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February 27, 2024

Addressing Burnout in Our DevOps Community Through Deming’s Lens

By John Willis

A Crucial Battle We Must Not Ignore

Today, I’d like to pivot from our regular conversations on technology to address an issue of paramount importance that we, as a community, tend to overlook: burnout. This matter hits close to home for me, having seen its devastating effects firsthand. The loss of vibrant, talented individuals to burnout has left an indelible mark on me and many others within our circle. Despite significant research and discussion, the tech realm, including our DevOps sphere, continues grappling with burnout’s fallout. Too often, we dismiss early warning signs as mere stress or a fleeting bad mood, failing to recognize the more profound, more damaging toll it takes on our enthusiasm, creativity, and, ultimately, our existence.

Throughout my journey in DevOps, I’ve encountered numerous individuals quietly battling this affliction. Their experiences echo a familiar pattern of emotional exhaustion, a sense of detachment, and a profound dissatisfaction with their accomplishments, which can lead to self-destructive tendencies. This phenomenon is not unique to our field but is especially pronounced in high-pressure environments like ours. Burnout manifests in various forms, including physical fatigue, cynicism, and a feeling of inefficacy, pointing to a broader systemic issue reflective of our work culture and the boundaries we set for ourselves. The glorification of long hours and constant availability must be challenged and reevaluated.

Our DevOps community prides itself on its collaborative and supportive ethos, promoting knowledge sharing and mutual assistance. We must extend this ethos to encompass the issue of burnout, fostering environments where vulnerability is met with empathy rather than judgment. In contemplating solutions for burnout, I find myself drawn to the wisdom of Dr. W. Edwards Deming, whose influence on our industry cannot be overstated.

Dr. Deming advocated for a holistic understanding of the interactions between systems, psychology, and variability, championing environments that nurture innovation, accomplishment, and well-being free from fear. He called for a departure from conventional, punitive management approaches toward a methodology that values the human aspect of work.

To address burnout within our DevOps communities, we can leverage Deming’s principles as follows:

  1. Appreciate the System: Acknowledge burnout as a systemic issue rather than an individual failing. We must create work environments conducive to sustainable practices, emphasizing the necessity of rest and recovery.
  2. Understand Variation: Recognize that individuals have varying capacities for work and stress. We should eschew blanket solutions in favor of personalized support and expectations.
  3. Drive Out Fear: Cultivate a culture where openness and safety empower individuals to share their struggles and seek assistance without fear of repercussions or judgment.
  4. Break Down Barriers: Promote open communication and collaboration at every organizational level to ensure all voices are heard and valued.

Christina Maslach is a renowned psychologist best known for her pioneering work on job burnout. She developed the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), a tool designed to assess the degree of burnout in individuals, especially those in human services and education professions. The MBI was introduced in the late 1970s and measures three critical dimensions of burnout: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment. Maslach’s work has contributed significantly to understanding burnout, its causes, and its effects on mental health and job performance. As a result, the MBI has become the gold standard for research and diagnosis of burnout syndrome.

The MBI evaluates three distinct aspects of burnout:

1) Emotional Exhaustion (EE): This dimension measures feelings of being emotionally overextended and exhausted by one’s work. It reflects the stress dimension of burnout, where individuals feel drained and unable to give of themselves at a psychological level.

2) Depersonalization (DP): This component assesses an unfeeling and impersonal response towards one’s care or service recipients. It represents the interpersonal context dimension of burnout, where individuals develop a cynical attitude towards their clients, colleagues, and the organization.

3) Reduced Personal Accomplishment (PA): This dimension measures feelings of competence and achievement in one’s work with people. It reflects the self-evaluation dimension of burnout, where individuals feel dissatisfied with their accomplishments and doubt their competence and the value of their work.

Integrating Deming’s philosophy into our practices can foster work environments that mitigate burnout risks and enhance productivity and well-being. Our goal should be to create workspaces that respect and amplify our human essence, aligning with Deming’s vision for a more humane and effective workplace.

I encourage you to share your experiences, offer support, and join hands in transforming our community into a model of health, joy, and resilience. Our aim extends beyond developing exceptional software; it’s about nurturing a better life for each other.

(This post was originally published on John’s LinkedIn page here. For more, you can follow John Willis’s exploration of Dr. Deming by following his podcast Profound or reading his book Deming’s Journey to Profound Knowledge.)

- About The Authors
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John Willis

John Willis has worked in the IT management industry for more than 35 years and is a prolific author, including "Deming's Journey to Profound Knowledge" and "The DevOps Handbook." He is researching DevOps, DevSecOps, IT risk, modern governance, and audit compliance. Previously he was an Evangelist at Docker Inc., VP of Solutions for Socketplane (sold to Docker) and Enstratius (sold to Dell), and VP of Training & Services at Opscode where he formalized the training, evangelism, and professional services functions at the firm. Willis also founded Gulf Breeze Software, an award winning IBM business partner, which specializes in deploying Tivoli technology for the enterprise. Willis has authored six IBM Redbooks for IBM on enterprise systems management and was the founder and chief architect at Chain Bridge Systems.

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