3 Signs Your Team is Suffering from 'Burnout Debt'

Julian Colina
September 10, 2020
One of my key goals this month is to make sure we're not burning ourselves out. We've got a lot of priorities but there's no need to stretch ourselves thin and run the risk of longer-term issues.

- Jean Vincent (CTO, Lytehouse)

Unhealthy working patterns can build up over time and create longer-term issues.

In this article, we'll be showing you signs of burnout debt - and how to recognize it before it's too late.

What is 'Burnout Debt'

Symptoms of burnout can slowly grow on a team. As sprints go on it's easy to overlook the signs that build up over time. We refer to this build up as 'burnout debt'.

You should treat burnout debt in the same way we treat technical debt. Identify it early and take measures to reduce longer-term negative effects.

Signs of 'Burnout Debt'

  1. Unhealthy Working Patterns
  2. High Workloads
  3. Spikes in Weekend Activity

Sign #1:  Unhealthy Working Patterns

One key factor in burnout is overwork. It's important we help our teams manage their workloads and reduce burnout. If your team feels the need to work late nights and weekends - it's time to have a conversation about workloads.

This team for example consistently works late nights and weekends. This is a strong signal that your team is overworking and may approach burnout. We'll see the effect of this below.

Sign #2: Unusually High Workloads

Spikes in workload can be early warning signs of burnout.

The team below was under tight deadlines - working nights and weekends. You can a large spike in Throughput followed by immediate burnout which lasted ~3 months.

This is a typical situation. We take on too much work and burn out. The following weeks remain unproductive. As leaders it's our job to make sure our teams have a more sustainable, manageable workload.

Sign #3: Spikes in Weekend Activity

Large spikes in weekend activity can be an incredibly high signal for overworked. Are your current tasks too much to handle in a week? Did we poorly estimate that workload? Is the workload unmanageable?

As engineering leaders we have to protect our team from situations like that which can cause long term effects to team morale, culture, and overall productivity. As we saw in the image above, the effects of burnout can be long lasting and in some cases can lead to the highest cost for an engineering team - turnover.

Is your team accumulating 'burnout debt'?

Just like technical debt, burnout debt silently builds up in the background. As it accumulates it not only gets harder to resolve but it's impact becomes more severe.

When left unchecked 'burnout debt' impacts team culture, creates an environment of overwork, and degrades trust among the team. At an individual level it decreases satisfaction, happiness, and productivity while boiling up to team-wide frustration, low morale, and high turnover.

So.. Is your team affected by burnout debt?

What should I do about it?

It’s important to identify these signs early so you can intervene. Luckily, there are ways to identify and resolve burnout debt.

Make it a ritual

The first step is having conversations around workload and sustainability. Make it a recurring ritual. At Haystack we bring this up every week. We're constantly adjusting workloads and introducing new, challenging work - to combat burnout.

Get data-driven

As engineers, we often feel productive (and happy) when we're pushing new features. There's a certain rush to grabbing a coffee, throwing on some headphones, and getting that #todo closed out - even if it takes staying up late to do it.

Unfortunately, this makes it difficult to see or address burnout debt. In the moment, we feel great about the work we did - unknowingly allowing burnout debt to build over time. What feels great now build up in the background and soon enough you'll start feeling burnt out.

In this case, having data helps quite a bit. Being able to see trends and alert on them helps us catch burnout debt before it's too late. It also gives us a more objective picture on what our typical workload looks like so we can make sure to keep it in check.

Stop taking on 'Burnout Debt'

If you're managing a team and you want them to be motivated, happy, and productive then burnout should be a key item to address. Just like technical debt, burnout debt can eat at teams and cause an undertone of frustration. It's not always easy to catch but if you're looking in the right direction you'll be able to spot the signs and address it before it's too late.

Of course, Haystack can help too. If you'd like to see your team's typical bandwidth, working patterns or if they are experiencing signs of burnout debt sign up for Haystack.

Haystack helps engineering leaders identify burnout and team health patterns. Instead of guessing if you're improving, or constantly bothering your team for updates, simply use Haystack to get alerts in your inbox every morning. Plus a dashboard to track improvements over time.

Try it for free

Julian Colina
CEO & Cofounder of Haystack.

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