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HumanOps: Etsy on how unclear workplace expectations contribute to staff burnout

IT managers risk "normalising" bad workplace behaviour and contributing to employee stress by responding to emails out of hours and staying late unnecessarily, warns Etsy web operations manager

IT managers need to be mindful of how their behaviour can reinforce and encourage unhealthy working practices to develop and contribute to the burnout of their teams.

Speaking at the HumanOps meet-up in central London on 21 November, Jon Cowie, web operations manager at online marketplace Etsy, said IT managers need to ensure their behaviour does not directly or inadvertently affect the work-life balance of their staff.

Managers can normalise unhealthy working behaviours without realising, which contributes to a culture where their direct reports feel duty bound to act the same way, he warned.

“If you’re a manager and you are replying to email in the evening, you are setting the expectation to your team – whether you like it or not – that this is normal and expected behaviour,” he said.

Other examples, cited by Cowie, include instances where employees stay beyond their contracted working hours because they feel they should, and because the boss never leaves until everyone else does.  

“Pay attention. Are employees staying late? Why are they staying late? Do they feel pressurised? Do they have too much work? Is there some other reason? Be perceptive of your team,” he said.

While these types of behaviour are unlikely to be mandated in employment contracts, they may still form part of the company culture, creating an “implicit” expectation that all employees should follow suit.

“These implicit expectations are insidious because they can still get to you, but if you don’t follow them, you can still be penalised,” he added.

Clarify the position

Managers should also be aware of how “explicit expectations”, as set out in their contracts of employment, can be open to interpretation and therefore put the work-life balance of their teams at risk.

“If you have an overtime policy that states employees may be required to work 20 hours a week, and you’re only going to require they work 10, then your policy is bad,” he said. “If you make your employees work a weekend to fix a bug, give them a couple of days off in-lieu.”

It is also important to be mindful of the pressure and expectations employees may put on themselves, said Cowie, as these can differ from the standards the company holds them to.

“This is common for new hires joining a company and absorbing the culture,” he said. “They hold themselves to much higher standards than the company has of them because they look around and see high achievers everywhere.

“Some of the most telling examples of this will come up during one-to-ones you may have, when you ask how they are doing and they say, ‘I don’t think I’m progressing fast enough’, or ‘I wasn’t really working late, but there was just one more thing I really wanted to finish’.”

This is why it is important that managers take steps to clarify to their employees what is expected of them to ensure there is no room for doubt or misinterpretation. 

“What you can do is give them feedback on how they’re meeting the company’s expectations for the level they joined the company at,” he said.

“Tell them where they’re doing well and the areas they need to work on. Don’t leave them to decide that for themselves, because they will convince themselves they are terrible.”

Check your privilege

Furthermore, managers should not assume employees would come to them with any concerns they have about how the company’s working practices and culture may be affecting their health and well-being.

They may not feel comfortable or confident speaking out, particularly if they are from a minority or under-represented group working in the predominantly “white and male” technology industry.

“Many of your employees may have spent years in the technology industry being penalised for speaking out and causing a fuss,” he said.

“Don’t assume your employees will necessarily come to you if there is a problem affecting their lives, but be switched on to the fact there might be and pay attention,” he said.

The issue of “privilege” may come into play here, he added. This is where some individuals may struggle to recognise issues other people encounter on a day-to-day basis because their gender, ethnicity, sexuality or financial situation, for example, means they have never experienced them.

“A lot of the stuff you hear about work-life balance is impacted by privilege,” he said.

When people advise others to quit their job if they do not like it, they may not appreciate that some are not financially secure enough to do that.

“If you can change jobs very easily, you have privilege,” said Cowie. “If you do not need to worry about things like whether your new company covers things like gender reassignment surgery on the company healthcare policy, you have privilege.

“If the only thing you have to worry about is whether your next job is at a really cool startup, that’s a privileged position to be in.”

Read more about HumanOps

It is also worth noting employees may not realise the toll their company’s culture is taking on them, which is why it is also important for managers and other team members to look out for one another.

“It’s really hard when you’re in this spiral of burnout and stress, as you cannot self-diagnose it. People can look and tell you’re more grumpier or not sleeping, and your work is falling off even though you’re working longer. They can point it out,” he said.

“If you feel comfortable in doing so, challenge the status quo. If there are unhealthy practices going on, push back on that. If you’re not comfortable, try to find a trusted person to boost that signal for you. It might not change anything, but if you can raise the concern, it might make a difference.”

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