A new survey shows that stress-induced burnout is going to be a big problem for managers in 2017. And when employees get overstressed, all kinds of bad things can happen. They’re more prone to make mistakes, become actively disengaged and even face increased risks of serious health problems ranging from high blood pressure to depression.
But then, companies have been running these risks for a long time. We know from the American Institute of Stress that 80% of U.S. employees feel stress on the job, with one in four saying they’re “often or very often” burned out by work.
This problem can be especially acute for many engineering teams, where the demands are high and the hours can get long.
As a manager, it’s your job to recognize and address the symptoms of stress before they lead to bigger issues. But you can’t take steps to counter burnout until you know how to recognize when it’s beginning to take hold.
Below are five telltale signs that a member of your engineering team is getting burned out and may be in need of some assistance. While the presence of one solitary symptom isn’t necessarily a strong indicator—there’s usually another explanation for the presence of any one of these in isolation—I’d definitely sit up and pay attention when two, three or four begin to surface around the same time.
1. You’re Seeing More Bugs in Production
An unusual increase in errors could be a sign that your employee is taking on more complex and challenging work. But if it’s consistently accompanied by lower-than-expected quality of work in other areas, more bugs might mean disengagement is causing your team member to avoid putting in the extra effort to check the quality of their work.
2. Your Roadmap’s Being Derailed to Chase Shiny Objects
When engineers experience burnout, they’ll sometimes attempt to gain a renewed sense of motivation by introducing new technology. Don’t get me wrong: Welcoming ideas and innovation is a good move at any tech company. But if those re-architecture attempts are taking up time that could otherwise be spent pursuing overarching business objectives and key results, they may not be driven by a real need. When a product roadmap is derailed to pursue a new programming language or infrastructure, particularly if there are no clear performance or cost-savings goals, it could be a sign that your team member isn’t into existing projects and needs help regaining a sense of purpose at work.
3. You Stopped Shipping Early and Often
Every engineer has unique habits around how often they commit code and submit pull requests. It’s not unheard of for these patterns to change, especially when a seasoned employee starts taking on more complex projects. (Because, let’s face it: Measuring lines of code written is a terrible way to measure productivity). However, if those commits really start to dwindle over time, it could be a sign that your employee is distracted and withdrawing from the work.
4. You’re Seeing Reduced Engagement and Collaboration
This one’s a fairly strong sign of burnout, though it can sometimes be more difficult to recognize. If someone seems to care less and less about what’s happening with the team overall, it’s very often due to disengagement. How do you spot this symptom? It might be that a team member isn’t commenting on pull requests as much as she used to. Or he’s not speaking up in sprint planning and retrospective meetings. Once you’ve worked with someone long enough to know their work habits, these are the nuanced changes to watch for.
5. You’re Seeing Increased Cynicism and Unconstructive Criticism
Have you ever dealt with an employee who likes to rip apart team members in pull requests for things like stylistic errors or subjective points? It’s not the fun side of management. If it’s been a pattern of behavior from day one, you probably made a bad hire. But if your otherwise collaborative team member suddenly starts trashing architecture decisions, product roadmaps and coworkers’ skills, it’s a sure sign of burnout.
What To Do When Employee Burnout Hits
If and when you do notice the symptoms of increasing stress and disengagement, I highly recommend turning to a couple of tried and true management methods:
- Allow greater autonomy: Many engineers (and employees in general) are more productive and engaged when given the freedom to work remotely as needed.
- Open up a dialogue: You won’t know what’s stressing out your engineers if you don’t ask them. And one of the most effective ways to ask them in a non-threatening, helpful way is to hold regular one-on-one meetings.
By staying consistently tuned-in to the needs of employees, you’ll be able to address the symptoms of burnout long before they do irreversible damage to productivity and profits.
P.S. For more actionable tips you can use to improve team communication, head on over here to sign up for the Jell weekly.