Managing Burnout During COVID-19

Originally published on Failure is Inevitable.

    During this crisis, we’re all trying our best to keep ourselves and others healthy, manage chaotic homes, and prioritize our mental health. However, this can be difficult even when we’re not experiencing a pandemic. With the added stress, burnout is occurring at an alarming rate with people unable to separate home from work, the increased burden of keeping everything on and heightened on-call loads, and the strain on communication.

    Somedays, you might find it difficult to unplug and relax. Others, you may dread logging on. However, this doesn’t mean you’re not good at your job or capable of remote work. Instead, this is likely a version of burnout that none of us have experienced before. It’s difficult to overcome, but there are some ways to combat this and keep yourself and your team from burning out.

    Are you at work or at home?

    For many of us, this question used to have a very clear answer. When you were at the office you were working. But now those lines are blurred, or nonexistent. This isn’t like normal remote working where you can sit at your desk from 9-5 with limited interruption and plenty of cognitive capacity to get you through the day. This crisis is straining all of us mentally, meaning we’re not functioning at 100%. Additionally, you may not be able to keep to a standard 9-5, especially if you have children or other people at home. This can make it feel both like you’re never really at work, but you’re never really off work either.

    Part of this is caused by decision fatigue. According to Forbes writer Maria Gamb, “This is a syndrome coined by social psychologist Dr. Roy F. Baumeister, based on the Freudian hypothesis of ego depletion. To draw a parallel in one’s personal life, consider ego depletion to also be the depletion of will power.”

    Maria uses the example of picking dinner after a long day filled with decision making. When you’re asked what you’d like to eat, you may simply say “I don’t care” or “You pick.” This is because you’re emotionally drained and making one more decision seems impossible. During this crisis, each decision we make is magnified. Is it safe to hug my partner? Is it safe to shop for groceries? Is it safe to order takeout? These day-to-day choices at home can make your work decisions feel impossible to make.

    One way to combat this is to eliminate unnecessary choices with automation. Runbooks can be applied across many life scenarios. By minimizing toil, you can be able to prioritize your decision making for things that require human intervention. For instance, imagine you have an incident and need to communicate with teammates. In a fatigued state, it might be difficult for you to decide what actions need to be taken and how this would be best communicated. Rather than make these choices, you can have a bot automatically spin up an incident channel in Slack and follow the list of tasks that you’ve previously planned.

    Another way to help those who are having trouble separating work from home is by encouraging autonomy and asynchronous communication. With children and partners also at home, it can be difficult to find time to work uninterrupted. Maybe you find yourself only having time very early in the morning or very late at night. Communicate this to your team so they know when you’re online and available, by sharing an accurate calendar noting when you’re busy with personal needs or “in-office.” Additionally, you can help teammates struggling with upended schedules by asking “can this be done asynchronously?” If a meeting isn’t necessary, write an email instead. When meetings are necessary, try to refer to your teammates' calendars to make sure your meeting isn’t going to interrupt homeschooling, lunch, or deep work.

    Lastly, it’s important to log off. Make sure that you’re taking the necessary time to unplug and relax. If you’re not on call, try to separate work and life by minimizing time spent checking your emails or responding to Slack messages. To help you avoid this temptation, create a separate desktop on your laptop or folder in your phone for work and home, and turn off work notifications when you’re not working. You can always turn them back on when it’s your turn to carry the pager.

    What does on-call need to look like now?

    On-call is a huge contributor to burnout under normal circumstances. With many industries experiencing a much higher volume of incidents, on-call can become a true nightmare for overworked teams. It’s more important now than ever to review your on-call process. Are certain teammates working the brunt of issues? Do other teammates have a higher on-call capacity during this time? These questions are important to answer in order to prevent on-call-related burnout.

    In Ovvy Insights’ Post-Incident Review Issue #3, Jaime Woo writes about his experience with long-distance driving. In this example, he tells readers how, even though the time was split equally on this drive between the two drivers, one had a significantly harder drive. Jaime experienced little traffic and good weather. However, his companion Emil had to drive in a snowstorm. Emil’s equal time commitment was much more mentally exhausting.

    Because of this experience, Jaime wrote, “When reflecting on how to characterize burden, it dawned upon us that many teams go through a similar calculus for incident response, in how to fairly assign on-call rotations. The most common method is to base rotations on fixed periods of time, but as even our simple example on the road highlights: is organizing shifts solely based on time the strongest strategy? We think factoring in the experience of on-call needs to be more rigorous and front-and-center.”

    If an engineer is involved in a long-lasting high-severity incident, their experience on call is much more stressful than someone who was only paged once for a low-severity incident. If both of these people are on call for one night, it may seem like their shifts are equal. However, you need to look at the activity of an on-call shift rather than the duration.

    Jamie also has some suggestions for this: “A hybrid approach that acknowledges the number of alerts and interruptions as well as time spent on-call would allow schedules to be fairer, and lead to healthier, more sustainable rotations. This might mean a cap on incidents, such as Google does, allowing only two incidents per 12-hour shift. Or, it may make sense that after someone has faced a disproportionate burden for interruptions their next shift is rescheduled until they’ve had enough time to recover. Another alternative is to ensure there are always primary and secondary on-calls, and that the two people swap roles to average out the labour.”

    While it can be intimidating to make adjustments to processes with so much changing around us already, trying out these on-call methodologies can help teams avoid burning out.

    We can also prevent burnout by putting in extra effort to make our teammates feel safe. Psychological safety is a great indicator for overall job satisfaction. In a poll conducted by Gallup, “Just three in 10 U.S. workers strongly agree that at work, their opinions seem to count. However, by moving that ratio to six in 10 employees, organizations could realize a 27% reduction in turnover, a 40% reduction in safety incidents and a 12% increase in productivity.” While this statistic reflects pre-COVID-19 polling, it still paints a clear picture of how crucial psychological safety is.

    When your team feels safe, you can openly and honestly talk to one another. Who is overwhelmed? What don’t the metrics show us? Perhaps, during this difficult time, it’s simply that a single parent is finding it difficult to balance work, on-call, and homeschooling all at once. Or, perhaps it’s because the emotional burden is particularly difficult to carry for someone one particular week. By having a flexible, open relationship with teammates and making sure they feel safe to speak out, you can adjust your on-call schedule to be more dynamic during these trying times. However, this will require excellent communication.

    How can we communicate better?

    Isolation and breakdowns in communication can also lead to burnout. After all, for those of us who value the social interaction work provides, this time can be especially trying. Additionally, instead of being able to ask your desk neighbor questions, you now have to communicate via instant messaging apps. Getting the information you need in a timely manner can be difficult and take a toll on your cognitive capacity throughout the day.

    To avoid these common issues, here are two things you can try.

    1. Take a Stay-cation. In a thought leadership panel Blameless had the privilege of hosting, Dave Rensin spoke about Google’s “Wheel of Stay-cation.” In this exercise, one teammate is allowed a full week for deep work with no outside emails, IMs, or asks. The rest of the team must work together to document any questions that couldn’t be answered during this time. The benefit in this is twofold: first, the person taking a stay-cation can have uninterrupted work time and second, the team is able to identify SPOFs, or single points of failure. Next, the team works to document the necessary information, decreasing the amount of tribal knowledge held within a team. As Dave says, “There are other things you can do, but the only way you can discover things like expertise SPOFs or information SPOFs is to regularly and routinely exercise them before the emergency shows up.”
    2. Use emojis. Or memes, or GIFs, or LOL. In the office, we’re used to communicating face-to-face, meaning you’re registering more than just a person’s words. You’re also taking into account their tone, facial expressions, and body language. Without that context, conversations over Slack can seem impersonal and sometimes even rude. This can lead to team members feeling slighted or unappreciated, further exacerbating burnout. To help lighten the “tone” of your messages, try adding in your favorite emojis. And, when a difficult conversation needs to take place where you want to express your tone and body language, make sure it’s done over Zoom, Skype, or FaceTime so you can see one another.

    While using emojis or letting a team member “go dark” for a day might seem trivial, little adjustments like these can ease everyone’s strain, both mentally and emotionally, and help your team better communicate. Most importantly, it can possibly reduce the risk that good teammates burn out.

    We need our teams to stay as healthy, happy, and effective as they possibly can under the circumstances, recognizing that the stresses of the times will result in reduced cognitive capacity. These tips aren’t perfect, and they won’t solve all our problems, but they can help provide a bit of buffer against burnout and improve your team’s morale during a trying, emotional, and difficult time.

    If you’d like to read more about how to adjust to remote work, check out these articles:

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