The Taboo of Burnout

burnout

Last week, Ka Wai wrote a great article about the benefits of keeping busy with a healthy variety of work. This seemed like a great time to publish a companion piece about the dangers of becoming overworked and stressed due to little variety – so let’s talk about burnout.

The first time I experienced burnout as a developer was about five years into my career. I was working on a large project with a small core team, assisted by a handful of additional contractor groups. While initially the project seemed to be on track and successful, the scope slowly unraveled as new business requirements were discovered. After several months of work, it became clear that the specified deadlines were unreasonable, if not impossible.

Overtime hours began to creep in, and the code we committed always seemed to unveil new bugs and even more missing business rules. As the pressure increased, tempers shortened and morale plummeted. I started to feel apathetic toward my work. After all, what was the point in being enthusiastic if the project was steamrolling toward failure?

Back then, I had no understanding that this was a common issue. I didn’t even know that it had an official name – burnout. I simply thought most of the problems were my fault – after all, if I was a better coder, or had asked better questions during the discovery phase, wouldn’t everything be running smoothly? I just needed to work a little harder to make up for all my shortcomings. Worse yet, I felt like I couldn’t talk about the problem with anyone. Admitting that the project was in trouble was the same as admitting I was terrible at my job. In my mind, the halls were filled with coworkers who were just waiting for me to trip up. “See? I told you he couldn’t cut it.”

What is it?

Burnout is fatigue, frustration, or apathy resulting from prolonged stress, overwork, or intense activity. It’s not the same as being mildly annoyed when your job is occasionally problematic – the key difference is that burnout is caused by a lengthy pattern of workplace difficulty.

There are many causes of burnout – oversized workloads, long hours, problems with coworkers, disagreements with management or policy – but I believe the main underlying cause is the feeling that you are not in control of your work. Ask anyone what they don’t like about their job, and they will likely respond with examples of things they don’t believe they can change. When too many of these “unfixable” problems pile up for too long, the end result is burnout.

Burnout is dangerous because it produces bad code. If a developer is overworked and apathetic, they’ll only put in the minimum amount of effort required for each task. Healthy and happy programmers, however, tend to write higher-quality bug-free code, which in turn keeps projects on schedule and on budget.

You’re not alone

Many developers identify as introverts, and are less than enthusiastic about talking with their colleagues about their emotional state. Because of this, developers rarely speak up when experiencing burnout, or may ignore their symptoms altogether. And if no one is talking about the problem, it’s easy to assume that it only exists for you.

This isolation only compounds your feelings of helplessness. You fear that if you admit to your stress or unhappiness, you’ll be letting your coworkers down (or worse, that they’ll see you as incompetent or lazy). But burnout is more common than you might think – if you have the opportunity, privately ask some of your trusted colleagues if they’ve ever experienced it. If you’ve noticed the symptoms at your workplace, odds are high that they have too.

Unfortunately, there are environments where you may not be able to speak up, even one-on-one. High-pressure “rockstar” jobs often pride themselves on poor working conditions. Anyone who objects to >40-hour work weeks may be considered “weak,” “undedicated,” or “not a good culture fit,” regardless of their performance. If you begin to feel like your company’s culture is the main cause of your stress, it may be time to look elsewhere.

Developers also keep silent about burnout for fear of jeopardizing future employment opportunities. Take, for example, one response on a recent Hacker News thread about a burnout experience:

“…burnout is something you better not blog about or write about on facebook or speak about in any way that can be traced back to your real name, if you ever want to find another job again.”

This person’s concerns are extremely valid – some companies would definitely look down on a person who admitted to a burnout experience. But these are likely the same companies who are prone to unhealthy working environments. Don’t let the possibility of a bad job in the future prevent you from discussing burnout with other developers.

The more we talk about the problem, the easier it becomes for others to speak up, and to ultimately take steps to address the causes of burnout in their workplaces.

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Jeremy Kratz is a developer at DoneDone. Follow him on Twitter via @jwkratz.