When we created the SRE report last year, I thought it would be a one-time survey and report. The response from the SRE community was huge and many asked what we would focus on next year. After hearing Jaime Woo present about post-incident stress at SREcon Europe, I found my inspiration. Incidents are a huge part of the SRE role, but little has been done to explore the impact incidents have on people.

Tackling this tough topic wasn’t easy. Asking anybody to share vulnerable information requires trust. Doing it via a survey was a risky proposition but we forged ahead. We found that some SREs were interested in talking about this and some weren’t. Approximately 50% of people that started the survey did not complete it.

As some of the respondents mentioned, stress isn’t well understood or discussed. We defined post-incident stress as changes to physical and psychological well-being up to two days after an incident occurs. This was apparent in the responses to two of the questions.

Question 1 – How often do you experience post-incident stress?

Options included:

  • After every incident
  • After some incidents
  • Never

This is a very direct question that asks people to indicate if they always, sometimes, or never experience stress after an incident.

Question 2 – After recent incidents, do you notice a change in any of the following?

Options included:

  • Concentration
  • Ability to sleep
  • Mood
  • Appetite
  • Desire to be social
  • Ability to enjoy things
  • None
  • Other

This indirectly asks about stress symptoms and respondents list physical, behavioral, and emotional impact of stress.

21% of respondents indicated they never experience post-incident stress. What was interesting was looking at how respondents answered the second question. One would assume that if a person “never” experienced post-incident stress, that they would choose “none” for the second question. That was not the case. One third of these SREs said they experienced a change in concentration, sleep, mood, desire to be social, and desire to enjoy things.

38% of the SREs who said they never experience stress and report no symptoms said their stress levels are moderate after an incident.

These findings are puzzling to me. If an SRE is not experiencing post-incident stress, why is their stress level moderate or why are they experiencing symptoms of stress?

Maybe they don’t feel things like changes in appetite, mood, or concentration are signals of stress? Or, is it that we equate stress with burn-out? Or, is hero culture making stress taboo?

Stress may not be well understood, or it may be a taboo subject. But, we feel it needs to be talked about. Yesterday at SREcon Jaime and I did a lightning talk on the findings from the report. We took a bit of a risk and decided to include some audience participation.

We read off five statements that respondents wrote in and asked the audience to reflect on that statement and raise their hands if this was something they could relate to in their current role, in a previous role, or heard about it from a friend.

The statements read were:

  • The stress of the job isn’t well-suited for everyone.
  • Most incidents were related to massive changes made under duress to meet deadlines without the inclusion of our SRE team.
  • It sucks when nobody else cares about the postmortem.
  • Incidents are so “normal” that nothing can be done for post-incident stress until we reduce the amount of them.
  • Stress is not well discussed or considered among engineering and executive leadership – it’s just considered “part of the job.”

Do you agree or disagree with these statements?

The majority of the audience agreed with statements 1, 3, and 5. Very few hands were raised for statements 2 and 4. Just because a small percentage agreed with those statements doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. This is still an area that should be explored.

I hope this report helps to further the conversation around stress and reduce the stigma that may be associated with it.

The area of post-incident stress is one of only four findings from the survey. To learn about the other three, download the full report https://www.sresurvey2019.com/

Author Dawn Parzych

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