Churn n’ burn!

For years it seemed to be a catchcry exclusive to the old-school call centre. Turnover rates of well over 50 per cent each year were the norm (and, sadly, still are in too many cases). But then the game changed. Businesses likeZappos, the maverick online shoe company dared to believe that the culture in call centres could be shown a different way. Following the lead of these culture champions, a brave few have proved they can keep both their workforce happy and their turnover low. 

In the wake of a damning New York Times article on the ruthless culture of heightened expectations inside tech-giant Amazon*, a recent blog post from Facebook co-founder Dustin Moscovitz called for a change to the culture of the tech industry. So it begs the question: has the tech industry become today’s version of the 1990s call centre? Are they the new kings of churn ‘n burn? 

Moscovitz, who now heads up software firm Asana, has called for his beloved industry to stop and smell the roses (even though they may be pixelated ones). But how endemic is the burn-out-or-get-out mentality in the tech sector? And, more importantly, why are they putting up with it?

Why people are flogging themselves

Homo sapiens are largely a hedonistic species. We tend to seek pleasure and avoid pain. But why is it that we choose to embrace massive duress, sometimes to our detriment?

Broadly speaking, there are two reasons why people might sacrifice wellbeing for work. 

  • The effort carries with it a deep sense of purpose.
  • The progress we make during the work becomes addictive. 

And there it is. 

When you view it through those lenses, it kinda makes sense why the tech industry is battling to balance wellbeing with work, doesn’t it? They believe their product will change the world (purpose), and because of the start-up nature of these enterprises, they feel like they’re making great strides every day (progress). It’s a heady mix.

Now let’s not burst bubbles for the tech-heads out there by getting into a conversation about the deep purpose of their work. It serves us no good to start an unwinnable argument that your latest app that accurately predicts the bowel movements of your cat will ‘put a dent in the universe’. Puh-leese. So instead, let’s just focus on the damaging addiction that can come from massive progress.

Why progress masks pain

Our biochemistry is our best friend and sometimes our worst enemy. The reason why good logic (in this case, a healthy balance between wellbeing and work) is often ignored is because of two powerful chemical messengers.

Dopamine is arguably the most addictive substance on the planet for humans. We love it. It makes us feel great and changes our behaviour massively as a result. And when does it turn up in our synapses in bucket loads? When we’re making progress. An evolutionary masterstroke; Mother Nature took a lazy hominid and supercharged us to be the masters of goal-orientation. If you take a step closer to your goal, you get a hit of dopamine. Take another step, you get another hit. The cycle repeats for phenomenal results and is awfully hard to stop when you’re high-as-a-kite-outta-your-head on dopamine.

Endorphins are dopamine’s partner in progress. Kinda like Batman and Robin without spandex tights and the weird paternal relationship. But we digress…

Endorphins have many roles, but one we’ve all experienced to a certain degree is the role endorphins in masking pain. Ever got the post-workout high after exercise? Of course you have. Y’see, endorphins were already in your system when you were exercising, keeping pain at bay. Then you stopped the exertion and subsequently felt great because of the leftover endorphin supply in your body.

These two chemicals sustain people through massive effort. They’re our progress chemicals. They are rewarding and pleasurable at the same time. But they live for the here and now. Ultimately they’re selfish chemicals, and one eye should always be kept on the important longer timeframes and less immediate life goals, like living longer and being happier.  

End progress slavery

There’s little doubt the tech industry is supercharged at the moment. High on dopamine and endorphins—with a bit of Red Bull and coffee thrown in—it’s a runaway train. Massive, unprecedented change bought about by the Internet has created a fledgling service industry like none previously seen. It’s intoxicating, fast paced and ground breaking. But it is being built on a tapestry of chemicals that know no future. It’s all reward today with little regard for five, 10 or 20 years’ time. 

Moscovitz has seen and experienced the powerful effects of progress intoxication, and he now, thankfully, champions a different way. His call to arms should be heeded along with lead innovators such as Australia’s own software developer Atlassian, which was just voted Australia’s best place to work (for the second year running). 

Thankfully there are some emerging heroes in the fight against progress slavery, and in time their cultures might be held in the same esteem as the likes of Zappos—trailblazers that become a guiding light for an industry in the dark when it comes to employee wellbeing.  

*interesting note: Amazon acquired Zappos in 2009 for a reported $850 million. But has it learned much from Zappos about culture?