Well BeingHow to Prevent Software Engineers' Burnout?

Madelene Bernard · 2022-07-13

What is Software Engineers’ burnout?

Project deadlines, code burst, ad-hoc requirements, bugs and errors,… these are regular occurrences in a software engineer’s life. Which engineer has not had tech debt concerns or pressing deadline and workload pressures sometimes? But when the pressure is relentless, pushing developers into constant stress, exhaustion, and inefficacy, we call this state as burnout in software engineers. Burnout is the feeling of being constantly exhausted and demotivated at work. The WHO defines burnout as - “A syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed."

Burnout is a serious concern for dev team managers and leaders because the affliction affects not only individual developers’ performance and well-being but also cascades into hurting the productivity of the team and the organization. The impact of burnout is obvious  in the software development sector, as elucidated by this Team Blind survey that found 60% of software workers reporting symptome of burnout in the workplace.

However, developers, dev team managers and leaders can manage the stress that causes burnout and achieve sustainable productivity by acknowledging the symptoms of burnout, addressing process pitfalls that cause burnout, and developing pre-emptive strategies to counteract the problem.

Burnout in tech: Is it real?

Burnout has existed ever since the invention of work, though it was unknown until it was first coined by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s. He used it to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in “helping” professions, such as doctors and nurses. The term slowly began making rounds in every industry that the World Health Organization has included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon.

Burnout has always existed in fluctuating patterns, but this could be the first time the numbers have hit a staggering high. In a survey conducted by Deloitte, 77% of the 1000 respondents claim that they have/are experiencing burnout in their current job. 91% of respondents state that burnout impacts the quality of their work and a hefty 83% admit that it goes beyond the office and into their personal lives. 

Again, the software industry being one of the largest, feels the repercussions of burnout firsthand. According to a report by Evans Data Corporation, there are about 23.4 million software engineers in the US alone, and another study shows about 83% of developers report suffering from burnout. Drawing a correlation between the two statistics gives us an astounding number of developers who could potentially be experiencing burnout. 

The consequences of burnout

Burnout in software engineering not only makes the engineers lose interest in work but provokes them to be cynical about the management and organization. Burnouts create uninterested and unhappy employees who work without any commitment or connection to the organization's culture. 

The effects are more adverse on the employees who experience physical and mental exhaustion leading to depression and anxiety. According to the Burnout contagion principle hypothesized by the British Psychological Society, burnout can cause a ripple effect among employees and take a toll on the employee experience index. Burnout contagion occurs slowly, spreading from one dissatisfied employee to another across teams, departments, or at an even larger scale.  

What are the reasons for Software Engineer burnout?

Software development teams have always worked under tremendous pressure and scrutiny. This high pressure environment, combined with new developments such as the global shift to remote and hybrid work and the resulting mis-adoption of remote work practices, compounded the causes of burnout. 

While it is easy to assume excessive workloads as the primary reason for software engineers’ burnout, it is not the only culprit on the list. Various other factors cause burnout in engineers. Below is a list of the factors that cause burnout in engineers, in no particular order:

Scope creep

Dev teams work against serious deadlines, often aiming to push feature releases within ambitious time frames. In such scenarios, when the scope of a project continues to vary due to either changing client requirements or incomplete PRDs or even misunderstood requirements, it leads to back and forth reviews, rework, and a loss in productivity. A repetitive race to complete the project in the context of this pressure can stress engineering teams and lead to burnout.  

💡 Hatica tip: Hosting regular stand-up meetings can help team members provide a realistic and achievable time line of their deliverables while also discussing blockers and challenges that can be fixed by the team to ensure deadlines are met.  

Hatica check-ins

Problem in the process:

Some teams don’t adopt the right tools or processes to stay in sync with the progress of the project. This can create confusion and raise false alarms during the development process, also raising team members’ anxiety.  

💡 Hatica tip: Managers can employ tools that integrate with work apps to get visibility into the activity of the team. The insights measuring activity can help device and emulate successful work patterns, thus ensuring timely delivery.

Stay in sync

Blocks along the way

Like writer's block, developers can also hit a wall during their working or creative process. In most cases, such creative blocks are a result of context switching, since engineers are expected to be present at meetings, respond to communication requests, and other app notifications that break an engineer’s deep work or maker’s time. This can lead to a long term dip in productivity and cause stress and anxiety that result in burnout.

💡 Hatica tip: Dev managers should prioritize the promotion of deep work slots for their engineers. Using data, managers can analyse existing meeting practices and sync practices and design async workflows and async workplace practices to improve the availability of makers time for their engineers.

Low maker time

Post work-hour stress

Team mates that work in distributed locations are some times asked to attend stand ups or other meetings at odd hours. When this becomes a routine, it can cause fatigue, discord, and ultimately burnout. 

💡 Hatica tip: To turn around the situation, dev managers should gain visibility into the post work hours meetings or work that their teammates are required to attend. This visibility can help drive a process change by adopting async and fair workplace practices.

Maker time dashboard from Hatica

Siloed working

With the paradigm shift in work culture, communication and collaboration practices have been lacking. This has led to instances where teammates work in silos without the necessary knowledge, training, and documentation of critical information. 

💡Hatica tip: The siloed working model poses a challenge in communication within and between teams, causing software engineer burnout. Companies need to take efforts into building healthy collaborations between and within teams and foster better communication. Managers should ensure detailed and adequate knowledge sharing and ongoing training for all teammates. 

How to spot the symptoms of engineer burnout?

Spotting burnout in software engineers can be difficult as it is easy to brush off as an aftereffect of a tiring day. The onset of the symptoms becomes noticeable as emotional, mental, and physical fatigues start to show in the form of extreme fatigue, exhaustion, and irritability. These feelings are aggravated by disinterest in work or other activities they previously enjoyed. The negative emotions inhibit their logical thinking, and they begin to show frustration toward their colleagues. Here are the other symptoms of software engineer burnout:

  • Disengagement in workplace
  • Drop in participation and new initiatives
  • Exasperation towards coworkers and clients
  • Increased absenteeism
  • Uninterested in collaboration or making new bonds
  • Detachment from the team and organization
  • Decreased productivity and performance
  • Negative response to feedback

Organizations and managers should be on the lookout for these symptoms and not turn a blind eye when they detect even the slightest display of employee burnout. Ideally, companies should take preventive measures for software engineer burnout and include better employee engagement and experience in their mandate. 

Is this stress or is this burnout?

While it is easy to mistake between and interchangeably use stress and burnout, the difference between the two is, in fact, colossal. In layman's terms, stress is a mental or emotional state wherein a person experiences uneasiness and tension due to adverse conditions. 

On the other hand, burnout is a condition that results from frequent and prolonged exposure to stress. While the former can be easily identified and corrected by swift responsiveness, the latter is comparatively difficult to detect.

To further differentiate, stress is the exhaustive feeling after a long day or when a deadline is due. Whereas burnout can result in a decision to quit the organization or even software development altogether.  

Sustainable productivity in dev teams 

The risks of burnout extend beyond physical and mental exhaustion. Burnout can cause employees to emotionally and cognitively distance themselves from the organization and colleagues. It has a debilitating effect on employee engagement, productivity, and well-being. Engineering teams must tend to the pressing issue and include it in their manifesto to weed out burnout and create a healthy working environment that promoted balanced work-life models that can help achieve a long term and sustainable improvement in productivity.

💡 With over 60+ engineering metrics, Hatica is an engineering management platform that equips engineering managers and leaders with visibility into their team’s workload, contributions, and processes to help them manage work effectively without burnout.

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Table of Contents
  • What is Software Engineers’ burnout?
  • Burnout in tech: Is it real?
  • The consequences of burnout
  • What are the reasons for Software Engineer burnout?
  • How to spot the symptoms of engineer burnout?
  • Sustainable productivity in dev teams