Developer Burnout: Why It Happens and What We Can Do About It
Did you know that the phrase “to burn out” was used by Shakespeare in the 1600s? Fast forward to 2019, the World Health Organization defined burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
According to this definition, individuals suffering from burnout are said to experience feelings of exhaustion, increased mental distance, demotivation and cynicism in relation to one’s job, and reduced professional efficacy. It is also important to note that burnout as defined by WHO is caused solely by stressors at the workplace.
A less sterile definition can be found in this essay published in 1981 by Lance Morrow, where he talks about burnout as “the disease of the thwarted… a frustration so profound that it exhausts body and morale. Burnout, in advanced states, imposes a fatigue that seems—at the time—a close relative of death.”
40 years later, his words ring true as I read through the hundreds of comments left on this Hacker News thread as people shared their work experiences and how it led to burnout.
Why Do We (Inevitably) Burn Out?
Internal and External Factors
The German Medical Association analyzed findings from years of research and found that the factors that lead to burnout fall into two categories: internal and external.
Internal factors are intrinsic to the individual experiencing burnout, commonly linked to their personality traits. Here are some examples of internal traits that can cause “active burnout”:
- Holding idealistic expectations of themselves; overly ambitious or perfectionist
- Having a strong need for recognition
- Needing to please other people, suppressing their own needs in the process
- Controlling and not being able to delegate; feeling irreplaceable
- Often overestimating themselves, overcommitting to work, and becoming overburdened
- Viewing work as the only meaningful activity, and allowing work to become a substitute for social life
On the other hand, external factors are usually linked to the work environment individuals operate in, leading to an experience of “passive burnout”. External factors include:
- Demanding workload, for example, lack of time or resources to complete a task, or scope creep
- Problems with leadership or management where there is a lack of role clarity, poor communication, or lack of positive feedback
- A toxic atmosphere at work, for example, bullying
- Lack of autonomy and influence over work decisions
- Lack of personal and professional development opportunities
Burnout is typically caused by a mix of both internal and external factors. Being able to clearly identify and name these various factors can help developers find solutions to manage stress and avoid burnout.
Burnout and COVID-19
A study by Haystack Analytics found that 81% of developers reported experiencing burnout due to the pandemic. The study found that the top reasons for burnout included higher workload, inefficient processes, and unclear goals and targets.
Given that many organizations had to suddenly adopt new technology to facilitate remote work, it’s no wonder software developers experienced a sudden surge in workload. Checkmarx found that 46% of developers were expected to build and deploy software faster compared to pre-pandemic. All around the world, IT teams and software developers had to support their colleagues and companies at a scale they weren’t prepared for.
Parents are Burning Out Too
Burnout is also affecting parents, especially those with young children and single parents.
Before the pandemic, American parents reported the highest burnout rate from parenting. A 2018 study found that 2 in 3 workers reported feeling burnt out from work. Working parents were already having a tough time managing work and family.
The pandemic exacerbated the situation as carefully structured daily routines fell apart. Today, parents not only have to worry about work, but they also shoulder childcare and teaching responsibilities during work hours.
Burnout and Privilege
A quick search for “developer burnout” on Google or Reddit brings up blog posts and conversations filled with personal accounts of burnout and tips to overcome it. Broadly speaking, I think we’ve gotten better at recognizing and talking about burnout.
However, as these comments highlight, the ability to do something about burnout is still somewhat linked to privilege. The ability to seek professional help, for example going to therapy, is often limited to those who can afford to pay out of pocket. Since therapy is often not covered by health insurances, it is often a luxury that many cannot afford.
Taking paid vacation (even though a day or two is rarely enough) or long-term unpaid leave is another luxury that only a very few companies offer their employees. Other solutions, like adjusting your scope of work or negotiating for remote work, can also come with negative consequences, for example with many new mothers facing career setbacks as a result.
These types of tips rarely work to actually improve the situation for a majority of employees. Simply put, "getting help" or "taking time off" are "solutions" that come with their own set of problems, and for a lot of employees on the brink of burning out, they aren't solutions at all.
The 5 Stages of Burnout
Robert Veninga and James Spradley published a book in 1981 describing the five stages of burnout in relation to work. It’s important to note the gradual progression between stages as it can help individuals identify symptoms earlier on, and ideally, find healthy solutions to manage them.
Stage 1: The Honeymoon - Individuals are excited and energized by their work and experience high job satisfaction. Experts say that the key to avoiding burnout is to develop healthy coping strategies when stress inevitably creeps in so that individuals remain happy and productive at work.
Stage 2: Fuel Shortage - Individuals start noticing various ups and downs with their role, and job dissatisfaction and lower productivity begin to creep in. They may also experience fatigue and sleep disturbances, and might even indulge in escapist activities such as binge drinking or stress shopping.
Stage 3: Chronic Symptoms - If the individual is unable to manage job stressors, their symptoms in Stage 2 will worsen. For example, they might begin to experience chronic exhaustion, physical illnesses caused by stress, and even anger or depression.
Stage 4: Crisis - At this point, the various symptoms experienced in previous stages intensify or occur more frequently, possibly reaching a critical stage. Individuals might also begin obsessing about work frustrations, experience pessimism and self-doubt, or plunge even further into escapism.
Stage 5: Hitting the Wall - In this last stage, symptoms of burnout become so embedded in an individual’s life that they can be mistaken as emotional or physical problems rather than burnout. In some cases, symptoms are so severe they become fatal and risk the individual’s life.
How Should Developers Combat Burnout?
There are various ways to approach burnout in development teams. As I’ve highlighted earlier in the article, burnout can be caused by both internal and external factors. This means that the solutions we use should address both types of stressors.
While there are a lot of coping strategies for individuals to adopt, managers also play an integral role in ensuring that their workers have all the support they need to avoid or overcome burnout.
Measuring Burnout with Maslach’s Burnout Inventory (MBI)
In 1981, Christina Maslach developed a survey to measure burnout centered around three key themes: exhaustion, cynicism, and professional efficacy.
The MBI measures how often people experience these feelings, with answers ranging from “never” to “every day”. Survey respondents are also asked to report along a continuum of feelings, for example, “more positive” or “more negative”, instead of mere “yes” or “no” responses.
Taken together, an individual’s burnout profile is measured across all three dimensions, which gives us an idea of how they are experiencing burnout.
Broadly speaking, there are five work experience profiles that can help us better understand MBI results, identify the causes for burnout, and create strategies to reduce or manage stressors that lead to burnout.
The five work experience profiles are:
- Burnout: Negative scores on all three dimensions - exhaustion, cynicism, and professional efficacy
- Overextended: High negative score on exhaustion only
- Ineffective: High negative score on professional efficacy only
- Disengaged: High negative score on cynicism only
- Engagement: High positive scores on exhaustion, cynicism, and professional efficacy
Tackling the Factors You Can Control
As we continue to juggle responsibilities in and outside of work, there are measures we can take within our locus of control to better manage our circumstances.
- Acknowledge that burnout is not indicative of personal failure. It is important to remember that burnout is an indication that individuals are in a work environment where they have been pushed too hard for too long. There is no need to feel personal guilt or shame over burnout.
- Identify tasks that are energizing versus tasks that are draining. Make note of what you enjoy doing and what you absolutely don’t enjoy doing. Knowing what energizes you versus what drains you can help you figure out which projects to prioritize and what to start saying “No” to.
- Say “No” more often. (Check out this article if you need help saying “No”.)
- Keep track of positive events and small wins. Refer to them during difficult times to remind yourself of the good you’ve done. According to organizational psychologist Adam Grant, “the strongest buffer against burnout seems to be a sense of daily progress.”
- Be realistic with what you can and cannot achieve with the resources you have. Carefully consider the amount of energy and time you have to dedicate to projects and requests from colleagues.
- Lower demands by talking to your managers and outlining the additional support you need to get the job done.
- Tap into existing resources by leveraging on your strengths and your support network.
- Ask for help from teammates and managers. Be intentional and specific about your requests.
- Lower the unrealistic standards you hold yourself to. Not everything needs to be perfect.
- Make time to rest. Recognize moments when you’re exhausted and take a break whenever possible.
Looking Out for Your Team as a Manager
As managers, there are many things you can do to alleviate some of the external factors that contribute to your team’s daily stressors.
Identifying Burnout in Your Team
Managers play an important role in identifying burnout in their teams. While it might be difficult to get teammates to talk to you about their work experiences, there are telltale signs you can look out for.
- You notice a consistent increase in bugs in production, accompanied by a deterioration in the quality of work.
- Your roadmap is regularly derailed in pursuit of projects that don’t align with the company’s long-term goals.
- Your team is shipping less and less frequently.
- The individual is less engaged, for example, they speak up less during team meetings or there’s a noticeable change in how much they’re willing to support others.
- There’s an increase in cynicism and unconstructive criticism, and it’s beginning to impact the rest of the team.
Talking About Stress and Burnout at Work
One thing you as a manager can always do better is to open the lines of communication between you and your team and encourage team members to come forward before they hit a wall. Here are some pointers to help you talk about stress and burnout with your teammates and direct reports:
- Develop trust with your team by embracing transparency and paying attention during conversations. With trust as a foundation, it will be easier to normalize conversations about stress and burnout.
- Do not talk about burnout as an individual failure. Remember that it takes a lot of courage for someone to come forward, admit they’re overwhelmed, and ask for help. Learn to listen and develop a two-way conversation between you and your team. Use phrases like “help me understand...”, “walk me through…”, or “tell me more about…” to encourage discussions.
- If you’re unclear about the steps needed for your teammate to recover, help them clarify their request for help and support to overcome stress and burnout. As the manager, you're there to support, not come up with a solution on your own. Discuss options together and make a plan for future check-ins every few weeks, to make sure things are improving. In the end, overcoming burnout will require buy-in from both parties, so be ready to support their journey rather than try to drive it.
- If a team member has requested a vacation or long-term leave, work with them to create a re-entry plan. You can’t expect someone who just recovered from burnout to re-enter the workplace under those same circumstances and suddenly succeed. Consider a ramp-up plan and adjust their workload where necessary to set them up for long-term success.
Are You Causing Your Team Unnecessary Stress?
One common workplace dynamic that causes stress and burnout in workers is a general lack of trust between managers and their subordinates. It’s important for managers to catch themselves when they behave in unconstructive ways that negatively impact and potentially harm their teams.
Micromanagement is a common symptom of a lack of trust. This can look like a manager (you) regularly questioning a decision someone has made, insisting on making a decision for them, or not taking into account your team’s ideas and suggestions.
A lack of autonomy is also a common cause of stress and burnout. It’s important to understand why you insist on reviewing every line of code before it’s deployed, or why you’re limiting authorization and access of team members. Another common behavior is mistrusting your team when they work from home or insisting that they use tracking tools to monitor their work.
When Is It Time to Quit?
“One of the hardest parts of life is deciding whether to walk away or try harder.” -Paula Davis, Stress & Resilience Institute
Sometimes, the best way to deal with burnout is to quit, and there are many forms of quitting. It could look like quitting a project that’s going nowhere, giving up on a goal that didn’t align with your values, or quitting a task that exacerbates your weaknesses instead of playing to your strengths. Other times, quitting your full-time role might be the answer.
Paula Davis wrote about the connection between quitting and resilience, where “resilience is about perseverance with purpose.” She explains that resilience is “not about running yourself into the ground or encouraging your team to keep going when the goal or the outcome no longer makes sense, has changed, or has even become dangerous.”
“Resilience requires that you continually re-evaluate your position based on new information you receive whether internally or externally from your environment.”
When thinking about quitting, understand that “quitting is a phenomenal sign of resilience”, and that you are “responding to challenges in a flexible way”.
“It can be a brave step to quit,” she adds.
Whether you’re happily employed, struggling with your workload, or in the throes of burnout, only you know what’s right for you. I truly believe you’re able to make decisions that get you to where you want to be.