Fixing software developer burnout could increase retention

Software developer burnout is a pervasive issue that can cause problems for companies and their employees, but tackling it won't be easy.

High-stress software development roles are a breeding ground for burnout, but changes in workplace culture and a better work-life balance can treat or prevent the condition.

Burnout, or chronic stress, is likely contributing to the Great Resignation and the ongoing developer shortage, which then piles more pressure onto already stretched teams, according to an April Salesforce MuleSoft survey of 600 CIOs and IT decision-makers.

Overworked developers might experience early-stage signs of burnout such as procrastination or lack of motivation, but if left untreated, it can lead to medical issues, said Sharon Grossman, a psychologist who specializes in burnout. Therefore, it's important to recognize burnout early to take remediation steps, she said.

"If you're showing up to work where there's this culture that you feel you can never step away because that's going to be letting everyone down -- whether or not that's true, if you believe it, then that drives your actions," Grossman said. "If you feel like you can't go to the bathroom, can't take a stretch break, can't take a lunch break, or where you can't go on vacation, day after day after day -- that's a grind and that's chronic stress."

Software development has a lot of high-pressure aspects to it that result in chronic stress, said David Strauss, CTO at WebOps vendor Pantheon. Strauss has experienced burnout many times over the course of his career and thinks the combination of long hours, high specialization and not feeling valued in the workplace is a recipe for burnout.

Anyone who has worked long enough as a developer in these technical roles is almost mythologizing their experience if they say they haven't experienced burnout.
David StraussCTO, Pantheon

"Anyone who has worked long enough as a developer in these technical roles is almost mythologizing their experience if they say they haven't experienced burnout," he said.

One way burnout manifests is with quiet quitting, a strategy that developers use to deal with chronic stress, Strauss said. The strategy involves doing the bare minimum to get the job done.

"You're keeping the lights on, you're still showing up, replying to email and coming to meetings, but it can be hard to feel motivated to do anything beyond the most basic work," he said. "It sometimes feels like you're getting behind on even that: Your inbox starts to creep up, and it feels like you're getting behind with everything."

Causes of software developer burnout

An increasing workload and demand from other teams, the pressures of digital transformation, and a need to constantly learn new technology are the top causes of developer burnout, according to the MuleSoft survey.

"Software programmers frequently have a variety of programming projects with tight deadlines," said Jonathan Siddharth, co-founder and CEO of Turing, a company that matches software developers with teams. "As a result, they put in long hours at work, and the constant stress puts them at risk of burnout."

Developers might be under so much pressure to deliver that they create an unhealthy relationship with their work, Strauss said.

"The only way to fit in more work is to cannibalize more of your personal life," he said.

One stressor that is pervasive in the development industry is the burden that falls on subject matter experts, Strauss said. Developers with unique skill sets might struggle with taking time off for fear of creating a project bottleneck, he said.

"Everything that requires work of a specific type has to get done by them or only a handful of other people, and that creates a lack of fungibility for people's time," Strauss said.

But it's more than just the immediate work environment that leads to burnout: It is a cultural issue, Grossman said.

"If you're working in a place where the culture -- whether it's spoken or unspoken -- is you can't step away because you're going be letting somebody down, then that's not realistic, nor is it healthy," she said.

Tackling developer burnout

The first thing a developer can do is to challenge the thought of letting the team down, Grossman said. If constant grind is a rule that everyone in an organization subscribes to, then perhaps it's time for an individual to break the rule and focus on their long-term well-being instead of short-term work goals, she said.

To alleviate stress, developers should strive to take time off in the middle of projects rather than just at the end of projects, Strauss said. That way, developers can return to the project with fresh perspective, he said.

"If you're taking vacation at the end of projects, you're seeing yourself as a bottleneck and seeing time to yourself as a luxury rather than a necessity," he said.

That said, a vacation isn't going to solve the burnout issue. A developer also has to identify and tackle the root causes of the burnout, Strauss said.

Grossman agreed that vacations are a temporary Band-Aid and advised leadership to encourage stepping away in the middle of a project, which is why corporate culture needs to change in addition to changing an individual's perspective.

Creating a better work-life balance is important, Grossman said. At its most basic level, work-life balance includes sufficient time off and a manageable workload, but it can also include activities such as yoga and mindfulness training. However, work-life balance is also about learning how to communicate boundaries, she said.

"It's really up to you to feel empowered enough to set boundaries, because you're responsible for yourself," Grossman said.

Boundaries are critical in remediating burnout, said Saju Pillai, senior vice president of engineering at API management platform provider Kong Inc.

"Managers play a key role in this and should work with employees on setting boundaries together as well as avoiding repetitive tasks that can be allocated elsewhere," he said. "Working together to address and prevent burnout is the only way to empower a strong and successful developer team, regardless of the industry."

In addition, employee autonomy can make all the difference, Pillai said. "For example, at the start of a sprint, managers can allow engineers to choose specific tasks instead of pre-assigning tasks to them."

Ultimately, tackling burnout is about incorporating self-compassion, Grossman said. "You're not a machine. You can be accomplished without killing yourself."

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