emotional debt

In Debt to the Eyeballs: How Project Teams Suffer From Emotional and Operational Debt

Many teams are in debt up to their eyeballs.

And it’s not just a matter of “technical debt” — the problems and inefficiencies created when coders rely on shortcuts and short-term fixes while trying to meet a deadline.

Your team is also subject to two other kinds of debt that affect their health, morale, and efficacy over the long-term.

Operational and emotional debts are created by tight deadlines, lack of downtime, and projects that are scheduled too close together.

Over time, the operational debts impact the team’s productivity and the quality of their output. And the emotional debts — compounded by overwork and lack of vacation — lead to missed deadlines, more mistakes, less resilience, and eventually to burnout.

All these debts arise because we feel that we just cannot take the time we need to address them.

But the reality is that sooner or later, they must be addressed. If we don’t do it proactively, burnout, attrition, and compromised project quality will eventually force the issue.

Avoid Operational Debt by Adjusting Project Timelines

Operational debt occurs when teams take shortcuts in an effort to meet deadlines or when workflows and processes are jury-rigged to address short-term needs.

Our teams incur operational debt whenever we:

  • Fail to implement solutions that cover all the requirements
  • De-scope requests that come up late in the project
  • Create operational workarounds that impact the productivity or quality of our practices

The solution is to build in sufficient time between project phases to correct and level-set the technical or operational debt. 

This can feel hard to do when projects are urgent, when leaders are agitating for faster delivery, or when we are already behind schedule. 

But the operational and technical debt will catch up with us sooner or later.

Better to take action now to address shortcuts that were taken in earlier stages and standardize ad hoc workflows across different teams. 

Doing so proactively will help maintain team productivity and quality over the longer term.

Avoid Emotional Debt (and Burnout) By Prioritizing Downtime

Creative thinking, productivity, and emotional resilience all require time and mental space.

And both are in short supply on most project teams.

In order to meet project deadlines and requirements, team members often push off other day-to-day operational responsibilities — both personally and professionally. When the project ends, they may be weeks behind on other work. So instead of taking time off, team members dive into their backlog, scrambling to catch up before their next project kicks.

The result is that they head into the next project already depleted. And they become ripe for burnout, which makes it all but impossible for them to stay on top of their work and deadlines. 

Burnout is frustrating for leaders and team members alike. It is the equivalent of hitting an emotional wall. No matter the urgency, no matter the stakes… someone with burnout cannot muster the mental, emotional, or physical energy to push through the tasks they need to do. 

The personal toll is large — fatigue, depression, short temper, poor health, and an inability to meet deadlines, anticipate problems, or rebound from setbacks. It can take months to fully recover.

For employers, burnout is expensive. By some estimates, two-thirds of workers experience burnout. And the loss of productivity costs the employer some 34% of the person’s salary.

Team leaders can lessen the emotional debt accrued during projects by closing out projects with deliberation — conducting retrospectives, extracting lessons learned, and leaving time for stabilization, innovation, and process improvement.

But a thoughtful project close-out cannot compensate for time off. 

In the US, half of workers don’t take vacation time that they’re owed — and many others end up working during their vacation.

This is a recipe for disaster.

Human beings need rest, relaxation, and time away from their work. Athletes know this well — you would be hard-pressed to find a serious athlete who doesn’t build rest and recovery into their training program. And athletes who overtrain are prone to overuse injuries that force time off.

Burnout is the overuse injury of professionals. Without adequate time away from work, meetings, and laptops, your team will be prone to emotional debts that they can’t easily recover from.

Don’t Allow the Urgent to Overshadow the Important

One of the greatest challenges of running a business is balancing long-term needs with short-term urgencies. But project leaders owe it to themselves, their teams, and their organizations to prioritize that balance. 

Technical, operational, and emotional debt that’s allowed to build indefinitely will eventually create instabilities and limitations that compromise the overall function of the team — and possibly the organization. Be sure that you’re taking action during and after each project to zero out your accrued debt.

Photo Credit: Thank you to Luis Villasmil for the photo from Unsplash.

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