Careers are like road trips. It’s not always a smooth ride. Sometimes there are bumps and detours, and it’s not unlikely we take a wrong turn and find ourselves lost. On the flip side, road trips—like careers—are also full of joy, memorable moments and great people. They have exciting times and relaxing times, and in the end they’re fun, unforgettable life experiences.
Our career witnesses many of our life stages: graduating college, engagement, marriage, buying our first house, becoming a parent, and eventually retirement. It’s easy to understand that we change and grow throughout these different stages. However, we also grow and change in our careers. I believe that as our careers age, and we age, the ingredients needed for us to have a successful road trip also change. We need to understand how we change over time in order to enjoy the road trip from start to finish.
One common road bump that occurs within a career is burnout, especially in tech. Burning out can cause devs to leave the industry or at least quit their job, so today we want to talk more about it. What burnout is, what the causes and symptoms are, and how we can prevent or resolve it so you can get back on the road.
Everything you need to know about burnout
A common example of burnout
A huge project due because of leadership setting a deadline before scoping out the work, causes late nights and early mornings finishing up features, fixing bugs, and negotiating MVP with stakeholders. This high-pressure (aka stressful) environment is based on completing tasks by the deadline so you can get high review ratings by delivering for the business. You manage to complete the project and let out a breath of fresh air. You’re glad it’s over. However, as soon as you return to your desk, you find that you already have another deadline to face.
Have you ever been in a situation like that? I certainly have, and it can be tough.
If you become entrenched in an environment where this high pressure to deliver an overwhelming amount of tasks, without any control over the deadlines, it leads to a place where you feel emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted.
This state and feeling of exhaustion, where deadlines stop mattering and each new task feels like a huge chore is a sign of developer burnout; a common uncomfortable truth you find yourself dealing with as Software Engineers.
How can you tell if you are experiencing burnout?
Our jobs are essential to businesses and sometimes new products or features are promised publicly (often before the work is estimated!). We find ourselves in two-week sprints where capacity can be overloaded, as we fight to keep up with the demands of our product owners.
There is also a rhythm on many dev teams, where the same meetings and same cadence are followed for ongoing periods without change. Lastly, being in the same developer role for long periods of time can lead to boredom, which leads to apathy and loss of purpose. It makes sense. The work gets old, and every day starts to feel the same.
When we compare two different moments of time throughout these life cycles of software development (high-pressure projects or losing purpose), we can learn how to identify the two better.
For comparison sakes, these are contrived examples of extreme states of being. We don’t start at the normal state and immediately reach burnout. Instead, it’s a path that goes from mild and fleeting to severe and prolonged (you can think of it as a roller coaster with ups and downs).
Genuinely enjoy going to work and completing tasks
Have a purpose and reason for why we work at the company we do
Motivated towards becoming better, learning and achieving things
Patient and respectful when solving unexpected challenges or discussing items with colleagues
Focus on the task at hand while getting things done
Take breaks, maintain healthy lifestyle choices and exercise
Dread going to work each day because there is no point to it
Apathetic (going through the motions) towards getting things done and feel a lack of achievement from completing tasks effectively
Critical of co-workers and impatient when having discussions
Feel drained emotionally, physically, and mentally
Neglecting self-care and well-being both during and outside of work
Feeling unmotivated, stressed, and helpless
Frequent headaches or common colds compared to usual
Unable to concentrate or constantly procrastinating
It’s these feelings, especially over time, that can wreak havoc on our careers and our lives. Our personal and work lives are intertwined, meaning that they influence each other and our happiness in both areas.
I’m not saying we all live to work, but we certainly care about the tech decisions we make with the impact they have on the world. It’s this passion that leads to many Twitter discussions about methodologies, project standards and the direction in which our industry is evolving, or team discussions about the best architecture paths.
It’s when we stop caring and lose our passion that we should worry, and begin reflecting on the reason why.
How can you help prevent and resolve burnout?
Now that I’ve demonstrated the burnt-out state and talked about the reasons developers reach it, let’s discuss how you can prevent and resolve it.
Step 1: Review & Identify
The very first step when feelings of exhaustion start becoming regular is to review. Spend time reflecting honestly on what’s going on, how you are feeling, and identifying any potential causes of burnout symptoms.
Find a quiet space and look at your life from a zoomed-out view. Try and come up with answers to the following questions:
What are some of the biggest tasks and responsibilities in my life right now?
Which is causing the most stress?
Am I feeling overwhelmed or drained?
Am I giving myself enough time for self-care?
How am I treating others?
The answers to this reflection provide us with direction on resolving any feeling of distress.
Step 2: Talk to your support system
There are various types of people in our life to chat about our life challenges with. Mentors provide guidance based on their experiences of dealing with similar situations, while colleagues close to the environment might be a good resource for talking through similar feelings. Friends and family are there to support, encourage, and give us love when feeling down.
Talking about how you are feeling (or writing about it in a personal journal) helps us sift through the emotions and understand how we truly feel about them.
Step 3: Take Action:
There are many different ways to take action that helps us get back into our normal state. I won’t go into the details of each one here, but rather I’ll list out the options to give you a range of ideas. Here they are:
Do something kind for others
Raising our spirits and giving us purpose changes our current emotional state. Cooking for friends, handing out compliments or helping someone turn their computer off and on might help you feel more positive.
Practice saying “no”
One option is to ask a friend or someone you trust to ask things of you, and you practice saying no to them. This will give you the courage to use it in real work situations.
Rest & sleep
Going to bed and maintaining a healthy sleep schedule keeps our brains ready for each and every day. Furthermore, taking breaks from work and giving your mind some rest does wonders for your energy levels throughout the day!
Relax with your favorite hobbies
What’s your favorite thing to do when there are no responsibilities taking up the time for them? Take some time away from the responsibilities and prioritize them! It might be difficult at first, but it’s good to practice giving time to the things you love.
Take more control
Take a look over your calendar and responsibilities, are there any areas that you could take back and give yourself control over instead?
Self-reflect to find your purpose
Sometimes we feel stuck due to losing our north star in life, or our “why”. As we get older, this purpose can change, and reflecting on that change re-ignites the engines that motivate us back towards our normal state.
Make a change
Are there any opportunities that could change up your daily routines at work? Could you create new goals or change responsibilities by joining a new team? Could you find a new side project or learn a new skill that gives you purpose in going to work each day?
Mental health (and mindfulness) / Self-care
Introduce time in your schedule for self-care and mindfulness. Again, it might feel difficult to make time for this when you feel busy and stressed, but if you need the time for it… other things can wait.
Physical exercise helps reduce stress, gives us a dopamine rush and challenges us to improve our resilience as we push through new personal records. Jogging, dancing, doing a few push-ups or taking a nice walk with the Doom soundtrack might give you a little boost.
Take a vacation
My goto action is a real vacation - truly disconnecting and enjoying the new experiences traveling somewhere new brings. Combine the discovery of a new place with a few days of relaxation, and it really helps one recharge!
Burnout is a real challenge in tech. We work in a field with constant change, an endless slew of deadlines and tough problems as we make the world better. My belief is that recognizing the feeling of mild burnout helps prevent it from becoming extreme. By catching the mild feelings, we give ourselves the time for action.
Like the small beetles of life, the small symptoms of burnout can continually become stronger and stronger if we don’t interrupt them. Self-care, healthy lifestyles and mindfulness are the key tools in our toolbelt that keep us living our best lives, as our best selves.