At a startup, you’re always in a battle against time.

You’re racing to find product-market fit.

You’re sprinting to grow revenue ahead of a new fundraising round.

You’re hustling to launch new features and deliver value to your customers faster than any of your competitors.

Unsurprisingly, the nature of startups and, more specifically, the development teams at those startups very often leads to burnout. 

Over the 4 startups I’ve worked at, I’ve seen burn-out at every single one and I’ve been a victim of it before too.

What is Burnout?

According to the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), burnout is “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” 

It is characterized by three dimensions:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job 
  3. Reduced professional efficacy

Reading through that list, have you ever been burned out? 

Chances are you have. 

According to a recent Deloitte survey, “77 percent of respondents say they have experienced employee burnout at their current job, with more than half citing more than one occurrence.”

How Can You Recognize That Your Team is Burning Out?

Here are just a few of the burnout signs I’ve seen and you should watch out for.

1.Making Mistakes: This is one of the most obvious signs of burnout. A burned-out employee simply isn’t as effective at their job as a rejuvenated one. They will make mistakes, they will ship bugs, they will miss adding vital acceptance criteria, they will, quite simply, make mistakes than normal.

2. Forgetting Things They Usually Remember: When your brain is burned out, it affects your memory dramatically as well. If you see members of your team with “glazed over” looks when discussing more complex concepts or forgetting how certain parts of the system interact with each other, you’re approaching burnout (if you haven’t gotten there already).

3. Changes in Personality: When someone is burning out or has already burned out, they start to become distant from their job and others around them. They often will turn cynical or negative as well. These signs will be very visible and you shouldn’t wait very long to address them.

How Should You React to Burnout?

If you’re already seeing these more severe signs of burnout, chances are that it may be too late for a “quick fix.” 

Rather, if you’re seeing severe burnout on your team like the above examples, you need to act quickly and decisively to counteract that burnout.

Recently, both LinkedIn and Bumble gave all of their employees a week off. 

They took this approach (rather than giving just the burned out employees a week off) so that no one would feel the pressure to work with projects piling up in their absence.

To prevent burnout, LinkedIn is giving its entire company the week off

Bumble gives all employees a paid week off amid reports of pandemic-induced burnout

While a week off for everyone is a good way to start to counteract burnout, we need to attack the source of what’s causing burnout in the first place.

How Can You Avoid Burnout in the First Place?

1.Set Realistic Expectations: At a startup, this often is easier said than done. However, if your team and tech leads are able to effectively size projects and set realistic expectations with leadership that includes time for bug fixes, infrastructure improvements, and “rest” sprints, you have a better chance of avoiding burnout. 

P.S. Don’t forget to “reset” expectations as your team changes, grows, shrinks, or takes on new projects!

2. Maintain a Strong Sprint Cycle/Cadence: Teams that have a strong sprint cycle that includes sprint plannings, groomings, standups, pointings, and retros are less prone to burnout. They’re able to own their schedule, their commitments, and they reflect often (retro) on how things are going and adjust their flow and process as needed via kaizens.

3. Build a Solid Prioritization Process (this or that, not both!): Teams with a solid prioritization process, both on a sprint-ly and quarterly-level, are less susceptible to burnout. They’re able to effectively prioritize their effort on a smaller number of high-impact projects, rather than committing to everything leadership asks them to do.

4. Break From the “Normal” Cycle: Regardless of how effective your sprint cycle is, everyone needs a break now and then. Find fun ways to “break” your normal cadence with bug bashes, hackathons, and more. These breaks serve a dual benefit of providing agency to team members to decide what they want to work on (which recharges everyone’s batteries) and also helps attack often neglected parts of the codebase or the customer experience. 

5. Regular Team Activities: How often are you and your team doing events outside of work? And I don’t mean just the after-hours “team dinner” that may actually contribute to burnout for some developers, but rather, activities during work hours that provide another break from the day-to-day grind. These activities also provide an opportunity to build stronger connections between team members that will come in handy in the future.

6. Balancing “Burst Modes” and “Rest Sprints”: Burst modes are like nitrous in the Fast and Furious movies, you can only use these infrequently or else your engine will blow up. 

Rest Sprints are the opposite of burst modes. You can’t sprint forever! Your team needs a chance to catch their breath, improve infrastructure, tests, documentation, fix bugs, and more. 

And they need to be able to do this at their own direction, not at the direction of a Product Manager. Try to find the opportunity for a rest sprint every quarter (at least!)

How Do You Avoid, Recognize and React to Burnout?

I’d love to hear how you have managed burnout in the comments or on Twitter at @amitch5903


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