Harvard Business Review published an article this week covering six causes of burnout and how we can reduce these. Let’s consider these through the lens of agility.
Having an excessive workload over a prolonged period of time is one of the most common causes of burnout. The eighth principle of the Manifesto argues against this: “Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.” People laugh when I say in my classes that we need to strive for no weekend or overtime work, but downtime is critical to maintaining a sustained pace. This requires a shift in thinking for leaders to prioritize delivering value over just keeping people busy.
A perceived lack of control over our work is another cause of burnout. Agile teams are expected to be empowered by their leaders to identify their ways of working rather than having those dictated or prescribed. Team members define and pull their work rather than have it assigned to them. This autonomy means that they can be creative at handling challenging or overwhelming situations.
A lack of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards was also listed by the author as a contributing factor. While the magnitude of external rewards will be subject to economic constraints, informal recognition is usually more frequent through the product (e.g. sprint review) and process (e.g. retrospective) feedback loops that we expect with most agile approaches.
Having strong support from one’s immediate work community is a good hedge against burnout. As I wrote in my last article, members of teams which are at a high-level of psychological safety draw comfort from knowing they have someone to lean on when they need a hand. A greater level of team awareness means that their team members are also likely to pick up on subtle cues of excessive stress.
The article includes a lack of fairness as another cause of burnout. While individual contribution is still recognized, the granularity for declaring success is at the team level. Agile transformations must include a review of performance review and formal recognition programs to ensure that team work is encouraged and that rewards are not divisive.
Finally, a disconnect in the values of the individual and the leadership of their company can also lead to burnout if team members face the internal struggle of staying true to what they consider important. Agile may not be a cure for misalignment with company values but within the safety of a team, each individual has a voice to contribute to the values and culture of that team making it a safe haven from the storms outside.
For many, agile is about delivering value quicker or with increased quality, but true agility is also about putting people first.