in an area where you feel safe enough just walk around the block. Just take the time to walk and just get out and then try to enjoy walking your body.

Now, I have this burndown chart and one thing I always loved about the burndown chart is the ideal line. And I spent a lot of time obsessing over the ideal line. Okay, are we under the line? And that just means that we’re pretty much on target to get our work done when this sprint ends. But I learned that there’s a tolerance level within my teams work that even if we’re above the line, early enough in the sprint, we have time to correct it and still get what we committed to do in the sprint done. So I’ve learned to not be so worried about burnout and that my team could balance things out. And I learned that even with burnout there may be times where you’re not as connected as you like to be with your friends, or I haven’t had a chance to go to the gym in a few weeks, and I just feel like I’m getting distracted, that’s okay, that’s okay, temporarily. And so it’s really important that you regularly check in with yourself and say, how am I doing with my relationships? How am I doing with my attention? How am I doing with my health? And I recommend every other week, or once a month to do this check-in and see how am I doing against that ideal line and what do I need to do to make corrections to make sure that I’m making sure that I’m managing my stress and not leading to burnout. And I found that if I manage burnout in my life, and then I’m really effective at helping my engineers and my developers because they usually model what I do. And as you interact with developers, if you are managing your burnout, or if you’re managing your stress levels, then you will help them also avoid burnout because they’ll mimic you a lot more than you realize.

And so we, my wife and I, wanted to provide this framework because we’ve seen that it works. That if we are able to guard our hearts, our minds, and our bodies, then that goes a long way toward unleashing the powerful productivity of people who aren’t stressed out. That it’ll help the developers that I care about so much not fall into burnout. And we hope that this framework is useful and that you find at least one or two things that you can do today and that you can hopefully implement over the longterm to help the developers that you work with avoid burnout, but also yourself. So, I will hope that you follow me on Twitter and let me know how it’s going and my wife and I are cheering you on as you help the people who you care about avoid burnout. That’s my wife by the way. You can follow her on Twitter as well and thanks for coming to my talk.

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