This is a transcript of my talk, Burnout at Scale, given at DrupalCon Dublin. Whenever appropriate, I made changes to add clarity, reduce repetition, and add context.

Out of the forty plus hours that went into preparing this talk — I have a confession to make — at least one of those hours was spent looking for the perfect animated gif of fire that I could put on this front slide. Yep, yep, that was the best hour. The rest of them were all sweat and tears. (laughter)

My name is Alina Mackenzie, I am a consultant. That’s fairly recent development, as in between the time that I submitted this talk and it got approved and today. I started out as a developer and I have been slowly and steadily (and stealthily) moving towards operations engineering. In Twitterverse, you may find me at @alimacio, while in the Drupalverse, I am alimac.

Announcement about Drupal sprints

Since DrupalCon Amsterdam I have been involved in mentoring new contributors to the Drupal project. The conference organizers ask all the speakers to include this slide, it usually goes at the end, but I am throwing it right here, front and center. The sprint is tomorrow. The only prerequisite for coming to the sprint is that you have worked with Drupal in some capacity, whether as a site builder, content author, developer, themer, or a Drupal site user. If you have sprinted before, I encourage you to try mentoring. [Mentoring] is what you can do to take your skills to the next level. Sharing knowledge will really boost your skills.

Review my session!

If you have a laptop or a phone with you right now, I encourage you to visit bit.ly/burnout-at-scale I will make the slides available at that URL (this is the [conference] page of the talk). The main reason why I would like you to go to this URL is so that you evaluate my session. This will help the organizers and your fellow attendees. You can share your thoughts on the subject, you can help me achieve my dream of getting the most reviewed session of all of DrupalCon - whether it’s good or bad.

Burnout in the media

Let’s start by talking a quick look around the internet to see what are some of the things that are said about burnout. Here we have a “Prescription for Burnout: 5 TED Talks That Can Help You Beat Burnout”. I am sure that those are great TED talks. I think one of them is by Ze Frank, whom I admire. I am not sure if that is going to fix my burnout.

Let’s go to the next article. Here is “Overcoming Burnout: 10 Steps to Reignite Your Flame and Shine Brightly Once More”. (laughter) Fantastic. I am sure it is full of good advice.

In case you need more TED talks, Business Insider has curated “11 TED Talks to watch when you’re feeling totally burned out”.

If Marissa Mayer was a track chair for “Being Human” [the track my talk was part of at DrupalCon Dublin], I don’t think this talk would have gotten accepted. Marissa Mayer thinks that “Burnout is a Myth”, that it’s just about resentful that you do not get to do the things you want to do.

I was hoping to find something like “Try this one weird old tip to cure your burnout”… Have we reached peak burnout? Are we on the way to some kind of burnout-industrial complex?

The one common theme between all of these articles is that burnout is often treated and viewed and framed as an individual problem, as a failing of the individual, a weakness. We often talk about the burnout of one, and we focus on the burnout of one. But what about the burnout of the many?

[As I was dealing with my own burnout,] I wanted to see discussion of approaches to understanding burnout on systemic level. I wanted to see burnout put in the context of environments in which burnout takes place. So I did the thing that you would do, which is, tweeted about it.

This was almost exactly a year ago. I tweeted “we should talk about systemic causes of burnout, in our workplaces and organizations”. This was at DrupalCon Barcelona, where I am sure more than one person was feeling burned out [context: prior to release of Drupal 8, which had a 4+ year release cycle, which resulted in a lot of contributors feeling burned out].

This tweet got some traction. It got 25 reactions. On a typical day I am lucky if someone “likes” the picture of my cat that I post [on Twitter]. I’m a developer and ops person, and usually when I try to solve a problem I go online and I google it because someone else already had that problem before. I applied the same idea. I had to find someone else who is smart and who studied this in depth and see what they say.

“The Truth About Burnout”

This led me to a book published in 1997, almost 20 years. It’s titled “The Truth About Burnout”, so it must be real (laughter). But it was the subtitle that caught my attention. The subtitle is “How Organizations Cause Personal Stress And What To do About It.”

One of the authors of this book is Christina Maslach. How many of you have heard of the Stanford Prison Experiment? This was a study in the early seventies - a study of the psychological effects of becoming a prisoner or a prison guard. It is considered a classic study on the psychology of imprisonment.

The person who was running that study [Phillip Zimbardo] said that in only a few days, the people that were chosen to be guards became sadistic, and the people who were given the role of prisoners became depressed and showed signs of extreme stress. Within three days of [the start of] the study, one prisoner suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be let out.

Out of about 50 outside observers to came in to observe the experiment, there was only one who protested it. And that was Christina Maslach, who had recently gotten her PhD. She went on to become a full professor at Berkeley and continued to study the processes of dehumanization. Originally she wanted to study “cognitive reframing” - how people deal with strong, emotional feelings in jobs where you have to remain calm and collected.

She started with interviews of people who are working in the human services professions, such as health care, social services, criminal justice, psychological services. But she wasn’t getting the answers to the questions she was asking. Instead, people were coming up and saying “Let me tell you what I am experiencing on the job”, and that led her to the conversations about burnout.

Talk overview

The plan for this talk is to talk about:

  • the results of burnout, and why should we care
  • what makes up burnout
  • what does the opposite of burnout look like?
  • areas of organizational life where burnout can occur
  • strategies for addressing burnout, organizational and individual

I am going to talk about work burnout, but there are other types of burnout - burnout in open source contribution is something that has been discussed, and also burnout in tech in general.

Effects of burnout

Let’s talk about the effects of burnout and see what the surgeon general’s warning burnout would have on its label [reference: in US, surgeon general’s health-related warnings appear on items such as cigarette packaging].

First up, poor quality of work. When you are burned out, you are likely to do the minimum, and not go above and beyond. You might not have a spark for innovation or experimentation. And it’s not just that people start building “crooked” websites, full of bugs. It goes beyond the number of closed tickets, and the features that you ship.

When you are burned out, you cut back on the time that you collaborate with your coworkers. You cut back on the time that you mentor your coworkers.

Your outreach and recruitment — are you going to do any kind of recruitment or outreach, are you going to tell anybody “hey, you should come work with me (to spread the burnout around)”? No, you are not going to do that. One of the best forms of recruitment are happy employees. And a burned out person is not a happy employee.

I will give you an example from my own experience. I was at a meetup - Chicago Women Developers - and at the time, the organization I was with was hiring. I fully intended to let everybody at the meetup know that we are hiring. But as I really thought about it, I thought, “I don’t want these people to be as miserable as me.” So, I didn’t do it.

Another effect of burnout is low morale and satisfaction. You’re not feeling good about the job. You’re not highly motivated. You start withdrawing from aspects of work — social aspects. You also start withdrawing from decision-making. Maybe at a meeting, you’re sitting there and something gets discussed and you think “Well, I am not going to speak up, why bother?” [From the organization’s perspective, an important voice could be missing in that discussion.]

Another effect manifests itself in physical illness. Insomnia — who here has ever experienced insomnia? Gastrointestinal problems, hypertension, heart condition, anxiety and panic attacks.

Not only that, but there is dysfunction in [your] personal life. Burnout is not a hat. You don’t hang it up as you leave work. You take your burnout home with you and that affects the people that interact with you in the outside life. To cope with burnout you might start using excess of alcohol, drugs. Essentially, burnout is a corrosive agent. It erodes your relationships with your colleagues, and the people who love you outside of work.

Burnout can lead to low self esteem, and that in turn can lead to depression, and to suicide. It can also cause absenteeism and turnover. People who can get out [of the organization], will get out. In some organizations that Maslach talked to, some people said “Thank god for burnout, it means we don’t have to fire people. Less paperwork. It weeds them out.”

The thing about turnover is that it isn’t just subtracting an employee from the organization. You are also subtracting that employee from other employees.

(slide with photo of Pandemic board game)

Who can recognize this board game? It’s called Pandemic. It’s a collaborative game, meaning you don’t compete against other players. You work together with other players to try and cure four diseases — symbolized by colored glass cubes — before time runs out or the diseases take over the world. [The board is a map of the world with cities. They are connected by lines along which the diseases can spread from city to city.]

How can burnout affect the people around us?

Think of the person experiencing burnout as being one of those locations, one of those cities. When they are burned out, it means they have the maximum number of cubes that can go on a city [in the game, the maximum is 3]. In an outbreak, burnout can start spreading to other people connected to them. This is a cascading effect, which can potentially destabilize an organization.

Human or economic values?

[With burnout,] there is a cost to the individual, there is a cost to the organization, and then there is a cost to the people that come in contact with the person who is burned out.

In our world, economic values — profits — are often the primary driving force that inform how organizations do things. Human concerns are often left to be the last thing [to consider]. They are not going to be addressed or looked at unless they have some kind of impact on economic values.

Have you ever noticed how in discussions of social issues like diversity, inclusion, representation, the arguments are often framed in economic terms. I am not saying that’s good or bad, but it’s often the case that we look at economic values first.

To control that economic bottom line, we have to pay attention to the human bottom line. We need to affirm the value of humanity, beyond just economic value.

With that in mind, let’s look at what makes up burnout.

Dimensions of burnout

Number one: exhaustion, individual stress. [This is] the first thing that people think about when they think of burnout — being exhausted. It is related to work overload — not enough resources to meet the demand, or your resources are spread to thin over a wide and varying landscape of demands.

Exhaustion manifests itself in changes in terms of your health. Your physical exhaustion: you feel brain-dead, irritable, emotionally fried. Overextended, both emotionally and physically. Drained up, unable to unwind and recover. You start lacking the energy to face another project or another person [asking you to do something].

In addition to exhaustion, there is cynicism. This is where [your] thoughts about the job start shifting in a persistent, negative direction. You start having a very negative reaction to the people and the workplace. You back off from the job, you don’t want to be there.

You start shifting from doing your best work, to doing the minimum, “checking out”. In a way, this is a natural reaction to the first dimension. If you are exhausted, and you have too much to do and not enough resources to do it, the natural reaction is to cut back, to attempt to protect yourself from exhaustion and disappointment.

People feel that it might be safer to be indifferent, especially when their future is uncertain. When this sets in, as Maslach’s research indicates, it’s very hard to turn around.

The last dimension is ineffectiveness. It’s seen later rather than earlier. This is when that negative, cynical feeling is turned inward, on [your own self]. If this kicks in, it could be a precursor to mental health issues, such as depression. This is where you give yourself a negative self-evaluation, a negative reaction to how you are feeling about what you’re doing, about yourself.

You feel ineffective, inadequate. You lose confidence. Every new project seems to be overwhelming. Even if you are perfectly capable of doing it, it just seems [impossible]. It’s kind of a vicious circle, a self-fulfilling prophecy. [As you lose confidence in yourself and withdraw,] others [will] begin to lose confidence in you. It seems like the world conspires against you, and you ask yourself,“What am I even doing here?”

(slide with 3 dimensions of burnout represented as a pie chart using various shades of brown)

So, that is our shit pie of burnout. You’re chronically exhausted, cynical, detached from your work and increasingly ineffective on the job. (Yes, I picked these colors on purpose).

Burnout is not an acute form of stress. This isn’t because of one bad project, or one single event. What you’re reacting to is a number of stressors in the workplace over [prolonged period of] time. It’s a chronic condition. It’s like death by a thousand cuts. People refer to it as “erosion of their soul.”

This is something you may see in yourself, you may see it in other people, and sometimes they will see it in you before you even see it in yourself.

Burnout-engagement continuum

That was fairly depressing. I want to flip it around and approach it from the other end, to see what does the opposite of this pie looks like?

Instead of exhaustion, you have energy. You have enthusiasm about your work. You wake up in the morning and you are ready to commit time and effort to the tasks on your job.

Instead of cynicism, you are involved. You are not dreading Monday. You look forward to interacting with other people at work, you want to be there. You find the work activities meaningful.

Finally, instead of being ineffective, you have a sense of efficacy, a sense of accomplishment. You have the power to do the things you want to do. You feel good about the things you are able to do. You feel competent and effective.

Burnout is not a fixed point in time. If we look at those things together, really what we have is a continuum, a spectrum. From exhaustion to energy, from cynicism to involvement, and from ineffectiveness to efficacy. You may fall in various spots on this spectrum.

How do we do the things that will lead people to retain and have enthusiasm, to be involved and to feel effective? Getting rid of the negatives is going to be a different process than building up the positives. This is not to say that one is better than the other, but we often forget about [building up] the positives. In some organizations, negatives come as part of the territory and there is often not much you can do to reduce those negatives.

If you are working in helpdesk support, people don’t contact you when they are happy about a service. They’re always contacting you when they are pissed off, “Why isn’t this working?” There is no way to reduce the number of these negative reactions that people have. But it could be just as effective to focus on how to build engagement, instead of just reducing burnout.

Maslach gives an example from her own experience, as a teacher. You work really hard to prepare lectures, and when students come to your office for office hours, you just get complaints about grades (“why am I getting this grade? can you increase it?”), not understanding. [Maslach] asked [her students], “if you have any questions, if you are not understanding something, come see me at my office hours,” but also asked students to share something that they found helpful, interesting, and good. And students started coming in [to office hours] to tell her positive things as well. This helped her feel more engaged and less burned out.

We want to find low-cost ways to support engagement. Where can we find those ways?

Six areas of work-life quality

The key thing that Maslach learned from her research is that where you are on that burnout-engagement continuum depends on a kind of fit, or match, between you and the workplace. The more matches you have, the higher the engagement. This also means that we have more opportunities to do something about it.

Let’s start with the first [area], that most people will be familiar with — workload. If you have mismatch between between the person and the job [in the area of workload], you have too much to do, too little time, the demands are too high, the resources too scarce. You are constantly interrupted and you’re frequently context-switching.

This mismatch in workload is predictive of the exhaustion dimension of burnout.

When you have a match, you have manageable workload. You feel like you have accomplished something by the end of each day. You have a balance of work and outside life, and some capacity to monotask.

“Being a great firefighter looks great from the inside, but from the outside it looks like a bunch of excuses for not improving. If your team doesn’t have enough people and you are constantly firefighting without respite, your skills are atrophying.”

— Jennifer Davis and Katherine Daniels, Effective DevOps

This is a quote from Effective DevOps, which is another great book that I recommend.

In organizations that Maslach worked with people predicted that workload would be the biggest problem. But the research suggested it was the other five areas.

Control [is another area]. How much say, how much discretion [do] you have over your tasks? When you have a mismatch, you’re either micromanaged, and you lack influence and discretion and autonomy, or you’re in a chaotic environment where it’s not clear who has control over what’s going on.

The worst that can happen is that you’re being held accountable for things you have no control over.

On the flip side, when you have a match in [the area of] control, you have input. You can make decisions, make choices. It doesn’t mean you have total control over everything, but you have enough wiggle room to shape what you are doing.

Reward is the psychological principle of recognition, as well as [material] — “raise and praise”. It’s positive feedback that we get when we do something well. Do people notice? Are you praised? Do you get a raise?

When you have a mismatch, you feel that there is lack of appreciation, lack of equitable rewards. When you have a match [in the area of] reward in your workplace, you are recognized. You receive some reasonable financial returns, and you have enjoyable work.

In many instances, recognition by others can count a lot more, psychologically, than tangible things.

Community is another area where if there is a mismatch between the job and the person, burnout can occur. Community includes colleagues, managers, direct reports, vendors, and clients.

Your coworkers have skills, information and materials that you need to get things done, so when people trust one another, they will more readily share those resources.

But in hostile workplaces, it will eat away at a person’s ability to do their work. When you have a mismatch in the area of community, you have isolation, conflict, disrespect. You don’t get enough social support. There is no sharing of information, there is no trust, no collaboration. There are unresolved conflicts, and no process for resolving those conflicts. It’s what’s called a socially toxic workplace.

When you have a match, there is cohesion, cooperation. There is social support. There is respectful handling of disagreements.

Another quote from Effective DevOps:

“[…] giving people the time and space to strengthen bonds leads to better retention. We often stay at jobs longer than intended because people make the difference.”

I think it’s quite important.

The next area in which a mismatch can occur between the job and the person is fairness. It’s about the sense of justice that we feel about who gets what assignments, who gets promoted. When people perceive their environment to be unfair, their primary reaction is going to be resentment, anger, hostility.

When you have a mismatch in fairness, there are secretive political deals going on, cliques. There is lack of procedural justice. It’s all about who you know. On the other hand, when there is a match, you have open resource allocation, effective appeal procedures, and there is transparency about things like promotions.

It’s important to note that this is all about perception. Things may or may not be fair or unfair, but they are perceived as such. If people feel this, this is going to drive their behavior. Mismatches in [the area of] fairness are most closely tied to the rise of cynicism.

In Maslach’s research, this was an early warning sign. People who perceived favoritism, cheating or other inequities in their workplace were more likely to be burned out by the end of their study.

Conversely, other employees who may have had mismatches in other areas, but who viewed their workplace as a just environment, they often came back and titled toward engagement by the end of the study.

The last area [in which mismatch between a person and their job can occur] is values. Values is what makes life meaningful. What is it about the work that I am doing that’s consistent with the values that I am pursuing in my life?

When you have a mismatch, there are ethical conflicts. What you believe in, versus what the job asks you to do. You sometimes say things like “This job is eating my soul.” The conflict can also occur between what the organization preaches and what it practices.

The organization may say “We believe in providing customer-oriented service”, but then your performance is evaluated on upsells and selling things to the customer that they don’t need. Conflicts can also occur between organizational values, such as organizations that say, “we believe in work-life balance,” but then their policies and practices say otherwise.

When you have a match, you have meaningul work and you have an overlap of personal and organization values.

These six areas where match or mismatch can occur, that can lead to burnout are: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values.

##TODO Add context about Maslow

(slide with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs)

We can roughly map them to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. For example, for basic needs, think about fair compensation, which aligns with reward and fairness.

For safety and security, you need to feel assured that your job is not going to disappear on you, that your work is valued by the organization, and that the organization is going to be open and forthcoming about things that might impact you, such as potential layoffs. This aligns with control and community.

For belonging, people need to feel comfortable in their workplace, and appreciated by both their managers and their peers. This aligns with community and reward areas.

Finally, for self-esteem and self-actualization, people want to feel proud of themselves, and the work that they do. This aligns with values.

Once again, here are some of the mismatches that can occur that will produce burnout:

  • work overload
  • lack of control
  • insufficient reward
  • breakdown of community
  • absence of fairness
  • value conflicts

The more mismatches you have, the more likely that burnout will occur.

Is it the person or the job?

When we focus on people’s behaviors, we tend to focus on people’s problems. This often makes burnout a personal issue, because we experience it on a personal level. We think, maybe it’s a character flaw? And this focus on the individual is why a majority of burnout prevention techniques will focus on that personal scope — “What’s wrong with this person?”

It doesn’t tackle the larger environmental and social system issues. What organizations often do is invest in personal change programs, like stress management workshops. This is valuable to organizations, because they’re very low-cost, individual strategies. However, they often have low return on investment as well. And, many people find them demeaning or patronizing, because essentially what they say is, “You don’t know how to take care of yourself.”

Even if you take advantage of [stress management workshops], and change your own behavior, you are not changing the social environment in which you work and exist. The research data says that it’s really the job situation — what is happening in those work situations?

So, is it the person or the job? Well, it’s both. You have to look at a person in the context of their workplace to understand what’s going on. The context is the workplace, and the relationships that people have in [and with] the workplace.

Organizational approaches can be more productive rather than an individual approach, because changing thing at work is never going to be an individual process, it’s not going to happen. It has to be a group process.

Organizational approaches to addressing burnout

Maslach discusses two organizational approaches, and offers case studies and examples for both. The first one is “bottom up”.

It starts with a person who knows the six [areas in which burnout can occur], and has some kind of ability to work with their colleagues (because you can’t go at it alone), and has a commitment to stick with the process of change.

That employee goes and seeks out other colleagues who agree with them and want to work on this, because you, ultimately, are the subject matter expert on your job situation. You formulate a plan with your colleagues and then try to get the organizational buy-in to implement the plan. This won’t work if your organization is not supportive.

To recap, it starts with a person who gets together with coworkers for a “group project” that then connects to the larger organization. Maslach has some case studies where this [approach] succeeds. But overall, it’s risky. [For] one, you need organizational buy-in, which you might not get. Even more risky, is the fact that this could be beyond the resources of a group of burned out employees.

The second approach is “top-down”. It starts with management, it becomes an organizational project, and ultimately it connects with the people in the organization. Any kind of organizational intervention to build engagement and to prevent burnout has to be an inclusive project. It’s not something that you do to the people, you have to do it with the people [in the organization].

What is the outcome of this? Do you get a burnout-proof organization? Do you get some kind of certification? No. Like documentation, like security, the outcome is a process.

Staff audit

Where do you start?

In most organizations, you do things like financial audits, or security audits. Those are standard operating procedures to asses how an organization deals with its fiscal responsibilities.

What we do in this case is a staff audit, to asses how an organization deals with responsibilities tied to its employees. The goal is to identity potential problem areas, much like going to a doctor and getting your vitals checked or blood work done. Or [similar to the way] you look at your Nagios dashboard, to determine which servers need to be restarted.

An effective organizational strategy to address burnout begins with a staff survey on key aspects of organizational life.

You are aiming for as many people as possible to answer it. You are not aiming for just the people who are like “Let me tell you about [my burnout]!” — you want everyone to participate. In their studies, Maslach aimed for 80-90% participation. You will have to work hard to get a high number of participants.

The survey has to be anonymous, it has to be confidential. If you have a large enough organization, it should be broken up into organizational units. There are two phases to the survey. One is finding out what is going on with the organization’s work force. [The second phase] is sharing that information, and using it to improve organizational culture.

What goes into the staff survey? You ask questions [pertaining to] the 3 dimensions of burnout, and the 6 areas of work life quality. In addition, you ask questions related to communications from management, such as “is there a clear line of communication and credible messages that the employees are receiving [from management]?” Supervision — are supervisors supportive, responsive, are they effective? Professional development — is there support in your organization for skill enhancement, doing work that builds skills, support for culture of learning. Or is that something delegated to you [doing it] nights and [on] weekends?

You ask about cohesiveness, which is supportiveness and shared values within a group. You ask about the view of the organization over time and the confidence in the organization’s future, and overall assessment of the organization.

What you get from a staff survey is an organizational profile.

It’s a profile of the organization as a whole. If you have sub-units, you can break it down by sub-unit. You might find that burnout is prevalent in some units but not others. Different groups could be dealing with problems in different areas.

The reporting stage is critical to the success [of the survey]. You have to have a report and share it with everyone, [for example]: “You’re in this sub-unit, this is how the organization [is viewed] as a whole, this is [a] profile [for your sub-unit]. This is how you compare within your particular work group.” It has to be timely and short, and address the objectives [of the survey].

You have that profile, now what? Alina, give us the answers, the red pill or the blue pill to fix this. There is no simple answer, I am sorry to disappoint — this is where most of the negative reviews of the talk are going to come from. (laughter)

The thing to remember is that factors in work environment play a much larger role in predicting and influencing burnout that any kind of individual variables. Building this [organizational] profile will help you clear up any wrong assumptions that could lead to solutions that completely miss the mark.

Maslach gives a really great example of this. At the start of a school year, there was an assembly of teachers that were given a speech by a motivational speaker. They’re sitting there, facing budget cuts and increased classroom sizes, and staff cuts. And there is this motivational speaker, “motivating them”. It was not what they needed. It made them feel extremely patronized.

Sometimes the result is not what people expect. Common expectation is that the biggest problem is workload or reward. But sometimes it’s something in the other areas that makes workload difficult.

If you hire more people to deal with workload, but your burnout is fueled by breakdown in community or issues of fairness, then hiring more people — throwing more people in the fire — is not going to help.

Change and improvement will never come overnight. It will take time to implement.

The thing to remember is that no matter the change is, even if it is the best thing for the organization, it is going to get worse before it gets better. Why? Because it will be difficult, there will be glitches and missteps. The demands of doing things in a new way may sometimes in the short term outweigh the benefits of an innovation.

It’s kind of like when you are remodeling your house, you have to break everything down and it looks like shit. You have to live through it, and then it looks a lot better.

The important thing to do is come back in a year or two and have another one of those organizational checkups to see if you are getting better or worse. You have to know what the goals are, what are you aiming for?

Goals

Sustainable workload — if this laptop is at 100% CPU or memory usage, that’s not a good thing So why do we expect the same of ourselves and fellow humans? (“hell yeah!” from audience)

You want sustainable workload that keeps you going, lets you come back energized, and allows to you for experimentation.

Appropriate choice and control in what you do.

Recognition and reward, both intrinsic and extrinsic.

There is an [exchange] that happened on twitter last month that I found very interesting. One person says: “Remember folks, your staff are motivated by autonomy, mastery and purpose. Not cash, ping pong and desk beers.”

The response to that (which I found witty) is: “Honestly, I’m also quite motivated by cash and it’d be nice to stop thinking of [software developers] as aspirational ascetics.”

The word ascetic means “characterized by severe abstention from all forms of indulgence”.

I don’t know much about desk beers or ping pong, but I do know about cash, and I know that it can buy me food and stuff. So pay people well!

Supportive work community that has open communication, ways to resolve conflicts, and in which we can trust each other.

I couldn’t resist one more quote from [Effective DevOps]:

“Employees that trust in their organization to support them can take the time the need to invest in themselves and their skills, strengthening the connections in their work and reducing the risk of burnout.”

High-trust organizations are positively correlated with higher quality of work. You want employees in your organization to trust, to have the ability to trust their own judgement.

Fairness, respect and justice. If an organization shows no fairness, then we lose trust in it. We feel that the people in authority [of the organization] are not honest and do not respect who we are.

Finally, we want clear values and meaningful work.

For you who are burned out…

As I was preparing this talk, I struggled with how personal I was going to make it. After some thought, I opted for the following. This is an open letter to everyone who is feeling stuck, hopeless. Maybe no one here is feeling this way, which would be great, but this is for you.

In 19th century factories, during Industrial Revolution, workers were seen as cogs in the machines, easily replaced. There was considerable effort, protests and legislation to end that set of exploitative labor practices. But the idea of the workplace as an inhumane, efficient machine that just feeds on people and talent, it is back.

Organizations, unfortunately, often do not expect to retain their employees forever, and as such, are unlikely to serve your long term interests. If you are in that position, where you are burned out, here are some things you can do.

Think of yourself as an independent contractor, even if you are not — a “company of one.” Make the primary focus preparing yourself for whatever next career opportunity that may happen.

You will need to stick to a routine, even when you are under pressure to behave otherwise. I have an example of this (not from personal experience, but somebody I know). She is a network engineer, and she was experiencing burnout from a mismatch in reward. During lunch, she started studying for certification, and she did this several weeks, maybe one or two months. It paid off. She got an offer [from another organization], and then a counter-offer [where she worked]. It worked for her.

Physical fitness. I am not framing this in diet, or weight loss, or BMI. Forget that shit. This is about self-care. You’re a company of one, you want to live healthy, you want to increase the resilience of you company. You want to reduce any kind of vulnerability that you might have to exhaustion.

To do that, you can use an appropriate combination of exercise, good nutrition, and getting enough sleep. I’m not kidding you, your job is not going to change because of this. But you will increase your endurance.

I don’t have any examples of this, because I’m not really great at [physical fitness]. (laughter, clapping)

Recovery cycles — integrate recovery cycles into your everyday activities. Give it a structure, otherwise you will not make time for recovery. You could incorporate small amounts of exercise, like a midday walk, into your work day. If you have a friend at work, recruit them and share that burnout-reduction project together. Having mutual support is very very powerful.

My example of this: with my office mate, we decided to schedule time every day around lunch to watch My Little Pony, and not worry about work or email. That was our time. I would always try to guess what the [episode’s] plot twist would be.

Positive feedback. We all know that receiving good vibes from other people is really uplifting, but so is expressing them to others. This is really tough to do when you are burned out. I know this, because burnout corrodes your empathy. This is why it’s crucial for you to hold on to that, to nurture that empathy, and to keep doing those acts of kindness toward your colleagues. Maybe not the assholes, but the people who are neutral.

An example from my own experience is that I implemented a chat bot. It had a module for giving kudos, or props to other people. It would give points, though the points don’t really matter. It’s more about the public expression of appreciation of your colleagues and what they do.

The final bit of advice that I have is job crafting. This is where you identify [work] duties that you find tedious, and aspects [of your job] that you find fulfilling, and you attempt to increase the instances where you do the fulfilling work, within whatever ability that you have.

Your job is a collection of tasks and interpersonal relationships, assigned within an organization. See if you can “redesign” your job to get a little bit more satisfaction from it. Maybe alter boundaries [and] take on more or less tasks. Change how you perform certain tasks. Or, change the nature or extent of interactions with other people. [For example,] avoid assholes altogether, if you can.

You very likely have more latitude in your work than you think.

An example of this from my own experience: there was a rotation [among a dozen system administrators] of who would answer tickets every week. It would be a wide-ranging set of tickets, web-related stuff, email-related stuff. I said, “I’m going to take over [answering] web-related tickets full-time, but never ask me about restoring somebody’s inbox again.” [And the organization agreed to this.] This way, I did a little bit of job crafting . I also started to inch slowly toward operations.

Book resources

If you are burned out and want cathartic reading, I highly recommend The Truth About Burnout [by Christina Maslach and David P. Leiter]. This [book] was chicken soup for my burned out soul.

The second book that I highly recommend is Effective DevOps If devops is “too buzzword” for you, forget the devops. Focus on the subtitle, which is “Building a Culture of Collaboration, Affinity, and Tooling at Scale.”

Everything is better when you add “at scale” at the end. (laughter)

[There’s] a lot of actionable advice [in this book], and a lot of stories, and it’s been recently published — this year — so it’s [fresh], like a delicious butter croissant.

Please visit bit.ly/burnout-at-scale and tell me is this session what you expected? Is there something memorable at this session? Which parts were completely bogus and unclear and need more attention? And what are the things that you want to see in a future burnout talk.

My DrupalCon Dublin dream, again, is to have the most reviewed session, whether you hated it, liked it, or are indifferent.

Thank you very much!