Don’t Be a Hero: My Experience with Burnout

Don’t Be a Hero: My Experience with Burnout

Burnout is an issue which is becoming more widely recognised and discussed within the technology industry. The more I have spoken to colleagues openly about this topic, the more I am surprised how common the experience is. A recent statistic identified that a shocking 57% of technology workers suffer from burnout.

Earlier this year, I gave a presentation titled ‘Don’t be a Superhero’ during the the Ministry of Testing’s conference, TestBash Brighton. During my presentation I discussed my own experiences with burnout, how I recovered and what individuals and employers can do to prevent experiencing something similar.

Burnout Talk

If you would like to watch the full presentation, then you can sign-up for a free Ministry of Testing Dojo account and find the video here.

The following is a summary of that talk.

Background

I began my software testing career in January 2014 as a Games Tester. Since I started that particular role with no prior technology experience, I had a deep desire to improve my skills and prove myself.

I moved into my first Agile testing role in May 2016 and began to learn how to code. I knew I was entering the role at a fairly junior level, but I wanted to keep growing my career and began to push myself harder and harder in order to do so. It was this and wanting to improve my testing skills, that eventually led to me burning out.

How did I fall into the burnout trap?

Over time, I used to love being the go to person when a critical situation arose in our production environment. Working late was something I enjoyed doing because it meant I was saving the day. Having people treat me as a fountain of knowledge on the area I was working on was addictive. In hindsight, I simply cared too much about what my colleagues thought of me and compared myself to them.

I wasn’t just focusing my ‘free time’ on work projects, I was self-learning and wanted to learn new technologies, programming languages and skills that would make me a better tester – time I should have spent unwinding and resting. But instead of resting, I was watching YouTube tutorials on the latest technology trends.

Slowly, I began to realise the impact of the hero role I had forged for myself. I became sick of being the hero in the team, but still had managers approaching my desk at 5pm to tell me something in production was on fire. My holidays were routinely interrupted by colleagues asking me how to technical questions. I was even once asked to work on something critical on the same day I had phoned in sick.

As a result, the quality of my work also suffered. I found that even when I was working on a new project, people involved in the previous project were frequently asking me questions. I hadn’t shared my knowledge with anyone else as I was preoccupied with putting out fires and not preventing them.

What was burnout like for me? 

I was stressed. I never felt at ease at work as I felt I had too much work to do and not enough time to complete it. All of the work I had committed to in my ‘hero’ role came to a head at the same time and I began to feel overwhelmed.

I used to be extremely enthusiastic and passionate about my work, but at the point of burning out I couldn’t care less about the work I was doing. Every day, I was simply going through the motions.

My work relationships also suffered. I had previously made a lot of effort to form good working relationships with people in my team, but due to burnout and demotivation I was turning down offers of collaboration indiscriminately.

One of the worst symptoms was physical as well as mental deterioration. I was finding it difficult to sleep some nights because I was worried about how demotivated I was at work. I was no longer performing as well as I should’ve been because I was fatigued. 

Burnout Talk

How did I recover?

It wasn’t until I read a blog I found on Twitter that I realised I was suffering from burnout. It was here that I began to take some actions to improve my work-life balance. Here are three recommendations I hope you takeaway:

  1. Learn to say no

The first thing I did was to learn to say “no” to any excess work which was coming my way. This was a difficult thing to do as my managers were used to me taking on every piece of work, but they mostly understood why I was saying no.

  1. Go back to normal working hours & mute notifications

For the most part, I also stuck to my normal working hours. In our industry, overtime can be a common occurrence. I learned to question the need to do overtime when I didn’t believe it was necessary so that I was working a reasonable number of hours each week.

I also muted Slack and work email notifications on my phone outside of working hours. Having these apps active all the time can really blur the lines between personal and work life. Please don’t be the person whose downtime is on the couch watching TV but also replying to a work email at the same time – it doesn’t help anyone in the long run. 

  1. Prioritise & realistically plan workload

Learning to delegate and share knowledge on a daily basis was difficult but incredibly important. It allowed me to plan my workload, knowing the critical tasks I personally had to tackle each day.

Planning my workload now included any study and research outside of working hours too. I was able to be realistic when it came to setting targets for learning and development.

*****

I’m now fortunate enough to be on the other side of my burnout experience and have found ways of addressing my work/life balance for the better.

A large part of this is that my current employer, ECS Digital, actively plan catch-up weeks once a month. This ensures I have the time and flexibility to upskill and explore new technologies within my contracted hours.

Having the support of a talented team when learning new skills is also extremely important. I don’t feel as if I am learning in isolation as the team is always available to collaborate with me on solving problems.

Why businesses need to take note

According to a recent Kronos study, one of the top causes of burnout in 2017 was unfair compensation packages that lend themselves to employees working too much overtime and having an unreasonable workload. The same survey reported that 46% of HR leaders believed employee burnout was responsible for up to 50% of their annual workforce turnover.

Another aspect is that organisations frequently reward hero behaviour but fail to recognise the consistently good work of their employees who can achieve a high standard of work within their nine ‘til five.

At a time where businesses are struggling with the IT skills shortage and employee engagement is a competitive advantage, businesses can’t afford to ignore burnout within their teams. In the words of Charlie DeWitt, Managing Director of ANZSEA at Kronos:

“Employee burnout has reached epidemic proportions. While many organisations take steps to manage employee fatigue, there are far fewer efforts to proactively manage burnout. Not only can employee burnout sap productivity and fuel absenteeism, it will undermine engagement and cause an organisation’s top performers to leave the business altogether. This creates a never-ending cycle of disruption that makes it difficult to build the high-performing workforce needed to compete in today’s business environment.

Organisations should seek out and implement technology solutions that provide a proactive approach to mitigating burnout, such as the scheduling of rest during rolling periods as long as a year. Workforce analytics can also identify and alert managers to trends in scheduling and absenteeism that may indicate an employee is on the path to burnout so changes can be made.”

Lessons Learned

Since I began to become more aware of my burnout symptoms I have achieved a greater work-life balance and now take a lot more time to relax. I take more time to spend with friends and family. My stress levels have reduced as I don’t work nearly as much as I used to and the self-learning that I now do is something that I’m truly passionate about.

The main thing I took away from the experience is that whilst enjoying what you do at work is extremely important, nothing happens in a vacuum and there are a lot of things in life more important than your career.

Just released!

To see the talk that inspired the blog, head to Ministry of Testing’s website for Ali Hill’s presentation on burn out at this year’s TestBash, Brighton here.

About the author:

Ali Hill is a passionate and motivated software tester at ECS Digital with a specific interest in improving teams’ processes to assist them in delivering quality software. Not only a test consultant, Ali is also heavily involved in the testing and tech community through my co-organising of Edinburgh Ministry of Testing Meetup and public speaking at various conferences – including a recent visit to the Nordic Testing Days conference.

Ali HillDon’t Be a Hero: My Experience with Burnout
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Top 5 takeaways from Nordic Testing Days 2019

Top 5 takeaways from Nordic Testing Days 2019

Nordic Testing Days is the leading testing conference in the Nordic region, held in Tallinn Estonia. This year, our very own Continuous Testing & Delivery Consultant, Ali Hill was one of the speakers. Here’s his take on the experience:

The conference took place on May 30th–31st 2019 (and May 29th if you took part in the tutorial day). It was a truly great experience to both speak and attend over the two days. Here’s what happened:

Speaking Experience

Having arrived in Estonia on the afternoon of May 29th – and having spent a couple of hours exploring the beautiful city of Tallinn – it was time for The Speakers Dinner. The evening started with drinks by the sea before we were surprised with dinner on a boat as we sailed up and down Tallinn’s coastline.

This dinner really characterised how Nordic Testing Days look after their speakers. If you are accepted to speak, then travel costs and two nights accommodation are covered by the conference. The organisers and volunteers were great at replying to any questions I had in the lead up to the event and I truly felt valued as a speaker.

The stage, mic and presentation equipment all made life very easy and the attendees were engaged and asked some really thought-provoking questions.

My talk was titled ‘Let’s Share the Testing’ and focused on a journey I went on with my previous Agile team – after we identified testing was a bottleneck in our attempts to continuously deliver software. I discussed how we removed the testing bottleneck by collaborating on the testing effort, and how sharing testing knowledge improved productivity and communication within the team. I also shared my ideas on how to involve non-test specialists in testing activities in the hope these help others in their own projects!

Ali Hill Nordic Testing

Conference Sessions & Key Lessons

 The conference format provided plenty of variety. Each day started and ended with a keynote attended by all delegates. In between the keynotes were two parallel talk tracks or a longer workshop.

As the name suggests, Nordic Testing Days is primarily a conference about testing and attended by software testers, but not all of the sessions focused on this and there were presenters and attendees from a whole range of disciplines present at the event.

Key Lessons from the Conference

Below are five key sessions/takeaways from across the two days of the conference, in no particular order: 

  1. Don’t Take It Personally

One of the most valuable sessions I attended was delivered by Bailey Hanna whose workshop title was aptly named ‘Don’t Take it Personally’ taught me how to turn potentially negative comments into a positive conversation. The workshop covered a number of linguistic behaviours which may be exhibited by a person acting negatively. We practiced in groups by exhibiting these negative behaviours and turning the conversation into a positive one during this session. As well as teaching me how to handle these situations it also led me to reflect on how I should provide feedback to colleagues. 

  1. Ask Questions About Accessibility

Ady Stokes’ presentation on Accessibility was really interesting. Accessibility is, unfortunately, not an area I have spent much time focusing on in my career. Ady dispelled the myth that developing with accessibility in mind only benefits those with disabilities. He showed us a graphic which is part of this Inclusive Design Blog and highlights the difference between permanent, temporary and situational accessibility issues.

My main takeaway was that it’s important for all members of the development team to ask questions about accessibility, and get the conversation started in their workplace.

  1. STRIDE, Elevation of Privilege, Threat Modelling…

Gwen Diagram’s energetic presentation – ‘Security by Stealth’ – was a late addition to the conference schedule, but an extremely valuable one. It covered two main themes:

  • How to organise well-attended workshops in your workplace (hint: provide food!)
  • The tools Gwen used to get her teams interested in developing with security in mind.

Gwen’s workshops used models such as STRIDE, activities such as Elevation of Privilege and Threat Modelling and tools such as OWASP Juice Shop and ZAP.

Like accessibility, security is an area I haven’t explored in any great depth. All of the terms I’ve used above are areas I’m now interested in learning more about.

  1. Explain Exploratory Testing

Alex Schladebeck kicked off day two of the conference with an excellent Keynote called ‘Why Should Exploratory Testing Even be the Subject of a Keynote?’. It’s an interesting title, but Alex explained why she believed exploratory testing is important (potentially the most important activity testers perform), and why testers need to be better at explaining what it is we’re doing when we’re exploring our products.

Alex stated that testers often talk about ‘intuition’ and ‘experience’ when it comes to finding bugs, but this isn’t useful in explaining what we are doing to developers or other members of our team. My main takeaway from this talk was that I need to pair and mob more with my team and explain what it is I’m looking for when I’m exploring the system under test. 

Exploratory Testing

  1. Cynefin

Towards the end of the second day (actually immediately after my talk) was Lucian Adrian presenting ‘Choose your Test Approach with Cynefin Help’. Cynefin is something I’ve seen come up quite frequently on Twitter and in blogs but not something I’m overly familiar with. Lucian did a great job of introducing Cynefinas a sense making framework consisting of five domains: obvious, complicated, complex, chaotic and disorder – and how he uses this framework to create his test strategies.

I still find Cynefin difficult to fully understand, but it’s something I want to explore more and I’ll definitely be watching Lucian’s talk back when the recordings are made available. 

Post-Conference Activities

As well as a dinner for speakers, there was also a dinner and party after the first day for all speakers and attendees.

An area of the venue was transformed into a dancefloor, but there were also lightning talks and Powerpoint Karaoke for those who preferred a quieter night. If you’re ever at a conference that does Powerpoint Karaoke then I’d highly recommend attending. It’s extremely entertaining watching brave volunteers try to make random slides tie into a topic they have been provided at random.

After 10pm, those who wanted to continue the party could head into Tallinn’s Old Town until the small hours.

Venue

I couldn’t write about Nordic Testing Days without mentioning Kultuurikatel, the venue itself…

It was a power plant in its previous life but has been repurposed into an event centre. It was the perfect size for the 500+ attendees to the conference and was only a five-minute walk from Tallinn’s Old Town.

There were two fantastic presentation rooms and a number of smaller areas for workshops and tutorials. There was also plenty of space to network during the breaks and a nice area outside to sit in the sun.

I think any conference would struggle to get a venue as great as this one.

Concluding thoughts

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Nordic Testing Days and highly recommend the event for anyone in the testing and developing space. It was great to meet so many other testers from around the world and discuss challenges we are facing and solutions that we have created.

I’ve got plenty to reflect on over the coming weeks and I look forward to applying some of what I’ve learned in my day to day work.

Keep an eye on the Nordic Testing Days YouTube channel where the recordings of all talks will shortly be made available.

Nordic Testing Days

Ali HillTop 5 takeaways from Nordic Testing Days 2019
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