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Extinguishing IT Team Burnout through Mindfulness and Unstructured Time

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Key Takeaways

  • There is an IT talent crisis and a clear need to prevent burnout to retain skilled employees
  • Burnout has a huge impact and takes a serious toll on a business and its people
  • There is a direct correlation between mindfulness and productivity
  • IT leaders can avoid draining creativity and morale by building a healthy business culture that emphasizes mindfulness
  • There are some exercises which help IT spur employee creativity and generate ideas that drive benefits like greater efficiency

With fears of a looming recession, many IT leaders are yet again facing a new reality, one with fewer resources and budget cuts. This will inevitably stretch IT organizations that already spent much of the past two years supporting rapidly shifting priorities and platforms. While digital transformation was significantly accelerated, it also led to the rapid burnout of many tech pros. Looking ahead, a reduction in staff and budget will only exacerbate the problem.

For those questioning the severity of these issues, the story is in the data:

  • According to a recent Robert Half survey of 2,400 professionals in the U.S., 4 in 10 U.S. workers report an increase in burnout. Nearly topping the list of those feeling the strain are technology workers.
  • According to Gartner's 2021-2023 Emerging Technology Roadmap for Large Enterprises, 64% of IT executives cite talent shortages as the most significant barrier to adopting emerging technology, compared to 4% in 2020.
  • The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that software developer jobs will grow more than 22% by 2029 - faster than all other occupations combined - creating a 1.2 million+ shortage by 2026.

With more technology workers experiencing burn-out, and a market-driven reduction in resources, IT leaders are under increasing pressure to alleviate the burden on their teams. Why? Burnout dampens worker creativity, negatively affecting productivity and problem-solving, both of which have a direct impact on the bottom line.

The answer to helping is simple: Build a healthy business culture that emphasizes practicing mindfulness complemented with unstructured creative time. And it isn’t just a Silicon Valley buzzword or some kind of New Age fad. Mindfulness has been shown in randomized, controlled trials to benefit mental health. According to the Cleveland Clinic, a study of 20 different trials showed that mindfulness practice “showed demonstrated improvements in overall mental health, as well as the benefit for reducing the risk of relapse from depression. Similarly, substantial evidence exists that mindfulness has a positive impact on anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder.” 

Further, according to the American Psychological Association, multiple studies show that mindfulness can reduce stress and decrease levels of depression and anxiety. And these aren’t the only benefits. Studies show it can improve memory, sharpen focus and produce less emotional reactivity.

So, how can a technology organization apply mindfulness to reduce burnout and improve people’s state of well-being on the job? It’s starts with leadership encouraging an honest self-assessment.

Ask yourself, do you find yourself resisting new tasks being assigned to you? Are you tensing up during stand-ups? Are you avoiding conversations with your leader? Are you about to cancel a meeting to alleviate anxiety? Answering yes to any one of these questions may signal that you’re heading toward burnout. 

State of mind

While a focus on mindfulness may seem more at place in a monastery or yoga class, it’s definitely an exercise that anyone can practice virtually anywhere — and it can greatly influence a  company’s culture and success. 

Introducing mindfulness into an organization doesn’t require a group activity. Certainly, people will benefit from some initial and even ongoing training, but this can be done in a number of ways, ranging from collective training sessions to self-directed videos and reading materials. Practicing mindfulness in the presence of others through meditation, for instance, can be a powerful, beneficial experience. Still, mindfulness is, at its heart, an individual activity, and the opportunities for it to come into play in the workplace are many. We can practice mindfulness during stand-up meetings, daily check-ins with our team, even as we pick up a new development task.

Paying attention to how we react to external factors is really all it takes to start down the path of mindfulness.

Growing awareness

Mindfulness is fundamentally about awareness. For it to grow, begin by observing your mental state of mind, especially when you find yourself in a stressful situation. Instead of fighting emotions, observe your mental state as those negative ones arise. Think about how you’d conduct a deep root cause analysis on an incident and apply that same rigor to yourself. The key to mindfulness is paying attention to your reaction to events without judgment. This can unlock a new way of thinking because it accepts your reaction, while still enabling you to do what is required for the job. This contrasts being stuck behind frustration or avoiding new work as it rolls in.

For example, if you’ve just received a new assignment and you can tell you are feeling stressed, stop what you’re doing, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Focus on the breaths at first, but then pay attention to the rest of your body. Are you tense? If so, where? Your shoulders? Your back? Your temples? Is your stomach upset? Emotions have a physical component to them, and paying attention to their effect on the body helps us to understand them more deeply. 

Don’t fall into judgment about the emotions you’re feeling while observing them. You may want to dismiss anxiety as ridiculous, for instance, or think about how unfair it is that your workload is making you feel this way. Instead, focus on the emotion itself. Don’t resist it, but also don’t let yourself get swept up in it. Doing either of these things gives the emotional energy that will sustain it. Eventually, as you observe, it will pass away into something else.

The power of mindfulness is that it enables us to observe our physical, emotional and cognitive experiences in an objective way. As a result, we are less likely to be swept up and can maintain ourselves in a more effective way. The next time your boss gives you an assignment, you may notice the tension in your shoulders and can say, “That’s anxiety.” Knowledge is power, and a keener awareness of exactly what emotions one is experiencing makes it far easier to regulate and manage them.

Unplug or unhinge

Mindfulness is an individual pursuit, while creativity is an enterprise pursuit, and providing space for employees to be creative is another key to preventing burnout. But there are other benefits as well. 

There is a direct correlation between creativity and productivity. Teams that spend all their time working on specific processes and problems struggle to develop creative solutions that could move a company forward. That said, rather than allowing their workers to lose agility, innovation and productivity, IT leaders should require personnel to step away from day-to-day tasks for time to think about problems in new ways.

It’s important for this time to be unstructured and low-pressure, because when the brain operates under stress, it will instinctively seek the fastest, most efficient, but not always the most effective solution. The mind wants to solve the problem and move on to the next one. This is especially true in a business environment. Workers that face a significant backlog of projects experience this cycle repeatedly, which exposes their minds and bodies to prolonged strain and stress. This pressure isn't conducive to creative, out-of-the-box thinking, and that leads to burnout.

Ironically, for this to work, managers need to create a structure for unstructured time. It requires leadership. When someone is overloaded, the last thing they want to do is take time away from the crushing workload to do exploratory work, because then it feels like they’re simply falling further behind. 

It’s no different than worrying about a system that carries a lot of technical debt. Whether you like it or not, you have to allocate time in every sprint focusing on that technical debt. So, when it comes to unstructured creative work, leadership has to give people this time in a way that doesn’t add to their stress levels. 

One way I create unstructured, creative time for my teams is to give them an exploratory project within a time-boxed window. Typically, I’ll ask them to address a specific problem, but the solution is completely up to them in whatever way they think makes sense. For example, I recently asked the team to re-imagine the data entry screen for our sales organization, with the goal of reducing data entry by five clicks. They could prepopulate fields, create shortcuts, introduce additional automation — really, it was entirely up to them. This is totally different from the way we typically assign work, where it is more prescriptive and requires less creativity.

The timing of these projects, however, is critical. If I were to give my team an exploratory project without taking their overall task burden into account, I’d just create more stress instead of giving them a creative outlet. Adjust timelines and deadlines so that team members can truly settle into unstructured, creative time.

Nurturing mindfulness and creativity benefits the business and individual workers alike. Creativity must be an institutional value, while mindfulness must be an individual pursuit. Leadership should guide the way, taking responsibility for fostering an environment that encourages learning and collaborative problem-solving. As it does, IT professionals gain more insight, deepen their expertise and solve increasingly complex challenges. This heightened mindset is invaluable, leading to more significant innovation within your organization.

Finally, forward-thinking leaders can identify areas to make IT more efficient. The more teams can focus on improving a product for end-users, the less you have to worry about constant disruptions and redesigns. Revisiting how we work allows us to simplify or discontinue outdated or dysfunctional processes. 

What could be more productive than learning to do more with fewer steps? Accomplishing more with less work takes the pressure off of everyone, and leaves more room for the kind of unstructured, creative work that not only prevents burnout, but it also moves the organization forward, often in unexpected ways. 

There is no denying that IT organizations that are understaffed and constantly trying to address urgent issues might feel creative time is a luxury, and mindfulness, a nice-to-have. However, keeping workers operating at full speed every day is dangerous. It leaves little time for teams to think outside the box, take risks or spawn creative solutions to those longstanding, everyday problems that continually drain resources and people.

Giving employees the resources and time to practice mindfulness, engage in unstructured creative work and collaborate in a more efficient, streamlined way goes a long way toward reducing burnout and fostering a productive, less stressful work environment. We owe it to ourselves and to our people to make the changes required so that the technology industry is a more humane place to be.

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