How managers can prevent developer burnout: 10 tips

Programmer and IT team managers can avoid team burnout with these strategies.

Top 5 ways to avoid IT burnout Tom Merritt offers IT workers five tips to avoid burning out on the job.

Burnout is a common phenomenon in the tech industry, particularly for developers: Close to 60% of developers report suffering from burnout, according to Blind, for reasons including poor leadership and unclear direction, work overload, and toxic work cultures.

"It's obvious that job-related stress affects almost every industry, but we're seeing higher numbers of burnout coming from the Information Technology industry, where a simple misconfiguration can cause millions of dollars in damage," said Eric Shanks, solutions principal at AHEAD.

Developer team managers must find ways to prevent burnout, or risk losing employees.

SEE: IT Hiring Kit: Programmer (Tech Pro Research)

Here are 10 ways that managers can help prevent their developers from burning out.

1. Allow remote work and flexible scheduling

Particularly in areas where most workers have a long commute, allowing at least part-time work from home can make a huge difference in reducing stress and burnout. If possible, no meetings should be scheduled on work from home days, to allow developers time to focus on their work, said Cristian Rennella, CTO and co-founder of elMejorTrato.com.

"On average, a developer needs 4 hours in a row without interruptions to reach the level of concentration necessary to write quality code," Rennella said. "Many times we forget this basic concept, and this leads over time to burnout of our developers that could be avoided."

After moving to two work from home days per week, Rennella's company increased developer retention by 24%, he said.

Similarly, flexible scheduling can also reduce stress, said Paul Wallenberg, senior manager of technology services at LaSalle Network. "Can they start earlier and leave earlier, start later and leave later, can they maybe condense their work week and work 10 hour days for four days, or even work remotely and still engage successfully in your standups? If the answer is yes, give them the autonomy to do so and create a schedule that works for them," Wallenberg said.

SEE: Telecommuting policy (Tech Pro Research)

2. Encourage vacations

To help developers recharge, managers should encourage people to take time off or vacations, said Justin Cooper, cloud consultant for Mobilise Cloud. "To completely switch off, encourage them to step away from machines, emails, social media when they need to, or plan a holiday," Cooper said.

This may require some cajoling, said Mark Runyon, a senior consultant with Improving technology management and consulting firm. "This can seem strange, but as developers we often get so wrapped up our projects and tight delivery deadlines that we feel it's never a good time to take our much needed PTO," Runyon said. "It's essential to get away, clear your mind and relax so you can come back with a fresh perspective. If you always push vacation away for another day, you'll continue to wear yourself down, and be less effective in your job."

SEE: Employee Time Off Policy (Tech Pro Research)

3. Set realistic deadlines

Some startups take pride in the "let's be bold" mindset by setting unrealistic deadlines for developers—a sure way to burn out your team, said Flo Defontis, founder and CTO of Air360.

"Even if we all like some adrenaline sometimes, there's so much one can take," Defontis said. "For developers who take pride in their work, being forced to write code in a hurry (which usually results in bad code) is just horrible. Especially also because they also share responsibility when something breaks and customers are impacted."

To avoid this, set realistic deadlines for new features and products, Wallenberg said. Managers can ask developers for their thoughts on the timeline, and fact check those estimates against similar projects, he added.

4. Create a culture of recognition

Recognizing strong work goes far in making programmers feel validated and secure in their jobs, and can increase performance, Cooper said.

"What's worse than having too much work to complete is the lack of appreciation for the work that is done just to keep up with demand," Shanks said. "Burnout can manifest from a lack of a reward or even just appreciation for their efforts."

5. Encourage physical activity and wellness

Allowing time for physical activity, even just taking a walk, during the workday can help avoid hitting blocks in coding, Runyon said. A physical break from the computer can help clear a developer's head and allow them to see new solutions or facets of the problem they are solving, he added.

Encouraging physical activity also creates variety in the daily routine, and helps relieve stress, said Darya Zhih, a senior HR manager at Belitsoft.

When possible, managers should also work with HR to expand company benefits and wellness programs that encourage workers to stay fit, eat well, and seek out mental health treatment when needed, Cooper said.

6. Build variety into the schedule

Managers must create the right combination of business-driven work and more challenging, creative work, said Megan Power, Agile Scrum Master at Salt Lending Holdings. "Working in a business environment means that certain types of more 'grunt work' are sometimes unavoidable to meet business objectives," Power said. "But if a developer is given only this type of work, they are likely to burn out faster than if they have some more challenging and creative work mixed in."

Developers need to work on new projects over time, rather getting stuck on one with a long timeline, to keep the work feeling exciting and fresh, said Kristen Youngs, co-founder of Coaching No Code Apps.

Encouraging your team to delve into creative projects can also stave off burnout, said Renee Orser, vice president of engineering at NS1. "When people are constantly racing to a finish line, jobs can become less imaginative and more rote, bringing a greater risk of fatigue," Orser said. "One solution to preventing people from hitting a wall while under pressure is to designate periods of time for creative exploration, such as to solve problems and work on side projects outside of usual assignments."

Ideally, you should offer a small block of time each day for programmers to research and try out new technologies and features within your current technology stack, Runyon said. "It opens you up your coding world to new possibilities and allows you to discover new solutions you otherwise wouldn't have known about," he added. "In the long term, this practice is beneficial to your employer."

7. Offer professional development and training

Investing in developer training can help these professionals avoid feeling out of their depth and overwhelmed, and give new confidence in their abilities, Cooper said.

Allowing developers to learn new things beyond their current job can keep their work more interesting, said Clare Watson, operations director at Zolv. "When you work with the same software or language every single day, it can be easy to, eventually, burn out," Watson said. "Look to learn a new method of accomplishing your current responsibilities. Learning a new coding system, for example, is a great fix for keeping things fresh."

Managers should carve out a budget for training, and send programmers to tech conferences, Wallenberg said. Finding time for offsite training and conferences offers a reprieve from the office while also growing developer skill sets and encouraging employee bonding, Runyon added.

8. Keep the team balanced

As teams grow over time, their tasks will change, which means managers must constantly reassess and realign talents and responsibilities, Orser said. "If that means new roles open on a team, a manager can modify the way the group is operating, allowing higher performers to take on new responsibility and try leadership roles," Orser added. "They can then backfill the roles people have outgrown or add in skills and specializations from new hires to fill identified gaps."

Managers also must address and resolve any conflicts that arise on the team ASAP, Zhih said—left unchecked, they will be a constant source of stress for everyone, creating a toxic work climate.

SEE: Hostile workplace prevention policy (Tech Pro Research)

9. Clearly define roles and goals

Clearly defined roles and objectives alleviate stress in that developers are not left uncertain or guessing what their responsibilities are, Cooper said.

While some projects need developers to burn the midnight oil close to a deadline, "as managers, our responsibility is to set clear goals for our team so they can avoid the firedrills which can be 100% prevented," said Nancy Wang, senior manager of product management at Amazon Web Services (AWS). "Make sure to plan out your sprints and milestones, and give your team enough buffer time in case a Sprint takes longer than it should."

However, long hours should always be the exception, not the rule, said Defontis said. "We clearly need to cease to measure employees' commitment based on how long they work," he said. "This is purely nonsense from a general standpoint, but it's 10x more true for developers as it is a highly creative work."

10. Communicate the business purpose (and in general)

Developers are often given a specification or a fix list, and not told why what they are doing makes a different to their company, coworkers, or customers, said Steve Robertson, CEO of Eventective, Inc. Making sure they understand the value they are providing to the organization can go a long way in preventing burnout, he added.

Regular one-on-one meetings between managers and developers can help ensure both receive constant feedback and make changes if needed, Power said. Considering a team member's input and implementing it where needed will also help them feel more engaged and motivated, she added.

Lacking a support system to talk through ideas or struggles can lead to developer burnout, Youngs said. "Communicating regularly with developers that their work is helpful and appreciated can make a significant difference," Youngs said. "It helps assure them in their job role and also gives them satisfaction over the work they've done. I also like to have a completely open-door policy and ongoing dialogue about any issues with work. It can be a huge relief just to talk through a problem out loud with someone who understands the situation."

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Image: iStockphoto/filistimlyanin

By Alison DeNisco Rayome

Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.