5 causes of software engineer burnout and helpful ways to reduce it


With such a fast pace of business processes, every second employee has become prone to experiencing burnouts at the workplace, and developers are no exception.
What causes the burnout and what preventive steps can be taken to avoid it? Read in our new article below.
What is emotional burnout?

  • What is emotional burnout?
The syndrome of emotional burnout was for the first time aired by an American psychiatrist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974. He described it as an extreme exhaustion. Later, the research was continued by the social psychologist Christina Masla, who expanded this concept. In addition to the feeling of deep exhaustion, she discovered that a person experiencing a burnout loses himself and underestimates personal achievements.

Burnout is a state of physical, emotional and psychological exhaustion that occurs due to a high workload and can be influenced by both internal and external factors. For instance, such aspects as a negative atmosphere in the team, unreachable deadlines, or inability of an employee to say “no” can lead to such an exhausted state. The result is the same: a person does not have enough energy and there is no desire not only to work, but in general to do anything.

  • What are the causes of software engineer burnout?
Even though all employees are vulnerable to burnout, developers have their own causes for disengagement (which can be a synonym for “burnout”) due to a special pace in a specific environment which affects their wellbeing.

Here are the major causes of programmer burnout:
Cause 1. Overload with projects
It is a common practice for developers to take up more projects apart from the main one, which can be either freelance work, additional projects within the company, platform support, or even a mentoring program. In the worst scenario, such a workload leads to an inevitable feeling of being torn between everything at once and that takes the quality to the back seat.

The result can be pretty obvious - overwork, stressed out and constantly feeling under pressure caused by multiple overdue tasks.
Cause 2. Lack of growth
Practice shows that a developer who does not have the opportunity to bring up and implement his ideas gradually loses interest in the project. Therefore, if the programmer's code does not fit into the release over and over again, or the project undergoes fundamental alterations, (s)he will feel that their work is not appreciated. And if the junior is ready for this, then experienced middle and senior devs will get bored with constantly pushing the old code.

It is crucial for developers to see that their skills grow along with the development of the product.
Cause 3. Complicated interactions with clients or team members
Developing a complex software product is all about teamwork. Transparent communication increases collaboration and makes teamwork effective. If the communication process within a team or a company is built poorly, this will not only lead to burnout, but also confuse the whole development process. No regular meetings, lacking feedback from the team leaders, poor understanding within the team - all these factors negatively affect the work process.
Another stressful point for the developer can be a difficult client with whom it is impossible to come up with a reasonable product solution or he or she provides incomprehensible requirements for the development. For example, the team had been working on optimizing a banking application based on the latest customer’s requirements, however, after presenting the app, it turned out that the new features were not at all what the customer needed. It results in long negotiations, lost time and starting coding from scratch which may seem for a developer as a Sisyphean labor.
Cause 4. Hierarchy issues in the company
When your software team does not have a clear picture of who is responsible for what, who coordinates the project, and who sets the tasks, it leads to frustration in the team and possible loss of productivity. Such issues are quite typical for a startup at the beginning or for the companies which are facing reorganization. While most developers do not tend to take the initiative (that is also why team leaders are essential in a team), absence of clear hierarchy demotivates engineers and influences their productivity.
Cause 5. Limited resources
This refers to the technical capabilities of the company. Implementation of new software, integration with complex systems, outdated tools are all stressful for an engineer. Coupling it with the long process of coordinating access to the programs, there will be even less desire to work.
Personal causes for burnout
In addition to the job factors that contribute to engineer burnout, it is also influenced by how developers perceive their work and role in the projects themselves. Feeling lost and disengaged is more often caused by excessive expectations from themselves coupled with typical perfectionism. Every developer strives for well-structured and clear code, high-quality code review and the minimum number of bugs on every dev iteration. However, it is not a secret that mistakes are common and they actually are a huge help in honing the skills and growing as a professional.
Another cause is the notorious need for approval in this case from colleagues and managers. For many, this is very important (sometimes, way too much). So, if the developers think there is no recognition or impact of their work, they downplay the importance of their participation in the projects which affects their self-esteem, thus, willing to perform.

There are other personal traits that can trigger the burnout which include self-doubt, workaholism, inability to say no, and emotional resistance.
  • What actions should companies take to mitigate developers’ burnout?
It should be borne in mind that if there are no obvious signs of burnout within the team, it is still important to observe the colleagues to be able to take preventive steps when needed. Here are a few of them to help developers get back to normal before it gets worse.
Informal conversations
This option works best if there is a trust built in the relationship with the employee. Basically, developers are not very fond of long conversations with HRs, and they generally do not possess extra time for this. Try a different approach - as a team lead, for instance, simply walk up during your lunch break to an employee you think may be close to burnout and simply have a friendly day-to-day conversation. Meanwhile, ask how things are going on the project, and in general, how the developer feels. If there are any difficulties with the project or communication and if any help is needed so they can open up about any work difficulties.
Team Building events
A team is an important resource for a developer. It provides support, communication and exchange of experience.
Besides, when you’re swamped with work, it is easier to work together rather than to plod away at the tasks alone. In order to maintain team spirit, organize team building. Let it be an laid-back yet entertaining event for everyone like a quest game, paintball, laser tag or a countryside day-off with activities. In fact, you can get the best ideas for such events from the developers themselves.
Realistic evaluation
​​Is the developer's workload appropriate? Maybe he performs the tasks of several employees at once? Do not try to close ten vacancies with one person as sooner or later he will burn out. Talk to the employee and go through the monthly to-do list. This will help to realistically assess current resources and take some of the tasks away from the developer if that would be needed. That’s why controlling the workload of our employees has become a common practice at GitMax.
Feedback provided on a regular basis
One-on-one meetings are not the same as regular stand-ups or general meetings. Why, would you think, there should be regular meetings if a developer is doing a great job while his team lead still lacks time for 1-to-1 meetings? That is exactly what should be done in order to keep the track of success, big or small, and discuss what didn’t work out. Such meetings should be run once a month.
  • Reminding about
    Tech companies arrange the office space in a way that employees feel as comfortable as possible.
    A gym, a recreation area, a cinema, fresh bars, etc. - offices start to look like a real IT city. Such an atmosphere has quite a few advantages, however, it still does not completely let workers switch from work when it’s needed. Sometimes an employee just needs to be reminded that the work day is over. Another option is to make extra holidays that you can take throughout the year.
  • Offer additional support
    Online counseling, supportive webinars or courses still have the same relevance when it comes to employees’ well-being. Launch a newsletter asking your co-workers what events would be most beneficial for them. Even if there won’t be many follow-ups, you’d still receive valuable tips firsthand.
    At Gitmax, we cover the costs for the counseling at the company level understanding how remote work can impact on mental health.
A few more simple steps that will help alleviate burnout
These small yet working hints we are about to give are all about so-called happy hormones, namely, serotonin, endorphins, dopamine, and oxytocin. The secretion of these hormones improves our mood and helps promote happiness and pleasure while reducing depression and anxiety. You can give these feel-good hormones a natural boost with some simple activities:
Make everyday to-do lists and tick them off
Put your daily work routine into a “to-do list” and tick the “done” checkboxes when you are finished. You can do it on the paper or use your phone - choose what suits you best. What is important, those lists should include the most basic tasks you do day after day such as “check the email” or “attend daily meetup”. A sense of accomplishment that is also visually seen on the paper will bring you satisfaction and lower your anxiety as it boosts the level of dopamine. Don’t forget to write down “have a break” and “stretch your back”!
Start exercising
Exercise reduces stress hormones and stimulates production of endorphins, which together help foster relaxation and improve your mental state. Once you start feeling stressed out or swamped with work, simply stand up and do some sit-ups or hit the stairs for a few floors up and down. You can also take a small break and go for a short walk. If not outside, then visit some co-workers on the other side of the office. 
Another hint that has a prolonged effect on your state of mind is starting your day off with a quick morning workout. You should not immediately delve into heavy training and hit the gym. Even a short 10-15 minute workout is great for boosting energy and reducing fatigue. Remember, doing something is better than doing nothing. 
At Gitmax, we have supported the initiative of one of our colleagues and now she runs morning yoga for all comers every week.
Have an “hour of pleasure”
Make a plan (check no.1 of our list) of how you can treat yourself. Buying new headphones you wanted for a long time? Ordering your favorite food? Having a walk in the park? Playing online with a friend? Please yourself through the week (or even better - daily).
Summing up
  • A new study has found that 83% of software developers suffer from workplace burnout which makes it crucial to be able to identify software engineer burnout signs and counteract them so your team can perform efficiently, especially in the long-term perspective.

    At GitMax, we monitor burnout symptoms closely and do our best to track those in advance. Providing outstaffing and custom development services which imply mostly working remotely, we commit all the necessary resources to our developers so they feel and perform well in any remote team.

    Besides providing health (including mental) insurance, we cover various perks, payroll and taxes. While we handle HR, you can already start working on the projects with your dedicated or offshore teams. Hit us up for the details - GitMax recruiters are eager to put you together with the team of talented developers tailored for your projects.

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