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Well Being2022-07-13

Software Engineer Burnout - Reasons & How to Prevent it?

Burnout is very real in software engineering teams. Here is how you can counter software engineer burnout using engineering analytics.
Software Engineering Burnout

What is Software Engineers’ Burnout?

Software engineers experience burnout due to demanding and high-pressure work, leading to physical and emotional exhaustion.

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.

History of Burnout in Software Engineering

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. 

Effects of Software Engineer Burnout

Burnout can have serious effects not only for individuals but also for organizations. The impact can be distinct in a variety of areas, including:

  1. Depression: Software engineer burnout can cause depression, and anxiety due to difficult tasks, tight schedules, and heavy responsibilities. It can lead to mood swings, worry, and detachment.
  2. Lack of Productivity: Burnout in software engineers can lead to decreased productivity, creativity, and efficiency, causing a cycle of diminishing output and self-confidence.
  3. Illnesses: Burnout not only affects mental health but also weakens the immune system, causing physical health issues such as frequent headaches, compromised sleep, and increased susceptibility to common illnesses for software engineers.
  4. Deadlines: The fatigue from burnout can affect time management and task priority in software engineering, leading to missed deadlines, stress, and negative team dynamics.
  5. Quality of Project: Burnout can affect software engineers' work quality, causing coding errors, oversight of critical components, and decreased problem-solving capabilities. It may lead to software products that do not meet expectations, compromising functionality and user satisfaction.

5 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:

1. 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 especially when dealing with scope creep.

How to Manage Scope Creep?

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

2. 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.

How to Manage Problems in the Processes and Tools?

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

Stay in sync

3. 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.

How to Manage the Blocks in the Work?

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

4. Post work-hour stress

Teammates who work in distributed locations are sometimes asked to attend stand-ups or other meetings at odd hours. When this becomes a routine, it can cause fatigue, discord, and ultimately burnout.

How to Prevent Post Work-hour Stress?

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

5. 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.

How to Manage Siloed Working in Teams?

The siloed working model poses a challenge in communication within and between teams, causing software engineer burnout. Companies need to make efforts to build 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. 

Differences between Stress and 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?
  • History of Burnout in Software Engineering
  • Effects of Software Engineer Burnout
  • 5 Reasons for Software Engineer Burnout
  • 1. Scope creep
  • 2. Problem in the process:
  • 3. Blocks along the way
  • 4. Post work-hour stress
  • 5. Siloed working
  • How to spot the symptoms of engineer burnout?
  • Differences between Stress and Burnout
  • Sustainable productivity in dev teams

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