Recognizing and Handling Burnout

This post was originally published at the Taos Consulting blog on April 2nd, 2015.

Burnout is something most people in the tech industry are intimately familiar with, but it’s a topic not often discussed publicly. Many people I speak to about it even share a sense of guilt over feeling burned out. “If my coworkers are able to handle their work fine, then I must be doing something wrong”, they say. Managers are often in the same boat, when it comes to burnt-out employees: “They just can’t handle our pace.”

I believe both perspectives have a misunderstanding of what burnout is and how to handle it, something I hope to clear up for both.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a state resulting from prolonged stress. There’s no single cause of burnout, but rather, burnout has many contributing factors. Contrary to common beliefs, long hours is not a clear indicator of impending burnout (though it *may* contribute).

How do I know if I’m/my staff are, or at risk, of burnout?

Spotting the symptoms early is crucial. Some common symptoms:

  • Has your sleep quality become worse than it used to be?
  • Have you stopped enjoying your hobbies, or ceased doing them altogether?
  • Are you often irritable and upset, either with coworkers or friends/family?
  • Do you no longer enjoy your work?
  • Has your productivity at work decreased for no apparent reason?

What can I do about it?

As someone experiencing burnout, it is important to find the contributing factors of burnout:

  • Are they internal: Are you choosing to work more, instead of enjoying your hobbies?
  • Are they external: Is your work environment causing you stress? Do you dislike the work you’re doing?

Once you’ve found the factors contributing to burnout, you can more effectively take measures to combat it, whether it’s working less hours in order to enjoy hobbies, taking a vacation, or moving on to a new role or job.

As a manager, spotting burnout in your employees is just as important: burnt-out employees are less productive, unhappy, and far more likely to leave the company. Checking in with your employees on how they’re feeling is vital to spotting burnout early. Be sure to really listen, because your people may not say it directly, but instead may use phrases like, “I’m bored” (which, over time, will lead to burnout).

The most important thing about burnout

The absolute most important thing about burnout is that it’s extremely common. Many, many people experience burnout at some point in their career, or know someone who has. The tech industry is notorious for long hours, frenetic environments, and last-minute fire-fighting, all of which contributes to employee burnout. We, the industry, need to talk about burnout more openly, and acknowledging that there is no shame or guilt in it. Once we’re having more open and honest conversations about it, we all can start to more effectively combat it.

Starting, Building, and Running a LOPSA Chapter

Overview

This document is composed of documents the LOPSA-ETENN leaders have written to govern how we run our chapter, as well as explanations of why we chose to do things a particular way, other options considered, etc. Essentially, this is a brain dump of everything that has gone into making LOPSA-ETENN a successful chapter.

I would like to note that what follows is what has worked for us, and may not work for every chapter.

 

What makes me qualified to speak on this topic?

I’m Mike Julian, and I’m the president and one of three founders of the LOPSA-ETENN chapter. ETENN’s very first meeting, in June 2012, had 18 people. We have not had a meeting with attendance that low since.

For the first year (June ’12 to May ’13), we averaged 29 people. We are averaging 34 people for the second year (June ’13 to November ’13) so far. We have an all-time (June ’12 to November ’13) average of 31 attendees.

My scheduled speakers are booked for the next six months, and that is with turning people down (I rarely have to ask people to speak—they usually offer).

I had two sponsors covering everything from the very first meeting, and have to turn away sponsors for lack of things for them to provide.

From my knowledge, this makes LOPSA-ETENN the largest and most successful chapter in LOPSA history (feel free to correct me!)

ETENN Attendance - 6-12 to 11-13

 

Starting LOPSA-ETENN

 

Background

Jesse Trucks (founder of the original LOPSA Madison chapter) and I began planning LOPSA-ETENN in March 2012. We decided at the outset to get six months worth of speakers lined up before scheduling our first meeting. The reason for this came from Jesse’s experience with Madison: be consistent, and plan ahead.

We committed to meeting at the same venue, at the same time every month, as well as always keeping a six to eight month buffer of scheduled speakers. The reason for this is that it instills confidence in attendees and sponsors. You want your chapter to be stable, and always looking for a last-minute speaker is the very antithesis of stability.

 

Finding our first six speakers

Our first six speakers were found at Jesse’s employer, a large and well-known company in Knoxville with plenty of sysadmins. This allowed us to quickly get our six speakers signed up.

 

Announcement

Once we had our six speakers, we announced the chapter via lopsa-discuss and on Reddit (/r/sysadmin and /r/Knoxville). The announcement via Reddit turned out to provide the bulk of our first meeting’s attendance. Many of the original attendees were people neither of us knew.

 

Sponsors

While sponsors weren’t required for the first meeting, I was lucky enough to know two IT recruiters at the largest recruiting agencies in town, and approached them about sponsoring LOPSA-ETENN. Both companies offered to provide food and drinks, alternating each month.

 

The first meeting

At the first meeting, we explained LOPSA, the general idea behind chapters, and then asked our attendees two questions. The two questions (and our adherence to them), in hindsight, are the one of the biggest reasons for ETENN’s success.

First, we asked, “This is your chapter. What topics would you like to hear?” We had someone write down every idea mentioned. If an idea was especially popular, we made note of that.

Second, we asked, “So who wants to talk?” This became the source of many presentations over the next year.

In essence, we made it clear to the chapter attendees that the chapter belonged to them. Whatever they wanted to hear about, they would, but it would be up to them to present.

I have found that many chapter leaders tend to think that attendees would shy away from presenting, but we have found it to be exactly opposite that.

 

LOPSA-ETENN Operation and Growth

 

LOPSA-ETENN Strategy Document

The document needs a little explanation for the thought behind it: we decided that ETENN’s purpose was to build local community. The strategy we decided to use is based on events (think “year-round hallway track”). These decisions directly guide every other decision we make, including seemingly simple things, such as the time of our meetings and the venue we use. A great example of how this plays out is the format of our meetings: a chapter meeting is scheduled for three hours, only one of which is for the speaker, because our primary purpose is community-building, not education.

Chapter Purpose: To grow and foster community among IT workers in East TN.

Strategy: Build community through regular events.

Tactics (marketing/outreach)

  • Unsolved problem: How to reach SMB workers?
  • Offline Venues
    • Personal connections at the major local companies (solves reaching enterprise people)
      • UTK
      • ORNL
      • Scripps
      • Pilot
      • Regal
      • Ruby Tuesday
    • Recruiters (ask them to advertise for us via social media)
    • Flyers and drop cards to leave places/with people
  • Online Venues
    • /r/sysadmin & /r/Knoxville (we have had significant success with these alone)
    • Mailing list (Mailchimp) (used only for keeping in touch with members)
    • Social media (we have not had any success with these)
    • Meetup (no success with this)
  • Events (events we are actively doing)
    • Monthly chapter meetings
    • Sysadmin Appreciation Day
  • Event Ideas
    • High Tech Happy Hour (a la http://www.hthh.org/)
    • University career workshops
    • East TN Usergroup Picnic
  • Create a feedback loop
    • How are the topics?
    • How are the speakers?
    • How is the format?
    • How is the venue?
    • How is the time?
    • How are the sponsors?
    • How can we improve?

LOPSA-ETENN Operational Guide

This document explains how we run LOPSA-ETENN. I wrote this so that all three of us running LOPSA-ETENN were on the same page about how we run the chapter.

Speakers

Recruit speakers from among the attendees. If you go outside the attendee base, make sure it’s an incredibly unique speaker. We want to foster the feeling that the chapter attendees own the chapter.

 

Try not to have two similar topics back to back (e.g., no Linux topics twice in a row). Keep the topics vastly different. For example, if you have a Linux topic in January, do a Windows talk next, or security, or career, etc.

 

Prefer to do overview talks instead of deep-dive, unless the deep-dive is beneficial to a large majority of people. For example, a deep dive into HPC would be interesting to only a small subset of people, while an intro to HPC would be interesting to everyone.

 

Prefer to give new speakers a chance. LOPSA-ETENN is a low-key environment and great for new speakers to start out.

 

Announcements

Pre-meeting announcements are done on the Thursday before the Tuesday meeting. I originally was doing them one week before, but found no difference in attendance between doing them a week before versus a few days before. The reasoning for Thursday is to allow people to see the announcement both at work on Thursday/Friday/Monday and over the weekend.

 

Announcements are made to /r/sysadmin, /r/Knoxville, and then LOPSA-ETENN’s Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Facebook, and an email to (internal company contacts; names redacted). Also send an announcement out via LOPSA-ETENN’s Mailchimp (we aren’t using the listserv to do announcements anymore–we get more benefit from using Mailchimp, and the listserv has never been used for discussion).

 

Marketing & Growth

See the LOPSA-ETENN strategy document.

 

Sponsorships

My strategy for sponsorships has been to skew the meeting heavily to the attendees’ benefit. I don’t let sponsors speak or even address the group. We work with TEKsystems (name redacted) and Premier Staffing Partners (name redacted). Occasionally (redacted) will show up to raffle off a training voucher. Café 4 (name redacted) provides us with meeting space (free for the public) and a carafe of coffee (this is the sponsorship bit–we have to provide cups/cream/etc). Cafe 4 charges us $25/meeting for facility fee (bringing up extra chairs and taking them back down).

 

To expand sponsorships, think strategically: what organizations would create a mutually beneficial relationship? See the sponsorship document for some insight into how sponsors think. Also see the Potential Sponsors document for thoughts on whom to approach.

 

Governance & Organization

We have three officer positions, though they are not elected positions. I, personally, do not feel they provide any value to LOPSA-ETENN, though in their current mode of operation, they don’t hurt either. It’s much more important that it’s the same people always “in charge”, as it provides leadership and gives confidence to attendees and sponsors that we know what we’re doing and are stable.

 

This is how we divide duties:

 

President – Recruit speakers, sponsors, and handle logistics

Vice President – The “talking head”. Handle all announcements at the meetings (intro/close).

Secretary – Assists president in duties

Insight into sponsorships

I asked ETENN’s two sponsors about why they sponsor the chapter. The responses shed incredible insight on how sponsors see your user group, and specifically, IT recruiting agencies.

The questions I asked:

1) Why do you (both specifically and in generally, as recruiting agencies) sponsor LOPSA-ETENN and other user groups? What value do you get from them?

2) How can a user group foster a stronger relationship with their sponsors?

3) How best can a new user group approach a company like yours for sponsorship?

The responses:

1. We sponsor user groups for several different reasons. One is to help get our name out in the community and make people aware of TEKsystems and what we can do for them. We also use it as an avenue for networking. Personally, I like attending for the networking, but also to help with my knowledge of IT.

 

2. As far as ways to foster a stronger relationship, I think finding ways to keep sponsors involved by finding ways we can participate.

 

3. I think the best way is to do it the way you have, leverage the relationships that you already have. All it took for us to get involved was (name redacted) telling me about it and inviting me to your meeting.

1. We sponsor user groups for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it is a great way to network, meet new people and cultivate existing relationships. Many people are not actively looking for new employment, but are passively open to new opportunities, so it is mutually beneficial to maintain a relationship with a recruiter, even when you are not actively seeking a new job. We can be an eye in the marketplace in case that golden opportunity arises that might interest the individual, and in turn, when opportunities arise or someone’s situation suddenly changes, we can move much more quickly if we already know each other. In addition, as you’ve noticed, many people spend extensive time in one job and have little to no awareness of the market, interviewing, resumes, etc. We can be a resource for those types of questions. Getting involved in the community gains exposure for both our companies and ourselves, but also builds credibility for candidates when they begin looking for work. Many clients seek out candidates who are involved in the community and actively participate and technology groups, as it shows great initiative and a passion for what they do. Another reason is that the more we understand about what our candidates do from a technical standpoint, the better we are at matching the right skill set to the right position. You guys are a resource for us to learn and ask questions. I could go on and on about the benefits!

 

2. Allowing us to attend and participate is huge in itself. I specifically love that ETENN has an hour before the meeting just to mingle and eat. That is prime time for us to build individual relationships. If the meeting doesn’t allow enough time for that, we are merely providing the food and showing our logo. We thrive on the opportunity to talk to people. ETENN does a fantastic job of affording us that opportunity.

 

3. A new user group should probably seek out local firms with local people (try searching Technical Recruiter on Linkedin if you don’t know of any off hand). Call them up and explain that you are starting a new group and your intentions with the group, and let them know you are seeking sponsors. You need to decide ahead of time how you want to handle sponsors, as we have several companies in Knoxville that like to sponsor. Some groups prefer just having one sponsor, some have only a few like ETENN and just swap months, others take volunteers ahead of time much like you schedule out speakers, with no specific schedule, just giving anyone an opportunity to sponsor. Getting an idea of who would be interested in sponsoring can help you determine what would be best for your group. We have been fortunate with ETENN that the group is consistent, but most groups are not, so it is very helpful to the sponsor to have an RSVP so they know how many to plan for. You also need to make sure the sponsor will have someone available to attend if it is an evening meeting versus something over lunch.

FAQ

I’m a vocal advocate for chapters and user groups, so I often get asked a lot of questions about them. Here are the most common questions and my answers.

 

What does a chapter do? Why should I start one?

A chapter, in my opinion, should exist entirely for building local community. Why should you do that? It’s a fantastic way to meet really interesting people. Many of my chapter attendees have both been hired or found an employee through the chapter, which is always cool. New ideas have sprouted from casual conversations, and attendees have found help on hard problems they’re facing at work.

 

What’s the format of chapter meetings?

Many formats exist, and it really comes down to what is interesting to your attendees. Every chapter meets on a regular basis (most are monthly). The format differs in some ways in each chapter: scheduled speakers, data center tours, roundtable discussions, lightning talks, and anything else you can think of. A good place to start is with scheduled speakers, as it’s the easiest to plan and manage.

 

How much time will I need to spend on it?

That depends on how involved you want to be. Generally speaking, the more thought and time you put into your chapter, the more successful it will be. That said, the average tends to be around 3-5 hours a month.

 

What does a chapter leader do?

As the chapter leader, you will be responsible for scheduling meetings, finding sponsors, finding venues, and getting the word out about your meeting. This sounds like a lot of work, and in the beginning it is, but as your chapter becomes more established, it gets much easier.

 

Do I need officers, bylaws, and elections?

Absolutely not! Some chapters choose to have them, while others do not. I would recommend to not build too much organizational structure into the chapter in the beginning. Excessive structure will be off-putting to attendees. You want your chapter meetings to be a very casual, relaxing, and inviting place.

 

Do I need to collect dues from my attendees?

You do not, though you can. I would recommend to not, however, as it’s usually unnecessary. There are sponsors in your city clamoring to give your chapter support, so there’s really no need to collect dues. If you collect dues, you will need somewhere to hold the money. I recommend talking to the LOPSA Locals Committee about it, if you want to collect dues.

 

Am I required to be a member to start a LOPSA chapter?

The current LOPSA Locals Policy says your leaders must be LOPSA members in good standing.

 

Do my chapter attendees need to be LOPSA members?

Your chapter attendees do not need to be LOPSA members. As a huge supporter of LOPSA, I do talk to the chapter about the organization and encourage everyone to join. A large part of my chapter attendees are not LOPSA members.

 

Where can I find a venue?

Libraries and conference rooms of local companies make excellent meeting locations. Restaurants and bars make poor meeting locations, due to noise and distraction. Often, attendees will go out for drinks or dinner following a meeting, so we encourage you to plan your venue location accordingly. Venue selection is perhaps one of the more important aspects of building a chapter. As they say, “Location, location, location”. A big success factor for LOPSA-ETENN is that our meeting location is walking distance to a great pub.

 

Do I need a cofounder?

I highly encourage you to find a cofounder. It’s been my experience that chapters with only one person running everything tend to slowly die. With two leaders, you can split the work required, and should one leader have a change in life circumstances and no longer able to lead the chapter, the chapter does not fail as a result.

 

Where do I find speakers?

When first starting out, ask your colleagues, just to get bootstrapped for the first few meetings. At your first meeting, ask for volunteers to speak.

 

How do I get started?

Talk to the LOPSA Locals Committee, as they will be able to help in this. In general, though:

  1. Find a cofounder.
  2. Find a venue.
  3. Find speakers. I recommend at least six months worth of speakers when starting out.
  4. Get the word out about your first meeting

 

A More General Look at LOPSA Elections

While I was doing the number crunching for my previous post, I collected a few other numbers and decided to visualize them.

Here’s ballots cast, grouped by election year.

Ballots Cast

 

2005, the first year of LOPSA, was the best. 2009 was unusually low. The average participation is 135 votes, though the two min and max values skew the mean a bit.

 

 

Candidates and seats available on one graph:

Candidates & Seats

 

LOPSA consistently has only one more candidate than there are seats. What this means is that if you run for Board of Directors, you have a non-insignificant chance of winning a seat. This is bad.

 

Number of votes needed to win:

Votes Needed to Win

 

As you can see, this is actually quite a low number.

Ballot analysis on the past three LOPSA elections

My project for today was to do a bit of time series analysis on LOPSA election data. I was only able to obtain the timestamped data for 2011, 2012, and 2013, so it’s not quite as expansive as I would like. However, some interesting results were still to be had.

I had two questions of the data:

1) What impact did an announcement/reminder have on voter turnout?

2) Are there particular times of day that people are more likely to vote?

 

Digging In

To start off, the raw data looked like this:

2013-06-01 16:04:56
2013-06-01 18:09:21
2013-06-02 00:59:58
2013-06-02 04:03:41
2013-06-02 06:06:08
2013-06-02 09:10:34
2013-06-02 13:57:09

I decided that Excel was the easiest and most effective tool for the job. First, I needed to separate the dates from the times in order to answer my two questions. Some Excel magic solved this nicely:

To get just the date:

=LEFT(<TIMESTAMP ENTRY>,10)

This gave me ten characters, starting from the left, which is just the date portion.

To get the time:

=RIGHT(<TIMESTAMP ENTRY>,8)

Same as above, but coming from the right, and only eight characters. I set the format to 24 hour, for ease of use.

I now had two columns with one piece of data in each, allowing for easier manipulation.

The date was still in MySQL format, but I needed it in a native Excel format:

=TEXT(<DATE ENTRY>,”m/d/yy”)

Now my date was nicely cleaned up. Let’s get back to the time entries.

The time entries are down to the second, which I don’t need. In fact, for my purposes, I only need the time in hourly increments, so I rounded the time to the nearest hour:

=TIME(HOUR(<TIME ENTRY>),MROUND(MINUTE(<TIME ENTRY>),”60″),0)

Awesome. Again, I set this to 24 hour format.

Next, I needed to create bins for my two data sets. Bins are just “buckets”, or intervals.

For date, since I know that the elections only went from 6-1 to 6-15, I created a list of those dates.

For times, I creatde a list of times in 24 hour format, from 00:00 to 23:00.

Now to count the frequencies.

I have the list of dates in column D and my list of times in column F.

Date bins are in column G and time bins in column H.

In column I, I selected one more cell than I had bins (eg, I have 15 voting days, so I selected 16 cells). I then used this formula:

=FREQUENCY(D2:D146,G2:G16)

Hit CMD+Enter (on a Mac) to create an array. Result is a list of hits for each bin, with a zero in the last one. Repeat for time bins.

Then it was a simple matter to create the graphs (I used a clustered column graph).

The Results

The results were pretty interesting.

Here’s 2011 through 2013, votes grouped by day. (click images to enlarge)

LOPSA 2011 Election - Votes by day

 

LOPSA 2012 Election - Votes by day

 

LOPSA 2013 Election - Votes by day

 

In order to get something useful from this, I went through my email and found when announcements were made about elections and then added a note (I only have data for 2012 and 2013 for this, so 2011 is not pictured):

LOPSA 2012 Election - Votes by day (with announcement lines)

LOPSA 2013 Election - Votes by day (with announcement lines)

 

Now that’s much more interesting. On 2013, it’s pretty clear that making an announcement is closely correlated with higher voter turnout. 2011’s isn’t as clear. Not sure why.

How about times? Note that times are in UTC (subtract 4 hours for EST and 7 hours for PST).

LOPSA 2012 Election - Votes by hour

LOPSA 2013 Election - Votes by hour

 

These results are pointing out that most ballots were cast in the afternoon and evening. Correlating these with announcement times would require some more work that I haven’t done.

Just out of curiosity, I ran 2011, 2012, and 2013’s ballot times through together, and came up with this:

Voting Times - 2011-2013

 

This graph seems to agree with the above assessment.

 

Conclusion

Based on this data, I would conclude a few things:

1) Time voting announcements carefully, knowing that people tend to vote in the afternoon and evening, and not so much in the mornings.

2) Turnout tends to be higher immediately following announcements, with weekends showing low turn-out.

3) The best times for a reminder are for the email to hit the inbox after lunch on a weekday or immediately after work on a weekday. Avoid sending reminders on a weekend or late at night on a weekday.