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30Sep/14Off

Thoughts on Burnout

I was reading an NPR piece on worker burnout and some different tactics taken by different companies to deal with it and came across a very nice, concise definition:

Christina Maslach is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, whose four decades of research on the subject helped popularize the term "burnout." Maslach says it's a loose term that encompasses a combination of work overload, lack of autonomy and reward and social and moral discord at work.

This sentence very concisely summarizes the key drivers of burnout and the factors at play are not as simple as "too much work".

The article also brings up an interesting observation (well, it's just the next few paragraphs):

Most burnout stems from interpersonal strife, but most employers see the solution as time off, she says.

If companies really want to know what's causing burnout in their workplace, Maslach says, they shouldn't just mandate more time off. They should assess the core problem, then design solutions to mitigate those issues.

"When it's time off, I mean, that might be time away from work," Maslach says. "Maybe you're addressing issues of exhaustion, but it's not really addressing what may be the problems at work."

Ultimately, a company, a project, a product -- it is the effort of many individual humans who must come together to fulfill a common goal.  And when humans are involved, conflict is sure to arise.  Obviously, you can still get things done when not all of your parts are in harmony, but isn't it much more enjoyable when they are?

I hardly consider myself an expert, but in my own experience, I've found that it's a good idea to work to reinforce those relationships between the people that comprise the team through team activities.  A common one is eating together with one another or occasionally taking the whole office to lunch or dinner. It is especially important for management to be involved because it shows that the employees are valued as people and not just as fungible parts of a machine.

Andrew Fitzgerald comments in that NPR article:

One day I got called into the boss's office. I was thinking to myself "Shoot! What does this guy have on me now? They called me in just to tell me that they thought I was doing a good job and that they appreciate my work ethic. I didn't make a lot of money. The work was kind of tedious and repetitive but I could not tell you how good that made me feel. A little positive feedback from the higher ups goes a long way.

At IC, the development team is in a unique position because all of us work remotely and travel to Irvine.  So we end up spending quite a bit of time together eating meals, going to the shooting range, kayaking on the weekends, and I'm planning on taking the team to an indoor climbing facility as well (I try to keep things fresh).  I also try to make sure that everyone is taken care of; there is nothing I won't do from picking up lunch, driving a co-worker to a train station, picking up fruit for everyone to share, and so on.  Not just because I manage them, but because I like and respect these guys as people first and foremost.

Even at a basic level, we sit together in the office and chit-chat from time to time about random things and watch random videos after we've been hacking away for 8 or 9 hours. When we are on site, not one member of the development team leaves before the others.  Not because anyone is forced to stay, and not because we have some unspoken code about such actions or that we would shame anyone that did, but I think because we all feel that we are in this together and that truly, we have a common goal to achieve as a team.

And that is an important point, in my opinion, because too often, how leaders fail is by not aligning all of the cogs of the machinery towards a common goal.  Most of the time, that simply involves clear and open communication about expectations, company goals, and an understanding of the priorities of the company or the team.

Like a train with two engines heading in opposite directions, failure by team leads to align the members of a team to a goal or failure by management to communicate expectations and priorities seems to lead to inaction, indecision, and conflict when team members are trying to pull in opposite directions.  Ultimately, this just help feed into worker burnout.

Posted by Charles Chen

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