How to combat burnout among software developers

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Long time engineer Mike Ng knows what it’s like to feel burnt out. 

Years ago, in a previous company, Ng began to feel the company he worked for wasn’t really moving forward, leaving him in a repetitive cycle of unproductivity and disengagement. 

“I think it was a combination of me having been in the same role, doing the same thing over and over again,” said Ng, who now serves as director of engineering-core product in research and development for Rollbar.

Burnout among software engineers is pervasive, and impacts about 83% of professionals in the field, according to a Haystack survey. The stat is a symptom of a broader problem within IT; 82% of tech workers feel unmotivated at work, according to a Blind survey of 1,353 professionals.  

Three years prior to these results, Blind research showed nearly 60% of tech workers were burned out. By April 2020, it was clear the pandemic had impacted operations, with one-third of software developers concerned about dwindling productivity, according to software company InfluxData. Nearly two in five workers worried about feeling lonely or isolated as they adjusted to operating remotely. 

A big shift in operations last year compounded the problem, as remote work took away the in-person components of company culture

“When people started working from home all the time they struggled to identify the boundaries between work life and personal life,” said Bobby Blumofe, CTO at Akamai. “They found themselves working at all different hours, and unable to draw that line.”

With remote operations ongoing, the business world is struggling to keep life and work separate. The balancing act is taking its toll on software developers, who are showing signs of added stress as more parts of the business rely on their work to keep the organization running.

To address burnout in the software developer community, leaders can take a concerted, top-down strategy to stave off the negative effects of burnout, including more frequent check-ins and balancing work loads.

Employers already have some strategies in place for fighting burnout in their software developer ranks, including virtual activities, flexible working hours and more frequent check-ins with managers, according to a report from Terminal. 

Ng eventually found respite from burnout after a long vacation.

“After that, I came back refreshed, ready to go again,” said Ng. “I was a lot more laser-focused on what I wanted to get out of the role.”

How burnout sets in

Tech workers are prime targets for burnout. Overall, workers in the IT industry tend to be overworked and understaffed, according to Alex Ciraco, principal research director at Info-Tech Research Group.

Part of that pressure is related to the ebb and flow of IT work, which is iterative by nature. 

“It’s really hard to know exactly how long something will take compared to some other industries, some other job types,” Ciraco said. “There really isn’t an endpoint in IT: You can always make something better, you can always make it faster, you can always add more features.”

Companies relying on digital systems to operate — from e-commerce platforms to internal applications — increase pressure on software workers. A downed system equals lost revenue for a company, making software development a 24/7 operation.

Ng recalls a large exodus of developers from his previous team. “They would just burn out from constantly being on call, constantly being pinged for anything that had happened with the application.”

Early action to manage burnout

Before business leaders can act to prevent burnout, they need to know how to spot the early signs among software developers. 

“If your best developers are telling you clearly that there is an overloading problem going on, it’s probably worth listening to,” said Ciraco. “Further downstream, you may find, you’re gonna find clearly that people are not hitting their targets right if you are not hitting your expected deliverables on a regular basis.”

For Bobby Griffin, senior software engineer at Better.com, software engineers can reduce their risk of burnout by communicating clearly with superiors, particularly when it relates to expectations and deadlines. Developers must flag potentially missed deadlines as early as possible

“If you wait until the day before the deadline and you try to sugarcoat everything along the way, then it puts everybody in a bad position,” Griffin said. 

A critical part of the strategy has to do with balancing workload in a top-down approach, said Ng.

“Leaders need to set an example by taking time off,” said Ng. “By not pinging people after hours, by making sure that people are not overloaded and actively staying on top of their reports plateload to make sure that they’re not taking on too much.”

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