Burnout across industries has drawn increased attention in recent years, as employees deal with the built-up strain and employers deal with the resulting labour shortages when burnt-out staff starts leaving. The tech industry is one of the biggest examples, as workers weather demanding work, long hours, high-pressure deadlines, the “crunch,” frequent pivots, a culture of constant productivity, and the race to keep up with constantly evolving technology itself.

In some ways, pandemic-accelerated digital transformation has relieved this, freeing many people from commutes—but that has been counterbalanced by the erosion of work-life boundaries.

Surveys by Blind found in 2020 that 69% of tech workers had experienced burnout, and in 2021 that 58% were currently experiencing it. This is a problem for both the public and private sectors. While government can often have more stable conditions than private tech startups, government staff still struggle with burnout and tech staff can be especially affected given the range of departments they’re doing work for and the high stakes of setting up and maintaining public services.

How do we restore a work-life balance in a way that gives workers more comfort and stability while also keeping companies and governments productive?

There are tweaks that can improve outcomes, but the problem may end up requiring a top-to-bottom rethink of how we structure work.

Are working conditions causing burnout?

In some fields, the work itself is unavoidably stressful—solving a murder, performing a surgery, or piloting an airplane will always be high-stakes. But in many workplaces, stress comes more from how the work is being done than what it is. Are structural factors causing burnout in your organization?

Are people consistently working extra hours, or inconsistent hours?

Establishing and then keeping on top of reasonable expectations for when and how much people work can bring a workplace away from a constant state of strain.

Are there enough staff?

When people are constantly straining to do more than their role can handle, they become especially susceptible to burnout even if the work itself is well within their capabilities. If you can’t hire enough staff to handle the current workload, trying to spread it among existing staff can be a ticking time bomb, and you may need to limit, and make clear, the expectations from each person.

Are people well-trained and collaborative?

Sometimes there is enough staff overall, but only certain people have certain skills or knowledge and bottlenecks can emerge. Some people are piled-up with work, while others feel out of their depth. Setting aside time to train people up can prevent them from feeling in over their heads and can lighten the time burden on them and their colleagues in the long run. A culture of collaboration between staff and between departments can also help prevent redundant work.

Are people feeling valued?

Is good work recognized and rewarded? Do workers feel they have a say in how their jobs are done? Are there opportunities to advance and to do professional development? A perception of futility can burn workers out faster even when the work itself would otherwise be manageable. Feelings of an absence of control, fairness, or recognition are common sources of burnout.

Are people wasting time?

One of the biggest contemporary examples of work time not being used for work is commuting—are there staff who could work from home, or could do so more often? A survey by Robert Half recently found that workers have higher satisfaction when working from home, even if working more. Saving their time that way can reduce fatigue and resentment, but be careful not to replace that saved time with more work and more demands outside normal hours.

Are mental health supports available?

Do benefits include counselling and prescriptions? Does the organization make it easy to access these supports? These things can’t erase the reality of too much work or a dysfunctional environment. But burnout can cause or exacerbate mental health problems, and treatment can both help manage this and help address other issues people have that work stress may be building on top of.

Small changes can have big impacts

Often there are tweaks you can make to people’s weeks, and to the workplace culture, that can have disproportionate effects on people’s energy and wellbeing. Here are the ABCD’s of fighting burnout:

Adapting agile

An agile approach to projects, with frequent iterations rather than a big “waterfall” delivery, can diffuse pressure around big deadlines into smaller ones. But it does carry some risk of creating a state of constant performance. We can build rest and balance into agile in a few ways. We can make sure each sprint has a manageable amount of work and people aren’t overcommitting. We can build in time to pause, reflect, and assess at the end of each sprint, giving a lull between pushes. Some teams even schedule professional development after each sprint, to switch gears and build skills.

Being balanced

Is work all produce, produce, produce? Or is there time created to assess, develop, build community with colleagues (and the wider community), and plan? Often burnout comes not simply from time spent at work, but from doing work that feels like work, and from not getting a break. Even someone’s favourite meal can get stale when it’s the only thing on the menu and high-output work seldom has the luxury of starting out as someone’s favourite.

Changing culture

Changing perceptions and practices can reduce overwork without needing to pull any extra resources. Do people trust their teams enough to lean on others and not overwork themselves? Do people trust management to say that they need a break, or a change? A culture that prioritizes collaboration and openness, and makes clear that well-being is a priority, can alleviate the pressure and frustration that lead to burnout.

Designating downtime

Sometimes, though, we can say something is part of the culture but not make it practical to carry out. People may technically have enough vacation, but constant projects mean they feel they can’t afford to put more work onto the team (or onto themselves when they return). Are the actual conditions and expectations conducive to wellness? Leadership may need to actively encourage people to take vacation, or build in things like wellness sessions (yoga, meditation, etc) in a way that makes it clear they won’t come at the expense of meeting goals and that people won’t be on the hook for taking time for them. Some teams or shared workplaces build in Friday socials or other designated downtime—though again, it has to be clear that this is coming as a replacement for work time rather than another imposition on personal time. That can be especially tricky when trying to organize remote events among people who already have “Zoom fatigue.”

Is a 40-hour work week the right approach?

Ultimately these tweaks have the same goal: Getting the work done in a way with the minimum amount of stress, burden, and discouragement on the people doing it. Some workplaces and some countries have concluded that this looks like literally having people work less. In a five-day work week, people in burdensome jobs often need the first off-day just to recover—and part of the second one just to prepare to plunge back in.

A recent year-long UK study of 61 workplaces and 2,900 employees found that a four-day week reduced burnout in 71% of workers and had a neutral or positive effect on revenues. More than 90+% of the businesses planned to continue with the change. Positive results have also come from Ireland and Spain, and research continues in Iceland, South Africa, Japan, Belgium, and Portugal.

Proponents of a four-day week say it allows for a real and satisfying break, with people then more able to produce and focus when they return. The mandatory five days, the case goes, mistake time spent for actual productivity and end up with workers spending time too tired to produce at their best—neither getting the off-work time they want nor giving the output the employer expects.

While the results so far have been positive overall, four-hour work weeks are not a silver bullet. Some versions don’t even reduce overall hours to 32, simply condensing the 40 into four 10-hour shifts. Fewer days and/or fewer hours to do the same amount of work can produce more efficient output, but that productivity jump often comes with the cost of increased pressure and workday stress and decreased time to interact with coworkers or spend more casual time at work.

This highlights that even the boldest moves do not fix burnout overnight, and that each workplace must pay attention to how its workers are responding to different initiatives. There is a lot of low-hanging fruit that can be addressed, and there are some high-level overhauls that should be considered.

A truly healthy and sustainable workplace can only come from valuing and listening to the people who make it up, and from committing ourselves to measurable improvement in wellbeing in the weeks and years after the initial catchy announcements.

What is your organization doing to manage this challenge?

Image Credit: Alfonso Estevez / Midjourney

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