This year I had the opportunity to talk about a topic I really love at BCGDV Hive Conference: how to avoid burnout as a software engineer. DV Hive is a yearly internal conference organized by our engineering cohort in Berlin, aiming to share knowledge across a myriad of disciplines including tech, design, product startup-building growth and more.
To understand my early passion for this topic, I need to share a story: before moving to Germany, I was managing my own startup in Brazil. And around 5 years ago, we were not having a good financial moment. I was not sleeping well, I had issues in my relationship, I was getting sick and my health was compromised. After some months I figured it out, but looking back today, I’m sure I could have avoided it. And that’s why I’m very interested in this topic and I always try to improve my habits and management style.
A recent Gallup study1 found that about 2/3 of full-time workers experience burnout on the job. That’s a scary number. And despite awareness and well-intentioned workplaces, employee burnout continues to rise.
But what is burnout?
The definition of burnout, according to the World Psychiatry Journal2 is:
Burnout is a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job.
We can also say, in other words, that “it is the ongoing feeling that today’s resources aren’t enough to meet tomorrow’s demands”. And also the same Gallup study1 said that an employee that experiences burnout very often is:
- 63% more likely to take a sick day
- Half as likely to discuss how to approach performance goals with their manager
- 23% more likely to visit the emergency room
- 2.6 times as likely to leave their current employer
- 13% less confident in their performance
We all agree that’s it is a very serious problem, right? Let’s talk a little bit about the dimensions of burnout. What can it exactly cause to us?
The dimensions of burnout
The first and more obvious one is the Emotional exhaustion. It is feeling tired and fatigued at work (it can result in absence from work). People experiencing emotional exhaustion often feel like they have no power or control over what happens in their lives. Some symptoms of emotional exhaustion can include lack of energy, trouble sleeping, and decreased motivation and irrational anger also depression.
The second dimension is depersonalization. It happens when you create an uncaring feeling toward others (clients or colleagues, for example). It probably had already happened to some of you. It is when you do something and when you realize later you think: “that wasn’t me”, you start acting weird.
The last dimension is reduced accomplishments. For us, we start to produce less, with less quality. We create more bugs, we fail in our goals. It usually leads to a lack of motivation and poor performance.
But can we experience burnout working in tech?
But wait! You may be asking yourself: isn’t IT an amazing and exciting industry to work? Yes, it definitely is! But the first truth here we need to consider is that there is a very dark side of working in tech in our days.
Constant need for learning new things
First of all, who of you here have felt the need to learn something new in the last 6 months?
Technology is always changing
Second and related to the first one, technology is always changing and evolving. So it creates a natural pressure on us. Even the most experienced professionals need to learn new things every day to perform at their jobs.
Never ending push: always be shipping!
Third, there’s a culture of always be shipping. We finish a release and then comes the next one. We finish a project and then comes the next one. It’s a never-ending push.
Cultural pressure for fast promotions
We live in a culture that values and encourages fast promotions! Millennials hold an average of 7.2 jobs from age 18 through age 28. A 2016 Gallup report revealed that 21 percent of Millennials say they’ve changed jobs within the past year — more than three times the number of non-Millennials. What’s more, this Millennial turnover is costing the U.S. economy $30.5 billion annually.
Social Media: we are always connected!
Another problem related to being working in a technology company is related to the amount of information we receive and process every day. Social media makes us always connected and available. Notifications are everywhere! The generation that is growing up always connected may have trouble with always wanting instant gratification, having less overall patience and making quick, impulsive choices. Decreased face time (not FaceTime) may lead to decreasing social skills and normal social engagement with others. Although they may grow to be master multitaskers, they may find that it is very difficult for them to think long and deeply about a subject that is particularly complex.
Engaged but burnt out
The third truth that shows why we should be worried about being engaged employees is: highly engaged and motivated employees are at a serious risk of burnout. A recent Yale study found that among highly engaged employees, one in five were seriously at risk of burnout.
The fact is that highly engaged employees have a feeling that they need to dedicate a lot of effort and time to their company, and they have a hard time separating who they are from what they do. And, not surprisingly, when they run into trouble in the work, they see themselves running in trouble in life.
So how can we fight burnout as engineers and individuals?
Let’s first talk about how we, as engineers and individuals, can take daily actions to fight thatburnout.
1) Get clarity
Only 60% of workers know what is expected of them. So, get clarity on everything you do. Not only in your project, but also in your daily activities. Always align with your manager, with your CTO or anyone else what is expected from you.
2) Stop multitasking
I think this is so obvious. Multitasking reduces your productivity because your brain can only focus on one thing at a time – this continued stress definitely leads to burnout. If another task is given to you, ask your manager what they suggest you drop in order to complete that task. For larger projects break bigger tasks in more manageable ones. In his book “Focus” that I strongly recommend, Daniel Goleman, says that how well you pay attention affects every aspect of your life. Effective focusing skills enhance mental processes, including understanding, learning, listening, being creative and reading other people’s signals. Most people underestimate focus or overlook its importance.
3) Be OK with saying NO!
Only you know your limits. And saying no is hard, I know. And why is it so difficult? Because it is often associated with being selfish or rude. To the contrary, saying “no” actually means you know your value and respect yourself enough to stand up for your beliefs. We often feel immense pressure to do things we don’t want to do.
Unplug. Social media makes us always connected and available! Keeping track of how much time you spend on social media is very important. iOS has now a native feature where you can control how much time you spend on your social networks. It’s really useful because we usually underestimate the amount of time we spend online. Try it!
5) Cultivate a rich non-work life
6) Get enough sleep
Last but not least. I was a person that always underestimated sleep. During my university times, I always felt that sleeping was useless. That I was spending 1/3 of the best time of my life sleeping. But I was always very tired, sleeping 4 or 5 hours a day. Today I see how having a good night of sleep impacts my workday. Some studies suggest that having fewer than six hours of sleep per night is a major risk factor for burnout.
And how can we as leaders and managers can help others fight burnout?
Let’s talk about leadership. What can we do when we are in a management position? We also have a very important job as leaders and managers.
1) Be clear about expectations
First of all, we always need to be very clear about our expectations. It’s very important to set up meetings to clarify all deliverables and to have constant feedback sessions.
2) Help your team understand their value
It’s also our job to help everyone in our teams understand how they can contribute to the project. Discussing career and growth plans is always very important. Everyone wants to know that what they’re doing is meaningful otherwise, what’s the point?
3) Enforce reasonable work hours
Enforcing reasonable work hours is key to promote a healthy and sustainable environment. Of course, we all know that sometimes we’ll need some extra effort to finish a sprint or a release, but we need to support our team finding the right balance. Being a good model, for example, will make a big difference.
4) Have regular 1-on-1s and actively listen
Honestly, I’d say that this is one of the most important points for me. I’m a strong believer in the power of one-on-ones. I’m 100% sure that, if you have a good relationship with your colleagues, and do frequent one-on-ones, any possibility of burnout, will be raised there.
We usually use one-one-ones to check progress, check career goals, etc. But those could be easily done by e-mail right? Another very important aspect of one-on-ones is that it can work as a “pulse check” that you will only be able to do when you spend time with your colleagues individually. As a manager, you also need a sense of how people are doing beyond the work and outputs. A doctor checks your pulse to understand what’s really going on with your body. As a manager, you want to know how people are feeling, whether they are tired, bored, excited or worried.
Regular one on ones gives you the chance to make sure people are thriving at work – and if they aren’t – what is in their way. I usually recommend doing one-on-ones at least every 2 weeks, so all the people in our teams can really feel that all expectations were set.
5) Don’t celebrate extra hours
Don’t celebrate extra hours or work on the weekends! If you do that, other people will feel pressured if they don’t do that as well, and eventually, they will either start also to working extra hours or feel that they are not meeting your expectations. When needed, thank your teammates for the extra work they have made, but make it clear that you will make some effort to avoid it in the next sprints.
6) Don’t send e-mail or slack messages outside of work hours
Sometimes a small and very naive e-mail or slack message at night can create a false impression that you are expecting something else from your colleagues. Avoid these messages or scheduling them to the next morning will help to create a healthy and reasonable working pace for your team.
7) Don’t only celebrate the big wins, celebrate the small wins too
Our jobs are mainly small wins, but managers tend to only recognize the big ones. People crave recognition, so show them that you appreciate them early and often otherwise they’ll kill themselves trying to gain your approval, this causes hero culture.
We are all responsible to create a safe environment for everyone. So, bare with me, it can be simple! Let’s change our mindset!
Building software is not only putting some lines of code together. We need motivation, we need passion, we need the energy to create good software! And you need to be healthy to be able to produce your best. To learn more, to adapt. People like to say “You are what you eat”. I think for us we can think different. What about: “We code what we are?”.
And I would like to finish this article with one very simple and powerful idea:
Be the best version of who you are, at work and at home!