Getting over the hurdles: How to ask for help before you burn out

Burnout certainly affects individuals, but it can also impact a whole team. Missed deadlines have a domino effect that might be avoided by earlier conversations. You can—and should—ask for help.
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With two days left of this sprint, you feel like you’ve been running a marathon. Two weeks of mismanaged tasks and a lack of meaningful connection to your work have taken a heavy toll. Everything in you wants to give up and sit down.

Every dev has experienced a sprint like this. Yet, there’s one big misunderstanding: you’re not running a marathon, you’re a part of a relay race.

There are two ways to reframe this fatigue. 

  1. Your team members are waiting to pick up the baton, so you’re not alone and you have support.
  2. Your team members are waiting to pick up the baton, so they can’t move forward unless you do.

With the right thinking, you can learn to rely on your team’s support, as well as respond proactively before missed cross-dependencies and deadlines.

BEFORE YOU DROP THE BATON

Engineering sprints might assign you a lot of personal responsibilities, but they rely on teamwork. Every person has been overwhelmed at some point—the idea isn’t to be effortlessly independent, but consciously interdependent.

The second before you drop the baton, it’s a common reaction to simply detach. “It’s too much, it’s hopeless, I’m not good enough” you might think. In reality, this is your last possible second to ask for help. (That’s not encouragement, however. If you were to pass the baton in that desperate moment, it would be a hurried exchange, with no time to provide an explanation.)

Ideally, you identify the need to ask for help before everything is about to fall.

DURING THE RELAY RACE

You’re used to balancing a lot in work and in life. It comes from a good place, as you likely want to prove your capability and be a team player. “I can handle it,” you say, even as the fatigue takes over. But it’s no way to win a race.

  • When can you ask for help? The moment you feel stress take over, take a breath or a short walk. If you feel at your maximum for the day, show yourself some grace and invite a fresh start tomorrow. If the feeling continues for a day or more, reach out. Waiting any longer just takes time away from the potential solution. Be sure to make a conscious effort to keep track of your mental health outside of work as well, and note when work is affecting it. Your manager and team members are there to help. Asking for help doesn’t make you any weaker; it makes you stronger. It helps you develop communication and delegation skills and in return, free up room to do your best work at a sustainable pace.
  • Who can you ask for help? It’s most important that you simply reach out to someone. That can be someone on your team, a friend on another team, or your manager. The act of saying it out loud can clarify what you need. Admitting you need help can be scary, especially if you feel like your job is on the line. Sometimes you might feel it’s better to put your head down and just continue working to avoid conflict. However, your managers want to know if you’re burned out and if your work is at risk of slipping. It’s better to get it out in the open before it’s too late. When you’re certain you need to pass off work or get a deadline extension, go directly to your manager with an open and transparent conversation.
  • How do you ask for it? The conversation doesn’t have to change plans; it’s simply enough to reach out. First, be truthful about your work situation. Is it an issue of too many epics? One mismanaged epic? Lack of purpose? Uncommunicative team members? Unrealistic deadlines? Be specific and share the facts. Your manager or team will help you devise solutions from there. It may take time for improvements to happen, starting the conversations will help put the processes in motion for both yourself and your team. 

You can support your future self by understanding the workflow timeline and its various milestones. You might color-code your sprint or monthly calendar to understand the available windows for re-allocation. Give yourself a few days to work through your assignments, then identify which days still have flexibility for load-balancing work. Can you give yourself a 2-week, 1-week, 3-day, and 1-day reminder of certain deadlines? Your sprint plan may already have this documented.

ASSIGNING THE LEGS

Relay teams assign one person to each leg of the race. To do so, runners consider their past races and stats, and choose the first, middle, or last leg accordingly. Dev teams can do the same. When allocating work, consider past sprints and Jira activity. Identify your strengths and your struggles.

Now, about that support network. Connect with other devs that have similar skill sets and create a sense of community around giving and getting help when needed. In contrast, identify any knowledge silos that you hold. Take a junior dev under your wing or talk with your team about sharing that code so it’s passed on. Consider creating documentation on your company wiki, and outlining who specializes in what areas of knowledge, so newer team members know who to reach out to and when. By streamlining access to relevant information and knowledge, you can help reduce the feeling of shame around asking for help.

Lastly, open your channels of communication. Asking for help is much easier when there’s an established place to do it. Create a Slack channel to share updates of bandwidth and capability. If the team isn’t up for it, let your manager know you’d like to have informal DM check-ins between your weekly or biweekly 1:1s. What’s important is having an ongoing conversation so that burnout doesn’t take you by surprise.

GOING FOR THE WIN

Burnout certainly affects individuals, but it can also impact a whole team. Missed deadlines have a domino effect that might be avoided by earlier conversations. You can—and should—ask for help.

The right data can help inform work allocation and monitor burnout metrics. Uplevel does both. We’ve helped engineers around the world meet their product goals without burning out. Read our most recent e-book for more insight into overcoming burnout: A dev’s guide to burnout.