Developer Burnout Can Be a Serious Issue. Here Is How to Spot It

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.
What is developer burnout

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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 article, you will learn the specifics of developer burnout and how to spot the first signs.

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:

  • Honeymoon phase

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.

  • Chronic burnout

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:

Reasons for developer burnout

Coding all day, some engineers may face the problem of burnout. To avoid developer burnout, find the list of main factors leading to it:

Read how to deal with developer burnout in our blog post - Prevent Developer Burnout: How-to Guide on Best Practices & Tools

Key ideas

  • 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.
  • Be attentive to your employees to identify the problem at the early stage.

If you want to be able to spot early signs of a developer's burnout, try Vectorly today and see how you can implement the best practices to prevent programmer burnout and boost your team’s performance.

After your trial, you can keep your Pro features, or choose what feature your team really needs and pay just for them.
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