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How to avoid DevOps burnout

Linda Rosencrance Freelance writer/editor

For five and a half years, Derek Weeks woke up in a different city nearly every day. He worked with the locals and watched as the business became ever more successful. But the people he met often told him about their lives outside of work—spending time with their families, riding bikes, building models, reading.

"They had hobbies," Weeks said. "But I didn't have a home life. I did work. It was fun for many years, but then I realized that I had to find a balance in my career and what I wanted to do for myself."

As a result, Weeks decided to take a different position within his company—one that allowed him to explore things outside of work and become a more well-rounded person. He's now vice president and DevOps advocate at Sonatype.

The word for what Weeks experienced: burnout. And today, with many organizations trying to scale DevOps, burnout can become a serious problem within the DevOps community. Here's what you need to know about DevOps burnout—and how to avoid it so that your team stays DevOps determined.

Disillusionment leads to burnout

Going from pretty much anything else to DevOps requires a change in culture, and any change brings stress, Weeks said.

"It's not just about using the tools. It's much more about the culture."
Derek Weeks

However, some people can become disillusioned when the change to DevOps doesn't happen overnight, and that disillusionment leads to burnout. Warding off burnout requires that leaders help their teams recognize and accept that there will be challenges along the way, Weeks said.

"The key is to overcome those challenges together and continue moving forward."

It's important for leaders to manage their teams' expectations to help minimize some of the disillusionment that can come with cultural change and lead to burnout, he said.

[ Special Coverage: DevOps Enterprise Summit London 2019 ]

Warning signs: Predictors of burnout

There are at least six areas that are critical indicators for predicting burnout down the road, according to Christina Maslach, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert on the burnout experience.

One of those areas is imbalance in the workload demands of the job.

A bad job fit happens when there are way too many demands and way too few resources to get the job done well in a timely way, she said. "You've got insane demands and not enough time, not enough other people, not enough whatever it is."

Autonomy vs. control

The second area—though the areas are not ordered by importance—is the amount of autonomy, control, discretion, and choice that people have to do their jobs.

"Are you locked in? You can only do it this way and you can't improvise, you can't innovate, you can't figure out a better solution."
Christina Maslach

A lot of research shows that when people don't have much sense of autonomy and control in their work, there's greater stress and greater burnout.

Jeff Gallimore, partner and co-founder of IT consulting firm Excella, agreed that one way DevOps leaders can help combat burnout is to create more autonomy in their teams and not impose constraints on them. That means leaders shouldn't make all the decisions that affect team members, but rather allow them to make their own decisions.

For example, let's say retention or productivity on the team is a problem, and you're not getting enough work done. 

"You should be able to ask the team leader to give you some space to try something different because you believe it will improve productivity and retention." And the leader should say, "Okay, I'll give you the space to try that."
Jeff Gallimore

Positive feedback, values

The third area that can predict burnout has to do with "reward"—the positive feedback that workers get from doing something well, Maslach said. Working in an environment where workers don't get that kind of positive response can lead to burnout. Social rewards of any kind from other people are critical.

A fourth area has to do with what's called the workplace community—colleagues, supervisors, vendors, anyone people have to deal with as part of their work.

"A predictor of burnout is if those kinds of relationships and that workplace community go sour, if there's unproductive competition, if there's backstabbing, if they're throwing you under the bus, if there's a lack of support."

The fifth area, fairness, is also an important predictor of burnout.

People feeling that they're not being treated fairly, that there are glass ceilings, or that there's discrimination can lead to cynicism and ultimately burnout, Maslach said. Think of environments where "it's who you know and who you kiss up to as opposed to if you're really good at what you do." 

The final area has to do a person's values. Doing something that goes against your values, having ethical conflicts, can also produce burnout, she said.

A necessary balancing act

Additionally, in any team, DevOps or not, there needs to be a balance of activity, Sonatype's Weeks said.

That's part of scheduling: knowing what the organization's goals are and aligning the DevOps team's priorities with those goals.

Even so, Weeks said that sometimes there's too much thrown on people's plates, or they want to put so much on their plates, and that doesn't give them time for other things in their lives.

You can't say yes to everything. You have to do the things that make the most difference."

Excella's Gallimore agreed that burnout is a much more complicated issue than just being overworked. It's also about whether team members feel valued and appreciated by their leaders and if they feel their work is making a difference.

Simply put: DevOps leaders have to "give a damn" about the people they're working with, Gallimore said. And if you do care, you should want to create an environment where people don't suffer from burnout, he said.

One principle of DevOps is making work visible, which allows leaders to see how much work is in the system and who's doing that work, Gallimore said. Once you have that visibility, "you can start to level workloads and make sure that it's a sustainable pace for everybody on the team," he said.

Be a hero by not being a hero

Another issue that can lead to burnout in a DevOps environment is what Gallimore calls the hero mentality. This is a person who puts himself at the center of everything and believes that if he's not involved, the work of the team will suffer.

Not only is that person at risk of burnout, but he becomes the go-to person. This is the person who's always on the hook for everything, the person who needs to be around if something goes bad, the person who's going to get tapped to do all the work—the hero.

But the way to be a hero is by not being a hero, according to Gallimore.

In other words, that person should be looking for opportunities to involve other team members in what he's doing. He should be spreading his knowledge and skills and creating more people who can do what he does. "By doing that, you’re increasing the resiliency of the system, you're increasing the flexibility, you're spreading out the workload"—and decreasing your risk of burnout, Gallimore said.

Unplanned work causes stress

Another recipe for burnout within a DevOps team revolves around on-call scheduling and incident response, according to Gallimore. When an incident happens, stress levels start to go up, as do the workload and pressure, especially for the people who are disproportionately involved in those incidents.

That could mean that they're handling more incidents or they're handling the intense ones, and for longer periods of time, he said.

Recent research backs up Gallimore's contentions. When systems are compromised by intruders, investigation and remediation can take even longer—and these periods of incident resolution are intensive and exhausting, found the "Accelerate: State of DevOps 2018: Strategies for a New Economy" report.

When incidents happen multiple times a year, they can quickly take over the work of the team so that unplanned work becomes the norm, leading to burnout, an important consideration for teams and leaders, the report said.

Consequently, leaders have to look at the on-call schedule and who is responding to the actual incidents. They then have to figure out how to get their best people off the on-call rotation so they aren’t the only ones responding to incidents, Gallimore said.

Fix the problem, not the people

The report also found that smart investments in technology, process, and culture can improve software delivery performance.

Many companies will focus the desire to increase their software delivery performance, said Nicole Forsgren, co-founder, CEO, and chief scientist at DevOps Research and Assessment (DORA) and co-author of the report.

However, what's exciting, encouraging, and promising is that these smart investments in technology and processes don't only improve the way that companies make software.

"If we do it the right way, we also see that it improves work-life balance and workplace engagement, and decreases burnout."
Nicole Forsgren

The answer to reducing burnout in a DevOps environment, as in any work environment, is to fix what's causing the problem instead of trying to "fix" the people who are suffering from burnout, according to Maslach.

To make progress in dealing with the problem, organizations need to focus on the areas that can lead to burnout and figure out how to create a better fit between the people and the work, Maslach said. 

When employees are suffering from burnout, that's a warning sign that something else is not working well, Maslach said.

For more on how to avoid DevOps burnout, come to the panel discussion on workforce engagement at DevOps Enterprise Summit: London. Christina Maslach is also speaking on "Understanding job burnout." The conference runs June 25-27.

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