Breathe: Critical Incident Stress Management Training

Dan Holloran February 27, 2019

Monitoring & Alerting On-Call Collaboration
Breathe: Stress and Critical Incident Management Training Blog Banner Image

Being on-call and responding to incidents in IT and DevOps can be stressful, especially if you’re using piecemeal systems for monitoring, alerting and communication. And, if an alert comes through without any context, runbooks, or any clear path for escalation, you can feel lost in the dark. Other than having a collaborative incident response plan in place, on-call responders need to be able to manage their stress during a critical incident. This on-call incident management training guide will help you prepare for an incident beforehand and remain composed during a firefight.

Mitigating alert fatigue and stress

Optimizing your notification cadence and policy beforehand is a good way to mitigate alert fatigue and reduce stress. Also, the more beneficial alert context you can serve immediately, the better. That way, if you’re paged for a critical incident, it’s easier to identify the crux of the issue and navigate incident response. Context provides peace of mind and allows on-call teammates to remain stress-free while reducing the anxiety associated with an alert.

Once you’ve reached a point where on-call alerts are detailed enough for responders to quickly identify an issue and route the alert through the proper channels, you’ll need to work on reducing redundant notifications. Are there alerts that normally self-correct? Can some alerts be silenced by adjusting monitoring thresholds? Taking a step back to evaluate the efficacy of your monitoring and alerting practices can actually help you save time in the future.

Also, flexibility in your on-call alerting solution is important for maintaining positive employee morale. The ability to quickly adjust on-call schedules or rotations, easily reroute incidents, trade on-call shifts, snooze alerts or customize paging policies in a central tool keeps on-call responders happier and improves visibility across the entire organization. These functions give some semblance of control to responders over their own on-call experience, leaving them with less stress and better prepared when an incident comes through.

Classifying critical incidents and alert severity

A well-prioritized alerting system will inherently lead to less alert fatigue, improve employee welfare and help you maintain more reliable services. In addition to optimizing when and how DevOps and IT teams are alerted, you need to improve the why. Is it a critical incident? What’s the severity of the alert? Building automation into the prioritization and classification of alerts can help serve alert context and the severity of the incident, nearly instantly.

In a busy system, a combination of real-time alert classification and applicable system data is imperative to quickly assessing the situation, responding to the most important incident and quickly finding resolutions. Of course, you’ll need to take care of the incidents affecting customers first and then prioritize other notifications under those so as to resolve the most pressing issues.

Incident Management Software

Incident management training

As with anything, practice makes perfect. Incident management is quite difficult when the on-call team doesn’t have any training or exposure to systems in production. You can’t simply throw DevOps or IT operations teams to the wolves and expect rapid incident remediation. So, you should train your team to understand the incident management process and define the expectations of people at each stage of the incident lifecycle.

Through a detailed analysis of what’s working and what’s not working in your incident management workflows, you can develop an incident management training program. The training routine should walk on-call responders through a typical workflow and understand the resources at their disposal. If possible, it’s best to put on a game day where your team can simulate a few scenarios to get acquainted with going on-call and responding to an incident.

Once the on-call engineers are comfortable with your processes, you can start leveraging automation to route alerts to the right on-call person at the right time and automatically attach helpful documentation such as logs, runbooks and charts. Training the team up front and helping them get comfortable with the process and tools at their disposal will allow people to take their first on-call shift more quickly. Then, you can start to iterate and automate incident management processes.

Simple stress relief tips

Of course, effective preparation will relieve the most pressure from on-call teams. But, there are also a few things you can do to reduce anxiety and stress quickly when on-call or engaging in a firefight. Try any of these following stress relief tips when you’re feeling overwhelmed:

  • Deep breathing - Close your eyes, slow your breathing, and consciously breathe in and breathe out. Inhale and exhale slowly and deeply for about 20-30 seconds. This should calm the nerves and help you focus. Now, you can re-open your eyes and dive into the fray.

  • Communicate - If anyone else is on-call with you or sitting near you at the time of the incident, communicate your concerns. Not only will communication help you feel better and relieve stress, but it could also help you find the resolution to the problem faster. Your team should always be amenable to collaboration and open communication in order to make on-call suck less.

  • Slow down - Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed with stress. Simply slow down and think about the individual steps you need to take. Then, all you have to do is move step by step through your workflow, one item at a time. When you focus on one individual task at a time, incident response will begin to seem much less stressful.

  • Move around - Take a second to do some push-ups or a few jumping jacks. Physical motion can help you clear your mind, initiate blood flow and mentally prepare you for the incident at hand. Physical exercise is an excellent way to ward off stress and anxiety of any kind.

Incident analysis leads to preparation

Unfortunately, with on-call responsibilities, agile development and highly integrated systems, stress is a part of the job. But, there’s a lot you can do to make on-call less stressful and mitigate the fatigue of your on-call team. Deep analysis via post-incident reviews will lead to more prepared on-call teams and reduce the stress that comes with being on-call.

Then, when an incident happens, the team is ready to go. The on-call responder can take a deep breath and tackle the incident at hand. On-call incident management is about maintaining a continuous cycle of improvement to processes, tooling and people. Your team should constantly be on the lookout for ways in which monitoring, alerting or collaboration can be improved to better prepare on-call teams and make incident management easier.

Centralize your monitoring, alerting and collaboration tools and improve incident visibility with VictorOps on-call software. Sign up for a 14-day free trial to check it out and make incident management less stressful for your own on-call team.

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