Developer burnout: How managers can recognize and prevent it

Mental Health Awareness Month is a good reminder for managers to check in with their software developers and address their mental, emotional and physical needs.

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Image: Shutterstock/Oleksii Didok

COVID-19 has increased the need and speed for companies' digital transformations. While software developers work tirelessly to meet these goals, there's another thing increasing: burnout. Mental Health Awareness Month is a great reminder that managers must address their software developers' mental, emotional and physical needs.

Software developers are no strangers to working under high pressure and tight deadlines. However, spearheading massive digital transformations during COVID-19 means that many software developers are working at unsustainable breakneck speeds to meet company goals. 

SEE: Wellness at work: How to support your team's mental health (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

According to a Checkmarx study, which analyzed how more than 250 U.S.-based software developers have been impacted by COVID-19 throughout the past year, 46% said the rate at which they're expected to build and deploy software is faster now compared to before the pandemic. The top work-related challenges software developers faced throughout the pandemic included keeping up with increased development speeds and demands (36%) and collaborating with key teams (e.g., dev, ops and security) while remote (36%). 

"The past year has spurred a significant digital shift driven by software," said James Brotsos, developer advocate, Checkmarx. "Developers faced immense pressure as they now had to shoulder a bigger load of maintaining business continuity.

"With software deployment, time-to-market has always been a top priority," he continued. "However, the pandemic made the speed in which these programs need to be developed and activated even more of a priority as organizations were in a race to shift digital, move to the cloud and enhance their software in order to maintain a competitive edge and meet the demands of customers."

How to recognize developer burnout

According to Brotsos, signs of burnout may include missing key deadlines, losing motivation, requesting last-minute sick days, making more careless mistakes and signs of frustration and mental fatigue.

"If you're seeing these signs, it's important to take a moment to evaluate the conditions your developers are working under and provide the necessary resources to address burnout accordingly," said Brotsos, who recommends regular check-ins and implementing an open-door policy to encourage developers to talk about any issues. 

SEE: As developers consider quitting, here comes the next big skills crisis (TechRepublic)

How to prevent developer burnout

"Burnout thrives when there seems to be no end in sight," said Gabrielle Hendryx-Parker, CEO of Six Feet Up.

To prevent burnout, Six Feet Up encourages regularly scheduled and casual check-ins with direct reports and peers to foster a culture of collaboration between software developers and leadership.

"By making it clear to developers that they can request help at any time, we're creating an environment of positivity where it's clear we have each other's back," she said.

In addition, Six Feet Up recommends that team members set work hours that achieves an ideal work/life balance, take mental health days in addition to their normal PTO and, when possible, work from new environments that keep them refreshed. 

"Employers should encourage team members to take time off, of course, but companies should also invest in team retreats and special events," said Hendryx-Parker. "Even the small break provided by a good laugh at work can serve as a de-stressing agent. Animated GIFs, emojis and memes are excellent vehicles for comic relief, and they're well-suited for team collaboration tools like Slack." 

Another key to decreasing stress, added Hendryx-Parker, is better aligning one's natural abilities with the demands of their job. "Don't ask big-picture thinkers to design new, detailed processes. Don't put people who love being immersed in tasks into a role that requires a lot of reactivity and embrace of change. Everyone can stretch themselves for a little while, but eventually, the stress builds up," she said.

SEE: Tech workers are getting ready to quit. This is what's pushing them to leave their jobs (TechRepublic)

How to ensure developers have flexibility and fun

To curb potential burnout, Chris Lefstad, general manager at Emergent Software, recommends that managers reserve time in individual team members' schedules each week to work on things outside of their primary project.

"Whether it's participating in your business' internal projects, generating quick wins for other clients, advancing their technical skills or contributing to the broader software development community, keeping the variety in their schedules is important in making sure developers stay engaged," he said. "We believe that by not over-scheduling our development team with heads-down coding work centered around client deadlines, they're ultimately more productive long term."

To further engage employees, the company sponsors 100 hours of professional development time each year for every employee, no matter their role, and offers developers flexibility with their work schedules and projects. "Making sure that you're assigning work that your devs feel is fun and challenging is a great way to utilize their personal strengths and keep them engaged and excited about what they're doing," said Lefstad.

Emergent Software also prioritizes successes. "The lines between software projects can feel blurred, and developers don't get a chance to 'come up for air' and reflect on their past project before moving on to the next one," said Lefstad. "It's important to take that step back, celebrate wins and create a mental separation between projects so developers don't feel like the only reward for good work is more work."

SEE: 10 ways to prevent developer burnout (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Manager engagement empowers developers

The bottom line is building software should never come at the expense of the developer's mental and physical health. 

"Having a constant pulse on the morale of your employees and their stress levels will empower you to make the necessary changes before anyone reaches a point of burnout, leading to happier employees, reduced staff turnover and greater software integrity, quality and security," said Brotsos.

Hendryx-Parker echoed Brotsos' sentiments. "While stress is something all workers contend with to varying degrees, burnout doesn't have to be," she said. "What we've learned about employee health and managing stress--both before and during the pandemic era--will be instructive for years to come."

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