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Productivity

How to prevent burnout as an engineering and product manager

David Kyle Choe
May 31, 2021

The saying, "the cobbler's kids have no shoes" rings especially true for managers.
Managers spend most of their energy and focus tending to the needs of their developers, stakeholders, and peers, but who takes care of them?

The unfortunate truth is that many managers, especially those in high growth environments, must create their own support networks – both within their organization and outside of it.

We wanted to provide some helpful frameworks around how to set yourself up for success and to prevent the all-too-familiar burnout that comes from excessive emotional and mental expenditure and starved self-care and recovery.

Support Networks

Support networks are arguably the most important strategy of the three mentioned here today. We are in the people business, so people are ostensibly going to be the biggest lever for your collective success.

There are many kinds of support networks but we think the following are most critical for long-term success. It's important to note that putting all your "support eggs" into just one of these baskets will prove to be challenging for you and the people in the networks. You need to be able to tap different kinds of people for the different layers that we're excavating.

  1. Internal Peer Groups: These are fellow managers and colleagues that understand your context and can empathize with you. That being said, there's often equal pressure on them so leaning solely on your internal peer groups will not be fruitful for anyone. Look to your internal peer groups for quick check-ins, sanity checks, and a place to commiserate.
  2. Internal Management/Executive Support: These folks are tricky. Hopefully, you're in a safe work environment where your leadership and execs are approachable and accessible. If that's the case, lean on them to ask for help before things get too hard. It's our belief that good managers are not looking for superheroes on their teams. Balance is the name of the game. If they can get you more support, it behooves everyone to do so. In the case you are in an org that has less supportive leadership, we suggest being very strategic on how and when to leverage this group. If they are not supportive of their managers, they may see you raising issues or burnout as complaining and unfairly tag you.
  3. External Friends & Family: These are the folks that will support you no matter what. They may not really know what you do or the nuances of your problems, but they'll lend you an ear, cook you a meal, and pour you a drink. Depend on them to have safe spaces, but don't expect them to give you practical advice or understand your world.
  4. External Peer Groups: These are people in your role and context outside of your organization. They may be perhaps the most helpful and rewarding type of support group. They don't have the baggage of your particular organizational context and will be able to give you a greater perspective as well as a view into how things are done in other settings. We highly recommend you check out online communities like LeadDev or ChangeLog and join their Slack groups to really get deep insights and recommendations.
  5. Professional Support (Therapists, Counselors, Psychologists/Psychiatrists): The last support group is the one that has both the highest barriers to entry (selection, price, time) and the highest "return". It goes without saying that this type of support will have much more far-reaching effects than on just your professional career, and it's the reason why we recommend it. Our founding team believes in the power of professional support, and are committed to it ourselves!

Regular Recovery

This is perhaps the hardest part of preventing burnout. When you're working in a fast-paced organization, things are growing, people are moving and succeeding – stopping to recover seems counter-productive, maybe even selfish. But anyone who is into fitness knows that a day of recovery not only sets them up for success the next day, it actually improves their overall performance in the long run.

How do you approach recovery in a busy, demanding organization? You normalize and measure it in your team. From sprint planning to retros, make recovery something that is tracked and carefully maintained. You as the manager need to set the standard. If you have worked non-stop for a couple of weeks with no recovery days, that behavior becomes normalized for your team. Even if it feels unnatural and even scary, take the day (or half-day or afternoon) and reset and recover.

This allows for your team to get used to what it feels like to work and maintain momentum when team members are resting. If this is a new practice, it'll be awkward at first, but over time, it'll become a huge asset to your culture.

Two-Way Feedback

Two-way feedback is a simple and powerful way to encourage transparency and mitigate surprises. Your team members will not be honest will you if honesty is a one-way street. For example, if the only time you ask how you can improve is during the annual review, your team members will not feel comfortable sharing. Why? Because it's not a normalized, utilized behavior. They'll be anxious and worried about how honest they can really be.

By creating a two-way feedback loop as a regular part of your one-on-ones, you can understand where your team members stand with you. If there are grievances, they won't catch you by surprise at the end of the year. Problems and frustrations become things to iron out versus explosions to clean up after.

We take a deep dive into Two-Way Feedback in another article you can read here.

These are just a few of the frameworks that we've found useful and effective through our research and experience. We'd love to hear what works for you and your teams. Send us a note to hello@staat.co or shoot us a comment on our socials.

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