Burnout is a major issue in tech, and it’s one that needs addressing. After two and a half years (or more) of remote work, poor work-life balance, lack of flexibility and more, it’s no wonder that the Great Resignation is happening and that so many developers are reporting that they’re burned out.
Forty-nine percent of respondents to a 2021 McKinsey survey said they feel at least some level of burnout. McKinsey believes that this might be an underestimate though, given that employees who are experiencing burnout might be less likely to respond to a survey and that the most burned out workers might have already left the workforce.
In 2019, burnout was officially added to the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an “occupational phenomenon.” They define it as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
In ICD-11 burnout also is characterized by three factors:
- Fatigue or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one’s job, or negativity towards one’s job
- Reduced efficiency at work
According to Monica Bundy, a stress and wellness coach, burnout comes from a mixture of work and personal stress. And it does not happen overnight.
Bundy explained that there are five stages of stress, and burnout is the fifth and final stage. Before that comes fight or flight, damage control, recovery, and adapting.
She has seen an increase in burnout since the start of the pandemic, and believes it is a result of the combining of work and home life, and this breakdown of the line between the two. If someone was struggling with issues at home, going to the office might have been a way for them to get away from that for a bit, but then that outlet was taken away.
“Stress that they already had at home is now being connected to work because you’re working in the stress that you fail to manage, or you’ve kind of adapted to it … And the last one after we’ve taught ourselves to adapt to it is burnout. And so, like you say, relationship issues, financial issues, having to worry about or deal with childcare, health, family health, like all of that, essentially, if we don’t recharge ourselves, if we don’t find ways to really cope with it in a healthy way — because avoidance is an unhealthy way — so … eventually our body is like, ‘I can’t take it no more,’” she said.
According to Bundy, there are a number of physical symptoms to look out for when trying to self-diagnose burnout, such as fatigue, inability to sleep at night, headache, digestion issues, hair loss and skincare issues. But she also advises people to pay more attention to how they’re feeling in regards to fulfillment, contentment, and happiness.
She explained that if you’re constantly feeling unfulfilled or you don’t want to be around other people and are starting to self-isolate, that’s step four in the stress life cycle: adaptation.
“Like I said earlier, we can’t allow that to become our new normal, we can’t adapt to it, and we should seek help,” she said.
Detecting burnout is harder when remote
Hybrid and remote work may make it more difficult for managers or coworkers to recognize when something is wrong.
Josep Prat, open source engineering manager at data infrastructure company Aiven, explained: “When we were going to the offices, sometimes you were seeing the faces of people and you could see, oh, something’s wrong with you, shall we go for a coffee? And those conversations were really useful and really needed.”
Now, those conversations can still happen, but it’s more complicated and we need to put in more of an effort to create those opportunities that previously just happened by chance.
Prat doesn’t believe companies have really come up with a total solution for replicating this in a remote environment just yet.
“Of course, we can have regular catch-ups with webcams and all that stuff,” said Prat. “But we’re missing part of the nonverbal communication and probably need to overcome this by having more open sharing of what’s going on from both sides.”
Managers can facilitate this openness by ensuring that there is a relationship and a trust between them and the people they’re managing. Both sides have to agree and understand that it’s a safe space. This gives an opportunity for people to be more open about what’s bothering them.
Prat also noted this can be an opportunity to not just discuss what’s not working, but what is working and what good things are happening.
Management should lead by example
Another way management can be involved in a positive way is by leading by example. “A message needs to come from leadership that it’s okay to take time off, to take care of yourself, to recharge,” said Christine Spang, CTO and co-founder of communications API provider Nylas.
For example, if you have a vacation policy, but no one, especially leadership, is actually taking advantage of that and taking that time off, then that sends a message that no one can.
“It definitely starts from the top,” said Spang. “Overwork is not always the problem when it comes to burnout, but it is a factor. And so I think having a supportive management environment where people can talk about what they need, and make sure to take regular time off and unplug,” is healthy, she said. “It’s not healthy to always be glued to your phone and getting 1000 Slack messages, and that’s kind of the status quo for how work works today. But, it’s important that people spend Saturday not on their phones, you know, take a week-long vacation sometime throughout the year, spend time with your families, and have a more balanced life.”
Nylas is combating burnout in their employees by providing them with greater autonomy and automating workflows whenever possible.
Spang believes that burnout can be attributed to people feeling like they don’t have enough agency at work, which is why at Nylas they focus more on output rather than on how much time people are spending at their computers.
In addition to being beneficial in reducing burnout cases, being output-focused is also just a better management style. “Nobody wants to be super micromanaged or to be doing activities day to day that don’t seem like they tie back to the results that you’re trying to drive for your job,” said Spang. “And so really focusing on that output or orientation really aligns the incentives all around. Most people find it really meaningful to accomplish things at work, like work is like a big part of what drives meaning in people’s lives. But what drives burnout is people feeling like they’re working and working and working towards a goal, but they’re not actually accomplishing that output, or they don’t have agency on the actual end results.”
Automation can also help reduce the amount of mundane tasks that developers have to do. According to Spang, there has been a big focus lately on not just customer experience, but developer experience.
If you have to go through 20 steps and coordinate between lots of different teams then the build process gets very long and the developers aren’t going to ever have the satisfaction that comes with having shipped something and having produced some output, she explained.
Offering support as a company perk
Companies can also offer mental health resources as one of their benefits to help combat burnout and help employees find ways to manage stress. This is optional to take advantage of, but it would be there for the employees if needed.
“Sometimes you want to talk not to your boss or to your manager, but you want to talk to somebody external to give you a complete outsider view of the problem,” said Prat. “And probably we can start doing those things in a more generalized way, having more companies caring about them and putting some office services at their disposal so people can use them if they feel like it.”
Balance between complex and easy work
Another thing that can be beneficial is for companies to ensure that their developers aren’t developing 100% of the time. A study from vouchercloud that included responses from nearly 2,000 office workers in the UK found that the average worker was only productive for 2 hours and 23 minutes per day.
“You cannot just be sprinting all the time and you probably don’t want to be working all the time,” said Prat. “So you might want to have a combination of both. You need to have tasks that maybe stimulate you and ask you to give your 100%. But then you need to also have time to basically not do this thing and try to have some things that are more mundane or more repetitive.”
How technology can help
Reducing the stress of actually doing your job is also helpful, and implementing certain technologies can help. For example, Spiros Xanthos, VP and general manager of observability company Splunk, explained that if you’re always dealing with incidents and are finding it hard to keep up with the complexity of your systems, that can be very stressful to deal with.
So as the complexity of your systems grows, adopting observability tools can ensure that you have visibility into your systems so you have that understanding and can also cut down on the number of incidents, and thus, stress.
This is especially beneficial for reducing burnout among on-call workers. “Imagine being on call, and how highly stressful that can be if something is going on, and you have no idea where to look, or where to start to isolate the problem,” said Xanthos. “So it is a very stressful job, especially for people who follow a DevOps model to try to keep the systems up and running.”
Implementing easy to use tools to deal with complexity or things that workers don’t really want to be dealing with helps to cut down on negative feelings at work.