I did a short survey of 55 developers about burnout. Naturally, being a burnout focused survey, pretty much everyone who replied was currently experiencing burnout or had experienced burnout in the past.
Obviously this cannot be taken as representative of the software community at large, given the likelihood of those interested in burnout to have taken my survey. But the results are interesting, and tally with my own experiences of burnout.
I was curious to learn a few things:
- The symptoms of burnout typically experienced by software developers
- Whether developers had experienced adverse career effects due to burnout
- The internal and external factors that contribute to burnout
- Strategies that are used to prevent or recover from burnout.
The Symptoms of Burnout
I asked which of the following six symptoms of burnout people had experienced. This is based on my programmer burnout checklist.
- Cynicism or feeling critical of the whole idea of writing code. This could show up as repeated negative thoughts or statements about building software or writing code.
- A lack of the necessary energy needed to get your work or other coding projects done. Feeling like it’s difficult to physically write code, to find the mental energy required to organise your thoughts
- Lack of motivation to “turn up” to work – physically going to the office, or logging in remotely.
- Unnecessary or repeated irritation or anger at co-workers, or unreasonable doubting of their competence.
- Avoidant or addictive behaviour – substance abuse, excess alcohol, overeating, gaming too much as a way of coping with the demands placed on you.
- A compulsion to overwork to compensate for a feeling of falling behind.
- A sense that the project or team will fall apart without you – feeling that the entire success of the enterprise rests on your shoulders alone. Otherwise known as The Indispensable Trap.
I left space for other symptoms to be submitted too.
This is not a super scientific survey. The results are supposed to be indicative or even typical.
I’ve divided the symptoms into those experience by most people, those experienced by “around half” of respondents, and those experience by “some people”
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By far the most common experience was “A lack of the necessary energy to get your work or other coding projects done”
80% of people who responded identified this as a burnout symptom. It was the standout symptom of programming burnout.
There were a cluster of other symptoms experienced as well as lack of energy. Here’s the raw data.
- Lack of motivation to “turn up” to work – physically going to the office, or logging in remotely (50%)
- Unnecessary or repeated irritation, anger at coworkers, or unreasonable doubting of their competence (53%)
- Cynicism or feeling critical of the whole idea of writing code (43%)
- A compulsion to overwork to compensate for a feeling of falling behind
- A sense that the project or team will fall apart, that the entire success of the enterprise rests on your shoulders along (43%)
I’ve felt most of these at some point during my burnout episodes. I have personal experience with cynicism about being a software developer (which is pretty hard to take when you’ve invested a whole lifetime creating a career in it).
I’ve looked for the exit hatch several times (I always end up delighted that I haven’t found it. Eventually)
I’ve also experienced the compulsion to overwork when I feel like I’m falling behind – something that saps my energy even further (I still need to be mindful of this!).
If you are experiencing any of these, in particular alongside extremely depleted energy, it’s likely you’re somewhere on the burnout spectrum.
- Avoidant or addictive behaviour – substance abuse, excess alcohol, overeating, gaming too much as a way of coping with the demands placed on you
This wasn’t as common as I suspected it might be – although I do wonder the extent to which devs underestimate their gaming behaviour as addictive, based on the behaviours I observe around me 🙂
I left a space for respondents to enter other symptoms of burnout they might have experienced. I broke them down further into physical, mental/emotional, addictive, relational and professional. Here’s a summary of what I found.
Physical symptoms reported include:
- Getting sick more often
- Chronic tiredness that is not helped by rest or breaks
Mental and emotional consequences include
- “Brain fog” or an inability to focus properly
- Disinterest in computers – feeling like running away from them
- Lack of motivation
- Lack of self worth – a raging inner critic
- Social withdrawal
- Lack of engagement in life in general
- Feeling stressed and anxious
- Feeling disconnected from work and loved ones
Relational issues include:
- Feeling irritable with others – colleagues and partners/family
- Feeling anger towards others
Addictive symptoms include:
- Drinking more coffee than usual
- Browsing more than needed as distraction – social media in particular
Professional issues include:
- Not wanting to adhere to development best practices – taking shortcuts like not thoroughly testing
- Lack of interest in new projects
- Lack of interest in learning.
It’s not certain that experiencing any one of these symptoms alone is burnout related. Sometimes they just come and go as a normal part of developer life. I think it’s fair to say though a cluster of them experienced together is an indicator that burnout is worth considering as a cause.
I asked the question “Have you experienced negative consequences to your career or studies as a result of being burnt out?”.
Out of 28 people who gave an answer, 8 people said “no” or “not yet”.
Several respondents reported issues with productivity, including failure to deliver projects on time, or “not progressing fast enough” on projects, feeling stretched too thin and so on
Several respondents reported having to leave jobs, being performanced managed (sometimes out of a job), being “squeezed out”, made redundant or feeling that their relationship with their team was so compromised that they had to leave.
Several respondents reported health impacts, ranging from some of the physical impacts mentioned in the previous section, to stress and anxiety symptoms, to a compulsion to overwork, to having to spend a month in a psychiatric hospital. Sometimes this also leads to leaving the job in question.
Of those who said there was no impact, a couple mentioned their ability to hide or push through the effects of their burnout – even though they were feeling burnt out, they were able to work well enough that their career was unaffected.
Personally, job-induced burnout has contributed to periods of poor mental health (anxiety and depression) and other health issues. I’ve not left a job because of burnout, but I’ve certainly turned down offers of employment when it looked like working conditions might cause burnout.
Factors contributing to burnout
In order to assess what programmers feel contribute to burnout, I asked two questions:
- What external factors contribute to burnout? e.g. workplace culture.
- What internal factors contribute to burnout? e.g. mindsets or beliefs you hold.
I’ll present a summary of themes that I’ve extracted in a fairly non-scientific way. I feel it’s representative though, and I’ve anonymously quoted segments of the answers below.
External causes of burnout
I divided perceived external causes of burnout into:
- Workplace culture,
- Tech culture
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Unsurprisingly, process/management was mentioned frequently. Issues that came up more than once included:
- Lack of recognition – “not getting recognized for … work contributions”
- Poor process – “misunderstanding of development processes, context switching”
- Unrealistic expectations and deadlines – “unplanned projects with accompanying arbitrary deadlines”
- Not understanding tech – “managers aren’t technical enough, there is no understanding of the time it takes and variability of project outcomes in software”
- Over promising – “management who over-promise on projects leading to working long, exhausting hours”
- Feeling unheard – “my ideas are constantly rejected”.
Workplace culture was also prominent in the results.
As one respondent put it, “it’s hard to get burnout in a vacuum”. Culture matters almost as much as management.
Here are some examples of cultural norms that create the conditions for burnout.
- Long hours culture (“prolonged culture of mandatory overtime perpetuated by teams to meet deadlines”) – lack of “work/life balance”, “little vacation time”.
- Coworker relations – “passive aggressive pull request comments”, “toxic colleagues who lie and deflect to cover their own backs”.
- Mixed attitudes to quality and contribution including “other team members who don’t do their fair share of work” and programmers who don’t adhere to the agreed quality standards
- Poor tools – “proper chairs, desks and tools”
Tech culture as a whole also has an impact. Tech is an industry where you are constantly rated on what you know, in a landscape where that body of knowledge is constantly changing. It’s no wonder programmers suffer inordinately from impostor syndrome.
Examples from the survey supporting tech culture’s contribution to burnout.
- “I have a friend who’s constantly worried about his future as a dev due to articles he reads online” – comparing mind
- “Social media, …. peer pressure”
- “Tech culture as a whole
- Issues of diversity – “being the only woman in the room… not being included… being name-called”.
Meaning and value
Several respondents identified lack of meaning in their work as a contributor to burnout. It can also be a symptom as well. A couple of examples:
- “not feeling connected to what you’re achieving
- “passionless projects and work environment”
- “doing very repetitive work”
- “working on a product you don’t believe in”.
Humans need to feel like their work has meaning (even if that’s as simple as “it supports me/my family”). A lack of meaning can definitely contribute to episodes of burnout.
I know from my own experience that my inner world – my thoughts, beliefs, emotions and patterns of behaviour – have a significant effect on the way that I experience the world. I’ve held unhelpful beliefs in the past (such as “I must work harder because I’m always behind”) that have worsened my own burnout situations.
I was curious to find out what internal factors developers perceived as contributing to their own burnout.
The question was “What internal factors contribute to burnout? e.g. mindsets or beliefs you hold.” I roughly divided the responses into these categories:
- “Not good enough” beliefs
- Beliefs around responsibility
- Stress management skills/switching off from work
- Feeling unsupported
The “best” thing about this set of factors is that, given they are internal factors – to do with yourself – you have a good opportunity to work on them yourself!
Beliefs around not being good enough
Many respondents identified some variation of “not good enough” beliefs as an internal factor of their burnout. Often this related to a sense of diminished productivity, or a belief that you have to work harder than everyone else:
- “by not getting enough done, I’m showing that I’m not capable/competent”
- “not being good enough in the event I [lost my] job”
- “always saying yes to not be seen as negative”
- “feeling like I need to work more when I don’t have much to work on”.
A particular manifestation of “not good enough” belief is impostor syndrome. Often impostor syndrome encourages people to work even harder to fill what they perceive to be the gaps in their knowledge, compounding exhaustion:
- “how you handle imposter syndrome – when I feel I am talking behind in technical competency I speed up and scale out my out of hours learning”
Frequently “not good enough” manifests as a negative comparison to others:
- “comparing yourself to others can lead to pushing yourself too hard”
- “constantly measuring [your] self against other ‘successful’ people”
Sometimes perfectionism is mentioned directly, or “believing that you must be the best” or “setting unrealistically high standards for yourself”.
Once more diversity can influence this belief:
- “as a person of color I have to be 150% better than anyone else to … be treated fairly”
Beliefs around personal responsibility for the success or failure of a project were also commonly cited internal factors of burnout. You put the weight of the entire world on your own shoulders – every mistake, every missed release, every misunderstood requirement, every production issue is your fault – “[I can’t] push blame on anyone else if fail to meet [the] deadline. In reality software development is a team game where we all go wrong sometimes – and deserve some sympathy and understanding when it inevitably happens.
Sometimes this manifests as not being able to say no (“maybe you feel as though you can’t say no or push back on work”). Sometimes this comes from “being a people pleaser” (oh boy do I know that one!).
Other times we are “taking too big of a challenge” than we’re equipped for because we think we should.
This sort of self-directed internal pressure can be quite draining over time and can therefore become a factor in causing burnout, and is often manifested as a symptom of burnout itself.
Stress management skills
Multiple respondents cited inability to switch off from work or manage stress as an internal factor.
I know this one intimately myself. It’s what led me to set up codingmindfully.com. Unmanaged stress was certainly behind most of my burnout experience.
This was expressed as “lack of being able to switch for a while to other things”, “not being able to … relax myself”. Sometimes respondents would feel “anxiety and stress”.
“Ability to process negative feelings” was also cited, as well as “not being able to be at peace with situations out of my control”
I feel like this is a list of the reasons I began learning how to meditate!
Lack of support
Some respondents reported feeling unsupported. We all need humans around us who are supportive, or at least not directly destructive.
Sometimes this comes from “lacking a strong social circle”. Other times from “things happening at home”.
“Competition with coworkers, brogrammer mentalities” also don’t help. Or, as one respondent put it, “I love my job, it’s everyone else that drags me down”.
Sometimes it’s “fear of asking to get help”, perhaps out of fear of not being good enough.
Strategies for preventing burnout
Most burnouts aren’t permanent. Heck, burnout isn’t even inevitable in this industry (58% of respondents to this survey said No when asked if it was).
Most people figure out ways to work with their burnout eventually. My own approach has been experimental. Over the years I’ve discovered a set of practices and principles that (mostly) keep me from burning out, and helping me recover when I’m there.
Again I’ll do a rough grouping of the data.
- Managing intensity of work
- Taking a break/self care
- Having other interests
Managing work intensity
Many respondents say that managing the intensity of work is important in preventing burnout.
For many, this means being strict about setting boundaries, in particular around working hours. Set. a “clear separation of work and out of work time” with colleagues and managers. (If you can’t do this, it’s a red flag about whether you should remain in that job, but more on that later).
You need to be “transparent with your teammates about … communication” – channels used, when it happens, when you can be expected to respond and so on. And being strict with yourself not to check messages out of hours, turn off notifications etc.
You can also practice realism in your working practices, by “allowing extra time when estimating deadlines” to give yourself breathing space.
Taking breaks and self-care
Taking a break was seen as essential in preventing burnout. Humans need to rest. It’s in our nature. Taking a break is actually an excellent problem solving mechanism in its own right. Lightening the cognitive load gives the brain a chance to reset itself.
“Take time off when you need it and don’t feel bad about it” advises one correspondend. You can also take “personal development time at work” or even showing up at reduced effort (it kind of makes up for all the time you put in the extra without reward, no?).
Some respondents advocate meditation (I’m down with that). Other self-care factors include exercise, cooking nice food and so on.
If you’re on the edge of burnout, a short break might be enough to prevent something more serious – “a day break is all I need”. Certainly I find a few judicious hours can save me from troublesome territory.
Social media breaks – getting off twitter – are cited too! And socialising with loved ones and dear friends.
Having other interests
Many respondents placed emphasis on “doing things I enjoy outside of work”, especially non-coding activities that have “nothing to do with computers”. Humans thrive on variety – it’s important to mix it up, no matter how much you love to code! Personally, I’m a writer (articles like this, and poetry).
>>> Download my programming burnout checklist now <<<
Other respondents recommend “writing a book” or even “increased sexual activity”! Whatever helps, I suppose!
Mindset and attitude
Attitudes and mindsets can make all the difference to your chances of burnout. Often they are related to the “internal factors” mentioned in the previous section.
One mindset I’ve found useful is valuing process over outcome. It’s a way of dealing with lack of control – when your code might end up being thrown away or never see the light of day, or your project canceled, if you’ve had fun during the process it will matter less. It’s a type of protective detachment.
Remembering that “no matter how hard you try, all the extra work makes [little] difference … when you are an employee” can help you set limits on how much you emotionally and physically invest in a job.
Conversely, attaching to the meaning of what you are doing – “understanding the why behind our feature or product” can bring a sense of joyfulness to work that creates rather than depletes energy.
Strategies for recovering from burnout
Prevention is better than cure as they say, but even when we take good care we can find ourselves in sticky situations. So it’s good to have a toolkit for navigating your way back. Although some say “there is not much you can do” I think there are enough options to give yourself a great chance of bouncing back (I know I’ve had to do it myself several times!).
Here’s another slightly arbitrary split of the data. There is a strong correlation between “things that prevent burnout” and “things that help you recover from burnout” in my opinion.
- Rest and self-care
- Reprioritise other activities
- The nuclear option
Rest and self-care
Most of the rest and self-care suggestions for preventing burnout also apply to recovery. I would suggest the quantity of time spent on these be increased if you are truly burned out.
Suggestions include “meditation, taking time off (if possible), breathing exercises, yoga, working out, going for a walk, talking to someone, trying to practice being kind to myself”.
Getting the basics right, like “sleep[ing] early and eat[ing[ better” are also encouraged, as was “not coding outside of work for a few weeks”.
Physical exercise (I recommend low intensity like yoga or walking if burnt out) was also mentioned.
Finally, connecting with others – having conversations with friends, or opening up to a therapist about your burnout cannot be recommended enough in my opinion. “writing down thoughts as a way to understand them more clearly” also makes an appearance, and my trusty journal would agree.
Reprioritising other activities
Often burnout occurs because we let the things that restore us slip. So as well as rest, it’s important to connect with the things in our life that bring us energy! It’s time to reconnect with your non-coding hobbies. Baking, drawing, writing, reading, movies and all that.
It’s really a question of balancing the energy equation. There are activities in life that create energy, and activities that deplete. You want more of the former and less of the latter, so that over time, you’re building or rebuilding your energy rather than wearing it down.
Apply liberally until symptoms resolve!
The nuclear option
So. This is the big one.
Quitting your job and starting somewhere else. Or nowhere else!
One respondent feels that “the nuclear option is usually the only one that works”. Another “usually just find[s] another job and take a month off in between”.
Don’t get me wrong. There are times when this is the correct course of action. If you’re in a truly toxic situation, where there’s no recourse to change, then it’s right to pull the plug. You don’t need to be anybody’s hero. You don’t owe your wellbeing to anyone else.
I’ve done this myself and would do it again. But I’m actually just careful to avoid workplaces where it’s likely these days.
Burnout in software developers is a multi-faceted phenomenon. At its core, it’s an imbalance of energy – specifically, the mixture of activities in life that create and deplete energy is out of whack. Knowing the signs that you are about to burn out can be useful in preventing it, by taking action early. Specifically, watching out for issues with energy and motivation, cynicism about the profession or activity of writing code, a compulsion to overwork, irritation with co-workers and that you are entirely responsible for the success of the project can indicate some degree of burnout is present. A persistent lack of energy is the overwhelmingly universal symptom of all of those who answered this survey who had experienced or were experiencing burnout. Other symptoms reported included physical, mental/emotional, relational addictive and professional issues.
Burnout may have effects on a developer’s career. In worst cases (perhaps in the worst environments?) it can lead to performance management and dismissal. In this author’s view, that’s more an indictment of the organisation than the developer. Productivity issues, health impacts and having to “push through” were also mentioned.
Developers identify several categories of internal and external causes of burnout. External factors include process/management issues, workplace culture, tech culture in general and access to meaning in their work. Internal factors include beliefs around being “good enough”, beliefs around responsibility, stress management skills and feeling unsupported. It is noted that both sets of factors are areas where developers can make choices and take control – which gives hope for recovery.
Burnout prevention fell roughly into four categories – managing workplace intensity, taking breaks, having other interests outside of work and attitudes/mindsets. Rest and self-care, outside interests and “the nuclear option” of quitting a job were seen as the main ways of recovering from burnout.
This survey is not scientifically valid. I haven’t applied strict research methods. Nevertheless I hope it gives an indication of how a more thorough exploration of developer burnout comes from and how it can be dealt with might proceed. It certainly tallies with my own experience of burnout and recovery. I hope this has been useful to you!