Combating Software Engineer Burnout - 10 Steps CTOs Can Take

Do you worry about your software engineers' well-being? In 2022, many leaders say "yes". The increasing programmer burnout rates give many sleepless nights. In this article, we investigate the causes of burnout, explore the known prevention tactics, and teach how to aid a developer that's already feeling burnt out.

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August 29, 2022

TL;DR

Measuring the software engineer burnout rate

Let's play a guessing game.

<span class="colorbox1" fs-test-element="box1"><p><strong>Picture this:</strong> You're talking to 258 software engineers, one-by-one, about the software engineer burnout. It's the middle of 2021 = we're 1,5 years into the pandemic.</p><p>How many of them do you think show the symptoms of burnout?</p><p>A. 0-25%</p><p>B. 26-50%</p><p>C. 51-75%</p><p>D. 76-100%</p><p><strong></strong></p><p><img class="fit picture" src="https://global-uploads.webflow.com/622fa4d65a5fab0c3465af07/630f5c1ee89d58c7bea99cf1_combating-software-engineer-burnout-pandemic-impact.png" loading="lazy" alt="Depiction of the impact of covid-19 pandemic on the developer burnout rate."></p><p><strong>Correct answer:</strong> D</p></span>

Those 258 sofware engineers from Europe we're surveyed by Haystack in June 2021.

A devastating total of 83% reported feelings of burnout, with 55%, reporting “great” or “moderate” levels of burnout.

What's causing the problem? How can you tell, as a leader, if your developers are experiencing burnout symptoms? What can you do to help them?

In this article, we're trying to answer those question.

How to tell if your developer is experiencing burnout symptomps

In general, burnout is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion combined with a sense of reduced accomplishment, or even a loss of personal identity. According to the WHO’s classification, it’s not seen as an illness, but rather a syndrome involving negative feelings around the work or workplace. People experiencing burnout feel emotionally drained, unmotivated, and unwilling to work in general.

<blockquote><p>“I actually think burnout is the wrong description of it. I think it’s burn up. Physiologically, that is what you are doing because of the chronic stress being placed on your body.”</p><p>— Richard Boyatzis, psychologist, expert in the field of emotional intelligence and behavior change</p></blockquote>

In the beginning, the employee starts to experience their ups and downs within their role, and first upsets lead to lowered satisfaction and productivity. In case they’re not able to handle those first stressors, their state is becoming worse, and might turn into chronic exhaustion and result in mental or physical illness.

This is why it’s critical not to miss the first symptoms, and react early enough to provide your software engineer with proper treatment. 

Depiction of the software engineer burnout symptoms.

Early burnout symptoms

  • lack of energy, motivation and productivity
  • pessimism and negative thoughts about the work
  • decrease in typical performance
  • procrastination and trouble meeting deadlines
  • lack of involvement in daily tasks
  • inability to focus
  • irritability or anger

Late burnout symptoms

  • emotional exhaustion
  • doubting one’s self-esteem
  • physical symptoms: headaches, stomach aches
  • trouble sleeping
  • frustration and aggression
  • losing interest in hobbies and activities outside of work
  • job negligence.

Software programmer burnout symptoms

In the case of software developers, some symptoms might be more specific. According to the Software Developer Burnout Survey 2020:

  • 80% of developers claim that their burnout symptom is a general lack of energy to work and complete coding projects
  • 43% experience critical feelings towards coding in general
  • 43% feel the urge to overwork to compensate for the feeling of falling behind
  • some developers also notice disinterest in taking up new projects, learning new things and following best coding practices.

Why is software engineers burnout dangerous?

Burnout, although experienced differently by every individual, can lead to severe consequences. According to Deloitte, 91% of surveyed 1,000 full-time employees in the US in 2015, claimed that burnout symptoms highly influenced their work quality, while 83% also noticed a negative impact on their personal lives.

However, burnout affects not only individuals but also entire organizations that may face:

  • loss of efficiency
  • not meeting deadlines
  • lowered quality of delivered projects
  • increased staff turnover.

What does it actually mean? When your team is unmotivated, slow and less effective, it affects the whole business.

This is why you should never ignore early burnout symptoms, but implement prevention and recovery measures across every unit of your organization. Taking action before the problem escalates might determine not only your team's but also the company’s health and efficiency.

What are the reasons for software engineer burnout?

That same report by Deloitte indicates, that in 2015, 77% of employees had already experienced burnout.

The intensity of the phenomena among software developers increased during the COVID-19 pandemic through the changing trends in demand for software development work and digital transformation. 

The earlier mentioned Haystack Analytics research from 2021 revealed, that 83% of developers declared that they started to feel burnt out during the pandemic. 

Brittany Barkholtz, a Minnesota-based clinical therapist shared her thoughts on the topic:

<blockquote><p> “I keep seeing all of these articles saying ‘the next wave of the pandemic will be in mental health’ or ‘mental health will be the next frontlines’ or ‘a mental health crisis is coming and I'm like... are we not already there? Because I think we're already there”. </p><p>— Brittany Barkholtz, clinical therapist</p></blockquote>

Although the causes of burnout are rarely straightforward and clear, we can distinguish three groups of burnout-accelerating circumstances.

Depiction of the key causes of software engineer burnout.

Pandemic-related factors: 

  • working in isolation during the remote work period
  • lack of efficient communication caused by lack of personal contact
  • not receiving required support due to communication or technical issues
  • general anxiety related to health, personal life and uncertainty about the future
  • difficulty in setting boundaries between work and personal time.

Personal factors:

  • being ambitious and perfectionist
  • having a strong need for recognition
  • inability to ask for help and delegate tasks
  • overcommitting to work and lack of healthy boundaries
  • substituting personal and social life with work.

Workplace-related factors

Although you’re not always in power to influence your employee’s personal life and cannot stop the global crises, there are plenty of factors you can control.

According to Haystack Analytics, the most common workplace-related reasons for software engineer burnout are:

  • high workload (for 47% of developers)
  • inefficient processes (31%)
  • unclear goals and targets (29%)
  • lack of communication with the team or management (27%).
  • unrealistic demands (25%).

The other reasons presented in research and books on programmer burnout are:

  • micromanagement 
  • monotonous projects, low variety of tasks and lack of challenges
  • pressure of deadlines
  • chaotic management 
  • toxic company’s culture
  • not enough vacation and days off
  • mismatched project managers
  • isolation and lack of human interactions
  • too early promotions
  • misaligned values and irrelevance of the work’s goal. 

As you can notice, there are multiple factors that you, as a CTO or team leader, can influence to prevent burnout. We'll be exploring them later in the article.

How to combat programming burnout?

Fine, but what if it's too late? How can you help the developer that already feels burn-out? 

Programmer burnout recovery might be tough and difficult for both of you. However, there are plenty of things you can do to support your developers in the process. 

Depiction of the steps in combating software engineer burnout.

Find the reason

There’s no universal recipe for programmer burnout recovery. In order to come up with the cure, first you need to find a diagnosis. Maybe it’s an excessive workload, lack of efficient tools or a workplace bully? Try to identify specific reasons for extra stress and job dissatisfaction of your employee. 

Provide individual support

Once you’re aware of the reasons, you can check out to which extent you can influence them. The earlier you will react, the easier it will be to mitigate early burnout symptoms before the problem escalates. 

Try to inquire your employee about their needs and design an individual recovery plan. Let your employee decide on how they want their daily work to look like, and implement changes accordingly - reduce their activities if they feel overwhelmed, increase them if their work is too monotonous or let them spend more time with family and friends.

Organize psychological help

‘Do I have programmer burnout’? No matter what are the reasons behind this thought, seeing a specialist is one of the best things that one can do when they start to experience negative symptoms. The support of an expert will help your employees to reduce stress, learn coping techniques and mitigate early burnout symptoms. 

In the case of more severe cases, psychological support is simply a must and should become an integral part of the programmer burnout recovery process. As an employer, you can pay for your employee’s appointment or hire a psychologist internally.

Schedule doctor appointment

In case your employee starts to struggle with the physical symptoms of overworking, there’s no time to waste. Do not hesitate to schedule a doctor appointment for them. Once you neglect it, a short break to regain balance can turn into a permanent inability to work and a long-term absence.

Support socialization

Your burn-out employee might not be interested in participating in social life. So, put some effort into making them feel good in the team, and let them know that they’re a valuable and meaningful member. Once they feel recognized and appreciated, their feeling of isolation will mitigate and their morale will grow.

How to prevent employee burnout?

<blockquote><p>“It takes 10 times as long to put yourself back together as it does to fall apart”. </p><p>— Suzanne Collins, writer and author</p></blockquote>

Developer burnout is easier to prevent than to cure. 

But still, Deloitte research reveals that 70% of employees think that their employers don’t do enough to prevent burnout. That’s actually good news for you, as it means that you’re really empowered to change things for the better.

Some of the tips on how to prevent burnout seem to be trivial. Having a good, 8-hour long sleep, eating healthy, and exercising regularly is surely helpful. However, the way your employees spend their free time is not really something you can control. Still, there are plenty of things that you actually can do to improve their mental health, work-life balance and general well-being.

And here are our tips on how to prevent programmer burnout split into a few key areas.

Depiction of the steps in preventing software engineer burnout.

Work-life balance

Respect your employees’ boundaries

It’s your job to establish a supportive workplace with clear working hours and responsibilities. Respect every “no” from your employees, and don’t force them to work harder to complete projects that are beyond their capabilities.

Keep in mind the words of Betsy Jacobson, the co-founder of ForAffect:

<blockquote><p>“Balance is not better time management, but better boundary management. Balance means making choices and enjoying those choices.”</p><p>— Betsy Jacobson, Co-founder of ForAffect</p></blockquote>

Don’t exceed working hours 

Let your employees maintain their work-life balance and don’t bother them with phone calls or messages beyond working hours unless the situation is really extreme. This really interrupts their personal time and can lead to the feeling of being under constant control and overwhelmed with work.

Ensure free time and flexibility

According to FlexJobs, 56% of developers believe that more flexibility in work hours and task management helps to prevent burnout. 46% come up with the idea of mental health and more time off. So, it’s crucial for you to make them aware that you support them in using their vacation days and taking rest.

Management

Reduce work

There’s nothing more overwhelming than the pipeline of upcoming tasks that must fit into a tight schedule. If only possible, reduce the number of projects, implement automation or simply avoid being understaffed.

Provide a variety of tasks and growth opportunities

Boredom is an accelerator of burnout. Developers’ work is often tedious and monotonous. If they start to feel that they’ve been doing the same job for too long, it’s time to challenge them with fresh projects, tasks or trainings. 

Once they’re forced to learn something new and notice that they are provided with growth opportunities, they will stay motivated and ready to perform.

Improve your processes

Inefficient processes are one of the top reasons for software engineer burnout. Building an organization equipped with modern, efficient tools supporting productivity will allow better project management, and make daily work easier and enjoyable.

Give power to people

There’s nothing more empowering in the workplace than letting your employees make their own decisions and co-create their work environment according to their will. Design the structures and processes that will help you to collect their thoughts, and implement proposed solutions and ideas.

Communication

Ask for feedback

The chance to express their thoughts and opinions is a chance to make the work environment more supportive and friendly. Don’t be afraid of some honesty and encourage your teams to provide you with feedback proactively. Thanks to this, they will feel appreciated and motivated to improve things around them.

Set clear priorities and requirements

Once your employees are clear about the expected requirements and goals of their job, they will be less confused and upset. This will help them to retain higher work efficiency and make it easier to deliver tasks within deadlines.

Remote work

Provide technical solutions

Working online requires software and processes that support remote cooperation. Make sure that your employee has everything they need to communicate efficiently, and that nothing bothers them in their daily routine.

Schedule regular meeting

In order to mitigate the feeling of isolation, meet with all your team members on regular basis. This will not only improve communication but also mitigate the feeling of loneliness and isolation.

Encourage practicing hobbies and socialization

Even though your employee works remotely, you can still support them in practicing their hobbies and spending their free time productively. You can encourage offline meetings with other team members once in a while or provide them with vouchers for sports or cultural activities.

Healthy habits

Encourage to take breaks

<blockquote><p>“Self-care is giving yourself permission to pause”</p><p>— Cecilia Tran, Doctor of Medicine</p></blockquote>

Let your employees know how important is it to take regular short breaks during the work day, and respect that they are not responding to your e-mails immediately. 

Support their physical condition

Make your employees more and drink water regularly during working hours in order to help them to maintain good physical condition. To achieve it, you can provide them with software that monitors the flow of their workday and sends notifications once they should exercise or have a glass of water.

Promote mental health

Once you make your employees more aware of the symptoms and consequences of burnout, they will be more encouraged to think critically about what they experience at work. They will also feel more supported and encouraged to share their thoughts and take action to improve their daily work. Also, educate them on the importance of having good sleep and a healthy lifestyle. 

<blockquote><p>“The percentage of time your body and brain need you to spend resting is about ten hours out of every twenty-four. It doesn’t have to be every day; it can average out over a week or a month or more. [...]  We’re not saying you should take 42 percent of your time to rest; we’re saying if you don’t take the 42 percent, the 42 percent will take you. It will grab you by the face, shove you to the ground, put its foot on your chest, and declare itself the victor.”</p><p>― Emily Nagoski, Ph.D. and the author of “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle”</p></blockquote>

A friendly farewell from a fellow remote software development team

Before your exhausted team members will switch to low-stress software engineering jobs or start to google jobs for burnt-out programmers, it’s worth taking an effort to conquer unhealthy working habits, remove managerial mistakes and keep your employees and the whole company in a good condition.

We hope that we managed to provide you with at least a few valuable tips that will help you to build a healthy, supportive organization. 

If one of the identified reasons for your developers' burnout was task overload, remember that you do not need to deal with all of them internally. Scaling your team in-house is a big undertaking but there are other routes you can take. You might consider a temporary partnership with a couple of freelancers, you could outsource the whole project to a software house, or you could partner up with a remote development team. Feel free to shoot us a message, if that sounds like your cup of tea.

Bianka Pluszczewska
github
Editor

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