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Between living through a global pandemic, adjusting to new remote working paradigms, and longer hours, more people than ever are suffering from burnout.

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A survey from Indeed earlier this year found that of 1,500 US-based workers, 52% of survey respondents reported feeling burnt out, while 67% believed that their burnout had worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic. For engineering leaders, these statistics are more than just numbers – they represent our reports and teams.

For those of us in management positions, it's crucial that we are in tune with our direct reports, their needs, and any challenges that they might face. Employee burnout is clearly a growing issue for engineering teams today. So how do we, as leaders, proactively keep an eye out for burnout?

Understanding burnout

The term ‘burnout’ was first coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger, an American psychologist. Freudenberger defined burnout as a syndrome with accompanying symptoms such as ‘feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy’. Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) classifies burnout as an occupational syndrome that results from chronic or unmanaged workplace stress.

While the exact way that burnout manifests in an individual will vary from person to person, the known symptoms of burnout always link back to emotional or physical exhaustion as a result of one’s job or workplace. Burnt out individuals can often feel cynical or disillusioned about their work or role within an organization or company. They might also feel anxious, overwhelmed, irritated, unmotivated and dissatisfied by their achievements at work. Often, they struggle to be productive and can find it difficult to concentrate. In some cases, burnout manifests physically, in the form of headaches, stomachaches, digestive issues, and trouble with sleeping.

When left unchecked, burnout has been known to lead to heart disease, insomnia, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and, in some cases, alcohol and substance abuse. To put it simply, we’re talking about something very serious here, and it should not be ignored.

Looking for signs of burnout

As leaders and managers, it is our responsibility to amplify the work of our teams and support the individuals within them. So how can we look out for burnout and recognize the early signs?

Use that valuable 1:1 time

During 1:1 time with your direct reports, you can get a sense of what’s going on with them. Depending on how you run your 1:1s, you may have a set list of questions, topics, or an agenda that you follow.

It can be tempting to spend that important 1:1 time discussing relevant deadlines, delays, and blockers. However, your individual time with your report is also the most opportune moment to look for clues on how they’re feeling. It’s important to ensure that your 1:1 includes key “check-in” questions: how are you doing? What has been challenging recently? What has got you excited or energized? This will give your report the space and opportunity to share how they are feeling.

I always ask these questions at the beginning of my 1:1’s so that my reports can talk as much as they want about whatever has been at the forefront of their mind. These types of open-ended questions also give me the chance to ask more specific follow-up questions about a situation, which in turn helps me to better understand why my report is feeling a certain way. If, for example, they have not felt energized or excited by anything recently, I can ask another question to try to ascertain if they are feeling disillusioned or cynical about their work or if something else is going on in their life that is making them feel that way.

Ask the right questions

In some cases, your report may feel very comfortable being up front with you during a 1:1; perhaps they will even tell you point-blank that they are feeling burnt out. If this happens, it’s important that you immediately table your other project or deadline-related questions, and make a note to come back to them later on in the conversation or in a follow-up meeting or message. When a report admits that they are burnt out, you owe it to them to immediately shift the topic of conversation to first understanding the cause of their burnout. You can then discuss how to remedy the situation to avoid further burn out.

Generally speaking, by the time a report decides to tell their manager that they are burnt out, it’s likely that they have already been suffering from burnout for some time. It’s important for you to understand how long they’ve been feeling this way and establish the contributing factors. If burnout comes up as a topic of conversation during a 1:1, it is your job as a leader to focus on what is causing the burnout so that you can better understand how to fix it.

However, the more likely scenario is that your report won’t tell you outright that they are beginning to feel burnt out. All manager-report relationships come with an imbued power dynamic – you are their ‘boss’, after all – and not everyone will feel comfortable opening up and talking about how they are feeling at the beginning of a 1:1 conversation. This is exactly why it is crucial to be an active listener by taking note of your report’s body language, tone and facial cues. If a report is describing a deadline or outage, observe if their tone changes. If they reference an interaction with a teammate, note how their body language shifts when they talk about that situation. If a certain topic or question triggers a change in your report’s behaviour, it could be a sign that something else is bothering them beneath the surface.

Observing the unspoken

It can be hard to know that you are experiencing burnout when you are in the thick of it. Aside from coaching and mentoring your reports, it’s also important to observe their behavior in the context of the team and larger engineering organization.

The Mayo Clinic has a helpful overview on job burnout, including symptoms, risk factors, and possible causes. For the most part, burnout manifests in the form of job dissatisfaction, disillusionment, reduced productivity, and feelings of cynicism around one’s work. Often, your reports may not even notice – much less tell you about–any of these feelings. 

If you observe a report becoming increasingly isolated and less engaged with the team, make a note to ask them how they’ve been feeling in your next 1:1 and keep an eye out for anything that might hint at dysfunctional team dynamics. Similarly, if a report is online late into the evenings or pushing code on weekends, ask them about their workload–whether it feels too heavy, or how you can help with their work-life balance. Perhaps you notice that the same report is being assigned more and more responsibilities by other members on the team; take it upon yourself to intervene if necessary so that they have more control over their workload and so that they know that they have your full support. If your report expresses feelings of exhaustion or being overwhelmed, make sure that you clarify your expectations of their job and responsibilities. If they aren’t clear on the boundaries of their role, make it a priority to explicitly define their position and scope it down if necessary. On the flip side, if a report is struggling to feel productive or motivated, work with them to figure out if a different schedule, team, or project could be a better fit.

As a manager, it is your job to understand what is keeping your reports from feel empowered or preventing them from doing their best work, A large part of that is keeping an ear to the ground to understand what day-to-day tasks and interactions might be contributing to their burnout, which your reports might not even be aware of. 

Burnout and leadership

Burnout can affect everyone – from early career engineers to the most seasoned leaders. The responsibility of managing other people in particular can be emotionally exhausting, and often leads to the exact same burnout that we see in our reports. As you look for potential signs of burnout in your peers, take some time to reflect on how you feel about your own job. Ask yourself the exact same questions that you would ask your reports and be sure to consistently review how you feel about your workload, support structure, work-life balance, and job expectations. If you notice symptoms of burnout in yourself, raise a flag to your direct manager so that you can work together to mitigate your burnout in whatever ways necessary.

Ultimately, while it is important to observe behavioral changes within your reports, it is also crucial that we as engineering leaders are self-aware and cognizant of our own emotions and mental state, too. We all deserve to feel happy and empowered at work, and we owe it to ourselves and those around us to make sure that our work life doesn’t impact our health and wellbeing in a negative way.