January 14, 2018

Pre-empting Tech Burn-Out and "Inconsequential Bullshit"

The term “burning out” is seemingly an every day one in some tech circles; with most developers that have been in the industry for more than a couple of years having a personal story of times where things have just been too much.

Although the phenomenon would appear to be staggeringly (and disappointingly) common, there stills seems to be a lack of understanding over the basics - i.e the “how, why, and when”. It’s clear that as an industry we need to do better.

Why we need to do better.

At the moment much of the tech industry seems to bury it’s head in the sand with regards to employee mental health; that’s not to say they don’t offer support, but that they offer reactive support to an individual only after their situation has already declined beyond a point that they can reasonably be expected to carry out their duties.

This is bad for both parties:

  1. For the individual affected, their condition has been allowed to progress to the point whereby they feel spent, useless, and exhausted.
  2. Whilst for employers this means the individual has now hit 0% productivity, and on a purely financial model the employee is now a financial liability with no return.

Reactive mental health practices in tech hurt both the businesses and the people that the industry rely upon, and as such they can’t go on.

Early Intervention, and Recognising The Signs

The concept of “early intervention” (EI) is common in health-care; the sooner you intercept a problem, the greater the potential reduction in harm. The problem of mental health issues in technology is begging for a solution based on this very principle.

Nobody “burns out” overnight, and this provides a window whereby the outcome can be predicted and altered; especially in more serious cases requiring prolonged absences and/or lifestyle changes.

In a previous role I had the misfortune of being responsible for an enterprise absence-management platform, and this episode acted as a crash course in the type of metrics and statistics that are commonly used in the world of HR. It was a rather depressing moment when I made the realisation that this impressive level of visibility was more likely to be used for disciplinary than welfare issues. Yet these tools could easily be re-purposed to allow companies to act pro-actively - detecting problems before they occur, and before absence thresholds are breached.

At the very least though, my exposure to that software did underline that there are tools out there - and commonly used ones too - which would allow companies to pre-empt wellbeing issues before they developed. In an industry where productivity and “complexity points” can be logged and graphed on a daily basis, it’s disappointing not to see such data used more frequently for monitoring employee wellbeing.

Although changes to absences and productivity are indicative of a potential issue, by the time they become apparent it’s clear that the situation has already developed quite deeply. So what else could be examined?

Waves of “Inconsequential Bullshit

I write this from the opinion of someone who - in addition to speaking out on employee wellbeing issues - has dealt with his own mental health issues on multiple occasions.

One of the over-arching sensations of feeling stressed, burned out, or depressed, is that of apathy - that is to say that most things just begin to feel like “inconsequential bullshit”. By the time that this apathy is present it’s clear that something needs to change, and change quickly.

Prior to the apathy though, there are generally other changes that act as warning signs:

  • attitude (such as irritability)
  • tardiness and/or fatigue (suggesting sleeping issues)
  • appetite
  • inability to concentrate

These can often be viewed as insignificant in isolation - and it’s easy to explain them away as little more than the pre-cursor to a cold or the flu; but when present together they can be useful warning signs to a larger issue.

Encouraging a mentality of “self-monitoring” is only half the battle though, and even with recognition of the signs - there’s no benefit if that insight isn’t acted upon. At times it would appear that the technology industry has quite a large demographic who are shy or introverted, and this can prove to be an obstacle when attempting to get help.

It’s vital for any strategy aimed at improving employee mental-wellbeing that there are discrete and relaxed mechanisms in place for discussing issues with an appropriate individual that can provide assistance. Preferably an individual that isn’t in the employees immediate chain-of-supervision (i.e not a line manager.).

The Moral Obligation

Ultimately employers have a duty of care - not to mention a moral obligation - to ensure the health and wellbeing of their employees. It stands to reason that mental wellbeing is going to be effected by workplace issues like periods of long hours, rushed deadlines, or project-switching; and it also stands to reason that these are more often than not symptomatic of bad management.

There are simple steps that employers can take to improve the mental wellbeing of their staff, and what’s best is that none of these steps require intrusive questions or the removal of an employee’s privacy.

  1. The education of staff: be it via books, web resources, or formal training - ensure that staff are able monitor their own wellbeing and determine when any stress is escalating beyond their control.
  2. Equipping staff with the procedures and processes for highlighting wellbeing issues - do staff have a point of contact for wellbeing issues? do they know they have a point of contact? is there a set procedure for dealing with wellbeing issues?
  3. Healthy management and working conditions: are staff suffering from organisational deficits in project management or resourcing? do they have the correct support and protection from project stakeholders?

Until these three principles are more common in the industry, I suspect we’ll continue to hear the depressingly common stories of workers burning out and seeking alternative industries. We must do better.

© Fergus In London 2019

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