by Sarah K. White

5 steps to avoid burning out your on-call IT staff

Oct 06, 2016
IT GovernanceIT LeadershipITSM

On-call workers don't have the luxury of signing off at the end of the day and going home to relax. They know that a call could come at any time, which means businesses need to take steps to ensure these workers aren't on the fast-track to burnout.

Everyone is susceptible to burnout on the job, but if you’re an on-call IT worker you are in a unique position. You can’t just clock out at the end of the day. When you go home, you are required to be on alert for any emergency incidents, which can make it hard to truly unwind and relax after a long day.

“This affects work-life balance the most; ‘always-on’ readiness, not able to relax, an inability to have a downtime, a requirement to provide support during non-business hours and eating into one’s private time — added to the fact that calls can come at any time — keeps one living on the edge,” says Sharon Andrew, PhD, happiness evangelist at Happiest Minds Technologies, an Indian IT firm that focuses on mindfulness at work.

That’s why it’s important to support these engineers and other IT workers who are putting out fires at 3 in the morning, while the rest of the company is fast asleep. Here are five crucial steps businesses need to take to make sure they’re supporting on-call staff as best as possible to avoid burnout.

Weed out applicants

Not everyone is built for on-call work, says Joni Klippert, vice president of product at VictorOps, a company that offers automated solutions for on-call management. There are certain sacrifices and accommodations on-call workers have to make to their personal lives that not every worker will be willing to make.

Klippert points out that these employees often have to miss important family events, out of a fear that they will get a call in the middle of their kid’s recital. Or they might have to bring their laptop with them and hide away in a bedroom at Christmas to work on a moment’s notice.

“In the case of an outage, a technical person is not only tasked with triaging and solving the problem, but they must also find ways to efficiently communicate into lines of business about the issue, impact, etc. This creates an incredible amount of stress in the moment as efficiency as an on-call person directly impacts the bottom line of the business,” she says.

When you hire for on-call positions, make sure the candidate fully understands the implications of the role. The last thing you want is to hire someone and get them trained only to have them quit a few months later when they realize the pressure of on-call is too much for them. Be as upfront as possible in the interview process, that way you can be sure that all your candidates are prepared for the challenge of on-call work.

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Define an emergency

If on-call workers are constantly paged for non-emergency issues, they’re going to start growing resentful of the job. In fact, Klippert says they might even go as far as to “snooze superfluous alarms,” out of an annoyance that they’re not important, but someday, that could lead to inadvertently hitting snooze on a crucial emergency alert. She calls alerts like this “noise,” because that’s literally what your on-call workers experience — loud alarms and flashing screens, sometimes at all hours of the night. And if they go to take action on that “noise,” only to find out it’s a normal issue, and not an emergency, you’re essentially creating a “boy who cried wolf” scenario.

“Alerts should be a trusted source of truth as to the health of your business — applications and infrastructure — and are critical to business and IT success,” she says.

Tim Armandpour, vice president of Engineering at PagerDuty, says you need to know what you’re monitoring and why, and ensure that anything tied to on-call work is absolutely necessary. As long as everyone is clear on what constitutes an emergency, your workers will know that every alert is important.

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Have resources in place

“Don’t let your on-call engineers feel like they’re on an island, with a Google doc and a rotary phone at four in the morning,” says Klippert. Make sure that when engineers and IT workers respond to an alert that the right plans are in place. That way, if they need additional support, either from other IT staff or engineers, there’s a way to re-route the alert to the right person.

A great way to ensure the right resources are in place is to ensure everyone is properly trained so that emergency situations can be as low-stress as possible. Andrew says to document process and procedures and have new on-call staff shadow more experienced workers. Give them a chance to understand how the process works from reacting to incidents, analyzing issues and debug logs and how to relay relevant information to other internal teams. Even consider automating as many steps as possible, so everything remains consistent and streamlined.

Establish best practices

Armandpour says that on-call work doesn’t have to be stressful if there are process and procedures in place that help instill some peace of mind in your on-call staff. If every time an on-call worker responds to an alert, they’re faced with extra work or confusion, it’s just going to make the experience worse. He suggests going as far as to determine your biggest failure scenarios and then make them a reality to give everyone more experience.

“Introduce controlled failure to a system in order to exercise monitoring and process, and fix problems before they happen for real. Practicing failure also means those on-call have a set of best practices to follow when an incident does occur. It makes everyone feel more prepared and better equipped to handle whatever comes their way,” he says.

You should also firmly establish on-call support hours, a rotating schedule, documents outlining what’s required of on-call staff, supply them with the right technology to work remotely and incentivize their work, says Andrew. Recognize these employees for their hard work and create a system that will reward them for their on-call work. Their jobs aren’t easy, and being on-call is not something your typical employees have to deal with, so a little recognition will go a long way.

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Be reasonable

Possibly the best thing you can do for your on-call workers is to be reasonable, says Klippert. That means, keep an eye on how many hours they’re working, both during the workday and after. And when engineers aren’t on-call, she says, make sure they’re able to get away from the chaos and have time to themselves. If you’re interrupting them on their off days, they’re going to feel like they’re never actually unplugged.

“Let them enjoy their time off as thoroughly as possible. You can’t be in race mode all of the time or your employees will burn out fast. Be strategic and thoughtful, keeping an eye on your high performers to ensure that they stay happy,” she says.

Armandpour suggests implementing rotating on-call shifts, incident management systems, consistent schedules and escalation policies so your engineers can truly enjoy their time off. On-call work adds extra pressure to a typical job, so having that personal time is even more important than it might be for other workers.

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