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Give yourself a break: lessons from burnout

I started writing this post a few days ago, and was so exhausted I couldn’t actually be bothered to finish it, which tells you a lot really. And if you’re too exhausted to read another blog post, here’s a summary: have a rest. Go and do something nice. Tech can wait.

A couple of weeks ago (possibly - I have no concept of time any more) I tweeted this, which seemed to resonate with folks:

(A plug for emojinator, the site in question where you can add hats to emoji)

Twitter is awash with fantastically talented people building incredible stuff and sharing it, as well as those insufferable grifters who tweet things like “15 things you must learn to be a good developer #100daysofcode” and then hawk you their ebook. “Thought leaders” (don’t you just hate that term) are churning out article after article of brilliant leadership advice, technical deep-dives, creative things to do in CSS, you name it. I don’t know about you, but the article count on my RSS reader has been increasing for months and I just have not been reading anything. I can barely focus at the moment.

I became a tech lead in September, which is something I’ve been wanting to do for quite a while. One day I’ll write about what I’ve learned as a new tech lead, but now is not the time, because I don’t think I’ve been able to really succeed in my role due to the constant being-on-fire-ness of this entire year. Instead, have some lessons from the trash fire of 2020 that we can take over into the slightly-smaller-but-still-burning trash fire of 2021.

Lesson number 1: give yourself a break

As a new tech lead, I’ve felt like I’m letting my team down because I don’t have the mental capacity to sit and read about the things I need to improve on, like observability and monitoring. I’ve had a copy of the SRE Workbook on my laptop waiting to be read, which I’ve barely touched.

Where did all these expectations come from? Myself, mostly. Nobody is peering over my shoulder going “why aren’t you reading about Prometheus?”. (Actually, my team have been nothing but supportive this entire year, and I love them all.)

The coronavirus pandemic has meant that my choir hasn’t been able to meet since March. The choir I’ve been a part of for seven years, have been co-running for five of those years, and which forms a huge part of my own identity. I’m an extrovert who gets energy from being around people (but not in a Colin Robinson kind of way). Most of us have barely seen our friends and family. This year has been intensely difficult. I’m sure you’ve all experienced something similar.

On top of that, the political situation is dire. As well as the absolute corrupt shambles of a government who have done such a terrible job of handling the COVID pandemic that we have the highest death rate in Europe, there’s a big red countdown timer on the UK government website that counts down to Brexit when I’m looking up just what the hell being in Tier 3 actually means. Many, many people have lost loved ones, there’s a whole wave of anti-vaccine “Keep Britain Free” zealots popping up all over the place, and the UK has been nicknamed “TERF island” because of the rampant transphobia being spouted by formerly respectable public figures. And that’s just on our doorsteps in the UK.

The SRE Workbook can wait, basically. We have enough on our collective plates.

Lesson number 2: if it benefits your work, it can be done in working hours

Perhaps you used to watch conference talks on the daily commute, or read technical books in bed. I definitely had a copy of The Manager’s Path next to the bed that I was chipping away at at one point. But now that commute is gone for many of us, and I don’t know about you but the only thing I have the energy for in the evenings is playing video games or idly browsing the internet.

I believe quite strongly that if you are learning something in order to become better at your job, you should be doing that within working hours. In my team, we all know that technically it’s encouraged to take time out to learn something - we get a budget to do just that - but we rarely ever do it. To that end, I actually scheduled 2 hours a week in the whole team’s calendar on a Friday for “Reading time”. They can use that time however they want: they can watch videos, try something out, read a book. They can take more time, or less time. They can do it on a different day, or skip it entirely. All it is is the explicit permission to take some time out of your week to learn something, if you want.

(I don’t know if they actually take the time: I haven’t asked. I just want them to know they can, in writing.)

Lesson number 3: some things are boring and that’s okay

Kubernetes does not interest me. I have the utmost respect for the infra folks on Twitter who seem super intelligent and knowledgeable about it, but I cannot bring myself to be interested in it. For a while I felt like not being into this stuff made me a lesser developer somehow. But my specialism lies elsewhere and there are things I’m good at that people who do Kubernetes for a living aren’t (and I have it on good authority that “do Kubernetes” is a technical term). That’s how well-functioning teams work.

I know enough kubectl to get a list of pods and SSH into one of them (but mainly because I have the zsh autocomplete plugin and it fills it in for me based on my past commands). That’s all I need: most of the actual Kubernetes wizardry is automated or managed by people who specialise in it (in my case, our excellent Infrastructure Platform team). A good developer or tech lead will know when it’s the right time to delegate to someone who knows more about it than they do.

Lesson number 4: mental health is more important than KPIs

I’ll caveat this section with the fact that I know many people work at companies where mental health is not something to be discussed, or something that people really seem to take into account. And I also know it’s not as simple as “find another job” and that should never be the only solution.

Instead, this is an appeal to senior leadership and management. Your employees are not inanimate batteries you plug in to power your company. They are humans, with complicated lives, families they haven’t been able to see for months, and children having to stay home from school because someone in their class tested positive for COVID. Their partner might have lost their job this year. They may be struggling with working from home, missing being around people in the office, or they might be finding video calls even more exhausting than real-life meetings. If you’ve sadly had to make redundancies this year, are you expecting the reduced number of people to do the same amount of work as before?

If you’re a team lead, check in on your team. Are they working long hours? Encourage them to sign off earlier. I highly recommend this Twitter thread about why working late a couple of hours a week can lead to completely unrealistic expectations of how long projects take to complete.

Schedule 1:1s with them and ask them how they’re feeling about things. Encourage them to share their workload if they have too much: having more on your plate than you can cope with right now is not a sign of failure.

Mental health should be taken as seriously as physical health. We have trained mental health first aiders who can provide a swift response over Slack, an Employee Assistance Program for access to counselling and legal information, and people can take mental health days if they are struggling. I’ve taken three afternoons off at the last minute in the past three weeks because I was so exhausted with [gestures wildly] everything, and my team were very understanding about it. I know I am privileged in that regard, and I am grateful.

Ultimately, the productivity and success of the company will suffer more if your team burn out. People will start taking extended leave, or they’ll quit. It’s a choice between delaying a product release by a day and the mental health of a human being.

Sorry folks, I wrote a long article when I promised you you didn’t have to read articles. Go and have a cup of tea and look out of the window for a bit.