How to Spot and Avoid Burnout as a Developer
We’ve talked before about the soaring demand for software developers, particularly as the pandemic accelerated the global transition to digital technology. This is, broadly speaking, considered positive for developers - skilled labor shortages typically mean an abundance of job opportunities and higher wages. One recent report showed that even as the pandemic caused widespread disruption and job losses during 2020, salaries for top software engineers rose by between 3-7% on average in major tech hubs such as San Francisco, New York and London.
But what about when ‘lots of work’ becomes ‘too much work’? You may start out full of ambition and energy, saying ‘yes’ to new jobs, going the extra mile to impress your team and working on your own projects on the side. Sure, it’s challenging and you feel stressed at times, but you’re learning and advancing your personal brand, and that buzz carries you through.
But then, the work becomes overwhelming. You find yourself working late and on weekends to finish tasks you’ve taken on; you cut down on your hobbies, exercise, and socializing. You may start to resent the work, struggle to stay motivated and can’t cope with the stress. Eventually, you feel like you just can’t face sitting in front of your computer. You’re burned out.
According to the World Health Organization, burnout is a recognized “occupational phenomenon” characterized by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.
Burnout can happen in any workplace, but seems to be a particular problem in software development, which as a job can be demanding, isolating and sedentary. A recent survey by analytics firm Haystack found that an alarming 83% of UK software engineers reported feeling ‘burnt out’ at work. The most common reason given for this was a “high workload”, but a number of other factors are also considered important. These include personal issues, inefficient processes, unclear goals or poor communication with managers and colleagues. 81% of respondents also said they feel more burnout as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, again mostly due to a higher workload but also uncertainty about the future.
How To Recognize Burnout Symptoms
Burnout is not something that happens overnight. It builds up quietly inside your mind and body until one day the pressure becomes too much. Recovering from a bad burnout can also take a long time - it can take people months or even sometimes years to feel 100% again after a bad case.
This makes it crucially important to know how to spot the red flags before you reach the point of burnout. Here are some of the key symptoms:
- Loss of passion: Most developers get started because they enjoy programming. If this passion fades away and you dread logging on to your computer or opening up your coding app, you may be starting to burn out. Sometimes, cynicism starts to replace passion - that’s a sign that you’re not enjoying any part of your work and is a common precursor to burnout.
- Physical lethargy/fatigue: Working long hours day after day in front of a computer is not good for our bodies at the best of times. It can cause muscle pain, back problems or headaches, all of which get worse with anxiety and stress. If you become increasingly lethargic and feel too tired to do other things aside from programming, there may be a problem brewing. Also, if you find yourself getting ill with colds and flus more than usual, it may be a sign that tiredness/stress has weakened your immune system.
- Mental exhaustion: Programming can be cognitively intensive and drain your mental battery. This is fine, up to a point, but again if you’re always too exhausted to think straight or enjoy other activities when you finish work for the day, you may be approaching burnout. Unfamiliar mood swings or feeling like your emotions are ‘numbed’ is another sign of mental fatigue to watch out for.
- Changing habits: Stress can ruin your sleep, which is arguably the single most important routine for your physical and mental health. It’s a bad sign if you’re waking up feeling anxious, or find yourself lying awake in bed running through tomorrow’s coding problems in your head. Another red flag is if you’re sleeping more than usual but still always feel tired. Dietary changes can also be a symptom of stress: a lack or interest in food, increased snacking or consuming more coffee or energy drinks are all things to watch out for.
- Feeling isolated/detached: Developers often work alone, especially when remote, so in busy times this can really cut your social contacts and leave you feeling detached from both work colleagues and personal relationships. You may feel out of your depth but unable to reach out to anybody, and this can lead to more feelings of self-doubt. These feelings can often prompt you to withdraw further from other people, getting yourself into a vicious cycle of isolation and depersonalization.
- Performance issues: Missing deadlines or targets that you used to always hit may be a sign of approaching burnout, especially if you’re not really bothered about it. If you’re unmotivated, you’re more likely to procrastinate and deliver sub-standard work. If you start arriving late to work, or take more days off without any real reason, there might be a problem that you should address yourself before your manager does.
How to Prevent Burnout
Knowing the signs and symptoms is key to identifying when you or a colleague might be at risk of burnout. But preventing it from happening usually requires taking action, the sooner the better. Here are some tips for avoiding burnout:
- Organize your workflow: Don’t allow yourself to get overwhelmed by multiple tasks. Organize your workflow and set yourself realistic goals for each day and week - there are plenty of tools that can help with this. Over time, you will get a feel for the projects or tasks that are more rewarding and those that imply a lot of effort with few benefits. Where possible, clear your schedule of the latter.
- Mix it up: Programming can be quite monotonous, and over time that will test the resolve of even the most passionate developer. One way around that is to try and broaden your skill set so you can work in different languages, frameworks and technologies. You should specialize in one or two things to make yourself stand out, but pushing yourself out of your comfort zone will help keep things interesting.
- Learn when to say ‘no’: There’s always the temptation to take on new projects especially if they look interesting, pay well or could advance your career. But if you’re already swamped, you’re doing no one any favors by accepting more work. To sustain a high performance, you need to be able to manage your work schedule and keep time for yourself. Choose quality over quantity, and remember that people won’t be offended if you say ‘no’ and explain why.
- Take regular breaks throughout the day: This is crucial for your mental and physical well-being. Ideally, you’ll move away from your computer and engage in some physical activity to get the blood circulating and clear your mind. Even just a short step away from the screen - to eat something or chat with a colleague - will help keep you fresh.
- Take a ‘proper’ break: Even if your daily routine is working well for you, don’t forget to take longer vacations (without your computer!) to really destress and get away from programming for a while.
- Look after yourself: As the old saying goes: ‘healthy body, healthy mind’. If you exercise regularly, eat a varied diet and get a good amount of quality sleep then you’re almost guaranteed to perform better than you would if you neglect these things.
If you’ve already reached burnout, then take time to recover. Take time off and do nothing or, better, something fun and different that isn’t too taxing. When you feel re-energized and ready to return, take it slow. Start with just a few tasks and be strict about your work hours - you can build up slowly from there, but try not to make the same mistakes again!
What can companies do?
Though companies and managers naturally want to get the most out of their software developers, employee burnout will affect business too so it’s in everybody’s interest to avoid it. Moreover, research shows that people are more likely to join and stay working with an organization that looks after their wellbeing.
IT managers can help avoid developer burnout by setting out clear goals and expectations, maintaining fluid communications (especially when managing a remote team), giving team members some autonomy and independence, treating people fairly and building strong relationships within the team. It’s also important for managers to be aware of the early symptoms of burnout and know how to act to prevent a bigger problem down the line.
Here at Jobsity, we take the well-being of our developers, who mostly work remotely, very seriously. From regular ‘lunch & learn’ sessions to team fitness challenges and seminars, we encourage our developers to make time for non-work activities and to rest. If you want to know how they can help your organization expand its IT capabilities, get in touch!
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