Blog Post

8 Tips for SRE Wellness

In this blog, we talk about individual and structural factors that create stress for SREs and share 8 tips to improve SRE wellness.

When planning the SRE from home virtual even last month, one of the central themes was wellness and the need for self-care for SREs, especially during this time of crisis. Knowing how stressful an SRE’s day can be, combined that with a global pandemic and new working conditions, we knew we needed programming around SRE and IT wellness for SRE from Home. We’re all looking for ways to maintain a healthy work-life, but hearing this from your peers was especially important. The passionate response from the SRE community looking to speak on the topic was incredible. We hope that we were able to create a community of understanding around the importance of wellness.

The fact that most of us are working from home for an indefinite time period while dealing with external stresses that are out of our control, can cause new challenges and lead to undue stress. One of our SREfh presenters on wellness, Jaime Woo, co-founder of Incident Labs spoke about the stress that can result from working at home when he quoted a Casey Newton tweet, “We’re not working from home. We’re living at work.” We are having to work on similar tasks, but in a wildly different context while our brains play catch up, trying to build an understanding of “the new normal.”

What is wellness anyway?

The Global Wellness Institute (GWI) defines wellness as “the active pursuit of activities, choices and lifestyles that lead to a state of holistic health.” The key ideas behind it as a preventive and holistic pursuit can be traced all the way back to ancient civilizations worldwide. Today when we talk about wellness, it’s thought about mainly in terms of healthy living, self-care, self-help, fitness, nutrition and spiritual practices in the service of working towards an optimal state of wellbeing.

While we can practice wellness on an individual level, it is also necessary to acknowledge how much it is impacted by structural factors and the physical, social and cultural environments in which we live and work.

Why is wellness for SREs a thing?

As a key part of the job, SREs must consistently provide a quick, ideally flawless, incident response and in a period when infrastructure is being pushed to the limits. While the industry has largely adopted a blame-free culture, that doesn’t prevent high stress and anxiety levels during and after major incidents. The range of how a mistake, whether self-inflicted or not, impacts team members can be minor to severe, particularly in a time of largely remote work where there is potential for isolation and less opportunity for frequent communication with coworkers and managers.

In The Catchpoint SRE Report 2020, 60% of respondents said they were dealing with work/life balance issues since working from home and 51% said this was impacting their focus and clarity levels. 37% said they were suffering from mental health, stress or emotional well-being issues while 41% said isolation was impacting them. When asked what issues were somewhat or extremely challenging, various issues emerged, from people feeling over-stressed with work to being asked to provide too frequent support during out-of-office hours.

Taking Care of Yourself to Take Care of Your Systems

What can SREs do to practice wellness? Here are 8 practical tips, which address both individual and structural factors that lead to SRE stress.

  1. Adopt a blameless mindset. It’s important that the industry as a whole maintains a blameless culture and that SREs themselves, on an individual level, don’t blame themselves when an incident happens. Holly Allen, Head of Reliability at Slack, stressed this point at the SREfh Ask an SRE panel: “Don’t blame yourself in the middle of an incident or afterward. These things happen because of systemic problems”, she said. “Afterwards”, she added, “ask is your organization learning from these incidents?”
  2. “Go slow enough” during an incident. This theme came up several times during Ask an SRE panel. Another valuable piece of advice from Holly Allen: “You have to maintain a sense of urgency in an incident, but you also have to go slow enough that your mental resources are up to it.”
  3. Develop a robust incident management practice in advance. Liz Fong-Jones, Principal Developer Advocate at Honeycomb, who moderated the panel highlighted the importance of developing a good incident management practice ahead of time. “If you’ve practiced and rehearsed it in advance”, she counseled, “it will lower the stress level when it happens for real.”
  4. Investigate the structural factors in your workplace that add to stress. While Jaime discussed the importance of self-care for SREs, he largely stressed that research shows that situational and organizational factors play a greater role in workplace stress and wellness than individual ones. Instead of asking individuals to just get stronger, we need to think about making change at an organizational level, such as looking at ways to reduce toil and improve feedback loops. Jaime has a great set of resources available online around SRE stress.
  5. Ask for support when you need it. Tell people about any challenges you are experiencing both at work and at the home front. Dawn Parzych, Developer Advocate at LaunchDarkly, stressed this in her talk at SREfh on DevOps and parenting. “We all need help, but it’s not always easy to ask for it”, she admitted. When the pandemic started and she found herself suddenly homeschooling her son, she appreciated that her team at work didn’t push back when she had to say no to projects.  It was important for her to communicate her limits as she and her family set up a new structure.
  6. As a manager of SRE teams, be supportive. In terms of life/work balance, Tony Ferrelli, VP of IT Operations here at Catchpoint, encouraged team members who have children (or other pressing responsibilities) to talk directly to their managers and teams if they need to be on a different schedule. As a manager, he said it was important to lay ground rules but to “be OK when life intervenes.”
  7. Practice self-care. Our final SREfh wellness speaker, Amy Tobey, had some fantastic tips for reducing stress on an individual level. These included making time for exercise, putting “sleep on a schedule: it’s the primary way to recover cognitive capacity”, and practicing observability towards oneself to notice signs of stress. She also encouraged SREs to take regular time off and in doing so, notice where “we’re a single point of failure in the business.”
  8. Remember self-kindness. Amy closed her presentation by saying if she could have “a magic wand to change the community of SREs”, this would be her “number one value of an SRE”. This theme was echoed by other speakers across the event and widely resonated in her talk’s Slack channel. Amy Tobey is currently offering SRE Office Hours on Embracing Resilience.

Check out the talks from SRE from home and join the continuing conversation in the event’s SRE Slack channels. The Slack community during the event was so supportive, we’re keeping it open for the foreseeable future. Hop on in and say hi to your fellow SREs!

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