A Developer’s Guide to Burnout
Identifying burnout and tips to avoid it and recover
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What exactly is burnout? Some days, you just don’t feel like working. You find yourself distracted, returning to the same line of code over and over before realizing that it just won’t happen today. If a good night’s sleep can get you back on track, it’s just a hiccup. If the struggle continues for weeks, it might be something deeper.
Burnout often translates to a total disconnection from your work – where fatigue intersects with apathy and requires a concerted effort to recover. They say that “you can’t burn out if you aren’t on fire,” so the good news is that it is likely you really care about what you are working on. But the goal is to keep that fire burning without extinguishing it.
In 2019, the WHO revised their definition of burnout to be: “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
reduced professional efficacy.”
A lot of the reasons why an individual gets to a place of burnout comes from decisions made by the organization they are working for. In this article, I would like to explore the common reasons developers get burned out and how they can respond.
Common Causes of Burnout and How to Rectify
Low levels of Deep Work time, which is two hours or more of uninterrupted work is a huge reason why developers burn out. Slack messages and never-ending meeting blocks during the day can translate to pull requests and DMs in the evening or weekends to unblock teammates.
Frequent interruptions, too many meetings, and Zoom fatigue. Developers are happiest when they get to be builders and create amazing products. When the working patterns hamper that happy place to a point where it gets difficult to get things done – that’s a red flag. In today’s way of working, we have become a very interrupt-driven, reactive culture. Pretty much everyone is interrupted consistently throughout the day by one thing or another. Whether it is messages, emails, or even personal things like childcare, trying to get back into the flow of whatever you were working on can take 20 minutes. If these interruptions happen frequently, you can see hours of time lost in context switching. Some ways to reduce these are:
Review and remove low-value meetings
Try to consolidate meetings in a certain timeframe or on a specific day
Make sure you have at least one meeting-free day
Make it completely acceptable to not put video on when in a Zoom meeting
Take a meeting while walking outside
When screen sharing isn’t necessary, try a good old-fashioned phone call to take your eyes off the screen or opt for a walking meeting.
Truncate 60-minute meetings to 50, and 30-minute meetings to 25.
Schedule Deep Work time blocks
Note your status on Slack and try to stop multitasking
If you are a manager, think about evenly distributing bug work or assign on-call days to reduce randomization and reducing the number of Jira epics and PR repos assigned to each person
Getting into the cycle of reflections and constant improvement. I wrote a separate article on this topic because good sprint retrospectives are extremely important for developers. The goal of a retro is above all to continually improve sprint health so when – after several sprint retros – your team is hitting the same roadblocks, there is a problem with executing on your action plan. Additional tips for effective sprint retros:
Think about your people health by gauging developer sentiment throughout the sprint and after.
Celebrate successes! It is often easier to focus on things that can go better but making sure that each success is recognized is good for morale and helps to make sure those types of wins are reproduced.
Collect your feedback during the sprint, not just after.
Record notes on specific Jira tickets, process failures, and red flags as they happen.
Highlight items that were added mid-sprint.
Any additional work—no matter how “simple”—can derail a sprint, making this review critical to inform future sprint planning.
How was the health of the project?
How was your cycle time? Were any PRs merged before being approved? Do you have the right reviewers assigned? Are people remembering to include story points and descriptions on Jira tickets?
Look at both your project’s health and the health of the people working on the project. Were team members working long hours on the weekends to hit sprint goals? Are people happy?
What to Do if You Feel Like You Are Nearing Burnout
The first step is to schedule some time with your manager. You need to figure out why you have arrived here: Are you up against unrealistic deadlines? Is this a recent issue? Are you having trouble getting work done because of interruptions? Think beyond your professional life. Do you have important things happening in your personal life that are impacting you across the board? Are you lacking creative projects or spending too much time inside? Understanding what’s missing can help you find balance.
No matter what the root cause is, the key steps to recover are a) acknowledgment, b) prioritizing yourself and c) seeking help where needed. A mental health day – or week – might be beneficial, or load-balancing with your teammates. But if that doesn’t feel like enough, you may want to look at your role and purpose. Before making any huge changes though, think about what different types of rest could help make you feel better:
Detach: Take a real break. Turn off your emails, close Slack, and think about taking an actual vacation. Ideally, someone could take over your role while you are out so that you aren’t stressed about the onslaught of work to catch up on when you get back.
Relax: Leisurely, low-effort activities can be really helpful in engaging your brain enough to forget about work without challenging yourself.
Master something outside of work: Having a passion project or something you love to do outside of work is really revitalizing. Think about spending more time doing that.
When you experience extended moments of unmanaged anxiety or fatigue, burnout is a natural response. It is your body and mind telling you that something needs to change, so you should listen to it. With awareness and the right actions, you can solve work-related fatigue before you get too deep into burnout.
I gave a talk on burnout at DeveloperWeek last month if you want to hear more.
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