Developers, programmers, and software engineers are at a higher risk of burning out than those working in some other industries. In this guide, you will learn the specifics of developer burnout, how to spot the first signs, as well as top reasons and best practices to prevent it.
When it comes to burnout, nobody’s safe. Sure, working in tech comes with plenty of perks. The pay is good. The job is rewarding and there is always room for growth. It’s a low-risk high-reward type of deal. But, when it comes to fast-paced working environments, there are always some inherent dangers in the emotional wellbeing department. And it seems that developers, programmers, and software engineers are at a higher risk of burning out than those working in some other industries.
In this guide, you will learn the specifics of developer burnout, how to spot the first signs, as well as top reasons and best practices to prevent it.
What is developer burnout?
The concept of workplace burnout was initially put forward by the German-born American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, in 1974. He conducted a series of studies on his own colleagues and described a set of burnout symptoms and patterns related to chronic workplace stress. As it turns out, the more dedicated and committed employees are at a higher risk of burnout, due to a higher degree of emotional investment in their work. And while personality surely plays a role, burnout is always linked to the chronic stress related to working conditions.
The word “chronic” is the key. While software development is challenging, it hardly compares to law, medicine, or military professions in terms of stress levels. The difference is, there are little to no boundaries to limit the stress in software engineering. Deadlines are often idealistic and set specifically to increase the pressure and make the team work faster. Directions can be unclear and often shift mid-crunch. Clients and managers can be notoriously impatient or ungrateful. Developers exist in a perpetual state of aiming at a moving target — the tech changes rapidly and there is a lot of competition and peer pressure. These are just a few things a good manager needs to be aware of.
Why Should a Manager Pay Attention to Programming Burnout?
Managing a team is not just about deadlines and KPIs. As tempting as it might be to delegate your employees’ wellbeing to the HR people, a good manager will never do that, since their team’s joy and passion are their most important metrics. If left unchecked, poor physical and mental state doesn’t just cause degraded performance. The work environment itself can suffer, leading to more negativity, cynicism and even developer depression. Motivation drops and the developers start to do the least amount of work required to meet the deadline. Ultimately, with no sense of accomplishment comes a decrease in work satisfaction.
Next thing you know, people are resigning left and right or taking sick leave just to preserve their sanity. This leaves the team understaffed, and the remaining developers, who are often the top performers, suffering even more.
Developer Burnout: Who Is at Risk?
The cruel irony of developer burnout is that the most dedicated, productive, and emotionally invested employees, the fabled 20%, are at the highest risk of burning out. You know, the overachieving types. The coders and programmers who push the hardest and always put in the extra effort. As soon as that extra effort appears to go unnoticed, these employees might begin to feel like their work doesn’t matter.
At the same time, they’re less likely to speak up, take time off when needed, or pursue a healthier work-life balance, because that’s how dedicated they are. And just like that, you’ve got yourself a vicious circle of programming burnout. The best thing a manager can do is to know the signs of burnout and catch them early.
The 5 Stages of Burnout
As with any condition, symptoms of burnout will differ from person to person. But since burnout is ultimately a workplace issue, an experienced manager can look for some patterns and take action before it’s too late. Here is how it usually goes:
This is where you want your team to be. Things are good during the honeymoon phase. Job satisfaction is high, there is a lot of positive energy, creativity, and personal initiative in the workplace.
Onset of stress
Then, you might notice that some days are not as good as others. Nothing serious, just less optimism all around. The work is still being done and the atmosphere still feels healthy. There might be some irritability and productivity might dip.
Chronic stress buildup
As the stress accumulates and becomes chronic, you might notice the team struggling with motivation. Fighting cynicism and procrastination are now a part of your daily routine. There is a spirit of resentment and neglect. Pressure increases and things start getting out of control.
First signs of burnout
When continuing as normal is no longer an option, that’s burnout. Usual coping strategies no longer work and the symptoms of chronic workplace stress become critical. This stress can manifest in health problems, behavioral changes, and a desire to just drop out. People seem to be tired of programming. Pessimistic attitudes now reign free.
The final stage of burnout is habitual, or chronic burnout. The symptoms described above are now a part of your team’s daily life. Mental, physical, and emotional problems have become the norm.
Physical and Psychological Signs an Employee Is About to Burn Out
To identify the problem and determine at which stage each team member currently stands, the manager needs to pay attention to the following signs:
If you notice that a team member always seems sleepy, or if they barely eat during lunch, or if they just seem like they don’t want to be at work, it could be that they’re feeling burned out!
But don’t dismay. Fortunately, there are many effective ways to prevent burnout!
Prevent Developer Burnout
One of the key functions of an effective engineering manager is making sure their employees feel comfortable and preventing developer burnout. And there is a reason why. According to the study, the level of developer happiness influences the productivity and quality of code. Degraded performance isn't the only effect of poor physical and mental health. The work environment may deteriorate as a result.
In this part, you’ll find best practices and tools engineering managers can use to prevent it.
Regular One-on-One Meetings: Weekly, BI-Weekly, Monthly, on Workload and Performance, Mentorship 1:1s
One-on-one meetings provide a chance to establish better relationships between subordinates and supervisors. These weekly, bi-weekly, and/or monthly interactions allow for discussion of professional growth, productivity, and the employee’s overall impact on the organization. Personal meetings are also helpful in building trustful relationships in the team and catch the early signs of developer burnout.
During a one-on-one meeting, a manager can notice and solve the issues a developer may experience like monotonous work, rushing for deadlines, unmanageable workload, isolation on remote work, lack of professional feedback, etc.
You can increase the effectiveness of your regular one-on-one meetings and serve preparation time with the ready-to-use templates — no need to do everything from scratch over and over.
A sense of professional stagnation can be a real downer for developers. Fortunately, a well-thought-out growth plan can help fix that. Not only can it provide employees with opportunities and direction for increasing their skills, prevent programmer burnout, but it can also shed light on how to manage a team.
There are many ways to create a growth plan manually. Here are major steps to start:
Consider the goals of your company.
Hold a meeting with developers on their personal goals and expectations regarding their plans in the company.
Recognize the potential and skills of your team members.
Create the development plan.
Track the progress and implement mentorship programs.
There’s also an easier way. Check ready-to-use growth plan by Vectorly to empower your engineers to develop their skills.
A career path is a series of benchmarks that map an employee's route from a lower-level position through successive occupations to arrive at their ultimate goal.
The best way to boost employee engagement is by investing in your employees' careers. A career path gives them a sense of progress, which will help them feel more supported and which will bolster their commitment to their work.
How to create a career path for your engineering team?
Update organizational chart
Define job positions
Create career paths for every role
Highlight steps along the career path
Define skills required for each level to show team members what skills they need to get a promotion
Identify and implement training
Review skills to promote and appreciate good work
Good news: there is no need to spend your time creating career paths manually. Vectorly has already made an excellent tool for your engineering team. You can check it by clicking on the pic below or book a demo call with Vectorly expert to see how it works.
The practice of writing reviews about your developers’ work is not new. It helps highlight the best and the worst about the employee’s performance. This feedback is critical, and it can prevent any of the following reasons why your devs can get frustrated at work:
Lack of feedback
Lack of skills
Lack of knowledge
Lack of communication
How implement reviews into your team’s work? Here are some tips on a good review in tech companies:
Schedule the meeting ahead of time, so all parties have enough time to write proper reviews.
Communicate the goals, objectives, and value of the review process to engineers and other stakeholders.
Give fair and unbiased feedback. Collect feedback on a team member from all people they work with to get a diverse opinion on growth.
Use skill level descriptions to make sure that everyone has the same understanding of skills.
Use review results to get insights on your team’s strengths and weaknesses.
Define skill gaps of your team.
Create action plans and development programs.
Decide who needs mentorship or deserves a promotion.
It’s easier to organize unbiased and effective reviews with ready templates for dev teams.
OKR (Objectives and Key Results)
The simple but powerful OKR system is a means of achieving all your company's goals and objectives. The teams can use team-level objectives to work together efficiently while individual objectives motivate each member on the team to go beyond their previous expectations.
Here’s how you can implement OKRs to avoid programming burnout:
Set a vision to help your team understand where the company is moving, as well as the personal contribution of each member to the common goal.
Focus on a max of three of the most important objectives for a team and three key results, learn to prioritize.
Build a culture of transparency and responsibility inside your company.
Be patient since every team needs 2-3 cycles before OKR starts working.
Communicate more. Set regular 1:1s, give people constructive feedback, and keep them included and feeling appreciated.
Check easy-to-understand, no-fuss OKR plan templates that will tremendously boost the efficiency of your work and your team's work.
Team Activities: Sports and Social Events
Sometimes, the best way to recharge is by hanging out with colleagues whose company you enjoy.
For example, it might be nice to spend two hours every week in conversations with positive workmates simply to unwind and relax. This is great for morale and can certainly prevent burnout!
This is why sports and social activities among colleagues are necessary. Here are some ways how you can spend some quality time together:
Offer your team to go in for sports together like running a marathon or taking morning yoga classes
Celebrate small victories with your team
Organize a strategic retreat for a few days
Build special traditions
Organize fun and small competitions with lovely prizes
Sure, you can make up more activities or ask your colleagues what they would like to try.
Top 10 Reasons For Developer Burnout
It’s crucial to learn why developers can get burned out. That way, you can stop it from happening from the start. Here are the top reasons behind developer burnout and best practices and tools to solve these issues.
#1. Monotonous Work and Meaningless Tasks
Is being a software engineer tedious? Is web development boring? It absolutely can be! Sitting in front of the screen all day, with few breaks for food and sleep, makes it hard to stay productive.
Solution: To avoid boredom from coding all day, implement a growth plan tool in your team’s practice.
A sense of professional stagnation can be a real downer for software engineers and lead to developer depression. Fortunately, a well-thought-out growth plan can help fix that. Not only can it provide employees with opportunities and direction for increasing their skills, but it can also shed light on how to manage programmers.
#2. Unmanageable Workload
When workload matches capacity, developers can effectively get their work done and take time for rest. When work-life balance suffers, it negatively affects all aspects of life — personal and professional. Preventing employee burnout is crucial here.
Solution: One-on-one meetings on the workload help a manager notice if a developer got stuck with a task and solve the issues he or she may experience with it, or help review deadlines and priorities.
The pandemic has crept into so many aspects of our lives, exaggerating existing anxieties as well as creating new stressors and challenges for us to navigate. And while developers may have to isolate themselves from others, the symptoms of burnout they’re experiencing are typical given these abnormal circumstances.
Solution: One-on-one meetings provide a chance to establish better relationships between subordinates and supervisors. These weekly, bi-weekly, and monthly interactions allow discussion of productivity and the employee’s overall impact on the organization. Personal meetings are also helpful in building trustful relationships in the team and catch the early signs of developer burnout.
Vectorly created 1:1 meetings templates where developers can have meetings more often. Developers can spend less time alone and devote their energy towards creative projects that they enjoy working on together.
#4. Lack of Feedback
Many developers who experience burnout symptoms are so used to the feeling that they start accepting it as usual. Do you know how many hours a software developer works? Tons, and sometimes it’s frustrating not to know whether work done is good, sufficient, or just plain bad.
Solution: The practice of writing reviews about your developer's work is not new. It helps highlight the best and the worst about the employee’s performance, evaluate the skills and give an employee constructive and professional feedback.
Many developers who excel are never given a pat on the back or even an acknowledgment. This feeling of not being recognized is incredibly demoralizing and exhausting, which can lead to burnout after prolonged periods. It's important to remember employees for good work by giving them awards when they deserve it!
Solution: There are two main practiсes that help to solve this issue.
The first one is the growth plan which we have mentioned earlier. And the second one is a career path. Developing a transparent programmer roadmap helps an employee gain all necessary skills and understand what he or she should do in order to get a promotion and be rewarded for good work.
Vectorly helps create career paths for 50+ tech roles and allows engineering managers to track each member’s progression to pick the right moment for promotion or change the career.
#6. Unclear Career Expectations
Developers, who are the backbone of a company and among the most overworked people in all industries, suffer from an unclear career path. This lack of vision means they have no idea what their next step is going to be, which leads them to question their worth within an organization. The result? Again, burnout.
Solution: A career path is a series of benchmarks that map an employee's route from a lower-level position through successive occupations to arrive at their ultimate goal.
The best way to boost employee engagement is by investing in your employees' careers. A career path gives them a sense of progress, which will help feel more supported and which will bolster their commitment to their work.
… or just book a demo call with Vectorly team to learn how it works.
#7. Lack of Skills or Knowledge
Insufficient skills or knowledge inevitably leads to stress and, if left unchecked, eventually programmer burnout. The problem especially concerns knowledge workers and those working in the tech industry because everything’s changing very fast and you should always keep your finger on the pulse.
Solution: To help your employees get relevant skills and stay in demand as specialists, create growth plans inside your company. It not only helps to evaluate their skills and create a personal development plan but also increases engagement and loyalty to the company.
How can you manage programmers who don't know your long-term business goals, and thereby probably also their own goals with the company? Unfortunately, it’s common for devs to burn out at work in the current workplace environment if goals are unclear. This might be due in part to a lack of well-defined business objectives.
Solution: The simple but powerful OKR system is a means of achieving all your company's goals and objectives. It helps avoid burnout in the workplace. The teams can use team-level objectives to work together efficiently while individual objectives motivate each member on the team to go beyond their previous expectations.
Vectorly features easy-to-understand, no-fuss OKR plan templates that will tremendously boost the efficiency of your work and your team's work.
#9. Getting Paid Too Little, or Too Much
Feeling underestimated and getting no relevant appraisal for your job for a long time inevitably leads to a decrease in motivation. This point doesn’t need any comments.
What’s less obvious is that being paid too much can also lead to frustration (and burnout) since an employee may feel pressure due to high expectations. He or she may think they are underqualified for this job and are unable to meet the requirements. That’s called an imposter syndrome which doesn’t lead to effective work at all.
Solution: Clear career paths help a manager and employees adequately evaluate the skills and get an understanding of why each member takes their job position and what she or he can do to get a promotion.
To make this process easy and transparent, try Vectorly’s career path tool.
#10. Work-Life Imbalance
We already talked about unmanageable workloads above. These can definitely cause a work-life balance to suffer and trigger intense burnout pretty fast.
Solution: Sometimes, the best way to recharge is by hanging out with colleagues whose company you enjoy.
For example, it might be nice to spend two hours every week with positive workmates simply to unwind and recharge. This helps boost morale and can certainly prevent burnout!
Try organizing some sports activities like morning yoga or attending running marathons together with your teammates. Social activities may also work, for example: celebrating small victories, highlighting employees’ birthdays, a strategic retreat for a few days. Feel free to use your imagination and ask your colleagues what they enjoy outside work.
Even though a software development gig can sometimes seem like the cushiest job in the world, this perception can often be misleading. Developer burnout is a real problem since their work environment can often cause chronic stress.
The most dedicated, productive, and emotionally invested employees are at the highest risk of burning out. At the same time, they’re less likely to speak up, take time off when needed, or pursue a healthier work-life balance.
The level of developer happiness directly influences performance and productivity.
In a nutshell, developer burnout is caused by many factors including too much stress, overload, unclear goals and requirements, isolation, poor work-life balance. Be attentive to your employees to identify the problem at the early stage.
What can you do to prevent this from happening? It's simple — start taking care of your team members. There are effective tools that help you to boost employee engagement by increasing their happiness level. Choose the tools that suit your team the most and use ready solutions to save your time.