As part of this year’s Engineering Leadership Summit: Virtual Edition, we spoke to Dr. Aneika Simmons, PhD, and Anjuan Simmons, Engineering Coach at Help Scout. They discussed strategies for preventing and addressing burnout on engineering teams. Below is an excerpt from the fireside chat portion of their session, edited for length and clarity.
Hillary Nussbaum, Content Marketing Manager, Code Climate: Welcome. We’re with Anjuan and Aneika Simmons. Anjuan is a Technology Translator, and Engineering Coach at Help Scout. Aneika is a Full Professor of Management at Sam Houston State University. Please, introduce yourselves, and tell us a little bit about what you do and how you got to where you are now.
Dr. Aneika Simmons, PhD: I’m a Professor of Management at Sam Houston State University. I am a Texan, so I was born and raised in Texas. And then I went ahead and became a Longhorn at the University of Texas at Austin. From there, I was recruited to Accenture, where I worked as an Information Technology Consultant. And then from there I was recruited at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. I did work at Enron for two years, but not on their finances, only on SAP, let me be clear.
I worked for about eight years, and I really wanted to do something that better utilized my gifts and my talents and my personality. So I decided to apply for a PhD program, and eventually I was accepted into the Mays program at Texas A&M University. After that, I went to Sam Houston and I’ve loved it. It’s been great for me, for my career, for my family. And it’s something I really enjoy.
Anjuan Simmons, Engineering Coach at Help Scout: Hello, everyone. Again, I’m Anjuan, and I am an Engineering Coach at Help Scout, where we support people who love their customers. I started my career at Accenture as well, working on large enterprise software projects and making sure that they got implemented. I also worked at Deloitte, and then I did a few stints at startups.
One thing I really love about Help Scout is the opportunity to take a lot of the rigor and discipline that I learned at those huge companies, but also to add the personal touch and care that I learned from startups. And so that’s really how I go about my job at Help Scout.
Great, thanks. Now let’s jump right in. We’re talking about burnout today. What do you mean when you say burnout, and why does burnout matter to us as individuals and as leaders?
Aneika: Over a year ago, Anjuan and I — we’ve been married for 18 years, and we have three, basically teenagers (I say basically, because one is 12) — discussed the fact that we were dealing with burnout. So we started doing research on it. We determined that burnout, as defined by World Psychiatry, is a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job. Stressors are the things that cause stress. Stress is what I feel.
There are three dimensions to this. One of them is an overwhelming sense of exhaustion. The second is a feeling of cynicism and detachment, and the third is a sense of ineffectiveness and a lack of accomplishment.
And why should we care about it? At the individual level, it can impact you emotionally, mentally, and physically with all kinds of horrible things like high blood pressure, not being able to sleep at night, or a racing mind. And then from a leader’s perspective, you should care because, number one, I hope we all care about the people that work for us, but number two, it impacts the corporate costs. People are not able to show up or give their best selves. So, this is something with a big impact, and it’s really important.
And how is burnout different for an individual and for a team? How does it impact team dynamics when it’s just one person versus everyone?
Aneika: As an individual, of course it impacts you. A lot of people think that if I’m an individual and I’m engaged, then I’m not going to be burned out. But the research actually says that you can be both engaged and burned out. Meaning that you can be fully involved and burned out at the same time. It’s not just the people who are out the door.
And so how is it different at a team level? Well, for teams there’s emotional contagion, where your emotions can trigger the same emotions in other people. Stress and burnout are not the same thing, but stress is a precursor to burnout. And that can become part of a team dynamic via emotional contagion, and that’s what we need to look out for.
And then one of the big aspects of burnout is depersonalization. If you’re working in a team and you’re depersonalizing your team members, obviously that’s not a good thing. People start depersonalizing because they have nothing left to giv, and they’re just trying to focus in on the minimal aspects of what’s happening. But that’s not healthy, and that is an aspect of burnout.
What strategies can a manager take to try to prevent burnout before it happens?
Aneika: One thing that we need to do is, we need to build our well before we need it. A manager should know their people. They should know the people who work for them, and have an understanding of their baseline. If someone was always a really patient person, and then their patience with people starts waning, that could be a signal.
And then how do you prevent it? Focus on human relationships. Let’s look at one another in the eye, let’s have these meetings, let’s get to know one another. Let’s talk through what we feel. We do a thing where we talk about the importance of eye contact, just engaging in people, understanding the people that you work with. And then we have a cliche that, if you want to go fast, go alone. But if you want to go far, well, let’s go together. If we’re doing things together, we think that that can help mitigate burnout.
You just mentioned it’s easiest to spot signs of burnout if you’re familiar with how a person works. So, what strategies can one use to get that baseline assessment?
Anjuan: One of my main tools as an Engineering Manager responsible for the health and wellbeing of software developers is the one-on-one. A one-on-one is a regular meeting, hopefully weekly, but it can be biweekly, where you meet with someone and talk about what’s going on with them. I really try to make my one-on-ones different from a status update. I have many other ways to get status updates.
They’re a way for me to meet on a regular basis with the people who report to me and really get to know them outside of the work, but to also get that sense of what is their profile, how are they normally presenting themselves? One-on-ones are a crucial way for me to not only be connected to my team, but to get their profile. One other thing that I do is, in meetings, I do a lot of reading facial expressions and body language. And so over time, I just get a mental model for how this person performs. Sometimes they use lots of hand gestures, or present themselves a certain way in meetings. And so that’s a key thing as well, to know how to read a person’s body language, to know that usually they’re really open, but recently they’re closed. And then you can begin to see that they’re outside of their normal profile, and you can begin to interrogate that data.
At Help Scout, we also do self-assessments every six months, and that’s really a way for everyone to look back and reflect. We ask questions like, what has been motivating you over the past six months, or what’s changed, or what’s been draining? And when you get that information, you’ll begin to read that and you begin to see, “Okay, this person, when we had a lot of change happening at the beginning of January, it really impacted them.” And so having that information is really a great way to get the data to understand where individuals are, and then move forward from there.
You mentioned looking at body language and reading those subtle signals. Given that a lot of teams are remote now, how do those strategies differ? Do you find that you need to establish a new baseline before making an assessment?
Anjuan: Help Scout was built from the beginning to be fully remote. Going on more than eight years, the company was built to be global and to work remotely. If your company was built from the ground up to be remote, or you’ve been that way for a long time, then it’s really about continuing those practices. Regular one-on-ones, self-assessments, things like that.
In a remote culture that’s new to a company, if you are maybe thrown into working remotely due to current conditions like the global pandemic, then you have to understand that one, this is not normal. I’m a big fan of working remotely, but I know that a lot of people are not getting a really good first taste of it. Often you’re working remotely with a spouse who’s also been thrown into working remotely. You may have to share a space with that person. There may be children you now need to help with their work. And so I think that being aware, especially now, that this is not normal, and not expecting the team to be normal, is okay.You have to give the team time to figure out their new normal.
One tool that we use at Help Scout that I really like is called Fika. And Fika, loosely translated, is from a Swedish word that means to take a break, get something sweet, like a pastry, and then get a nice beverage, usually coffee or tea. And then we just, we typically use Zoom, hop on a video conference, and we just chat — not about work, but about each other and what’s going on. And so that’s a way that we are able to, even though we’re remote, to connect with each other. There’s also a tool called Donut, which is a Slack app that will randomly pair people for Fikas. And that way, not only with the Engineering Department that I sit in, but with Marketing, Sales, et cetera, I’m able to build those relationships even though we are a remote company.
We are not able to do this for the foreseeable future, but having a retreat is also crucial for a remote company. At Help Scout, we typically have them twice a year.
Are there any other special considerations when it comes to remote teams? We’ve been hearing a lot about Zoom fatigue. Are there other things that maybe you wouldn’t have to think about when you’re all in the same place, but that come up in a remote situation?
Anjuan: Yeah, for sure. Two quick things. I’m very lucky to work at Help Scout where we got a stipend for our home office, because they don’t assume that everyone has the stuff they need at home. If companies can provide that support to help everyone working remotely, especially if they were just thrown into it, that is super helpful. The other thing I would say is that often when you’re working remotely, you don’t have a commute. And most people don’t realize that’s often a really good getting ready time. You may listen to podcasts or to music or do different things, catch up on the news from the radio. And then when you’re leaving work, you have that time to decompress.
But when you’re working remotely, you don’t have that commute. That nice bookend to your work day. So, I would say have some kind of ritual — don’t just spring out of bed and hop on Zoom and start working. Maybe take a walk around the block, or make a nice cup of coffee before you start working, because it’s really easy to work a lot more than you’re used to because you don’t have those natural breaks in your day.
Aneika: I know for myself, I wasn’t really on Zoom that much until everything happened with COVID-19. And so if you could have blocks in your day where you say, “Well, no, I’m not having any Zoom meetings at that point,” that helps. Because Zoom fatigue is real, the stress of making eye contact. When you’re on the phone, you can walk around and do things, but in Zoom meetings, some people may feel a little bit held captive.
That makes a lot of sense. We’ve been talking a little bit about preventing burnout and causes of burnout, but obviously it’s not always preventable. What steps would you recommend that a manager take to address burnout when they become aware of it?
Anjuan: As a manager, it’s really important to understand a person’s baseline profile. And ideally what you’ll be able to do is to say, “Okay, this person reports to me, and they’re beginning to diverge from their baseline profile. They’re acting in a way that is an anomaly from everything that I’ve seen before.” And then the key thing is that don’t diagnose that person. Don’t say, “You have burnout, here’s what we’re going to do.” That is something that a professional should do, and that person may not respond well to you trying to diagnose them.
What you do instead is you share observations. You say, “Hey, I’ve seen you typically log on if you’re remote at nine o’clock in your local time, you’re getting on at around closer to noon.” Or, “You typically don’t introduce a lot of bugs into the system, but I’m seeing more bugs that are introduced by your code.” Or, “You typically are more thoughtful and intentional when you comment on pull requests, and now you’re just writing one sentence.” And so by doing that, you can say, “This is what I’m observing. What do you think is going on?” And often it’s in that conversation that you’ll begin to glean what’s happening. And then as a manager you can do things like, “Okay, let’s look at your workload, and you know what? Out of these five things, only these two are really valuable. Let’s just focus on that.”
And in our framework, we talk about having the need to burn down distractions. And so by doing that, you can focus on what’s really valuable. I find that if I can narrow down what my team has to worry about to just one or two things in a given sprint, that goes a long way toward releasing the stress that builds up when we try to keep a lot in our minds. I really try to make sure that my team only has one or two things that they have to think about, because in a world where there is a global pandemic and there’s a lot of civil unrest and a lot of disruptions to the economy, the last thing I want my people to worry about is work. And so I try to make work as simple as possible.
What would you recommend that people do if they’re feeling burned out? Or if they notice a team member is burned out, but they’re not that person’s manager, so they don’t necessarily have the ability to say, “Let’s focus and take things off your plate?”
Aneika: The first step is acknowledgement. So, for you to acknowledge that you’re burned out. You would ask yourself, are you feeling exhausted? The things that used to really light your fire and make you passionate about work, are they still there? How healthy are your relationships at work? Are you engaged with people? Those types of things are important. One of the main things that we do to mitigate stress is, we go for walks every day. We go for walks in the evening and just kind of decompress and talk. So, the first step is acknowledgement and accepting that there’s nothing wrong with you. We’re human beings. And that we get to a point sometimes where we feel that, “My plate is full, I have nothing else to give, and I have to address this.”
Anjuan: To the latter part of the question, which is, I’m not this person’s manager, but I see that they’re burned out — if you have the right relationship with that person, you can share your observation. Again, don’t try to diagnose them as being burned out, but say, “Hey, I’ve been noticing this.” Like my wife said, “You used to be really energized by working in our CI/CD pipelines, but now you seem to have slowed down there.” Share those observations. And then what you can do is say, “Here are some things that have worked for me when I’ve gone through that.
The ideal is that you’ve already built up what we call burnout resistance in your own life, and you’re able to model that to the other person. If you don’t feel that you have the relationship to be able to share those observations, it’s really important to find someone in the organization who does, and candidly share those observations with that person
Aneika: And I’ll just say real quick that all of these types of things that we’re talking about requires a certain level of psychological safety at your job. So you have to have an organization where you feel that you can be vulnerable. And if you can’t be vulnerable, then maybe you really won’t know what your employees, or the people who work for you, or work with you, are going through. The organization has to have a culture where people feel like they actually can be vulnerable and say how they truly feel.
I’m curious about what you just said, that it is important to be vulnerable as a manager, as a leader. Do you have some tips or strategies for people who aren’t necessarily as comfortable or as practiced with that?
Aneika: Well, there are different types of personalities, like my husband is an introvert, and I’m an extrovert. Of course not all introverts and extroverts are the same, some personality types might be more comfortable sharing things that are close to your heart. So, you would need to keep that in mind. But one of the things that I would say is just make sure you develop a healthy relationship with at least one or two people on your team. I know that as teams get larger, you can’t be close to everyone, but you do want to try to have that interconnectedness. That is really important so that when things do come up, you feel comfortable sharing.
Anjuan: Yeah. And at Help Scout, we use a tool called Know Your Team, which is a website that asks a question every week and then people respond to it. It seems kind of trite, but by just sharing those answers, just sharing more about what you think outside of work…you’ll begin to make the first steps toward having that relationship. And then building that culture where people do feel a sense of a psychological safety. Aneika and I have often said that healthy teams build healthy code, and people can be healthy obviously by taking care of their physical body, by exercising and eating properly, and by having relationships that are strong and meaningful. But I also think if people can bring their authentic self to work, then you’ll get their best work.
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