Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve completed a huge project and returned to your desk, only to find out that you have more demanding deadlines to meet? Would you feel excited to tackle these new projects, or would you feel like it’s a frustrating chore that needs to be completed? If you thought the latter, you’re probably really exhausted, and we don’t blame you – it’s tough being expected to operate like a well-oiled machine. But do know that this is a sign of burnout.
Chances are, we’ve all heard about and experienced burnout at some point in our lives. But recently, research has indicated a rise in burnout amongst developers.
Specifically, Haystack Analytics Study found that 83% of developers suffer from workplace burnout and the top three reasons they cited were:
1. Increased Workload (47%)
2. Inefficient Processes (31%)
3. Unclear Goals and Targets (29%)
On the other hand, 81% of developers indicated increased burnout due to the pandemic.
Shocking statistics like these make us wonder if we’ve ever stopped to think and reflect on how we feel to spot early signs of burnout. Sometimes we don’t realize it’s coming, and other times we may not know how to face it, prevent it, or reduce it. Don’t worry, we’re here to help you better understand.
What is Burnout?
According to the World Health Organization, burnout is an “occupational phenomenon.” This occurs due to chronic workplace stress characterized by exhaustion or drained energy, feeling mentally distant from one’s job, negative feelings about one’s career, and reduced professional efficacy. Watch out for the following symptoms to identify signs of burnout.
The 5 Phases of Burnout
According to Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, there are five phases of burnout. We should be mindful of these phases to identify early signs of burnout and seek the most appropriate coping strategy to avoid diving deeper into critical burnout.
🌕 Phase 1: Honeymoon 😃
When you start a new job and take on new responsibilities, you may feel excited, enthusiastic, and experience increased job satisfaction. In this phase, you may not experience burnout symptoms but are likely to anticipate what type of stresses you may eventually face.
Some Commonly Experienced Symptoms: Feeling obligated to prove yourself, increased productivity, increased job satisfaction, willingness to accept new responsibilities, high optimism, high energy, and a natural flow of creativity.
What You Can Try: This would be a good phase to ensure you have boundaries set in place, so your work-life balance isn’t impacted down the road.
▶️ Phase 2: Onset of Stress 🙂
You may begin to feel that certain days are becoming more challenging to manage, and signs of stress might start to kick in which can impact your physical, mental, and emotional health.
Some Commonly Experienced Symptoms: Anxiety, avoiding decision-making, changes in appetite, fatigue, easily forgetting things, neglecting your personal needs, headaches, increased blood pressure, unable to focus, getting irritated, job dissatisfaction, unable to sleep or reduced sleep quality, lack of social interactions, and reduced productivity.
What You Can Try: If you happen to notice early signs of burnout or thoughts triggering overwhelming feelings, try to shift your thinking pattern away from the stressors and take some time to take care of yourself. This could be stepping away from work to engage in something that will fuel or calm you.
⏩ Phase 3: Chronic Stress 😐
In this phase, you may begin experiencing stress more frequently along with intense symptoms compared to phase two. It may have become an everyday experience filled with anxiety and stress.
Some Commonly Experienced Symptoms: Feeling angry, behaving aggressively, extreme exhaustion, increased cynicism in attitude, denying the problems you’re facing at work or home, feeling pressured, increased consumption of alcohol, caffeine or drugs, missing deadlines or targets, constantly tired in the mornings, physically unwell, procrastinating, socially withdrawing from family and friends, increase in escapism activities, and no time for hobbies.
What You Can Try: When things start to become overwhelming, make sure that the time you’re taking away from work helps you feel better than worse. If you have a trusted loved one or friend to share what’s on your mind, try to spend some time with them to feel better. Sometimes taking a break from work to go out with friends can do more good than harm.
🚨Phase 4: Burnout 🙁
In this phase, you may find it very difficult to cope as the symptoms worsen compared to the previous phases of burnout. When one enters this phase, it is highly recommended to seek professional help to cope better.
Some Commonly Experienced Symptoms: Behavioural changes, chronic headaches, chronic stomach or bowel problems, completely neglecting personal needs, continuing or increasing level of escapism activities, wanting to move away from work or family and friends, feeling empty, obsessing over the problems you’re facing, completely negative about work and home, physical symptoms may worsen, increased self-doubt, and socially isolating yourself.
What You Can Try: Though you may feel as if you’ve lost control of how you’re feeling, try to calm your mind and think about what baby steps you can take to help you gradually get back on track. It could be a good idea to start seeking help from a coach, therapist, or counsellor who can support you to regain control and reduce your burnout as well.
🧨 Phase 5: Habitual Burnout 😢
In this final phase, burnout has become a huge part of your life, leaving you vulnerable to significant and ongoing impacts on your mental, physical, and emotional health.
Some Commonly Experienced Symptoms: Depression, chronic sadness, chronic mental fatigue, and chronic physical fatigue.
What You Can Try: If you have tried all you can to reduce burnout and still have trouble coping, it may be time to take things more seriously. It would be worthwhile to have a deep conversation with a professional about the values most important to you and whether your current job will support that or if it’s time to consider a career change. Remember, you’re far more important than your job, and if you must make a big decision to improve your health, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Causes of Burnout for Developers
Now that we’ve taken some time to understand the specifics of burnout, it’s time to look at what causes burnout for developers.
Developers are often tasked with tons of work due to unrealistic expectations. It may be easy to conceive a project and its components, but it may not be as easy to deliver it immediately. This leads to impossible deadlines, impractical timelines, and improper planning that exerts developers to work beyond their normal physical and mental capacity. Working long hours, weekends, and burning the midnight oil leads to burnout much faster compared to developers who have better work-life balance.
Aiming for Perfectionism
Some devs are highly obsessed and attentive to every spec of detail when writing code, which can very easily lead to burnout, especially because they won’t be willing to share the workload with others. Therefore, finding a balance and delegating work wherever possible is important.
Lack of Control
When it comes to decision-making, if you aren’t given the liberty to provide direction or contribute to a decision, it can start to develop a lack of trust and a mental distance between you, the developer and your manager. In many cases, developers are forced to use tools they believe are ineffective due to management pressure, and this may decrease job satisfaction and quality of work.
Just like any other profession, devs also get tired of coding. It’s pretty intense brain work, and one can only do so much. That’s why it’s crucial to give devs a variety of work to make their day-to-day routine more interesting and enjoyable.
Lack of Transparent Communication
Communication is critical to reducing work stressors. If it’s difficult to communicate transparently with one’s team or manager due to fears of judgment or consequences, that’s a sign of poor work culture and a contributing factor to burnout. It’s imperative to foster a culture where devs can openly communicate their challenges (both professional and personal), so they can better cope with them than bottling them up and suffering in silence.
Lack of Support Systems
Tackling multiple tasks and responsibilities without adequate support makes it harder to prevent burnout. If devs feel detached and don’t have any supportive relationships in their work environment, they will fill in this lack of support with increased work. Completing work is essential, but taking time in between for non-work, casual conversations can help to ease one’s mind.
Lack of Work-Life Balance
It’s not a good sign if there is no work-life balance. Being fully engaged in work to meet spontaneous or looming deadlines while avoiding “me time” is a huge red flag. Maybe that new feature request can wait for another day or week, or maybe debugging can wait for another few days; nothing has to be immediate if you’re not feeling up for it. It’s easy to neglect personal needs to meet work expectations but at the end of the day, remember that you’re far more important than the work you’re doing.
If you have values that differ from the organization or their team, it can impact your work. You may want to approach a project differently, but the organization’s mission may not allow it, or their team may have a different method. If you have to hold back your ideas or work hard to prove why your approach is worth implementing due to misaligned values, it becomes a constant tug of war, eventually leading to increased burnout and lack of interest in your work.
Poor Coding Culture
In many organizations, junior developers are not properly trained to manage the future implications of specific projects. Consequently, senior developers are held responsible for clearing or avoiding technical debts, which can be highly time-consuming. This can increase your workload and easily blur the lines between your work-life balance.
How Developers Can Reduce Burnout
We now know what causes developer burnout, so let’s see what steps we can take to reduce it.
Keep Your Passion Alive
It’s often tough to keep your passion alive when you’re in a role that requires you to work with the same technologies or becomes heavily monotonous. It’s not always possible to mix up things to keep your role interesting due to the nature of your core responsibilities. A potential solution to this could be dedicating some time outside your role to learn new technologies, build your own project, contribute to an open source project or take on freelancing projects to experiment outside your comfort zone.
Set Boundaries & Learn to Say No
Sometimes it’s challenging to say “no” when you’re asked to take on new projects, especially if you don’t want to give up on a new learning opportunity. However, if your workload is already at full capacity, accepting new projects will make things harder for you. To ensure you produce your best quality work, you should make sure you have enough time to do your existing work and allocate more time for yourself. Importantly, you should keep in mind that no one will feel disappointed if you communicate why you’re unable to take up a new project or task. By saying no, you’re setting boundaries and ensuring you can take care of yourself and deliver high-quality work.
Communicate Your Difficulties
When you’re working in teams, communicating the progress of your work, blockers, and wins are crucial for team success. The more openly everyone communicates in a team, the safer it feels for devs to share the challenges they’re facing. It’ll also provide the reassurance that sharing blockers or making mistakes will not be held against anyone or used to judge their work quality. Instead, efforts will be taken to resolve the problems as a team. If you’re in a team that doesn’t provide a safe learning space, it may be a good time to start a conversation about it.
Ask for Help
Sometimes asking for help can be difficult because you might wonder if it will be perceived as your inability to perform independently. However, if you’re seeking support to perform your tasks efficiently while ensuring quality, it’ll actually show your willingness to get the job done. So as long as you’re specific with your requests, you can ask your colleagues or managers for additional support without hesitation. Asking for help will also let them know the specifics of your job, and they may try to provide you with all the resources you need to do your job effectively.
Set Realistic Goals
Based on the projects or tasks you’re currently assigned, take some time to review them and prioritize them based on urgency, the level of effort required, and the impact it will create. If you rank your work in this manner, you can save time for the tasks that require the most attention and leave the rest for later. However, if you have too many high-priority tasks, you may have to communicate that with your team and manager to manage expectations and set boundaries for yourself. One can only do so much.
Take Care of Yourself
It’s common wanting to complete your work in one sitting to avoid distractions caused by zoning in and out of work. But realistically speaking, the more you get away from your screen, the better it will be for your health. You can make some time for a quick walk or lunch break or engage in physical activity to get your body moving and blood circulating. It would be even more helpful to schedule regular breaks throughout your day, so you don’t forget to take them.
Also, try to take a break from coding every once in a while. This could be a vacation or even a stay-at-home vacation. Make sure you use this time to fully disconnect from your work because if you let work come in the way, once your vacation or stay-cation ends, you may feel more exhausted than energized. Remember, health is wealth! The more you take care of yourself, the better your work performance will be.
We hope this article helped you break down what burnout is, why it occurs, and how you can take steps to reduce and prevent its detrimental effects on your overall health. Remember, make yourself a priority, your first priority.