I am very interested in psychology, but I am not a psychologist. I do not have any specific or tangential formal education on the phenomenon of burnout. My experience with it is from the trenches. I have been in some nasty ones, knee deep in the mud, grasping for something solid to avoid going down and drowning. I have observed software developers burnout, and I know how bad it can get.
I got close to get burnout myself a couple of times but managed to avoid it by doing research on the topic and taking decisive actions. I have seen friends and co-workers fall deep into it, and struggle to get out of its hideous embrace. I have also helped some of them to get out of it.
A Burnout Story
I’ll tell you a story of a software engineer named Bolbo, who at some point in his career worked on a project that almost killed him and his passion for coding. I’ll also give you some strategies to avoid burnout; strategies that I have used, and that I have seen working in the trenches.
Causes of Burnout
The most common cause of burnout for software developers is a prolonged state of intense stress, accompanied by a perceived feeling of lack of control. Burnout grows slowly and builds up a little step at the time. I’ve seen it manifest when developers feel stuck working very hard and for long periods on projects that:
- require large amounts of personal sacrifice;
- seem impossible to complete;
- are high-stake;
- offer no relief in sight.
Some people define this kind of project as a “death march,” a fatalist term that I hate with a passion and that describes a preventable reality.
In those conditions, burnout starts taking hold of your life causing progressively worsening feelings of
- emotional and physical fatigue;
- lack of accomplishment and ineffectiveness;
- cynicism, sense of doubt, and indifference.
The Anatomy of a Death March
A death march is a project that, after the autopsy, usually reveals the following characteristics:
- It has a fixed and immovable scope, timeline and resources available to get it done.
- Everyone who understands the details agrees it is not achievable, but management doesn’t want to hear it.
- Management gets progressively more and more worried and loses trust in its people. It gets to a point where a significant portion of people’s time is spent giving status.
- The people who are doing the work struggle to understand the value of the project.
Being on a death march feels like walking in the middle of a railway tunnel, too far from the entrance to run back, and too exhausted to continue moving forward. You see the light in front of you, but you have the feeling that what you see is not sunlight. It comes from an old and rusty locomotive headlamp. You can feel the vibration, and you can hear the train’s whistle. It looks like it is coming at full speed toward you. You realize that you forgot why you even started walking in that tunnel, and you keep getting text messages from your boss asking when you are going to be out of the tunnel, and from your family asking at what time you are going to be back home for dinner.
For more on this topic, check out the excellent book Death March, by Edward Yourdon (👈 Links to Amazon products on this site are affiliate links; this means that we may receive a small commission (at no cost to you) if you subscribe or purchase something through the link. That helps to pay for the cost of this site. With that said, we will never promote anything we don’t trust or haven’t used.)
Common Burnout Symthoms
Burnout enters your life slowly, and manifest itself with symptoms that increase in intensity over time. Those include, but are not limited to:
- Lack of attention span
- Chest pains
- Shortness of breath
- Loss or increase of appetite
- A sense of detachment
- Loss of enjoyment of things you used to enjoy
- A general feeling of being disconnected
- Poor performance
How to Avoid Burnout
It is far easier to stop burnout during the early stages. It is much harder to fix once you’ve been deep in it for weeks or months.
Here are the strategies that I recommend:
Understand that you are the captain of your ship
You have a boss, and you have a job. Your boss could be a client, a manager, the board, or who knows what else. It doesn’t matter who you report to. Everybody reports to someone or something. What matters is that you are ultimately in control of what you choose to do.
Your boss can choose to fire you if he or she is not happy with your performance. If you do your absolute best, and your boss decides to let you go, maybe it wasn’t meant to be, and you should move forward and do something else. No job is worth losing your health for, and you are responsible for deciding what you need to stay healthy and productive. Most importantly, you are responsible for letting your boss know what you need to be at your best.
Understand that, if you burnout, you won’t be productive
If you burnout, your productivity goes down to almost zero, your life becomes miserable, and all your efforts to get your work done were for nothing. If you care about the work you are doing, you need to avoid getting to that point. It will not help you, your career, your family, your team or your client.
Define your non-negotiable boundaries and make them clear
We are all different. Nobody knows where your breaking point is. Your boss might be a beast that can work 18 hours a day for years, never eat or sleep and still be productive. That’s commendable, but maybe that’s not you.
If your boss is a gymnast who can perform flips in the air from a standing position, you might be in awe of his or her skills, but you don’t get to that point just because you are asked to stretch. You won’t be able to do it from one day to the next, and you should not give the impression that you commit to doing it with no help if you know it is not possible. You’ll fall on your head and break your neck.
In a given context, you might be more of a 10 hour work day maximum kind of person, imagine that, and you might be one of those people that needs to eat a few times a day and sleep a few hours a night. Go figure.
Regardless of where your “too much” point is, it is your responsibility to make it clear to your boss and the organization you work for. You need to establish your “non-negotiables,” and you must make them clear. Your boss might not tell you, but he or she expects that from you.
You also need to be at peace with the potential consequences of your non-negotiables. If your boss is not happy with your limits, you might not get that promotion or raise that you wanted. You should be okay with that because you already established that you cannot go past your non-negotiables. If your limits are not compatible with your company expectations, you might have to find a place that is more compatible with you.
Keep in mind that if you keep telling everyone “I’ll try,” even if you know that you won’t be successful, you are not doing a favor to your company or your team. Be realistic, and don’t promise things that you know are not going to happen. If you do and fail, you are entirely responsible for it.
On the other hand — and, this is very important — your non-negotiables do not define you. They only establish how you can and should operate in a given context. There are companies and projects where working crazy hours is not a problem. In fact, it can be a lot of fun. I’ve been there, and it is a fantastic experience. It depends on the support you get from the company, the environment, the team, the boss, the reasons for the push, the mission, what is on the horizon and the people you have around.
If you feel like you are with friends and you have a stable support structure around you, what could be unbearable becomes doable. That is why good leadership and a great culture are essential for teams to become highly-performant and operating at their best.
Communicate What You Need To Be Successful
It is your responsibility to communicate to your boss what you and your team need to be successful. If you need more resources, make it clear. If the timeline is too short, make it clear. If the project is too big, make it clear. Be vocal. Don’t make people guess.
Your boss might not always be able to give you what you need. However, if you painted an explicit picture of reality, and you believe that you have good, unselfish and ethical reasons for what you are asking, then you did what you could, and you should be able to sleep soundly at night.
Stay physically healthy
You have heard it one million times and maybe ignored it. There are more books on the topic than letters in this blog post. I’ll just give you the 30 seconds executive summary.
- eat healthy foods
- sleep enough hours
- maintain a stable schedule
- move around as much as possible
- take care of your body
I’ll let the real experts tell you what flavor of each of those points is right for you, but please don’t ignore it. Your brain needs your body to function. You cannot do your best if your body is falling apart. A Ferrari with flat tires is going to lose a race against a Fiat 500.
Make time for doing things that you like doing
For some people, life is work. For others, work is life. For the majority, a balance of work and non-work activities is a healthy balance for a happy life.
For example, I have a demanding job that is very important to me. However, I also want to dedicate myself to other activities outside of work. That includes time with my family, drawing, photography, writing, reading, hiking, woodworking, etc. I need it not because I don’t like work. I need it because it makes me better at my job, and happier in general.
Do not sacrifice some of the things you like to do because there is not enough time in your day. Make the time; it will boost your performance at work. Find a right balance, and put it on your list of non-negotiables.
The Most Important Thing
If there is one message that I hope you’ll take away from this post is that you are in control of what you are going to do. Don’t let things happen to you. Eliminate any fatalist view of reality, and take ownership of your actions. Make it clear to everyone what your boundaries are, tell people what you need for you to be successful, and accept that others might not agree with you.
Ultimately, you can’t control what other people do or think, but you can positively influence it. Doing so will go a long way to keep you out of burnout and in control of what railway tunnel you choose to cross.
About The Story
If you read my blog, you know who Bolbo is, and you already know that he is a fictional character. The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this production are fictitious. No identification with actual persons (living or deceased), places, buildings, and products is intended or should be inferred. No programmers were harmed in the writing of this post.