Burnout: Symptoms of developer burnout & ways to tackle it

Published by Tim
on 21 June 2019
Statue/figure of an overworked man isolated in the mountains

Burnout is becoming an increasingly prevalent problem, especially in a field as fast-paced as development. With more and more businesses undergoing a digital transformation, the demand for experienced developers has never been higher - and with it, naturally, come higher and higher demands from these developers.

This is further accentuated by the work- and career-oriented mentality we see widespread today. You can frequently spot people on social media either bragging or complaining about how hard or how long they’ve worked, but, even in the first case, such a workflow is certainly not sustainable. 

It’s true that more work yields more profit; but what good is profit when one’s mental health, and by consequence also physical health, suffer on account of work overload?

Another reason for burnout that should also be mentioned, besides excessive working hours, is a general dissatisfaction with how the work is done and a suboptimal workplace experience. 

In fact, we could argue that monotony or having very little control over one’s work is even more detrimental than working really long hours. Put the two together and you’re practically calling for burnout to arrive. 

In this post, we’ll explore how you can spot the symptoms of your developers burning out and how you can mitigate or even prevent developer burnout. 

In the first part, we’ll focus on the symptoms of burnout; in the second, we’ll take a look at how to reduce the risks of burnout as a developer, as well as what measures to take as a manager to reduce those risks in your team and mitigate burnout when it happens.

 

Symptoms of burnout - and how to spot them

 

Overworked female developer working late hours on computer

 

Let’s start with the symptoms of burnout. Logically, it’s easier to spot these through self-reflection (e.g. you notice a lack of energy and/or motivation, you start suffering from headaches, etc.), but it’s even more crucial for managers to be able to spot them in their employees. So, let's take a look at what signs to look for as indicators that your developers are burning out.

  • They’re lacking energy and/or motivation: this is likely the most obvious symptom of burnout, but should nonetheless be mentioned. If you notice that certain developers on your team constantly seem sleepy and unmotivated, especially in a more hectic period, this should be a red flag that something is wrong.
  • They’re frequently late to work: in line with the previous point, sleepiness and late working hours may result in sleeping through morning alarms and consequently arriving late. The first instinct would be to scold or punish the person in question, but a deeper investigation may reveal other reasons for it - especially if they still seem lacking in energy after arriving late, and this happens on a relatively regular basis.
  • They’ve isolated themselves and stopped talking to coworkers: this can be difficult to spot in employees who are more introverted by nature, or those who work on specific projects that don’t require as much collaboration (or even disallow it altogether, e.g. when working under a very strict NDA). This means that you need to be extra mindful of these employees so that potential signs of their burnout don’t go overlooked. 
  • They’ve stopped participating at meetings: this point is similar to the previous one in that it concerns a kind of isolation. If someone is physically present at meetings, but “not really there” in the practical sense, it can either be because they have so much on their mind already, or because they’re too tired to actively participate. Both of these can be signs of burnout. 
  • The quality of their work has decreased: if you notice an increase of bugs and mistakes in a certain developer’s code, or if they take longer than usual to solve relatively simple tasks that involve familiar technologies, this could indicate that they’re suffering from burnout. Make sure to thoroughly explore this possibility before you sanction them.

Granted, some of these are almost impossible to spot if you have a freelancer or a team of developers working for you remotely. In such a case, you should also look for the following indicators: a remote worker fails to do certain tasks, or delivers them very late, they stop responding to calls and direct messages, they fail to track their time, etc. 

A word of warning, though: most of the points we’ve discussed here can be indicators of other issues, not necessarily burnout, but also personal issues such as family troubles and health issues (but, again, these could be the result of burnout, so it’s a bit of a “chicken-and-egg” situation). 

Nevertheless, if you are an open company that has a healthy company culture and a pretty good grasp of the goings-on in the lives of your employees (without being too Big Brother-y, of course), you can assume these are symptoms of burnout - especially if they start appearing in periods that demand more, or more difficult, work than usually. 

As a manager or a CEO of a smaller company, you need to communicate frequently and clearly with your subordinates and establish a trusting relationship with them. This will make it more likely that they’ll be willing to open up to you about their work and any difficulties they might be facing, and getting to know them will help you spot that something is off.

This holds true for teammates as well - be mindful of changes in your coworkers’ behavior that may indicate that they are overworked and on a path towards burnout. It’s much easier to spot something when you’re aware of it and know what you’re looking for. 

A very useful tool for collecting feedback from your employees, which we at Agiledrop also make good use of, is Officevibe. By guaranteeing anonymity, it gives those individuals who don’t want to expose themselves a chance to voice their opinions and/or dissatisfactions. With it, you’ll be able to get honest feedback and therefore a better overview of your team.

 

How to prevent or mitigate burnout

Well, the first thing you can do to deal with burnout is to know how to spot it - we already discussed this in the previous section. The problem here is that this is only possible once someone is already suffering from burnout, so it’s not really a preventive measure. 

In this second part of the post, we’ll take a look at some ways of effectively preventing burnout and also dealing with it when it does occur. We’ll start with what you can do to prevent yourself from burning out and how to recover from burnout; while this is primarily aimed at developers, it can apply to anyone, in particular everyone working in the digital. 

 

What you can do as a developer

 

Developer sitting on a stability ball to counteract back pain from working on computer

 

  • Find a job you enjoy doing at a company which respects you: this is some of the best advice even outside the context of burnout and is as such a no-brainer. If you enjoy your work and get a sense of accomplishment out of it, even longer working hours become less of a problem. In contrast, doing something you don’t enjoy or take pride in will likely lead to burnout even with a regular 8-hour workday. 
  • Understand that some days are harder than others: if you expect too much from yourself and always want to give 110%, you’re setting yourself up for dissatisfaction. Don’t beat yourself up if you perform a little less optimally on certain days. If you maintain an overall high quality of your work, your manager will know that you’ll more than compensate on other days. 
  • Don’t bite off more than you can chew: this coincides with the previous point to some extent. If you want to please everyone, people start to take advantage of that, often completely subconsciously. Things then quickly pile up and, before you know it, you’re swamped with tasks that give you less time to do the really important things, resulting in worrying and the inability to separate work from your personal life.
  • Maintain healthy habits: this helps both with preventing burnout as well as alleviating it once it’s already there. If you eat well and get enough sleep and exercise, you’ll be able to start each day fresh enough to tackle your daily tasks even in the more hectic periods. When you feel that you’re already burning out, you can do a lot by reestablishing a healthy sleep cycle and taking a short exercise break during your work. 

The bottom line is essentially this: the better you feel, the less likely you are to burn out. If you take proper care of yourself and enjoy what you do and the workplace experience in general, you’ll have already greatly diminished the chances of burnout occurring. 

Know your limits and remember that your company also benefits from you putting yourself first, so don’t overwork yourself in the belief that it’s beneficial to business. Chronic fatigue can be a very nasty thing - it’s relatively innocuous, but stubbornly everpresent. In extreme cases, it can even lead to short- or long-term illness, paving the way for even more health issues down the road. 

 

What you can do as a manager / CEO

 

Coworkers talking and exchanging ideas in a pleasant working environment

 

Ok, we’ve outlined some of the things you can do to prevent yourself from burning out. Let’s now take a look at what measures to take as a manager to reduce the risks of burnout occurring in your team or, if it does occur, how to at least alleviate it. 

  • Provide a good working environment: naturally, employee well-being starts with a pleasant working environment. This includes healthy snacks, coffee, an agreeable atmosphere and good working conditions. A very important thing here is ergonomic equipment, which goes a long way towards improving at least the physical health of your employees.
  • Encourage and allow exercise: unfortunately, even ergonomic desks and eye-friendly displays aren’t enough for someone who has to spend countless hours hunched over their keyboard. You should encourage exercise, in and outside the workplace; it doesn’t have to be long, just something that stretches the muscles (especially the back!) and breaks the monotony. 
  • Allocate certain times of the day for breaks: you can connect this to the previous point - allow for short breaks in the workplace which developers can use either to get coffee, some exercise or for a non-work-related chat among colleagues. This should be available on a daily basis.
  • Organize teambuilding activities that encourage interaction and participation without forcing them: for longer stretches of time, organize events and teambuilding activities that bring the whole team together. We at Agiledrop frequently have common themed lunches, short presentations by developers on specific topics (not obligatory in any way, but always rewarded), group sports and other activities - next weekend, for example, we’re going kart racing! 
  • Motivate your employees with regular constructive feedback and praise for a job well done: lack of motivation in one’s work is one of the major causes of burnout. In contrast, feeling motivated and getting the deserved recognition can help weather through even the toughest days or weeks. If you acknowledge the hard work of your employees, you’re showing them that their extra effort is appreciated and not simply taken for granted. 
  • Reduce overtime and weekend work: in a perfect world, we’d all have weekends to ourselves, reserved for some quality family time or simply a break from a hard week’s work. Sadly, though, industry demands make the total elimination of overtime a hopeful utopia. At Agiledrop, we understand how crucial this time-off is for our employees and consequently to our overall work culture. We try to keep overtime to a minimum; even when it’s necessary, we coordinate it with the developer well beforehand. 
  • Allow for flexible working arrangements: for someone working on-site, the opportunity to work from home every once in a while can be extremely rejuvenating, especially in a period with a lot of work where the commute itself is already exhausting. But, be careful: while working remotely can mitigate burnout, it can also accentuate it, as the lines between work and free time become more blurred, especially for individuals who are very work-oriented. Ben Robertson of Mediacurrent has recently written about his very efficient solution to dealing with this.
  • Ensure a healthy work-life balance of your employees: while a lot of the points in this section are directly tied to this, a healthy balance between work and free time is so vital to preventing burnout that we believe it deserves its own slot. Guaranteeing our employees’ happiness and ensuring this balance are among our top priorities at Agiledrop. We wrote briefly about work-life balance and motivating our team in this blog post
     

Conclusion

While burnout is admittedly a persistent problem, there exist a number of ways of effectively preventing and tackling it. Being aware of it and implementing preventive measures into your very work culture is already half the battle. 

We hope we were able to shed some light on the issue of burnout and provided some guidelines, or at least inspiration, to counteract it. Have any more ideas on how to deal with developer burnout? Or have you spotted other symptoms of burnout in yourself or your team? If we missed something, please let us know!