How Not to Burnout: Guide for Software Developers

The pandemics changed a lot in the way we structure our work. While developer burnout had been a problem long before some virus came along, remote work only worsened our work-life balance and mental health requires more attention now than ever.

What is professional burnout?

Before we go on talking about how to avoid burnout, it is important to understand precisely what burnout is.

There are a few different things people call burnout (such as emotional burnout), but we are going to focus specifically on professional burnout of software developers. Professional burnout is a complex, systematic problem, and it generally features the following symptoms:

  • Becoming cynical or overly critical at work
  • Lack of energy and concentration with no evident cause
  • Procrastinating on tasks that you used to do enthusiastically
  • Feelings of dread, apathy, being out of control
  • Lowered productivity
  • Minor anxiety

Now, these are the initial symptoms. Left unchecked, burnout can lead to these long-term consequences:

  • Constant fatigue, stress
  • Major anxiety
  • Insomnia/compromised sleep schedule
  • Anger bursts
  • Heart problems/high blood pressure
  • Lowered immune functions
  • Clinical depression

How does it progress?

Psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North define 12 stages of burnout like this:

  1. The compulsive idea. You are endlessly trying to prove yourself and this slowly drains your energy.
  2. “Just work harder”. You are unable to switch off. You will work at the expense of other things.
  3. Neglecting needs. You are working at the expense of your personal and/or physical needs, such as exhaustion.
  4. Apathy. Work quality starts to deteriorate and you start to look for something to blame.
  5. Death of values. Skewed values, friends and family move to the background, hobbies are irrelevant, work is the main focus.
  6. Frustration, aggression, cynicism. As you go into denial of obvious problems in your life, the blame goes on to everything (everyone) else. You are constantly irritated and not pleased with those around you.
  7. Emotional depletion and withdrawal from obligations. You isolate yourself from most social contacts and find ways to do less work. May look to alcohol and drugs for stress relief.
  8. “What have I turned into?”. You are experiencing odd behavioural changes, and your friends and family become concerned. However, you still do not admit your responsibility for your discomfort.
  9. “Just leave me alone”. Also called depersonalization. You lose faith in yourself and think there is little to nothing you can do to change your life.
  10. Inner emptiness. You feel empty inside and no longer have hopes or dreams. Some may fill the void with alcohol, drugs, or sex.
  11. Who cares. The onset of depression, feeling unsure, lost, exhausted.
  12. Burnout syndrome. Total mental and physical collapse, requires full medical attention.

Note that this is a simplified model of reality, and the steps will vary from person to person. But the general downward, spiral-like trend is always going to be the same.

What causes burnout?

Professional burnout syndrome is a complex disorder and requires a systematic abuse of work/life balance.

High workload is among the most obvious causes of professional burnout. If you constantly have tight or borderline unrealistic deadlines, stress will be constant and burnout will manifest itself.

Perfectionism. We, programmers tend to obsess over every single detail of our work. While certain levels of perfectionism are beneficial (Apple is the living example), you must know where to stop. The problem is that nothing is truly perfect and can only be good enough for the application. This particular concept is called premature optimization in software development and you can use this handy chart to help you (xkcd 1691):


Tediousness. If you are constantly working with the same product, people and tools, it is easy to slip into being a robot. If you cannot find exiting bits in your work, it will become very boring very fast.

Chaos. While tediousness is the complete lack of variety, chaos is on the other side of spectrum. If your objectives and means to achieve them change every day, it is hard to make your work structured. Having no stability in a workplace is just as hurtful as boring, dreadful, work every day.

Lack of feedback. If you write code all day and do not even know if it makes into production, you will quickly resort to the fallacy that your actions do not matter. For us humans it is very important to be recognized in our work, and without such recognition the quality of our production will slip without you even noticing.

Work/life balance. If you spend all of your energy at work, you will have no energy left to spend on yourself, your family and friends. Since humans are social creatures and cannot survive in isolation, this will have catastrophic impact on your mental health.

How to prevent burnout?

Now that we have covered what professional burnout is, how does it progress, and what causes it, we can talk about strategies to avoid burnout in its early stages.

Be more than your job. If you identify yourself too strongly with your professional life, it may be hard to maintain a healthy work/life balance. Just because you enjoy what you do does not mean you need to do it all the time.

Get rid of the imposter syndrome. If you do not believe in yourself and constantly have to prove your abilities, stress will never go away. Only once you accept your value as a developer will you be able to effectively provide that value to your projects.

Know when to stop. To be most effective in the long run, you must know when to stop working and take a break. This must happen before you completely run out of energy. If measured on a 1-10 scale, you should stop when you are at 8-9, not 10.

Switch tasks. Most often, you are burning out when working for extended periods of time on a single task/project. Human brains cannot be productive for long when thinking about the same thing. If you encounter a bug or a problem which you do not know how to solve, forget about it and do something else, like go for a walk, workout, call your loved ones, take a shower, etc. Chances are, by the time you come back you will be both well-rested and have a solution conceived!

Communicate with your supervisors. Always remember that your supervisors are equally (or even more) interested in your productivity as you are and will be ready to hear your concerns out. If you believe that your workplace somehow limits your abilities, be sure to bring it up with your manager. Very often, supervisors give you unreasonable workloads only because you keep accepting them.

Have a rigid schedule and stick to it. The schedule depends on the kind of company (or client) you work for, as well as your team. But to make sure that burnout does not concern you, have a clear schedule of when you are working and when you are not. Not working includes not writing code, not checking emails, not replying to texts, and not even thinking about work. The minute you let work into your personal life, you lose personal life. The inverse is also true: you should leave your personal life at home (figuratively) when you are working, or you will lose your work.

How to treat ongoing burnout

All of the above will definitely help prevent burnout, or deal with a minor one. However, if you think that you have sunk deeper (roughly stages 6 through 12), more invasive measures are called for:

Visit a therapist. Ok, just hear me out. I know it is obvious, and is expensive, and there are few good ones. However, this is the most effective method. If cost is the issue, look into what kind of benefits (if any) you get from your workplace or any other medical insurance (for example, from your place of study) you may have. Many times it will include a claim for a therapist. Even if it is only good for 1 visit, this should be the first option to consider.

Take a vacation. If it was a while from your last vacation, this wait may be causing the issue. I know there is nothing good to do for vacation right now, but it does not have to be travelling. Vacation is about switching the environment around you and getting out of the routine. Explain your situation to your supervisor and request a vacation (even a day off is good enough if a vacation is not possible at the moment). Over the course of your break, reflect on your feelings and think about what exactly needs changing.

Find a new job. If you believe that your workplace does not allow you to utilize your full potential and you are not happy working there, changing your job will be just what the doctor ordered. When you give everything you have and it is still not enough, there is not much else you can do.

The most important step in treating a burnout, is admitting to yourself that you are, in fact, burnt out. This calls for shifting of your priorities from work onto yourself.


Here are some additional resources for those interested in professional burnout:

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