Burnout is a phenomenon that can impact anyone, no matter what their role is or what industry they work in. But signs of burnout at work are particularly common amongst software developers, which makes it an important issue for employers in the IT and engineering industries to be aware of.
When left unrecognised and untreated, software developer burnout can lead to long-term health issues for employees and a range of problems for their place of work. In this article, we explain what burnout is, the signs of burnout at work and how to prevent burnout in the workplace.
What is Burnout?
Burnout is a condition that is usually caused by physical and/or psychological exhaustion. Someone suffering from burnout will often have been dealing with high levels of stress or responsibility for a long time and get to the point where they are no longer able to function normally. It can affect sleep, appetite and physical health and have a big impact on people’s personal and professional lives.
Someone experiencing burnout may feel tired and drained all the time, lacking the energy to complete basic tasks or engage in conversations with other people. They might feel depressed or detached from other people and may have developed a cynical or negative outlook on life or work.
In recent years, cases of professional burnout have appeared to be on the rise. In a recent survey from Deloitte, 77% of employees who were interviewed reported that they have experienced burnout at their current job, with 91% reporting ‘unmanageable’ amounts of stress.
Professional burnout is usually caused by excessive stress at work and leads to employees feeling exhausted, being unable to cope with the demands of their job, and sometimes causing health problems that can take years to recover from. In many cases, it’s actually the culture of the workplace or the demands of the job that lead to burnout, which is why employers must know the signs of burnout at work and understand how to stop employees from developing burnout.
What are the Signs of Burnout at Work?
People that are experiencing burnout at work may try to hide the impact that it is having on them and their performance, which can make it difficult to identify to begin with. Often, the most common signs of burnout at work will be related to someone’s professional output instead of how they appear.
Common symptoms of burnout in the workplace include:
- A lack of energy and enthusiasm
- Withdrawing from social interaction at work
- A lack of engagement in meetings
- Increased irritability
- A drop in typical performance
- Having a pessimistic or cynical attitude about work
- Issues with focus and productivity
Other symptoms of burnout that employees might report or display include:
- Difficulty sleeping
- A loss of appetite
- Low self-esteem
- Losing interest in hobbies or activities outside of work
- Headaches and stomach aches
- Increased frustration and aggression
The Problem of Software Developer Burnout
Burnout is possible no matter someone’s role and the industry that they’re working in. But a recent study has identified that 83% of software developers report that they have suffered or are suffering from workplace burnout, which indicates that this is an area of the tech industry where burnout is more common.
There is a range of things that could contribute towards the fact that software engineers are more likely to feel burned out at points in their careers. One of the key reasons is that software development and programming are quite solitary jobs and employees often work remotely and independently, which contributes to feelings of loneliness or makes the work feel unimportant. Feeling isolated or like your work isn’t making an impact can both make the symptoms of burnout worse.
Developers also tend to spend a lot of time at their desks working at screens, usually doing work that can feel repetitive. This lack of diversity in workload and day-to-day tasks can also increase feelings of unhappiness at work and make it seem more draining, which can lead to burnout when combined with stress.
Speaking of stress, software development is a career where expectations are very high for final products and the stakes for meeting deadlines and creating a successful final product are very high. This pressure can lead to a lot of stress at work and also mean setbacks or failures feel much harder to overcome, which can lead to someone feeling burned out by their work.
Whilst aspects of the software developer role mean that burnout is more likely, that’s not to say that every software developer will eventually feel burned out by their job. Instead, it means that employers need to be aware of the risks and the impact that burnout can have and understand how to prevent it to protect both their employees and their business.
The Impact of Burnout in the Workplace
As an employer in the engineering and software development industry, you should ensure that your employee’s health isn’t impacted by their job because you have a responsibility to look after your staff. But employee burnout can also impact the workplace and the business in a variety of ways, which is another reason why preventing it is so important.
Here are some of the ways that employee burnout could impact your business.
Burnout requires rest and time away from work to recover, which means that employees who are burned out will be absent from work. Whilst a lot of people will recover enough to go back to work after a few weeks or a few months, it can take over a year to properly recover from burnout in bad cases, with some people needing even more time to overcome the mental and physical impact.
In a workplace where the culture and expectations lead to employee burnout, employee absence will significantly increase. Absenteeism is a significant drain on resources, with research showing that “between 2% and 16% of the annual salary bill may be spent by employers on absence” every year. Either you lose a member of your team, which decreases your output and impacts profits, or you have to hire a replacement, which requires more from a hiring and onboarding budget.
Burnout and a workplace culture that contributes to burnout can also impact a business because they decrease employee retention rates. If any employee gets burned out by working at your company, they’re unlikely to want to continue working there. If this keeps happening, your retention rates will be affected which harms resources and morale.
Workplaces where burnout is common also tend to be stressful, unsupportive and unstable, none of which are conducive to high retention rates. One study identified that 40% of workplace turnover is due to stress, which indicates how much this contributes to losing employees. If you’re working to retain top talent over longer periods, burnout is going to hinder this.
Employee burnout can also harm company culture because it usually goes hand in hand with high levels of stress and a negative atmosphere in the workplace. If employees feel burned out they’re going to be more tired, less sociable and also will likely feel critical or cynical about their work. This contributes to poor company culture and morale, which has a knock-on effect of hindering your recruitment prospects and tarnishing your reputation as an employer. It can also decrease engagement at work, which decreases efficiency and creativity in turn.
One of the main symptoms of burnout is that the person suffering feels tired and unmotivated, which significantly impacts their level of productivity. Decreased productivity at work can be a problem for employers because it impacts their ability to deliver products or services on time or decrease the quality of their business offering. Sustained growth and success rely on good levels of productivity from your workforce, and burnout severely inhibits this.
How to Prevent Burnout at Work
Burned out employees aren’t happy, productive or focused at work. As an employer with software engineers in your team, you should make it a priority to implement systems and processes that help to prevent your staff from getting burned out at work.
Here are some of our top tips for preventing employee burnout in the workplace.
Teams that communicate well are more successful and better at completing projects together. If you are concerned about staff getting burned out, you should first ensure that your internal communication systems are efficient and make it easy for employees to share updates, deliver briefs and give feedback and advice.
As well as implementing effective internal systems of communication, you also need to make sure that your teams are regularly connecting and checking in with one another at work, especially managers. Software developers that feel left out, lonely or unsure of expectations are more likely to get burned out, so team leads or line managers in particular need to be sure that they are regularly communicating with their teams.
This is particularly important if your staff work remotely, as without an office environment where you can spontaneously check in with your team face-to-face, burnout is much less likely to be noticed and prevented early.
Make Workloads Visible
Another significant contributor to workplace stress and burnout is workloads that feel unmanageable. If an employee has too much work to do, they’re likely to either feel stressed and overworked or end up putting in additional extra hours to try and meet the demands of their role.
This can lead to burnout because levels of stress whilst at work are very high and employees aren’t getting the chance to have a break and switch off from their jobs.
Managers and business owners that want to prevent burnout should implement systems that mean everyone’s workloads are visible in the company. This makes it much easier to identify whether employees are being overworked in their roles and intervene earlier if somebody is given an unmanageable amount of work to do.
You might implement a workload management system by having visible to-do lists for all members of staff, or you might encourage employees to regularly report the tasks they have on their plate and the deadlines for them to get a better idea of who is busiest and who needs additional support.
Employees that don’t have their successes celebrated at work are more likely to develop burnout because they don’t have positive experiences to balance out any negative ones like stressful days or difficult feedback. A great way to develop a more positive company culture and support your employee’s happiness at work is to ensure that successes and achievements at work are celebrated and that this recognition is made visible to everyone else.
Success in the workplace can be celebrated in a variety of different ways. You could introduce weekly announcements where a particular team member is singled out for their great performance. You could introduce a reward system where team members can send each other points or messages of gratitude to recognise good work. You could also start incentivising and recognising success in a formal way that leads to things like bonuses or incentive trips.
Encourage Professional Boundaries
A significant contributor to burnout at work is a lack of professional boundaries. This means that employees who struggle to implement a good work-life balance end up taking their work home with them, whether this is literally or just involves thinking a lot about tasks and being unable to switch off outside of working hours.
Managers and business owners can tackle this cause of burnout in software developers by encouraging employees to set strong professional boundaries. Unless it is part of their role, employees should not work outside of designated office hours and should be encouraged to speak up if they are struggling to meet deadlines, instead of putting in extra hours and ending up stressed and overworked.
The importance of work-life balance is being stressed as important across a variety of engineering sectors at the moment, so this should become part of your company’s culture to help prevent developers and other employees from feeling burned out by work.
Increase Burnout Awareness
An important part of preventing burnout at work is increasing awareness of the symptoms of burnout and helping employees to notice when they or their colleagues may be developing the condition. When staff are made aware of burnout and the impact it can have, they’re more likely to spot the signs in their own behaviour and feel empowered to take action if they believe they are approaching being burned out.
Many offices have first aiders or give basic first aid training to their staff, and burnout should be part of this as a form of mental health first aid. You should also make employees aware of the dangers of burnout and ways to prevent it as part of company culture, which could be shared through meetings, workshops or internal communication.
Facilitate Time Off
Finally, something important to remember if you want to manage programmer burnout is that your company must be able to facilitate time off for all employees.
A significant contributor to employee burnout is feeling like you cannot take time off or that you have to work extra hours to keep up. If your company has more work to do than employees can handle, you should hire new staff instead of expecting current employees to work for longer and take fewer days off. You should also make the systems for booking holidays clear and ensure that everybody is allowed a fair amount of time off, within reason.
As experienced recruiters in the electronic embedded systems engineering industry, we understand the impact that burnout can have on a business and recognise the need for employers to be aware of the links between the software developer role and the likelihood of developing burnout. Awareness of the condition and its symptoms is the first step in prevention, but businesses also need to be ready to implement measures to manage burnout at work and adapt company culture to ensure that this isn’t a contributing factor.
If you’re a business owner in the electronic embedded systems industry looking for advice on attracting and retaining software developers, KO2 is a recruitment expert that can help. You can read more of our industry advice and insight on our blog, or get in touch to talk to our team about how we help our clients grow their businesses.