A BBC Technology article last month spotlighted the issue of burnout in the tech sector. Interviewees talked about the importance many employers place on ‘being exceptional’ and a tacit belief that most people ‘need a push’ to get their work done. Those finding it hard to cope with demanding targets and workloads fear they will be perceived as not tough enough or good enough. They don’t feel they can ask for help. Instead, they keep going until they can’t – putting themselves at risk of a mental health crisis.
The personal stories in the article echo observations made by Dr Christina Maslach, social psychologist and author of the Maslach Burnout Inventory. Maslach has headlined at DevOps Enterprise Summits in London and Las Vegas, where her comments struck a chord with many delegates. She speaks candidly about the causes and repercussions of burnout. And she is very clear that the problem does not rest with individuals exhibiting symptoms, but with their work environments.
Burnout and workplace toxicity
Maslach considers burnout to be a prolonged response to chronic situational stressors on the job. It’s about the everyday burdens that wear people down, and it has three key dimensions: exhaustion (individuals feel they can’t take it anymore), cynicism (negative feelings, a socially toxic workplace) and professional inefficacy (people feeling they’re not good enough).
According to Maslach, a common feeling amongst employees in cultures prone to burnout is that “no matter how hard we work, we never get enough done”.
This may sound familiar to anyone working in tech. It can feel like there are not enough hours in the day, challenges evolve and grow faster than you can deal with them. So it’s perhaps not surprising that the Harvey Nash Tech Survey 2020 Report says half of tech professionals in the UK have been concerned about their mental health due to work. What’s more, one in five professionals working in IT operations are currently affected by mental health concerns.
Too often, managers simply expect people to toughen up, as one of our client success managers found with a previous employer:
“I once had a boss who conducted a SWOT analysis on me. One of the key points raised was ‘the problem with Andy is that he’s one of our best performers, but he burns out’. Instead of seeing burnout as a problem with the workplace, it was considered a problem with me. Not only that, instead of supporting me when I was at crisis point, the implication was that I needed to toughen up.”Andrew Phillips, Client Success Manager
Maslach would argue that finding or developing more resilient workers is not the answer. She uses the ‘canary in the coalmine’ analogy, suggesting that employers make the workplace less toxic, rather than looking for a tougher bird.
Focus on culture for upstream burnout prevention
Since burnout is an indicator of workplace toxicity, it’s more effective to address the cause rather than the symptoms.
Maslach talks extensively about the concept of job-person fit, and six key areas that have an impact on the burnout phenomenon:
- Workload – demands versus resources
- Control – level of autonomy, choice, scope for innovation
- Reward – social recognition, not just salary
- Community – workplace relationships and support
- Fairness – how opportunities and recognition are awarded
- Values – the meaning and purpose behind what people do
Each of these areas is equally relevant and important. But an individual can tolerate job-person mismatch in some, providing the others are working well. The secret, according to Maslach, is to look at these six areas as entry points to do things differently to create better, healthier workplaces that support people effectively. By addressing issues that can create a toxic work environment, you reduce the likelihood of burnout.
This is especially important in organisations undergoing a period of significant change. It needs to be a high priority in the age of digital disruption, where change is not just an ad hoc event but an ongoing process of adapting to evolving demands and opportunities. It’s just one of the reasons why DevOpsGroup places such great emphasis on culture as one of the five pillars of our Adaptive IT Framework for transformation.
In 2016, DevOpsGroup entered a period of exponential growth. Staff numbers leapt from 20 to 40 in the space of two years, and we recognised that this transition from start-up to scale-up changed the dynamic of the business. Two years ago, with more growth on the cards, we introduced measures to protect our culture, and our people, while embracing our new reality as a medium-sized business.
Many of the adjustments we made are aligned with modern ways of working, behavioural psychology and proven good practice from Google’s re:work hub. This is evident in our formation of long-lived squads, or teams, designed to foster trust between colleagues and a community of psychological safety. We use C-me behavioural profiling to help squads harness the different talents and traits of individuals, driving success and ensuring any conflicts are handled intuitively and productively. We also encourage squads to operate autonomously. They control their own workloads and priorities, with achievements recognised and celebrated both within the squad and at a Group level.
An ongoing conversation
This wasn’t a once-and-done project. We know how easy it is to feel overwhelmed by the scope and scale of change in the digital economy, and we have an ongoing company-wide conversation surrounding mental health awareness and burnout prevention. We don’t get everything right all the time. But our aim is to create a safe and inclusive environment where honesty and openness are encouraged so we can keep improving.
We asked Andrew how life at DevOpsGroup compares to his previous experience:
“At DevOpsGroup, we all live and breathe the ‘fail fast, fail safe’ ethos. In my previous role it was ‘fail and it’s all your fault’. In the end, this causes anxiety and makes people afraid to try new things. When business leaders truly value their people, and ensure the culture and organisational practices reflect this, it creates a safer environment for people to learn and develop.”
Putting culture at the heart of everything
Our whitepapers Digital Transformation Done Right and Moving From Start-up to Scale-up emphasise the importance of culture alongside other factors, such as technology, strategy and ways of working. We encourage clients to proactively address psychological safety, learning and autonomy to boost employee satisfaction and wellbeing. Putting this at the heart of your business will go a long way towards eradicating burnout risk, for the good of your people and the good of your business.