Burnout amongst software engineers is a real danger. Years ago when I had first heard about burnout I brushed it off as a myth. After seeing it first hand and experiencing a little burnout myself, I can attest it is indeed real.
Software engineering demands a high level of concentration. Debugging software and troubleshooting complex problems are mentally taxing. It is in the nature of most developers that we tend to fixate on a particular problem until it is resolved. In this mode of operation it is not difficult to end up working overtime a lot. Being persistent is good, but it may come at a cost.
Putting all the focus on our work means that other things get relegated to the background. While this is not a problem in the short term, in the long run it can become a problem. Working all those extra hours, means there is less time to rest. As a result tiredness creeps in; instead of acting on natures red flag we try to counter it. Use of stimulants such as energy drinks and coffee are taken to combat fatigue. However continued use of stimulants may lead to prolonged fatigue.
When work becomes the main focus engineers may start setting unrealistic targets and goals to achieve high ambitions. If targets are missed or not reached, when questioned by co-workers or management, the response can often be met with aggression because we lack clarity to see the real reasons for failure. We will not notice a change in our behaviour and mood but others certainly will. Continually missing targets and goals can slowly turn this initial anger to self doubt.
Instead of turning for help, we can turn inwards. Self doubt can start to creep in. Why can’t I reach these goals? It must be my fault! By blaming ourselves and self criticising we devalue ourselves. Continued devaluation may lead to negativity, hopelessness and depression.
In hindsight it looks like common sense. Burnout may not be detected early on as it is something that happens gradually over time, and the signs can easily be missed.
By making changes in our working habits it may be possible to avoid burnout in the long run. The following are suggestions of positive habits:
- When the office closes, stop working. Tomorrow is another day.
- Don’t think about work at home, relax and do fun non work related things.
- Set an alarm to go to bed, yes the opposite of waking up.
- Reduce the amount of coffee intake, if you’re feeling tired try and get some more sleep.
- Take up some physical activity; play sports with friends or hit the gym.
The causes of burnout may not be consistent between two people. There are no “silver bullet” cures for burnout. We need to be more vigilant and notice negative patterns. If any symptoms are spotted, it may be wise to start closely paying attention to them and addressing them. The very first step would be to logout, switch off and take time off.
“Logout, before you burnout”