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How to Avoid Developer Burnout

burnout

We all know the cliche: developer hooked up to redbull IV, working late nights with nothing but the blue light of the monitor emanating out into the darkness.  Many companies hold developers ransom with their own self image, believing all developers live to maniacally pound away at a keyboard, whilst generalizing developers as anti-social computer nerds. And here’s the thing, developers have a precarious sense of self-worth, and high standards when it comes to their work.  It’s all too easy for the industry to feed into that. Developers start out self-driven, ready to prove themselves and satisfy their own lofty demands for high quality and innovative code.  

The IT world is notorious for pushing, pushing, and then pushing some more to get products shipping, which is detrimental to the mental health of employees and the future of the tech industry. As developers push themselves to meet these demands without recognition or vacation time, burnout is imminent.  Instead of being motivated to prove themselves, they are apathetic, unmotivated, and hopeless.  Burnout should not be associated with high quality work; it is, in fact, the opposite.  IT consultant Bruce F. Webster refers to this phenomena as the “Dead Sea Effect”, which is in other words: too salty to sustain life.  Large companies lose their seasoned, talented employees to burnout.  For everyone who understands the importance of culture as an attractant to other talented individuals, you can see how this creates a vicious cycle of low quality workers who are difficult to retain.  

The topic of burnout in the developer community is known, but it’s not discussed in most workplaces, or even among developers.  This isn’t a conversation we can continue to avoid — Americans spend nearly 30% of their entire lives working, and working in an environment that inflicts emotional, mental, or physiological harm is simply unacceptable.  Here’s how you can help your team prevent burnout:

Understand the Difference Between Stress & Burnout

I think the first step to preventing burnout is to understand the differences between stress & burnout, which can be difficult to ascertain.  Stress is temporary, it’s characterized by over engagement, and often is physically harmful.  Burnout, on the other hand, is characterized by disengagement, and is emotionally damaging in the long-term.  That’s not to say that stress and burnout are separate, they can be intertwined where the effects of excessive stress morph into burnout, and the individual reaches a point beyond caring.  It’s important to understand the symptoms because it’s all too common for an individual suffering from burnout to not know it.  

Symptoms:

  • Hopelessness
  • Chronic Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Depression
  • Anger/Irritability
  • Disengagement/Blunted Emotions

Of course, every individual is different, and few people feel comfortable sharing their personal suffering with others and especially in a professional environment.  Look out for your team members and employees by observing marked changes in behavior or work habits.  If you suspect a team member is suffering from burnout, implement some of our next suggestions.

Mandate Vacation Time

Vacation time is almost always part of a benefits package, yet many companies subtly (sometimes not so subtly) discourage employees from using this time, and it’s downright shameful.  The usual tactic for discouraging vacation time is laying a guilt trip on developers, making them feel as if they are letting down their team if they use their allotted vacation time.  Employees end up feeling like they are disappointing management and their sense of worth is damaged.  

Companies and teams need should all have strategies in place so that a team member’s vacation doesn’t hold up a project.  Company culture needs to encourage, if not mandate, that team members use their vacation time.  Policies like this make employees feel appreciated, and provide valuable time for employees to ‘recharge their batteries’.  It’s a win-win, employees get to spend quality time with their families and friends, and employees return to work well-rested and motivated to work.

desk 

Time to ‘Unplug’

Related to vacation time is the ability to ‘unplug’ from work life.  If leaders and co-workers are sending emails at all hours, even without the expectation of a response, they perpetuate a model that tells employees “working around the clock is expected to get ahead”.  Expecting people to be available simply because technology makes it possible is not good for employees’ mental health.  There is a line between work and personal life, and that includes messages sent without a call to action.  Just because an employee may be able to join in on a conference call from their hammock in Hawaii, does not mean that they should.  When team members are off, let them be off — really off.  

Whether it’s a weekend, night, or vacation, employees shouldn’t feel like they need to be constantly checking their devices.  It tempts people to work while they are away in order to get ahead, and this is a recipe for burnout.  We all need to unplug more, even if it makes developers initially uncomfortable.

Be Realistic About Assigning Tasks, Build Variety into Team Structure

There are three types of burnouts according to a Spanish group of psychiatric researchers: frenetic, worn-out, and under-challenged.  Your team can address ‘worn-out’ burnout by realistically assigning tasks.  Breaking down big projects into manageable pieces and sprints is really helpful in avoiding this type of burnout.  Team members gain a sense of control and gratification when they are equipped to finish a project within the timeline, and they are much less likely to burnout.  

Monotonous tasks often result in categorically ‘under-challenged’ burnout.  Avoid boredom and lack of personal development by offering team members learning opportunities.  A lot of companies find that pair programming, and rotating project roles really enriches a developer’s work life socially and intellectually. When developers are able to work with others they tend to feel less isolated in their roles, and gain different bits of knowledge from each partner.  Whether it be pair programming or work week hackathons, giving your employees an opportunity to develop professionally and socially is a good burnout preventative.  

Be Supportive

Encourage employees to assess their emotions by creating a culture around it.  While the workplace needs to remain professional, we also need to understand that work is an enormous part of our lives, and people don’t leave their emotions at home.  Managers should be equipped to listen to and address employee concerns, and know the signs and symptoms of burnout.  Make sure that your company makes being supportive a value, and reward management and employees who exemplify a supportive culture.  

Part of being supportive of your employees means investing in their home life as well, as workplace stress is highly tied to tension at home.  Do regular check-ins with your employees. Simply asking how they’re doing outside of work makes employees feel cared about and important.  You can build this into your culture in many ways.  Marissa Mayer has talked about giving her employees a ‘must-have’, such as giving her employees time off if they need to be “home for Tuesday night dinner,” or on time for a ballet recital, etc.  

Instill Meaning

Last, but not least — instill meaning for your employees.  Stop burnout in its track by emphasizing a company’s overarching goals, and relating each sub-project to those goals.  Include your employees in a positive discussion about their personal contribution to these goals.  

Workplace satisfaction and involvement in company culture is largely influential in helping employees find meaning in their work.  Work environments that provide genuine fulfillment among employees tend to outperform others of similar size on the stock market.  Flexibility, such as allowing employees to work from home, or scheduling professional development days, enable positive work environments, and a positive feedback loop that connects and supports employees.  

A burned out employee has trouble concentrating, making decisions, and separating from their problems.  Not only does burnout crush productivity, it is highly contagious and can infect entire teams and companies.  The most important thing we can do to prevent developer burnout is to recognize their value as both employees and human beings.  Despite working in an industry that works at light speed, there is no excuse for not treating developers with dignity and respect.