Burnout: why it happens and what we can do about it
When you think about Mondays, does it energize you? Do you feel like giving up on the software engineer career because it brings you more stress than joy?
16 min read
When you think about Mondays, does it energize you or make you want to cry? When you look at your routine, does it seem like you are tired, unmotivated, or struggling to stay focused? Do you feel like giving up on the software engineer career because it brings you more stress than joy?
Well, if you said "yes" to one or more of these questions, you may be experiencing (or close to) the famous "Burnout," a syndrome pretty common in the tech universe. It causes a physical and mental breakdown, frequently for reasons like work overload and prolonged periods of stress.
We know that it's not always easy to balance work and personal life as a software engineer, but we also know that it's possible to have a healthy mental life if you know how to prioritize your time. And to ensure you won't experience burnout and bring awareness to the matter, we broke down everything you need to know about it. So let's take a look:
What is the burnout syndrome in developers?
The World Health Organization defines burnout as "a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." It is not classified as a medical condition but a collection of symptoms that lead to negative feelings about work. Still, it impacts a person's mind and body in a way that can result in different medical conditions.
Three dimensions characterize burnout syndrome:
fatigue or exhaustion;
increased mental distance from the job, feelings of negativism or cynicism about work;
low motivation and productivity.
What many people consider most aggravating about this syndrome is that, in addition to causing emotional and physical symptoms, it slowly kills the passion and love for coding that a software engineer previously felt.
Why do software engineers burn out?
Different studies, including research published by The German Medical Association, found that the factors leading to burnout are classified into two categories: internal and external.
The internal factors are usually linked to personality traits intrinsic to the individual experiencing burnout. For instance, people with idealistic expectations of themselves are more likely to develop burnout at some point in their lives. And there are other interesting internal factors to note:
Overly ambitious or perfectionism;
Strong need for recognition;
Feeling the obligation to please other people, suppressing their needs in the process;
Controlling and not being able to delegate; feeling irreplaceable;
Overcommitting to work; and
Viewing work as the only meaningful activity of life;
On the other side, external factors are linked to the work environment, such as a toxic workplace atmosphere. Here are some other external factors that can result in burnout:
Mismanagement or micromanagement;
Bullying, discrimination, and prejudice;
Perceived unfair treatment;
Blur between work and home;
Lack of autonomy and influence over work decisions;
Lack of role clarity or lack of positive feedback;
Lack of professional development opportunities;
Of course, burnout is typically caused by a mix of both internal and external factors. However, when internal and external factors are combined and managed poorly, the result can be seen in software engineers' physical and mental health.
Common signs from developers suffering from burnout
Each software engineer experiences a different routine. Therefore, burnout can manifest differently as well. We have listed some of the most common signs that you (or someone you know) may suffer while dealing with this syndrome. Identifying some of these signs can help developers find solutions to manage stress and avoid burnout.
1. Lack of motivation and an increased mental distance from the job
This is the most common sign: the enthusiasm that software engineers used to feel for coding decreases. Of course, it's okay to open the code editor one day and not feel like coding, but you have to be cautious when it happens continuously for weeks and even months. If you used to enjoy coding but now notice that this passion is slipping away, you may start feeling "mentally burned."
2. Loss of focus
Another common sign is when a developer needs help to focus on a single task. Their minds wander, and they feel they cannot order thoughts and ideas. It costs them a lot to focus on a single thing, and everything distracts them.
It can also be alarming when software engineers start to exceed deadlines or finish their projects at the last minute all the time. Usually, when they are experiencing burnout, they plunge themselves into a state of pressure and stress to finish on time. They start putting off completing the project due to anxiety. As a result, everything takes ages to get done.
Procrastination usually comes with estrangement from common tasks, so developers start to question whether they love the profession or if they made a mistake by choosing it. In addition, if they had goals before, the procrastination creates a sense of confusion, making it difficult to know where to aim.
4. Difficulty getting started in the morning or on new tasks
Software engineers experiencing burnout often try to avoid starting a new task or project. Instead, they voluntarily postpone its start because burnout makes them believe they are incapable of doing perfectly.
As a result, developers start experiencing a decrease in their typical work performance and feel they need to achieve something. But, unfortunately, they do not identify a single goal they have fulfilled, and start self-sabotaging and belittle their work with a sense of "I'm not as good as before."
5. Fear of Mondays
It's normal to feel a bit lazy after a weekend of rest, but Mondays should not cause you anguish and fear. And people experiencing burnout can feel this deep dread about starting the week because they know that working triggers those other symptoms we shared here.
Unfortunately, the effects don't stop in the workplace. Burnout can also make software engineers experience some negative emotions in other areas of their lives, including:
Anger and outbursts: people with this syndrome are more irritable and constantly feel on edge like they're on the verge of a breakdown. If once they were a calm person who managed stressful situations well, now the slightest problem makes them full of anger. Any inconvenience makes them want to resign or throw their PC through the nearest window.
Sadness: Doing code depresses them, making them feel apprehensive and sensitive. Some may have cried while doing their job and feel frustration, severe exhaustion, a sense of failure, and unappreciation. This impacts social life, as there is a lack of energy to interact with others.
Emotional exhaustion: Feeling numb in emotions is another clear sign of developers suffering from Burnout Syndrome. They feel so mentally and physically fatigued that they don't have the energy to code or enjoy other things. Suddenly, nothing makes sense, and the hobbies or activities they used to enjoy aren't pleasant anymore.
Trouble sleeping: Burnout Syndrome in developers plunges them into a state of eternal fatigue and keeps their minds thinking about work even though their day has already finished. Their mind does not shut up, so they continue thinking about the obligations they have to do the next day. Consequently, they cannot fall asleep quickly, waking up tired the next morning.
Physical symptoms like headaches, tachycardia, or choking sensation: They are likely to feel pressure in their chest or tachycardia in any stressful situation when carrying out an important project or trying to finish it before the deadline.
Little motivation to participate in activities and hobbies outside of work: They stop enjoying and appreciating what used to make them happy. They feel empty and dull.
Lessened personal accomplishments or pride: When they least realize it, they feel that the work as a software engineer no longer makes sense.
How should developers combat burnout?
First, let's banish the belief that we must be connected all day long as software engineers. Although developers write in code, they are not robots, and as humans, they also get tired, fatigated, and discouraged.
Besides that, the way to get out of burnout differs for everyone: the syndrome can be caused by internal and external factors. This means that the solutions should address both types of stressors, and each of us will have to follow a different process and seek professional help when needed.
The good thing is that developers can always tackle the factors they can control. So we gathered some tips to avoid falling into burnout syndrome or trying to overcome it so that it does not harm your emotional health or work performance.
1. Set boundaries
Have dedicated working hours and follow them, except in extreme situations. Don't confuse being dedicated to exploiting yourself to fulfill self-imposed requirements. You will continue to be a good developer if you decide to take rest and not stay awake all night. And finally, make sure to use vacation or personal time to give your mind a proper rest.
2. Say "no" more often.
Don't be afraid to explain to your boss why a project might take a little bit longer than initially anticipated, and say "no" when you feel overwhelmed.
3. Pay attention to your body
Get off the computer, get some fresh air, hydrate yourself, take short breaks to recover energy, and remember to breathe. Remember to eat and avoid skipping meals. Also, if you feel exhausted and work from home, taking a 15-minute power nap can be great to get back at your task revigorated. If you feel very anxious, nervous, or irritable, take a few minutes to breathe deeply or meditate. We shared here 5 apps that may help you maintain a work-life balance.
4. Keep track of positive events and small wins.
Create a "brag folder" and write down every accomplishment you have at work. Then, read it during difficult times to remind yourself of the good you've done.
You need to have a sense of daily progress to measure your impact on the world.
5. Lower your demands
Be realistic about what you can and cannot achieve with the resources you have. Carefully consider the amount of energy and time you have to dedicate to projects and requests from colleagues. Talk to your managers and ask for help from teammates when you feel overpowered.
6. Learn to manage your time
Read books, watch videos or listen to podcasts about time management. There is tons of content on the internet, and they usually explain techniques, methods, and tricks to improve your ability to set goals and prioritize tasks. By learning more about time management, you can maximize your work hours, finish your deliveries on time and end the work day with a rewarding feeling of satisfaction when completing all your tasks.
7. Be kind to yourself
Remember that productivity and creativity require rest, and be kind to yourself about the work you're getting done.
8. Don't be ashamed or afraid to ask for help
Burnout is not indicative of personal failure: it only indicates that you may be in a work environment where you have been pushed too hard for too long. There is no need to feel personal guilt or shame over burnout. Remember that it takes a lot of courage for someone to come forward, admit they are overwhelmed, and ask for help. You are stronger than you think.
9. Find a job that gives you the freedom and flexibility to work and live from anywhere
Finding a work environment that offers you greater flexibility is an essential step toward the mental health you deserve. So if your current job is getting the best out of you, maybe it's time to look for a new environment.
At Olby, we know the remote work's impact on mental health, so we ensure our developers can find healthy workplaces. We connect Brazilian talent to US companies and offer training to our devs to ensure they are settling for the right workplace culture and values. We encourage them to fly beyond what they imagine landing an excellent and healthy job opportunity. So if you want to be part of Olby, sign up here and start this fantastic journey.