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Becoming Personally Agile for Mental Health

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Feeling the need to be constantly producing high-quality deliverables with a high sense of perfection can lead to stress and can cause burnout. You have to first accept that you have a problem to find your way out of burnout. Applying agile on a personal level can help you to achieve high goals while reducing stress and lowering the chance of getting burnout.

Maryam Umar, head of quality at Thought Machine, spoke about becoming agile for mental health at Agile Testing Days 2020.

Burnout signs are not visible externally, Umar mentioned. It’s not like a cold or a cough; it comes from the soul within you, she said. You start feeling tired, get frequent headaches, lose interest in your job, Umar mentioned.

Umar shared how she recognized that she was developing burnout:

For me, my burnout was visible in the form of me not wanting to go into work even when I was standing at the doors of my office. I actually turned around and went home straight into bed. Classic signs of burnout also include loss of appetite, insomnia, stomach issues, etc.

It turned out that she was succumbing to a vicious cycle whenever she got anxious:

On observation, I discovered that for every new task/project, I would create really high goals for myself. These would then become unachievable or difficult to finish within the time frames which would lead to disappointment and then eventually started burnout as I would start burning the midnight oil.

Agility is all about evolving learning from previous experiences. "I don’t call those experiences mistakes," Umar said, "they are indicators of what can be improved". As we plan software projects, we talk about delivering in mini iterations as well as improving over time. A good example is estimation. We review previous estimates and improve on future estimates, Umar claimed.

Umar used her learnings from being in agile teams to develop what she calls a "mini personal development life cycle": becoming agile for mental health. It’s about applying agile on a personal level, which helps her to manage achievable projects without being stressed:

I would incorporate careful planning and time blocks in my busy work schedule. I also started explicitly chalking time with my support circle which helped a lot with rejuvenation.

I used a similar pattern when it came to planning my work schedule. Chalking out time for meeting free hours, 1-2-1s, days where I could get some thinking time, etc.

A lot of people may look at this as self-improvement. I look at agility as a way of improving software project delivery.

To reduce the chance of burnout happening, pay attention to your colleagues and listen to them, Umar suggested. Burnout is often not visible until it’s too late, she said. She suggested to spend time with your teams and help create an environment where talking about burnout is normal.

InfoQ interviewed Maryam Umar about how she learned to deal with her personal health.

InfoQ: How did the desire to be awesome slowly engulf you?

Maryam Umar: I come from a family of high achievers and had this unsaid expectation to do well in my academics. This trait became a part of my personality as I grew up and continuously strived to produce excellent results for whatever task I undertook, whether in my personal life or my professional life.

Being perfect at something comes at the expense of your personal health. And this is where this trait engulfed me. I lost sight of myself and just kept wanting to run and go forward and be perfect at everything. This came at the detriment of my personal health.

InfoQ: How did you recover and recalibrate yourself?

Umar: The first step to recovery is to accept that you have a problem. I kept denying to myself that I was suffering from anxiety. I was told by a doctor to take some medication to help me over four years ago. And I did not take it, thinking that I would be seen as a failure. It was my body telling me to slow down and look after myself, but I did not listen to the signs. It was only until I had a panic attack that I accepted that I need to take medication. I also finally accepted that doing this was not a failure.

Once I started in medication, I also started looking into what changes I wanted to make in my career and what gave me true happiness. I switched into a managerial role, as I love to build teams and create strategies for long-term solutions. I also started looking into creating a small but strong support circle, and looked into finding mentors.

Physical training is also a constant in my life now and when I haven’t done it for a few days, I genuinely start worrying about missing it. Physical training has given me a lot of mental energy to fight against what keeps creeping up in my brain, and also has created a lot of positive vibes in my life which I can in turn use for my work.

Lastly, I now have some life coaching in place as well. I found that it has yielded the highest benefits for me. It has enabled me to discover my strengths and use them to my aid.

InfoQ: What have you learned that you would like to share with the InfoQ readers?

Umar: The world of technology is both exciting and fast-paced. This pace unintentionally introduces some level of imposter-syndrome. Another type of problem which is often seen is burnout, which can happen in order to keep up with this pace.

I urge all the readers to keep an eye on their burnout as well as their colleagues’. At the end of the day, if you have good health, you have better chances of learning and absorbing new technologies and programming languages to help deliver great software.

InfoQ: What are things that people shouldn’t do when trying to help someone who might be experiencing burnout? What can they do instead?

Umar: Don’t tell them, "You are not alone". Don’t say, "I went through this too". Simply give them the gift of your attention and listen to them. And give them space. Everyone learns to deal with burnout in their own ways.

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