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How can Developers and Managers beat burnout?

  • Publish Date: Posted about 1 month ago

We all have days when we don’t feel like working or can’t focus. But if those days are turning into weeks and months, you may be suffering from burnout.

Burnout happens when you run out of energy both physically and emotionally. You’re not only exhausted, you feel apathetic and disconnected from your work. You may also feel very guilty and angry with yourself for “not trying” or “not caring”.

The good news is that, as they say, “you can’t burn out if you aren’t on fire”--you’re probably experiencing burnout because you care so much. The bad news is that it takes a concerted effort to recover from burnout, so the goal is to keep your fire burning.

In 2019, the WHO published a new definition of burnout:

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and

  • reduced professional efficacy.”

But whose job is it to manage workplace stress? Many of the causes of burnout come from decisions made at the organisational, not individual, level. Here are two of the main reasons developers can burn out, and how both they and their managers can respond.

1. Not enough Deep Work time

Deep Work is defined as two or more hours of uninterrupted work. Most devs hate to be interrupted when they’re coding and are happiest when they get to create amazing products. Yet workplace culture too often allows constant interruptions and meetings, both in the office and at home. After each interruption, it can take 20 minutes to get back into the flow, so when interruptions are frequent, they can waste hours every day. Here are some ways to fix that.

  • Cut unnecessary meetings, and consolidate the rest into a specific chunk of time

  • Keep at least one day meeting-free

  • Normalise leaving cameras off in Zoom meetings

  • Schedule Deep Work time blocks

  • Use that “Do not disturb” status on Slack

  • Managers: try to distribute bug work evenly or assign on-call days to reduce randomisation, and cut down on the number of PR repos and Jira epics assigned to each developer.

2. Bad sprint retros

For developers in particular, good sprint retrospectives are vital for good mental health. Running into the same roadblocks over and over despite several sprint retros is very dispiriting. Sprint retros are supposed to improve sprint health–if they’re not doing that, you need to improve your retros. The ball is more in the manager’s court for this one–here are some tips for leaders:

  • Collect feedback during the sprint as well as after.

  • Celebrate successes instead of just focusing on what went wrong

  • Record notes on specific red flags, Jira tickets, and process failures as they happen.

  • Highlight anything that was added mid-sprint. Adding extra work can derail a sprint, so it’s important to note this for future sprint planning.

  • Look at the health of both your project and your people. Were devs working long hours on weekends to hit the sprint goals? Are they happy?

What to do if you think you’re nearing burnout

  1. Think about what might have caused this. Look at your personal life as well as your professional life.

  2. Schedule some time with your manager to discuss the situation and see if you can redistribute some of your workload with your teammates or take some time off–ideally with someone covering your role so you don’t come back to an onslaught of work.

  3. Make sure you have some time in your days and weeks, on an ongoing basis, where you’re not on call for work. Use that time to enjoy some relaxing leisure activities, master a hobby, or work on a passion project that gets your fire burning again.

  4. If that doesn’t feel like enough, examine your role and purpose and ask yourself whether you need to make some bigger changes, whether that’s a new job or a rethink of your existing role.

Burnout is your body and mind telling you something needs to change. If you listen to it and take the right actions, you can solve the problem before it becomes a crisis.