Can agile teams be burned out?

Overtime in Scrum

Time and again, overtime turns out to be harmful to teams and organizations. They lead to many counterproductive situations


When workers work overtime, it should be obvious that they get tired. They also spend less time resting and doing things in their personal life. This means that they are less focused and productive in the workplace and need to start dealing with personal matters at work. This leads to an increase in absenteeism, sick days and home office. The combination of all these factors is often referred to as “Undertime”. Quality is usually the first thing given up when tired and on a tight timeframe.


In most companies, it's management that comes on the team and either asks or dictates that they work overtime. From the team's point of view, it looks like the team is being asked to make sacrifices in order to get management out of their situation. This did not manage to plan a project properly or to assert itself against customers. No wonder they lose motivation.


Ultimately, the people who can find other jobs find other jobs. This leads to a loss of knowledge that cannot be restored by the company. This will make all future projects even more difficult and painful as all the people who understand how things work in the organization no longer work there.

Lack of predictability and increased variance

More variance means more unpredictable things that could crop up and derail teams in the middle of your next project. Because the number of hours worked varies, there's really no telling how productive the team is on a regular schedule. This, in turn, makes it difficult to establish a reliable schedule for future projects.

Teams commit themselves to a certain amount of work in Scrum, which they estimate can be done in a 2-4 week sprint. However, an estimate of 2-4 weeks of work can still involve uncertainties. There can be many unforeseen issues that arise during the sprint that can affect progress. That doesn't mean teams should drop targets at the first sign of trouble. Teams need to take their commitments seriously. This creates pressure to find more effective ways to meet commitments. Teams should constantly look for small improvements. Even a 1% improvement per sprint will show over the long term.

Over-engagement should not be punished

Sometimes a team is too aggressively pushing its goals or encountering major problems that they couldn't foresee or that were beyond their control. If managers insist that teams achieve all of their goals, even if they put in insane hours, they won't exceed that limit for future sprints. Teams should know when there is too much to do in a reasonable time and should reach out to the Product Owner to discuss dropping some goals when there is too much to do.

In the last sprint before PI planning, teams tend to sacrifice evenings, nights and, less often, a weekend. One thing is certain, if management doesn't dictate overtime to teams, attitudes towards overtime will change. When a team decides to work overtime, it does so as a team. They help each other. It can actually be a powerful team building experience. However, if they find that they do this too often, they need to optimize their estimation process and have the courage to say "no".

Overtime and sustainability

Agile approaches are about making customers happier. The primary goal is not to work more efficiently and quickly. This is very often a side effect, but it should not be the reason for “becoming agile” or using Scrum. If you want to satisfy customers, you shouldn't do this at the expense of the employees, because nothing makes your customers as happy as a happy development team. If people are happy with what they are doing, they are doing well. To ensure that products are of the highest quality, companies need dedicated, happy teams who know both the product and the customers. Only then can they adapt quickly and precisely to inevitable changes. If you know everything exactly, you won't make as many mistakes and have better ideas.

Overtime makes the speed drop (long term)

Any change in the team structure leads to a sudden drop in efficiency as everyone has to adapt to the new circumstances. Constant overtime leads to a higher rotation. Employees quit and have to be replaced. Team members should ideally work at a constant pace indefinitely. This pace should be sustainable by all those involved - sponsors, customers, developers and users. This means that it is better to work at 80% theoretical efficiency for 5 years than at 120% for six months. Because after this time everyone is burned out and the team has to be rebuilt.

Everything you need to know about Scrum can be found in the Scrum Basics series [link]

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