How to Notice and Prevent Software Developer Burnout


How do you notice and prevent software developer burnout as a team lead or engineering manager? Burnout affects each person a bit differently. It often starts subtly and progresses incrementally. Developer burnout feeds into a vicious loop that can make your developers quit or even change career path. If not corrected, it can also lead to health consequences. The good news is that its onset can be identified, prevented, and rapidly alleviated. Let’s examine how.

What is Developer Burnout?

The World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledges burnout as an occupational phenomenon. It’s a common occupational hazard for software developers, but burnout impacts people in other professions, too.

As WHO defines it, “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed… Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

Managing stress is really important. As the American Institute of Stress asserts, the health consequences can be serious.

Also, as their article points out, stress can trigger the “fight or flight” mechanism – i.e. it can prompt developers to look for another job.

Software Developer Burnout Symptoms

Though it bears similarities to conditions like depression, it is not a medical condition.
Many of the symptoms of developer burnout are vague and similar to symptoms of other conditions. So many variables can make it difficult for a team lead or engineering manager to identify symptoms associated with developer burnout. It also affects people in different ways (fight or flight) but there are a number of common symptoms.

Original Normal or Healthy StateTrends Symptomatic of Burnout
Passionate about codingProcrastinating more often, dreading the next day at work, struggling to do the minimum work. Working more hours but with steadily decreasing productivity and/or efficiency.
A motivated “can do” anything outlookComplaining more frequently, skeptical about decisions and processes, increasingly non-committal to assignments.
Feeling like you’re making a “difference”Feeling like nothing you do is appreciated, growing resentment with coworkers and customers. Sense of hopelessness.
Energetic and sleeping wellPersistent tiredness even after being well-rested. Insomnia, major changes in appetite (eating much less or more). General feelings of malaise. Depression.
Friendly, social, and constructiveSmiles less often, talks less, silent in meetings, becoming increasingly isolated and actively avoiding others. Either a progressive or abrupt negative change in personal appearance.
How to notice and prevent Software Developer Burnout

Burnout is often a result of feeling trapped into doing work that you don’t like, under undesirable conditions, with no opportunity for relief or resolution. Take away any one of these and most symptoms associated with burnout will begin to dissipate.

In just about every job, there’s always something that you won’t like, that you wish you didn’t have to do. That’s normal, as long as there are other things about your job that you do like and you do look forward to doing. The dangerous tendency is that the “root cause” of burnout can overflow into everything about one’s job.

Managing Burnout as an Occupational Hazard

It may help to understand developer burnout as a continuous occupational hazard and constantly guard against it. Like safety and ergonomics, different environments require precautions. Hard hats and steel-toed boots are always worn on construction sites. Poor posture, lazy typing, and sitting in an uncomfortable chair for years can lead to back problems and carpal tunnel.

Software developers are prone to sitting in a chair and staring at a computer screen for hours on end. Software development itself is complex, has continuous deadlines, and errors can have major financial consequences. In short, being a software developer can be quite stressful.

If precautions aren’t taken, burnout can lead to “a random line of code frying the developer’s mind” – sort of like the straw that broke the camel’s back. This breakdown process can take months or even years. Everyone’s likely to experience some amount of burnout in the course of their career. The simple goal is to never let it get out of hand.

Steps and Actions to Help Manage Developer Burnout

Team leads and engineering managers have many options at their disposal to minimize the potential of accumulating burnout with teammates. Many are simply common sense, but others address specific types of scenarios with an elevated risk of generating developer burnout.

  • Part of being a great engineering manager is taking time to interact with your team members and making sure they know you are available if they need to talk. This includes providing developers regular feedback – thank them for their work.
  • Keep an eye on developer performance metrics. Your overall efforts should be enabling developer performance to improve over time. If performance is declining, try to find out why. Metrics help you to provide objective feedback.
  • Properly set the stage for your retrospectives with the prime directive, “Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe everyone did the best job they could given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.” Make retrospectives a safe place so developers feel comfortable discussing their pain points and what the team can do to make their tasks easier.
  • If possible, establish career paths and keep your teammates informed of continued education opportunities. Provide a path forward.
  • In addition to encouraging the use of vacation time, consider incorporating seminars, trade shows and conferences into your developer’s schedule. This can help mix things up while still generating value for your company and team – beyond your company, the world’s full of innovative new ideas.

Encourage exercise and healthy diets – to the extent possible. It’s not your role to be your developer’s fitness instructor. However, your company may provide club memberships or broker discounts to clubs and events.

If there’s an interest, consider starting a team sport. Though it’s good for everyone to have a complete break from work (and their teammates), developers can be kind of reclusive. Team activities outside of work can be a way of helping to introduce your developers to a wider social circle. Everything’s open – biking, hiking, rock climbing, scuba diving, bowling, basketball, baseball… pinball.

Startups, Burnout and Turnover

Turnover has some correlation to the maturity of the company, team, and its work processes. As we discussed previously, tech startups can see turnover rates well in excess of 25%. Note also that turnover tends to be highest during the first 90 days in the new hire experience.

This gives us some extra insight into the root causes of burnout. No one likes chaos in excessive quantities – or when things are constantly changing. Changes lead to people doing something other than they thought they’d be doing. Change is stressful and it triggers fight or flight.

If a developer perceives they need the job or believe its long-term benefits are important to their career, they will likely do their best to abide feelings of discontent. However, software developers are in high demand and savvy enough to realize they have other options.

This may overly generalize, but good companies and engineering managers do understand that there’s a lot of competition to find and keep top talent. Good managers also realize that everyone has the potential to be a great software developer. Developing that potential is usually part of the manager’s job description.

Burnout with Tasks as Assigned

As a manager, it can be very helpful to place yourself in the shoes of your developers and the role they fill in your team and company. Everyone has a different personality, set of experiences, values, and way of dealing with problems. Some people find it difficult to say, “No.” They may feel that not accepting the task may be construed as they aren’t pulling their weight, makes them less essential, perhaps it will contribute negatively to performance reviews.

They dutifully accept whatever you assign them, whether they have a choice or not. And when a task has little to do with their job, they may resent it. “Tough luck,” some may say, but you do have some options to create Win-Win or at least Win-Draw outcomes:

  • Ask for volunteers first.
  • Outsource what you can.
  • As a last resort, create a duty roster.


One person’s trash can be another person’s treasure. The best possible outcome is when there’s someone on your team that actually wants and enjoys the kind of task you’re looking to assign.

Someone on your team who knows how to do the task may volunteer to do it on a temporary basis – even if they don’t necessarily like doing it. The expectation is that the company will hire someone else to take it over. This is fairly common with startups, suffice that other functions also need to be done, too. These other functions get a greater staffing priority because… well, someone volunteered to take on that other duty. Their task ends up drawing out forever…

Few things generate burnout faster than when a developer realizes that, “The best of intentions pave the way to hell.” Not only will that developer never volunteer for anything else ever again, their burnout will likely prompt them to jettison any other tasks they can get rid of.

The following steps can help minimize burnout when assigning tasks to volunteers:

  1. Clarify if there are any associated benefits with the task.
  2. Set clear goals for the task.
  3. Specify whether the task will play a part in any performance evaluations.
  4. Define the average amount of time per day or sprint to be spent on the task.
  5. Make it clear from the outset how long they will need to perform the task.
  6. Take steps to show your volunteers that their efforts are appreciated.

Outsourcing “Burnout-Inducing” Tasks

It may not always be possible due to the nature of the task, but outsourcing is often a budget-friendly option. From IT staffing agencies to freelancers on Upwork, there’s a good chance that you can find someone happy to take on the tasks that your in-house developers don’t like. Even small tasks requiring just an hour a day from a developer can cause burnout out of simple resentment. For the fully-loaded cost of one in-house developer (depending on your location), you can augment your team with 2-4 outsourced developers. Smaller tasks can be outsourced to freelancers according to your requirements – often at trivial rates.

The Duty Roster

Some trash is still trash regardless how nice you try to package it. And there may be reasons why you can’t outsource it. Though not every task of this nature is suitable for it, the Duty Roster is your last resort for a Win/Draw outcome. The job still gets done even if no one likes it, while burnout is minimized by sharing it with everyone. The task is set up on a schedule and the task is simply rotated across your team.

Rapid Relief of Developer Burnout

To Reiterate:

Burnout is often a result of feeling trapped into doing work that you don’t like, under undesirable conditions, with no opportunity for relief or resolution.

You have three variables to play with in addressing developer burnout:

  1. You can look at swapping tasks among your developers or shopping them out.
  2. Tasks can be shared or incentivized to create better conditions.
  3. Tasks can be set to a schedule with a distinct cutoff point – there is an automatic, time-based way out.

Probably the most important task as a manager is interacting with and being available for your team. Performance metrics, retrospectives, and taking time to talk with your developers to see how they’re doing provides you three ways of spotting burnout.

You don’t have to be a mind reader. That would be easy, though not always so accurate. No, you’re an engineering manager. Not an easy job, but some parts of it don’t need to be difficult. Just ask – “How are you enjoying your work? Is there something that can make it easier for you?”

For more about managing developer burnout, we encourage you to check out:

Post updated: June 29, 2022

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