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Culture / Operations

Tackling 3 Misconceptions to Mitigate Employee Burnout

The good news is there are ways to develop an empathetic workplace culture supported by on-call best practices.
Nov 2nd, 2022 7:33am by
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The Great Resignation is already reshaping the workforce. When asked in May, a fifth of global employees said they were “very or extremely likely” to switch to a new employer within the coming 12 months. One in six said they’d leave the workforce entirely. For those working in digital operations, the challenge has become particularly acute.

As more organizations come to rely on complex digital infrastructure, incidents surge. Burnout is a growing risk. Research shows that many digital responders are working more hours and suffering more off-hours interruptions.

A vicious cycle is starting to emerge where employees feel burned out and leave, meaning that remaining employees must work more hours, then also succumb to burnout. The knowledge and expertise lost in this way are getting harder to replace.

The good news is there are ways to develop an empathetic workplace culture supported by on-call best practices.

Common Misconceptions

Organizations across the globe are seeing a surge in resignations from digital ops team members. Research from 2021 revealed that 64% had seen a rise in staff turnover, with only a third (34%) claiming there had been no increase over the previous 12 months.

The pandemic has not only forced many to re-evaluate their careers and current roles, it has arguably made work more stressful as organizations and managers struggle to adapt to the new rules of the hybrid workplace.

For incident responders on the front line, things can be particularly tough, especially if business processes and tools are not effective. If they’re unlucky enough to be stuck in a continuous time loop of reactive firefighting, high stress levels might be the norm. But sometimes misconceptions about the role of the first responder can make things worse.

Here are our top three, and what organizations can do about them to nurture a more positive team culture:

Misconception No. 1: It’s Not OK to Ask for Overrides During On-Call Rotation

Putting norms in place to reinforce that it’s OK to ask for an override is one of the best ways to set a positive tone for a team’s on-call experience. As we’re talking about cultural change here, it’s not something that can be done overnight. But by developing and modeling the new approach over time, organizations can score some important wins.

There may be nuances to the plan. For example, after requesting an override 10 times, it may be appropriate that engineers are required to swap on-call days with a colleague, or perhaps offer to take over someone else’s on-call if they’ve had a particularly rough day at work. These norms should be made explicit and documented, so that when new engineers join, they better understand the culture and that it’s OK to ask for overrides.

Empathy is important, especially from managers. Check in on how on-call engineers are doing, especially after major incidents and always following their first significant incident. Part of this is about taking time out to understand staff members outside the workplace. If they have to deal with pets, kids or elderly parents, they may face specific stresses which make managing on-call shifts more problematic.

Similarly, managers must use discretion if team members experience a major life event like the death of a loved one. It’s critical here to be proactive and suggest they change shifts, rather than let things run their course.

Misconception #2: It’s Your Job to Look into Every Alert Notification

Some engineers can get FOMO [fear of missing out] when sitting on call and end up spending all day drilling down into graphs and notifications. But being on call doesn’t mean they should be glued to the screen. This is where building trust in people and systems is key.

There should be enough inherent trust there that on-call engineers only get paged when something really does go wrong. It’s about letting go of things that can’t be controlled in order to apply greater vigilance to things that can be. Push notifications can often increase stress levels unnecessarily. Low-urgency incidents shouldn’t be triggering these alerts.

Using hand-off team meetings between the two relevant on-call engineers on rotation will also help to build trust here. And when time is permitted during rotation, perhaps team members may want to think about how to improve things for the next on-call engineer — for example, addressing noisy alerts, or fixing any bugs related to recurring issues.

Misconception #3: The On-Call Responder Is Responsible for Completing the Post-Mortem

Dealing with the stress of an incoming incident is one thing. But what’s even worse is if there’s a week of stress after it for follow-up work. It can feel overwhelming if responders are made to feel that they’re the only ones responsible for handling both the incident and completing the post-mortem.

Managers should think more carefully about how to distribute this workload if resources allow, so that someone other than the primary responder does the post-mortem. It might also be a good idea to give the on-call engineer a cool-down period where they get more flexibility with their work schedule. Being able to take the day off after an all-nighter at the computer screen shows responders their employer has their best interests at heart.

Getting up to Speed

Onboarding is where these on-call best practices can be documented for maximum impact. The process for new starters should cover how to set up a user notification and serve as a checkpoint to ensure new hire settings are correct before they are put on rotation. If there is no immediate danger, alerts can be configured as low urgency to ensure engineers aren’t paged while sleeping.

Allowing new starters to shadow another on-call engineer during their shift can help to get them up to speed, as will ops reviews and related documentation to codify common problems and how to resolve them. There’s nothing like real-world experience, so pairing an onboarded engineer with a more experienced colleague is extremely helpful, and should be focused around low-urgency incidents and alerts.

Finally, remember that alert noise can increase stress levels. So if this is a problem in the organization, consider shortening on-call rotations to weekdays and weekends, or business hours and after business hours.

Gather feedback from on-call engineers after their shift to see how things are going. Being empathetic may come easier to some managers. But honest communication is a great place to start on the road to reducing burnout.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can manage your on-call rotation with a modern DevOps solution, try out a free trial of PagerDuty.

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