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Why it's time to take IT burnout seriously

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Disengaged or apathetic employees are a sign of weak culture -- not weak people. In this podcast, Dr. Christina Maslach shares what IT job burnout looks like and how to address it.

LAS VEGAS -- Leaders lead and workers follow, or so goes the command-and-control way of thinking. In the software development industry, under the gated Waterfall development approach, that meant a lot of work on a product that might take years to ship. This style of teamwork led to IT burnout. It's an example of how dangerous work cultures have a severe impact on professionals' individual health.

But we solved that problem with Agile and DevOps methodologies, right? IT workers can automate much of their mundane tasks away, enjoy more perks and ship software in days, weeks or months, depending on the business.

The result? Still, burnout in IT, at least for many software organizations. And it's a problem that catered lunches, employee group outings and faster time to delivery can't entirely solve. Burnout shows up in many industries, including healthcare and finance. Software development was born and matured in a culture of burnout, which makes it all that much harder to remedy.

In this episode of the Test & Release podcast, Dr. Christina Maslach explains what exactly job burnout is, from symptoms to cause. Maslach, a professor of psychology at the University of California-Berkley, studies and writes about how stressful careers impact the health and happiness of workers.

Maslach's work eventually led her to study tech burnout. She noticed IT professionals suffering from many of the same work-related symptoms that plague social workers, doctors and nurses, from changed social behavior to compromised health and even self-harm.

At the DevOps Enterprise Summit, she informed attendees about the symptoms and effects of IT burnout in the hope that they would take action to fight it.

John Willis, founder of Botchagalupe Technologies, and Gene Kim, founder of IT Revolution, started saying, "We've got some issues here. We've got the suicides going on," Maslach said. "For me, [my research] is more recent, but, in the last year or two, [I'm] really learning a lot about what might be happening within tech of various kinds."

Dr. Christina MaslachDr. Christina Maslach

IT startups used to advertise themselves as "burnout shops," Maslach said, in which developers make incredible work-life sacrifices over the short-term for a theoretical long-term benefit. Some leaders and businesses are more enlightened today, while others continue to place unbearable burdens on their workers. Those burnout shops might see overworking developers as a way to squeeze out higher profits, but other times leaders don't recognize that the culture is toxic.

"We're seeing burnout shops that are delivering things faster ... but at what cost to the health and well-being of the people who have to make all of that happen?" Maslach said.

IT job burnout won't yield to a cookie-cutter solution, she said. As they did with Agile and DevOps implementations, each business must take a customized, systemic and empathetic approach -- from the top down, from the bottom up, and even architecturally, to communicate and combat the issue -- a true holistic strategy.

"My interest now is really to focus on how we design workplaces, not just physically, but for the well-being of the people who do their work there," Maslach said. "[It's] really about, what makes a healthy place where people thrive rather than get beaten down?"

Editor's note: Maslach spoke with site editor David Carty. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

First of all, let's start with a high-level definition of burnout or worker burnout. What is it and how does it manifest?

Dr. Christina Maslach: Burnout is the name that's been given to a type of occupational experience that is a response to chronic job stressors. It's characterized by three overlapping dimensions of experience. One is the stress response, which is exhaustion and fatigue -- [the worker is] not able to come back and do more. The second is a distancing from the job and developing a very negative, hostile, cynical approach to the work and the job and the people and everything that's involved. Third is the development of a negative sense of professional efficacy, 'Maybe I'm not good at this. It's a mistake, I shouldn't have gotten into this job,' and all of that kind of thing. So it's the stress, this negative response to the job, which, to me, is almost at the heart of what we call burnout, because at that point, you're trying just to do the bare minimum rather than your very best. It's, 'Take this job and shove it,' all of that kind of thing. So the quality of the work is changing, even if you're still on the job. And then, of course, the sense that, 'Maybe something's wrong with me, and I'm not doing the right thing or not as good as I thought.'

Can you explain the research you're doing in the IT industry around burnout, what led you to this industry in particular, and why is it of interest to you?

Maslach: Well, actually it started the other way around. [The technology industry] came [to me], because they were interested in these issues. It wasn't that I started there. Where I started was, again, where people were talking about it decades ago, and it was more in what I would call human service, health service, that kind of thing. You're working with patients, with clients, with students, with the poor, with customers, depending on what kind of occupation you're in. What we've discovered over the years is that, although those have always been very important areas where burnout has been an issue, that we're seeing it in a lot of other areas as well. I was invited to come talk about burnout at tech conferences. So now [I am] learning what is going on in tech, and what are we seeing here.

But, in some ways, the term 'burnout', you know -- my dad was an engineer. Burnout, rocket boosters burn out, ball bearings burn out. And back in the early days of Silicon Valley, the startups, they would advertise, 'We're looking for people to hire. We're a burnout shop.' That was the term that would be there. 'We only want the Type A-plus-plus-plus kind of person here.' It was basically the idea that [at] the burnout shop, 'We're going to just own you for two years.' That's where 24-7 came from. 'And you're burned out and done, you're gone, and you'll have stock options. Hopefully something will come out of it.'

So there may be things in terms of roots in tech and engineering that have a kind of relationship as part of the story about burnout, which I didn't fully appreciate until later, when people started calling me and saying, 'Can I tell you what's going on? Or here's some of the things.' So, actually, people like John Willis [founder of Botchagalupe Technologies] and Gene Kim [founder of IT Revolution] were the people who started saying, 'We've got some issues here. We've got the suicides going on.' So, for me, it's more recent, but, in the last year or two, [I'm] really learning a lot about what might be happening within tech of various kinds. I hate to sort of have a global term here, but that might be related to some of the things we're seeing.

This is the space that our readers and listeners are in. They're in the IT industry, the technology industry, they're software developers and testers, project managers, product owners, etc. For those listeners and readers, how can they take a step back to assess their own work life? What are some of the troublesome symptoms they should watch for in terms of their own health and work environment?

Maslach: Well, basically, given that it is a response to stressors, people will often, if they're paying attention, see that they are leading less healthy lives. They are having more trouble with their own well-being. They're not getting enough sleep; it's being disrupted. They are not getting out and doing exercise. They're pulling back from socializing with people. They're sort of turning into couch potatoes in some sense. They're working too hard, too long for whatever reason, and then they just don't want to be bothered by [a social event]. There's not enough time to spend with friends, family. So the social isolation can be a problem. Those are all signs.

To the extent that it's part of what's happening in the workplace, there are things -- that's where this growing cynicism is coming. It's not just the tiredness, exhaustion, you're working way too many hours, and you're being called in on days when you're supposed to be off, but you're beginning to feel like you don't give a damn anymore at some point. This job sucks, and this is where the bare minimum comes in. 'Okay, what do I have to do to still make it?' and so forth. But there's going to be more errors. There's going to be problems. There's going to be: you're covering up stuff, you're doing it by the seat of your pants and not really doing it as well as you could.

We also are seeing -- and it's more true now than it used to be -- a sense of a really socially toxic environment. People feeling like, the way we talk to each other, not so wonderful. It's not a joke all the time, and the sense that there's more sort of a culture of fear where you don't dare say no. 'No, I won't come in on Saturday.' That might be your job; you might be culled from the herd, as they used to say, and maybe [you] still do. You don't speak out. When you've got a problem, you've got a wicked issue, you're not really sure how to solve this, you don't know who to turn to. You don't know who to trust. There's not as good support. You don't have mentors. You don't have a safe place. It's like dreading going to the workplace in some sense. This is not your happy place anymore. I just saw something the other day, there's now a '#ScarySundays.' It used to be Mondays were the, 'Oh my gosh, Monday blues,' going back to work after the weekend. Now you're getting scary Sundays because you're getting tapped on Sunday to do things, to start thinking about stuff, to whatever.

So those boundaries between work and the rest of your life are getting more and more blurry or taken over by the job, and you have less of all these other things that sort of support a healthy lifestyle. You don't have time to do the things you really want to do. You don't have time to take care of people that you need to take care of. 'How do I -- I have to be at work, but I've got a sick child, I've got a sick parent, what am I [going to do]?' [It's] people going into work when they shouldn't be, because they're not in good health. All of those kinds of things are signs. It's not about is it burnout or not, the workplace and you, [if] there's not a good fit, a good match that really supports you and lets you thrive, as opposed to beaten down. Does that make sense?

Yeah, absolutely. You mentioned before how there are deep roots with this idea within the tech industry. Are we seeing more of an awareness from technology companies around this sort of idea? Are we going in the right direction? If so, what kind of trends do you see in this industry?

Maslach: I don't know enough. I hear things from different people, but I haven't been on the ground over a long period of time see what's going on in a little more daily basis. So it's still more secondhand, let's put it that way, in what people are describing. And I can't tell you how many places or whether this is the exception or the norm, but the burnout shop is alive and well, only now it's not a short-term sprint, like a startup, it's the way we do business for the long term. This is the marathon now, and we're still asking for incredible self-sacrifice. 'When I call you, come. When the task is this, you've got to be there, you have to do it.'

There's a lot of churn. You don't know people well, you don't know who to trust. You don't know who has your back, as opposed to who wants to throw you under the bus, so that they'll get the job or promotion rather than you. That culture of fear, all of that kind of thing. It's taking that notion that you just have to give everything, and the company owns your life, and it intrudes on all parts of it. That was part of the idea of the startup, 'Okay, it's only going to be for a short period of time, but it'll be okay after you get out,' and you could do that. To have it be, not a short-term sacrifice, but this is the way you live -- so, yeah, we're seeing burnout shops that are delivering things faster and all this kind of stuff, but at what cost to the health and well-being of the people who have to make that all of that happen?

Certainly. It's concerning.

Maslach: I recently talked to people who were at a convention around cybersecurity [RSA Conference]. That was really fascinating. There's Josh Corman [CSO of PTC] talking about, 'We are the cavalry.' I was saying, 'Well, okay, tell me what you mean by that.' And he's saying, 'We're not to be rescued by somebody else. We are the ones who have to solve the problem here.' And the problem is many-dimensional, but I think he said something on the order of, every day, there are 14 million unfilled jobs. [It's not like] you're not hiring people. You're hiring them, and they don't stay. And if you can't hire those 14 million people in cybersecurity, if I'm working [in that industry], I'm doing two shifts, if not three. This is because, you've still got to cover it. But, we are the problem, because the kind of culture that has evolved in terms of where we work and how we work, is hostile, unfriendly, unforgiving.

We hire people, the best and the brightest, and after a while they [say], 'Never mind, I'm going to go. Sorry. Adios, and I'm out of here.' So we are the people that have to figure out how we can sustain -- attract [and] sustain the level of people contributing to this really important work, without actually being the ones that are making them leave. I have students all the time that I hear: 'Work for Amazon, oh my God!' It's brutal at times. It's not an environment that is designed to be the best place for people to grow and develop and thrive. It's like putting a plant in a pot with lousy soil, no sun and no water and saying, 'Go.'

Right. Yeah, certainly not something that's sustainable over the long term for most people.

Maslach: So you can see that in tech, but you can see that in other industries and other things. We're seeing it in healthcare. It's people talking about not having a life anymore outside of [their careers] and having to do more and more stuff that takes them more and more away from actually what they love about practicing medicine.

So there are a number of things that have -- trying to understand how all of this sort of happened, but it's creating environments which are really designed to make money, that are designed to hit records of productivity, delivery, but at the expense of the people who work there, because you're counting on them to do more in shorter time. At some point, it's like it's outstripping human functioning, human capability.

I sort of half-joke about the bad math that I hear all the time in different organizations. It's not only tech. It's in banking, it's in healthcare, it's in all these places. Basically, we see, 'Oh, we're really worried about possibility of burnout.' The bad math is, we have to do more with less. Everybody is doing more, and we're gonna have to do more next year, But we're not going to be hiring more people, we can't afford that. Doing more with less is asking of people to go way beyond reasonable limits to actually deliver high-quality work. Have a life. Enjoy it while you're here on this earth.

Yeah, good luck with that. The talk around the conference, you hear this idea that -- and it's a prevailing concept -- that happy people, happy workers, down the road, eventually leads to better quality software. So the messaging around that is, at least, shifting in a way that says, 'Okay, look, if you have a good culture for your workers, it all filters out down to the end product at some point.' I would imagine that you would think that it's the IT leaders that have to cultivate a different kind of culture and be proactive about addressing this issue, right? It's going to come from the top down.

Maslach: Well, it also has to come from the bottom up. I wouldn't advocate one versus the other. I say this because I've seen enough instances where there's not cross-communication from all people around these issues.

You see instances where big changes are going to be made in how this company is run, and they haven't checked with any of the engineers who are actually going to have to now do this new thing. You would think, you want to make sure that people who you count on to do this are on board and understand and have figured out how to do it. And maybe you also want to hear from them if they see some flaws or some bugs before you actually encounter them. 'Here's why there's a better way as opposed to that way,' or something like that. I cannot tell you how often I have talked with employees at different levels who are saying, 'Okay, something got imposed from above or a decision was made without checking with anybody.' Sometimes it's about a fun thing, so it's with the best of intentions, let's do something for the employees that would be fun and healthy. Let's put a volleyball court on the roof of the building. It's a lot of money to fix the roof, put on the volleyball court. People know [how much] it costs. How often is it being used? How often do you have time to get teams going? But also, there's a sense of, if you're willing to do something that would make things better, [do you] want to check in with people and get 20 ideas as opposed to that? All I'm saying is there needs to be some way in which you don't just sort of say, 'I'm going to do X if I'm the leader here.' Maybe it could be X or Y, or, even if it's just the one, make sure that it's getting down to the people who you are actually counting on, who would be the ones to do this, because, if you don't, they're not going to do it well; they're going to have shadow systems because they don't trust it.

Are they going to do the very best? No. There's all these things where it's not going to work well. So, anyway, all I'm saying is that the people who are doing different kinds of jobs have experience and therefore ideas -- not all of them are going to be good, right? Some ideas sound good on paper and don't work, but at least trying to be as smart as you can about this to make sure that all of the relevant folks at least have an opportunity to chime in on something, or, 'How are we going to make this work without going through the debugging process that we always have,' -- that kind of thing. That's why I think you really need to find ways in which top-down and bottom-up and sideways and all that are working, so that people who have a stake in it, have a piece of it, contribute in some way to it, know what's going on, have a way to communicate if they see any red flags or problems, and can be on board and make it successful, and hopefully steer anything away from disaster. So I worry sometimes about things that make it sound like the leader is doing fine and, whatever, that's enough. I think it's important, but I don't think it's enough.

We see this in Silicon Valley too, right? It's about throwing these perks at developers or whomever is on the team. A lot of times, it's not rolling in actual feedback from people, and maybe it's not as useful as they think it is. Let me ask you, broad strokes, we're talking about some pretty dire circumstances here. In some cases, what are some practical steps that technology companies should take to implement a safer work culture? How can we practically address this problem from leadership on down -- top-down, bottom-up -- how can we practically tackle this issue?

Maslach: I think it's helpful to focus on what are the relevant units or groups or teams. That might look different in different organizations, because burnout is really not an individual problem, an individual disease. It's very much tied into what is going on in terms of the job conditions, and that involves other people, as well as policies and practices and the physical environment and all kinds of other things. So it's really more of a 'we' issue. So, if you can find what are the relevant teams, let's say, groups in the organization, they have a span of control over what they do that can fly under the radar in a sense, meaning they don't have to get permission to say, 'How could we be organized to do this thing a little better? Or what's the pebble in our shoe that is driving us nuts, and how could we fix that so that all of us aren't struggling with this?'

In some of these solutions that they come up with, they experiment, they try it out, they tweak it, it doesn't require a lot of money, if any, doesn't require permission, doesn't require a one-size-fits-all for everybody. Customize it to work for the people that are there. Are there some small steps, quick wins, low-hanging fruit -- whatever phrase you want to use -- where we could start and see if we could fix this little nagging problem? It's not one of these big, humongous reinventing technology for the next century or something like that. It's the everyday, chronic job stressors; that's what burnout is responding to.

So where are these things coming from? What are the things, and what are the easier ones that you could begin to tackle? What are the ones that people really care passionately about? Maybe it's not the smallest one, but it's something they are willing [to address]. I worked with one company, we did some research there and found out that fairness was the big issue, the way things were being done. It turned out that many things were identified as being unfair. There was a Distinguished Service Award, which people hated with a vengeance -- hated -- even though it's an award that got publicity, a nice extra little bonus check. It wasn't [hated] because they didn't give enough money for it. It was because the process of who got it was deemed so rigged and crooked and unfair that people didn't want anybody else to know if they were nominated for it. The CEO was shocked and said, 'Let's fix it.' It took time to say, 'How do we redesign this in a way that you can't game it, and that people who have done something really special get recognized and rewarded for it?' And it took time, but the following year, it was working. And there was the sense of hope, optimism. 'Well, if we could do that -- wow -- what about over here?' So [it was] building up this sense that there are some issues that actually if you work together to say, 'What could we add?Here, we're doing all this work, but we never have a chance to just sit down and talk to each other and have fun. What could we do to promote that, so we get to know each other.' After a while, you get to know who you could turn to and who might come to you if they have a problem, and that kind of thing.

Those are little celebratory things, little fun things, but it's challenging people within meaningful groups to come up with some solutions, and then, if they're really working, share them. But I think finding the first steps, the wins, showing that we could actually make a difference in a way, and we know what we're doing, and where the problems are. There have been companies that have had a certain amount of money set aside just for little experimental projects; use it for those [culture projects] and say, 'How could we do this better?' And those don't sound like big sexy kind of things, but, in some sense, burnout is the response to the chronic everyday stuff that, after a while, you just can't take it anymore.

In hospitals, I have a colleague who's worked with nurses, who are sometimes their own worst enemy, in terms of civility and stuff like that. They were doing an intervention to try and get better respect, engagement, civility, in the workplace; [it was a] six-month process, one meeting a week, and that's hard to schedule. They gradually turned it around, and they did it in hospital after hospital after hospital. Absenteeism went down, the burnout went down, the civility got better. But [before] it would be things like sarcasm. I'd asked nurses, 'What is the thing that bothers you the most sometimes?' 'Rolling the eyes. Get them to stop rolling their eyes!' When you realize it's all these little things, you can't go at it directly, but if you can begin to sort of say, 'Okay, how do we do a better job of handling situations where these things pop up?' analyzing, you know, 'If we can't talk about it, because we're right in the middle of an emergency, how do we deal with it later?' It takes time, you've got to unlearn and learn other new practices. But they identified it as this thing that, after a while, you just don't want to show up to work.

Last question, because we're short on time, in your conversations with leaders in this industry, are you finding that they're getting it, that they are receptive to these ideas, that they are implementing some different sorts of ways to alleviate these kinds of problems?

Maslach: Sometimes, yes. And sometimes not so much.

You've seen some pushback too, even?

Maslach: Well, there's a sense that -- and this is sort of the great misnomer and myth that we're always fighting -- is that somehow burnout is just whiny, weak people. I've had people tell me, 'Look, burnout is a great thing.' [I'll ask,] 'Because?' 'Well, obviously it must mean they're not really good at their job, and they'll quit and leave, and then I don't have to fire them. It makes my job easier. So, yay, for burnout.' Well, the evidence doesn't really support that. You're losing good people. You're not always losing, you know, 'the losers.'

It sounds like a sociopathic kind of response, really.

Maslach: It's the idea that it's not real, it's trivial, or, 'In my day, we didn't have this kind of thing.' I don't know if you saw, there was something in The New York Times, somebody wrote an op-ed. [The writer] is a psychiatrist, so it was really more about healthcare, and [he] said, 'Is burnout real?' and sort of saying, 'No. In our day, [etc.].' And you then go and see the hundreds of letters [to the writer] that came back in an email saying, 'Wait a minute, let me tell you!' And it wasn't just healthcare, it was from all over [different industries] saying, 'Are you kidding?'

[Editor's note: The writer, Richard A. Friedman, wrote in his op-ed, 'burnout is real -- classically defined by the triad of emotional exhaustion, disconnection and a sense of inefficacy.' However, he also spurned some modern examples of burnout as a generational mischaracterization: 'Of course, we must do all we can to detect and treat serious mental illness -- like depression, and drug and alcohol abuse. But let's not medicalize everyday stress and discomfort as burnout.']

So, to the extent that people still see it as a sign of weakness, or 'you can't take it,' or the, 'if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,' kind of thing, then there really isn't any sympathy for the idea that this could be a serious issue.

The fact that a couple months ago, the World Health Organization officially recognized burnout as a legitimate occupational experience that could lead to these kind of problems, kind of [legitimized it]. This can happen, and you should be paying attention to it. So, I think there's still a lot of work that needs to be done for understanding this. This is also the case that people -- to the extent they make it an individual problem, a medical condition, they think it's something like you're having the flu. 'What are the symptoms? What is the diagnosis? What is the treatment? I treat you because you've got the flu, that person doesn't.' They aren't really seeing how, what this is saying is that it's really more about the job conditions, and that different people will have different reactions to that. But if you begin to improve those, you're going to be raising all boats; you're making it better for not just the people who have the biggest problem. We find there's, say, 15% of any kind of population we look at is highly burned down, but that's the minority. You've got a whole bunch, twice that, that's probably engaged with work. Then you've got people who are indifferent, maybe transitional or maybe different sorts of things. It wouldn't take very much for some of them to just move it up a notch in terms of, 'Wow, great place to work. I'm glad I'm here. I'm definitely feeling good about it.'

My interest now is really to focus on how we design workplaces, not just physically, but for the well-being of the people who do their work there. It's not just so that you're healthy in the sense of not getting flu and all these other kinds of thing, but that you're psychologically functioning well, that you are able to grow and develop, that you're able to feel that, 'Wow. This is a worthwhile thing, even if it's hard work.' There's meaning attached to that that's valuable. It's a great part of your life, in addition to everything else that's happening. So I'm working at Berkeley with people from all kinds of different disciplines. I'm talking to architects for the first time about, 'How do you think about workplaces and what you design?' I'm hoping that the message is not so much about burnout, per se, and the people who have more or less of a problem with it, but [it's] really about, what makes a healthy place where people thrive rather than get beaten down?

So, for me, burnout is not the main problem. For me, it's a sign. And the analogy that I would use, it's sort of like the canary in the coal mine. The canary, when you think about it, it goes down in the coal mine, if it's starting to have trouble breathing, and not surviving or something like that, what is it telling you? It's telling you that there's toxic fumes in the mine. You don't want to send people in there to work until that's cleared out. So all the stuff that says, 'We will fix up the bird, make them resilient, make them strong, make them tough; they can take the toxic workplace.' No, it's telling you, 'This is not a great place to work.'

To the extent that we are seeing all kinds of forces shaping workplaces in ways that make it -- things that you don't enjoy as much, you don't take as much pride in -- you have to, rather than you want to -- which affects the quality, all of that, it's not doing us a good service. We really need to pay attention to the sign that burnout is saying, that people can relate to it, even if they are having a bad experience with burnout, they're still saying, 'Crazy work, not enough resources, people treating each other badly.' Who wants to be there? 'I love this kind of work, but can I be in another place?' Something's wrong.

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