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High Salary Leads to Burnout. Unobvious Career Trap No One Is Talking About

March 29, 2023


min read

Alex Olkhovoy

High Salary Leads to Burnout. Unobvious Career Trap No One Is Talking About

A developer with low salary and monotonous work is likely to end up burned out, it’s obvious. Yet what about overpaid workers with no relevant skills or experience? In fact, it’s much more dangerous: euphoria from big money turns into boredom from boring tasks and jealousy towards peers in other companies who are involved in cool projects and challenging goals. Yet one can hardly give up all that money for this adrenaline. Where’s the exit? - read in our blog post.

Low salaries and boring, monotonous work are among the top reasons for employee burnout, studies on developer productivity show. A lot has been written about dealing with such situations, and by now this stuff is common knowledge.

However, if an employee is overpaid and is lacking in skills or experience, the situation can get even worse than that. Initial euphoria caused by a nice paycheck quickly brings boredom for the employee and jealousy from peers. A worker who is overpaid is interested in maintaining the status quo and preserving their position in the company, often at the expense of initiative and risk-taking. Here is how a company can address this issue.

Salary & burnout

How do salary and job satisfaction influence developer burnout?

The graph below shows the likelihood of employee burnout in relation to their level of salary and job satisfaction level.

How do salary and job satisfaction influence developer burnout?
How do salary and job satisfaction influence developer burnout?

On the X-axis is the level of job satisfaction, which can be defined as a combination of factors, including:

  • Participation in interesting projects
  • Challenging tasks
  • Great team and relationships with colleagues
  • Learning and skill improvement
  • Career opportunities

And on the Y-axis, you can see the level of salary a developer gets for his work - from very low to very high (relatively, depending on the market in each individual country and a person’s perception).

These two values define the following developer PSYCHOLOGICAL STATE ZONES (sketchily):

  • High risk of burnout (Zone 1)
  • Professional growth (Zone 2)
  • High salary (Zone 3)
  • Comfort zone (Zone 4)
  • Ideal world (Zone 5)

Let’s take a closer look at each of these zones and see what psychological issues a developer may experience, then move on to the career traps they can meet there.

High risk of burnout (Zone 1)

Description: Low salary + low job satisfaction.

Newly graduated young specialists come to companies for experience and often find themselves in this zone.

Burnout risk status: the highest level of risk, obviously.

Examples of companies: such an environment is often associated with agency work, low-tech startups, and outsourced work involving bad technological decisions.

Professional growth (Zone 2)

Description: Low salary + high job satisfaction

Zone 2 environments provide engaging tasks, pleasant working conditions, and sufficient room for professional growth, but below-average salary.

Burnout risk status: Employee burnout is likely but doesn't happen overnight.

Examples of companies: These conditions are often found in (pre-) seed round high-tech startups, agencies, and low-level positions at FAANG-like companies.

High salary (Zone 3)

Description: High salary + low job satisfaction

Zone 3 jobs do not offer much besides a good paycheck. After the initial euphoria wears off, the employees find themselves doing boring, monotonous work without much opportunity to grow professionally, and a team that isn't very engaging or exciting to work with.

Burnout risk status: The burnout risk is high for these positions, but it's not obvious and is often overlooked by employers and managers. We’ll talk more about this trap later.

Examples of companies: Zone 3 environments are found in large corporations and companies which aren't prioritizing IT solutions, instead relying on outdated stacks (oil companies, for example).

Comfort zone (Zone 4)

Description: Good salary + good job satisfaction (above average)

A comfort zone environment is a sweet spot for both the employee and the employer. A developer, who has landed such a position, is content with their pay and engages in relatively interesting, challenging projects. There is often a lot of room for professional development and the employees are quite happy with the company.

Burnout risk status: low.

Ideal world (Zone 5)

Description: High salary + high job satisfaction

Everything is possible in the perfect world. Everything, except employee burnout. The pay is great, the projects are really fun and engaging, job satisfaction is high, and every developer is happy.

Burnout risk status: low.

Examples of companies: Unfortunately, such environments rarely exist in real life. The issue is that every developer has their own understanding of the ‘maximum’ in salary and job satisfaction.

What’s the catch?

Juniors are usually prioritizing gaining some work experience to boost their career, hence they often start their professional journey in Zone 1. They receive a modest salary and do the unrewarding, repetitive tasks (banner layouts, simple coding, etc).

These jobs provide them with professional development opportunities. However, if a person stays in such a position long enough, their dissatisfaction with the low salary and boring tasks will inevitably lead to burnout. Zone 1 has a high risk of burnout. This is an obvious problem, and there are some standard solutions for dealing with burnout in such environments.

However, there is little publicly available info about the future career path of developers who have found themselves in Zone 1. So, we’ll talk more about the main scenarios.

The two common scenarios of how to exit Burnout zone

More often than not, developers don't stay long in Zone 1, due to low pay and low-skill tasks. A developer, who has found themselves in such a position, has two options to pursue:

  • More engaging projects and better professional development (moving right on the X-axis)
  • Better pay (moving up on the Y-axis)

Each employee determines their own level of professional development (and its maximum), but there are two most common scenarios.

Scenario #1

Developers with high ambitions, those who don't just want to code, but are instead focused on developing their soft skills, solving problems, and taking on challenging tasks, will gravitate towards moving right on the X-axis. They prioritize job satisfaction, professional growth, and development opportunities over a high salary.

The biggest risk for such a scenario is staying in Zone 2 for too long. In order to avoid this, an employee needs to be picky when it comes to changing jobs. For such a developer, the right company will provide a proportional increase in income as they acquire new skills and become more engaged with the company.

If the new employee fails to receive such an increase, the risk of burnout becomes quite high. Over time, the developer will take on more and more tasks, but his income will not reflect this. At the end of the day, the developer will simply burn out and can degrade in his professional development, returning to a Zone 1 position again.

Right professional development for scenario #1:

One of the best ways to avoid this is to ensure an adequate increase in salary, which should scale accordingly as the amount of responsibility the developer has grown.

Scenario #1
Scenario #1 - moving towards professional growth

The ideal career path here is to move from Zone 2, through the Comfort Zone, to the Ideal World, by increasing your market value and salary.

The ideal career path
Ideal career growth

Scenario #2

This one is tricky. The most dangerous scenario is for the developer to go from Zone 1 straight to Zone 3. In other words, a developer without proper qualifications and experience gets tired of low salary and finds a new job that pays three times his old salary.

In theory, this shouldn’t happen. But maybe the developer was interviewed by a manager who wasn't exactly qualified. So they managed to charm the interviewer and exaggerate their actual skills. Or maybe the manager was under a lot of pressure and just needed to hire someone. These things happen more often than you’d think.

This leads to a situation where the developer is paid much more than he is actually worth in terms of his experience and qualifications. This leads to a situation where the developer is paid much more than he/she is actually worth in terms of his experience and qualifications, which in turn leads to blurry professional self-esteem and anxiety.

The developer enjoys rapid growth in income and standard of living. They begin to increase their expenses, take out loans, and enter various financial commitments.

But after a few months, they get used to a new standard of living, and the rose-colored glasses fall off. They realize that they have been doing busy-work for months. They never have a chance to learn something new as there are no better tasks. Thus, no professional growth occurs.

Buried in monotonous tasks and lacking any adrenaline from growth and development, the developer realizes that they do not like their job at all. But they will not be able to leave their job, since they are already used to the standard of living provided by their higher salary.

They begin to look around and see that other companies have more interesting projects, better teams, and more influence in the industry. And even though their employees get paid less, they still enjoy their comfort zone.

The developer from Zone 3 looks at the employees in their comfort zone with envy. But the truth is, they won't accept a decrease in income as a trade-off for higher job satisfaction and more growth opportunities.

They are trapped, since the "ideal world" zone is unattainable. Only the blue-chip seniors working for digital giants can get there.

The "Ideal World" zone is a magical place. Everyone wants to get there, but most of us get trapped in Zone 3. We often make the mistake of striving for a high salary and not for a great team leader, which will help us to quickly grow in qualifications and raise our own market value.

So what is the trap of Zone 3? For an employee to get out of it, they need to move back into their comfort zone - Zone 4, which means accepting a lower salary. They have to sacrifice their standard of living and think about what to do with all the new financial obligations they might've acquired. This involves a lot of risk and not many are willing to take it.

Of course, this doesn’t apply to everybody. Many developers can be quite happy doing routine tasks for decades. But the risk of burnout in this zone is much higher than in Zone 2 (since it’s easier to get out of Zone 2 - to grow in salary or to search for great projects).

How to escape the trap?

Exit 1. For experienced developers

If a developer enters a Zone 3 environment with enough experience and skills, they realize they are worth the money and just made the mistake of going with the wrong company, where their skills aren’t put to good use.

They will quickly realize that burnout is just a matter of time. The tasks are routine, the company is unlikely to change anything about it, and the developer doesn't get much say in anything. All this leads to low levels of job satisfaction.

The easy way out is to just change jobs. The employee can sacrifice a part of their salary and get a chance to make a real impact. Since they already possess the necessary experience and skills, with the right choice of company, the salary decrease will be minimal.

The main conclusion here is that Zone 3 is less dangerous for experienced developers. They have options and high market value.

Exit 2. For juniors/middles without much skill or experience.

For developers without experience, the best strategy is to aim for a comfort Zone 4 type of environment.

Hence, it’s important for them to plan their career in advance. That means an employee should accumulate some sort of a rainy day fund and go back to Zone 2, where they will get to experiment and gain skills to increase their real market value.

This will allow them to participate in cool projects at a salary below what they’re used to, without sacrificing their standard of living.

So the main financial advice for people who have dramatically increased their income is to set aside most of this newly found wealth. That way, they can avoid raising their standard of living too drastically. This, in turn, will allow them to be free in their choice of a career path.

Scenario #2 - moving towards high salary
Scenario #2 - moving towards high salary

For such an employee, the most important question is: how do you find out your real market value?

The first option is to begin applying for new jobs, go to the interviews, get a few offers and find out the average salary they’re being offered at. This will reflect their market value.

The second option is to find a company with a transparent assessment of skills. The employees working for companies that use Ace do not need to go to interviews and look for a third-party assessment of their skills. Transparent reviews and skill matrices help you see the real current value of job roles and never lose touch with reality.

So, the main option for inexperienced developers to get out of Zone 3 is to create a financial buffer and search for great team leaders and challenging projects in Zone 2, without sacrificing their standard of living. Thus, a developer has a chance to develop professionally and grow their market value. This is the place where his experience starts to correlate with the salary.


To sum it up, here are the main career strategies for developers:

  • Developers need to strive for the comfort zone, which means that their salary should grow proportionally with the development of their skills (the ‘balance’ scenario on the graph).
  • Do not go for an unreasonably high salary, but instead look for a great team leader who will increase your market value.
  • Choose a company that can provide you with financial growth as you gain experience.
  • Increase your standard of living, not in relation to your salary but to your real market value.
  • And find a company that offers opportunities for transparent evaluation of skills, so every developer there has an understanding of their real market value.

These simple recipes should help you avoid burnout at every stage of your career path.


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