Your Team Is Smoldering

Your Team Is Smoldering

Today marks 4 months living in the shadow of this pandemic. I know it’s been much longer for many people, but March 13th is when I started counting. It’s the day I started keeping my Coronavirus Journal. It’s the day schools in Virginia closed statewide, ostensibly a temporary measure, though I and many others expected it to be indefinite.

It marked the end of a week, Friday the 13th, where the virus went from something abstract, out there, to something real, right here in my community. At the start of that week, members of our team attended an in-person Data Science Summit in Richmond; by the end of the week, restaurants were closing, and the NCAA had canceled March Madness. The NBA and NHL started canceling games. The virus became impossible to ignore.

So let’s use that as an imperfect starting point. We’ve all been living in this bizarro world for ⅓ of a year, a whole season of life and then some.

How are we doing?

Not well, I think. Not well and getting worse. In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed a marked downturn in spirits.

At first I thought it was just me and my social circle, but increasingly, I feel a wave cresting in the distance and want to shout whatever meager warning I can – before it crashes down around us.

What am I seeing?

Before you read my notes, remember that this could be simple confirmation bias highlighting anecdata. As with everything you read on the internet, be skeptical.

I first started noticing something different in a conversation with an old friend. He’s one of the most mentally stable people I know. When I checked in with him in late May, he was fine, getting by, dealing with all the things we’re all dealing with but okay in general. When I checked in with him recently, he sounded utterly exhausted and verging on despair, especially about his kids.

“Al, I don’t know what I’m going to do if schools don’t reopen in the fall.”

I know many people are struggling and have been for a long time, but this is an educated, highly-compensated, extremely-grounded individual. He has access to resources unavailable to most of the country. If he’s struggling, I fear what that means for the rest of us.

That got my attention, and I started noticing other signs that people are reaching a breaking point.

  • Discussions in our team about caffeine turned into a group sharing session on tips for managing anxiety and burnout.
  • Discussions with an HR director of a large nonprofit revealed a recent major uptick in people threatening to quit, lodging complaints, a rise in stress overall.
  • Discussions with a peer-group of CTOs highlighted a rise in both absenteeism and workaholism, and personnel issues across the board.
  • Discussions with friends in other industries showed me this mental health crisis is affecting everyone.

I think Camille Fournier is right. We are smoldering, burning out, hitting a wall, about to lose it, pick your metaphor.

At work, your team is smoldering. At home, your family is smoldering. Your friends are smoldering. Everyone you know and love and care about is smoldering. As a nation, we are smoldering.

By smoldering, I mean we are on the edge of burnout. We have used up our reservoirs of resilience, our ability to take setbacks and keep trucking. Some parts of our society have already crossed that threshold. For a deep dive on one of the hardest hit segments, read Ed Yong’s great piece on burnout in public health experts.

Why is this happening?

Why are people losing their resilience now? What changed?

I don’t know for certain, but a few patterns emerged from my discussions:

  • Things are looking worse with the pandemic. By some measures, we just had the worst week since it started. Florida just set the record for daily infections, even higher than NYC at its peak. This not only adds to an overall sense of despair; it also makes it harder to ignore than when things felt stable or at least trending in a good direction.
  • Another big source of despair is that it’s looking more certain that schools will not fully reopen in the fall. This is a huge problem for parents of young children, which includes me and most of my closest friends. We were able to muddle through in the spring, and we can make it for the summer. But we can’t muddle through the same way for the whole next school year.
  • I think not knowing how long it will last is the main source of hopelessness and anxiety. As the cases continue to rise and our federal and local governments still seem incapable of mounting a competent response, we are forced to face reality.

This isn’t something we can just power through and recuperate on the other side. This is our life for the foreseeable future. We need to figure out how to make it sustainable.

What can we do?

Now that I have you sufficiently despondent, here’s the part of the post where I’m supposed to offer you some hope and maybe sell you my miracle solution ebook. Unfortunately, these are big, complicated problems, and I don’t think there are easy answers.

I certainly don’t have great answers. But I can share some simple things we’re trying.

  1. Acknowledge what’s happening. Acknowledge that this is hard. Discuss it as openly as you and your team are comfortable. Just knowing other people are struggling can help.
  2. Let work be an escape. As much as it can help to share the struggle, it’s also helpful to have a place where you can not think about the pandemic. An easy step we took was to create a separate Slack channel to discuss things about the virus. The goal is to keep most of it out of the main team channel to let people opt-in to that discussion when they want to or opt-out if they want to have a mental break.
  3. Speaking of work as a refuge, we also try to be mindful that people shouldn’t work too much. It can be tempting to retreat into work as something you can control. It’s good to reaffirm team norms and remind people that it’s not healthy to work extra hours unless truly needed. A friend who’s an IT leader at a large enterprise told me they are looking at putting in limits to restrict access to email and Slack after hours and on weekends, except for the on-call team, to combat this overworking tendency they’re seeing lately. That solution has some problems, e.g., decreasing flexibility of work schedules, but it’s telling that they are noticing a problem and are actively thinking of solutions.
  4. Encourage vacation. A big one for us is simply reminding people that vacation doesn’t necessarily mean traveling somewhere. It’s just taking time off of work to recharge and rest. On top of that, a lot of companies have had a rough few months. So teams might feel uncomfortable asking for time off now. If your company is doing okay, it’s important to tell the team that, tell them now is a good time to take vacation. Even better, have the leadership team publicly model that. One easy thing we do at Simple Thread is we make PTO visible in a shared calendar and in Slack. That helps normalize it a bit, especially in a remote team where it’s not always obvious who’s “in the office” or not.
  5. Be transparent. You can’t always tell everyone everything that’s happening in a company, but as much as possible, it helps. It helps the team to know how the company is doing. It helps to know at least this one little corner of the world is stable and secure.
  6. Be empathetic. This last one goes for every setting, not just work. Everyone is having a hard time now. Read emails with the kindest possible interpretation. Remember people might be having a bad day. Give folks a break.

The world smolders. Yet we have to keep going. We have to keep working. We have to keep taking care of our families. We have to keep taking care of ourselves.

What can you do?

One of the best things I’ve done during these pandemic times is simply give myself permission to prioritize my mental health.

There’s always a client asking for something to be done. There’s always a project I’m behind on. There’s always housework that could be done. There’s always more attention I should be giving my wife and daughter, more support I can be providing friends, more preparation I can be doing, more things to worry about.

There’s always something I should be doing that feels more urgent than taking care of myself.

I bet your life is equally busy. It’s okay to prioritize getting a good night’s sleep. Or getting exercise. Or meditating. Or preparing a healthy meal. Or whatever helps you recharge a bit and keep going.

If you are feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, know that you are not alone. As I discussed this topic with more people in prep for writing this post, I realized everyone is feeling exhausted to some degree. Life under pandemic has everyone smoldering towards burnout.

If you haven’t internalized it yet, now is the time to accept that this situation we’re living in is a marathon, not a sprint. You can’t just keep pushing yourself harder. Now is the time to give yourself a break and plan how you’re going to stay as healthy as possible, how you’re going to keep the smolder from erupting into a full blaze.

As confident as I am that everyone is feeling overwhelmed these days, I am equally confident that we can get through this together.

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