Developer Burnout - the how’s & the why’s

Anne-Lise Brown
Anne-Lise Brown ↓ citește în 13 minute
Feb 25, 2022
Citit de 344 de ori
83% of software developers suffer from workplace burnout

High-speed everything, extreme productivity, efficiency overload, topped with a wish for happy, satisfied, motivated, self-driven employees. That’s what the ideal of today’s working society seems to look like, and with such high pressure to perform both professionally, and personally, it’s not a big surprise that workers feel overwhelmed and, to be honest, slightly confused by the wide range of demands. When things get too much, the existential question of “Why am I doing this after all?” pops up, and motivation and enthusiasm for work go doooown. The experience of these negative feelings and attitudes towards work are what we call the “burnout syndrome”. It is not just a medical excuse for work, or a fashionable diagnosis (the way Kascha, Korckzak & Broich, 2011, titled their research on burnout) but an important topic in health-related economics and organizational psychology.

Not another Slack message at midnight!

What to expect from this article:

  1. Burnout 101
  2. Keep an eye on the symptoms
  3. The 5 stages of burnout
  4. Why do we burn out?
  5. Solutions, finally.
  6. What can team leaders and managers can do?

Burnout 101

Burnout is not technically a medical condition, but rather a collection of symptoms that lead to negative feelings about work. The World Health Organization defines it as a syndrome or “occupational phenomenon” that results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by feelings of exhaustion, increased mental distance, demotivation, and reduced professional efficacy.

In other words, no, it is not a trend, nor a sneaky way of requesting days off, it is a real phenomenon that leads to quite the opposite of what the fast, high-technological society that we live in desires. It leads to workers considering themselves hopeless, weak and powerless, even though (or maybe better said <<especially because>>) they feel guilty for not being able to perform at their standards and be the amazing professionals they could be. This thread (July 2021) of people expressing their experience with burnout is probably one of the most authentic and honest representations of burnout that can be found online.

A recent study conducted by Haystack Analytics has found that 83% of software developers suffer from workplace burnout. The top 4 reasons cited for burnout included high workload (47%), personal life (37%), inefficient process (31%), and unclear goals and targets (29%). Another key finding of the study is the extent to which burnout was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, 81% of developers reported increased burnout during this time, due to the increased workload they had to face.

Junade Ali, the computer scientist who led this research expressed her concern regarding the spread of burnout amongst developers: “Whether allowing us to stay connected or building vaccine booking systems, software developers have played a key role during the pandemic. The results show that developer burnout is far worse than I imagined when I designed this study. Given the ever-greater role software plays in society and the high rate of concern developers have for software reliability in their workplaces, this raises serious concerns about the quality of software that plays an integral role in our everyday lives and critical national infrastructure.”

Because the IT workers in Romania are not, unfortunately, an exception from the experience of burnout, nor of the effects of the pandemic, we aimed to reproduce a similar, smaller-scale research on our Linkedin page, asking the software engineers in our network what is the main reason that contributes to them experiencing burnout from work. 220 software engineers voted and the answers matched those of the respondents in the Haystack Analytics study, in terms of hierarchy, with a switch between the last 2 factors, “inefficient process” having 1% fewer votes than “unclear goals and targets”.

results to our poll on Linkedin

Needless to say, this is a significant issue for both employees and employers, that needs to be addressed. Understanding the causes and symptoms of software developer burnout can help identify when help is needed, and proactively create a work environment that prevents programmer burnout and supports employees in managing stress and optimizing work processes.

Keep an eye on the symptoms

Different people experience burnout in different ways, but there are some constant characteristics that should ring a bell, such as feelings of exhaustion and fatigue, periods of low motivation and productivity, and negative or cynical emotions about the work.

In the IT world, there are a number of burnout particularities that software engineers share, that very often revolve around coding and programming work.

  • Cynicism and criticism. Why am I even writing code?
  • Mentally drained. Feeling like you can’t wrap your mind around getting projects done, and physically finding it difficult to write code and organize your ideas.
  • Unmotivated to go to the office or to log in remotely.
  • Unreasonable attitudes towards colleagues or self such as anger, frustration, or doubting their/your competence
  • Avoidant or addictive behavior as a way of coping with the demands placed (or perceived as being placed) on you
  • Compulsively wanting to overwork to compensate for a feeling of not doing/being (good) enough
  • Awfulizing, and thinking that the entire success of the team is dependent on you. You are important, but not indispensable.
Trying to decipher if your symptoms are a sign of burnout

But you used to love your job so much! How is this even possible?

In their book, Robert Veninga & James Spradley (1981) described the 5 stages of burnout. Burnout is not a feeling that will just take over you out of the blue on a Wednesday afternoon. It evolves gradually, in such a way that one moment you are head over heels over what you’re doing, and before you know it you hate and doubt everything about your career choice. Knowing how burnout progresses in relation to work will help you identify the symptoms and find healthy ways for managing them before you want to quit and move alone in the middle of nowhere.

1: The Honeymoon - This is where you love your job. You are excited, energized, satisfied, overflowing with ideas! But you will encounter stress in the beginning too, so the key stays in developing healthy coping strategies early on to remain happy and productive at work.

2: Fuel Shortage - Slowly you realize everything can’t always be pink at work, and you notice the ups, the downs, and the in-betweens of your role. Job dissatisfaction and lower productivity can creep in, and you might be feeling tired and unrested. At this point, escaping reality by engaging in avoidant or addictive behaviors could seem like a solution (hint: it is not)

3: Chronic Symptoms - If there is a discrepancy between the job stressors and your coping abilities, the symptoms might worsen and turn into chronic exhaustion, physical illnesses caused by stress, and even anger, anxiety, or depression.

4: Crisis - Yep. Things keep getting worse. The previously mentioned symptoms become more frequent, they get to a critical stage, and all your focus is on work frustrations. Pessimism and self-doubt creeping in is no surprise at this point, nor is drowning even further into escapism.

5: Hitting the Wall - Now it’s clear as day that this is can’t be anything else but burnout. For some, it might be the point where they just can’t get motivated to do any sort of work, no matter how much they know they should (for example, for financial reasons), and for some, it might be that they don’t even bother criticizing themselves anymore. They’re just done with it. The authors mention that in some cases, symptoms are so severe they become fatal and risk the individual’s life.

We really hope you didn’t make it to 5 yet :(

Why do we burn out?

If we would take off some of the self-imposed pressure and responsibility for literally everything that is happening to us, we could get a clearer view of what is actually going on. We live in a world where self-help books try to tell us that we are responsible for all that concerns us, that it is only us who can make a change (objectively or at least a perspective one). While I strongly agree that the way we think of things can influence the way we feel and behave, I also mitigate for not being so hard on ourselves, and carefully choosing to what extent we agree with the solely individualistic approach of life.

The factors that lead to burnout could roughly be categorized into internal and external. Burnout typically occurs at the intersection of the two and being able to pinpoint which factors or which cluster applies to you, will make it easier to find the right solutions for managing stress and avoiding burnout.

Internal factors

  • idealistic expectations and perfectionism
  • strong need for recognition
  • need to please other people, and suppressing your own needs while doing so
  • need for control, not being able to delegate, feeling irreplaceable
  • overestimating yourself, overcommitting to work
  • seeing work as the only meaningful activity, and allowing it to become a substitute for social life
  • blur between work and home (remote workers feeling like they have to be “always on” and accessible)
  • misaligned values with the company

External factors

  • high and demanding workload - inflexible deadlines, lack of time or resources to complete a task
  • role unclarity that leads to conflicts with leadership or management
  • poor communication
  • lack of positive feedback
  • unpleasant work atmosphere
  • non-technical managers who don’t understand the full technical implications of the job and have unrealistic expectations
  • company or industry culture promoting long working hours and always putting in 110%
  • decision fatigue - remote employees having to act as their own boss, motivating themselves
  • on the other side of the spectrum, lack of autonomy and influence over work decisions, micromanaging
  • lack of personal and professional development opportunities
  • monotonous projects

On top of all these, there’s the extra pressure applied by the pandemic (as mentioned earlier), the stress of being a parent and finding proper ways of managing work and family, and the reality that coping with burnout is sometimes a privilege. The last idea might be controversial, so to further explain, access to therapy is not always available for people experiencing burnout, taking paid vacation or long-term unpaid leave is a possibility that only very few companies offer their employees, and adjusting your work responsibilities or negotiating for different work conditions can also come with negative consequences. In fewer words, the two classics, "getting help" and "taking time off" are not quite for everybody and can cause a different series of problems.

Finally got to the point.

Ok, ok, only problems so far, but how do we solve them?

You are already trying to juggle the responsibilities at work and in your personal life, so the one thing you do not need is trying to control things that are not in your power. Developing software is a complex task that requires a lot of mental energy, and maybe the thought of adding some new techniques in your work may seem like just another stressful task you’ll have to cross off your checklist, but in the long run, these little extra steps or mental efforts are going to pay off by keeping you happy, focused, on productive. Heads up, the list is long! But worth a read :) Try the following strategies to keep stress within functional limits and avoid burnout:

  • Burnout ≠ personal failure. Rephrase your ideas around burnout and accept that it is not a reason to feel guilt, shame, or worthlessness. Burnout is, more often than not, the outcome of a working environment that pushes employees too much, for too long.
  • What excites you? By identifying and prioritizing the tasks that you enjoy and that make you get into the flow state at work, you will find it easier to say “no” to the projects that, simply put, are not quite your cup of tea.
  • The full side of the glass. Indeed, there will be difficult times and challenges while coding, but try to keep track of your little success and wins and reflect back on them when you feel like you’re not progressing.
  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Everybody wants to be a good colleague and help whenever possible, but a realistic view of our time and knowledge resources is needed to keep the focus on the projects that are truly important to you.
  • Ask and you shall receive. Sometimes, as much as you would like to complete all assigned tasks, you need some extra support. Talk to your managers and figure out together how they can help optimize the processes or support you (even if that could mean lowering the demands).
  • Reach out. Be intentional and specific about your requests, and your teammates will for sure be glad to help where they can.
  • Work in progress. If perfection is what you want to achieve, well...think twice. Try lowering your unrealistic standards and shift your aim to doing the best you can.
  • Rest. When you are sitting in front of the screen for many hours while pushing your creativity and your analytic thinking to the max, making time to take regular breaks is crucial for keeping productivity at your desired levels.
  • Impact vs. effort. Look at the tasks you have to complete and start with the ones that have a big impact and don’t take much effort, to provide a sense of efficacy and set the tone for the day.
  • Mix it up. If you keep on using the same technology and do the same things over and over again it might become monotonous. Of course, not every job allows you to have complete freedom over how you approach tasks, but what you can do is dedicate some of your time to learning new technology, building your own project, or venturing beyond your comfort zone.
  • Workspace. Especially when working remotely, it is important to have a distinct workspace and dedicated working hours in order to set physical and mental boundaries between work and life.
  • Silent mode on. At the end of your working hours, turn off all your notifications so you don’t get tempted to “quickly” check on something, answer an email, or read a request from a colleague that you’ll end up thinking about the rest of your day.
Teamwork makes the dream work

What can team leaders and managers can do?

Start off simply, by looking out for your team before burnout even has the occasion to infiltrate. An authentic connection with your team is what is going to help you identify if any kind of imbalances appear in the team, whether it’s regarding processes or individual aspects. By developing trust within the team, conversations about the ups and downs are naturally going to occur, and talking about stress and burnout is no longer going to seem a subject that needs to be kept to oneself. If, however, employees feel burnt out, do not blame your leadership or management skills, and get into the downwards spiral of criticism, but rather help them express their need for help and support and co-create a plan to get back on track. Remember this is a process, not a one-time meeting, and plan ahead for further checking, ask for feedback, and pay attention to the slow and steady progress of your employees rather than expecting an overnight comeback.

Be honest with yourself and identify the unnecessary stress you might be causing your team. Are you micromanaging? Is it hard for you to allow flexibility? Are you mitigating for 110% productivity at all times, at all costs? You are, after all, dealing with a team of professionals, who dedicate their time to an extremely demanding job, so you might as well trust that they are going to perform as you would like them to (or even better!) if you trust them enough to (partially) redesign their working systems in a way that works for them.

Support your team by creating better systems and processes that make communication clear, help manage deadlines in a way that doesn’t remind them of turning in school projects, invest in tools that unclog their schedule of redundant tasks, and organize activities that promote mental health, such as group counseling sessions or psychoeducational.

Lead with transparency and authenticity


Kaschka WP, Korczak D, Broich K. Burnout: a fashionable diagnosis. Dtsch Arztebl Int 2011; 108(46): 781–7. DOI: 10.3238/arztebl.2011.0781Veninga, R. L., & Spradley, J. P. (1981). The work/stress connection: how to cope with job burnout. Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown.

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