Only You Can Prevent Tech Burnout
“They’re not the happiest bunch. They’re all overworked and under pressure.”
This is how a wellness professional described Silicon Valley tech workers at an event I attended earlier this week. She used “they” because most of the people in the audience did not work in tech. I was one of the few exceptions, and all I could do was sit there nodding knowingly.
I’ve seen far too many friends and colleagues suffer from burnout over the years. It affects founders, startup employees, and employees at the tech giants. It manifests in different ways—physical or mental exhaustion, hopelessness, mood swings, anxiety. Unfortunately, the high paychecks make it easy to attempt self-medication, leading to occasional substance abuse or even full-blown addiction. Sometimes burnout drives people to leave tech altogether.
The prevailing work culture in Silicon Valley is not sustainable. We all know it, but few are doing anything to change it.
As managers, we still lionize the people committing code or sending emails at 2AM. We might tell our employees to go home at 6pm on a Friday — after all, we do claim to value “work/life balance” on our recruiting page — but when they refuse, we mention it in future performance reviews as a sign of their dedication. We constantly hound our people, asking why the new dashboard isn’t finished yet. “Look, we don’t have time to care about code quality right now — we just need to ship.”
As employees, we stay in unhealthy climates because we’re attached to our paycheck, or we’re afraid of those ineffective but challenging technical interviews guarding the gates to other companies, or maybe we think it’s just not better anywhere else — this is just how Silicon Valley works. We commit code at 2AM because we know our manager will thank us for it and maybe even promote us one day. If we’re in an underrepresented group in tech, we may feel even more pressure to stay late just to prove that we really do deserve to be there.
We look forward to happy hour, where we can commiserate with our colleagues over the incompetence of management, the ineffectiveness of every single meeting we’ve had this week, or the fact that our last five projects have been canceled just prior to launch. We’ll drink enough to forget our woes for the moment. The hangover the next day in the office will be a welcome distraction from the usual annoyances.
Does it have to be this way? Is this what it means to develop software?
Of course not! Some companies actually have healthy cultures, so it’s definitely possible. As leaders, whether in name or in spirit, you have a responsibility to cultivate a healthier, more sustainable culture. Why? Your team will be more productive. As shared in The Optimistic Workplace, “People in positive work environments outperform those who work in negative climates by 10–30%.”
As an employee, you owe it to yourself to improve your own situation, whether that means inspiring change at your current company or moving on to somewhere that actually does value you as a human being.
As we’ll see, burnout is not really about “work/life balance.” Steve McClatchy explains in Decide why this term is meaningless:
“We don’t need to balance work and life; work is part of life.”
Here are some tips for making your tech company job a healthier part of life, whether you’re in an official leadership position, or you’re just a motivated individual who recognizes that there must be a better way.
1. Do Consistently Meaningful Work
In The Power of Full Engagement, authors Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz explain the responsibility of leaders to articulate a clear purpose for the work of their organization in order to inspire positive energy in their employees:
“Leaders are the stewards of organizational energy. They recruit, direct, channel, renew, focus and invest energy from all the individual cells in the service of the corporate mission. […] A shared sense of corporate purpose, grounded in universal values, is the highest octane source of fuel for organizational action.”
However, it’s not enough to have a noble, eloquent mission statement or a list of values taped to the wall. To keep your team engaged, you must ensure that the day-to-day work is consistently aligned with the stated values of the company.
If your company’s mission is to cure cancer, but you one day ask your engineers to exploit the customer data to build a product recommendation system, you can expect to lose some of the initial enthusiasm of your employees. Similarly, if your company’s success relies on running misleading ads or sending spammy Facebook notifications, can you really expect your employees to remain committed over time?
Doing work purely for money with no morally redeeming quality can easily erode a person’s sense of purpose and lead to burnout. Unfortunately, many tech companies fall into this category.
As an employee, maybe you don’t find your work morally objectionable, but you also don’t find it intrinsically meaningful. You may decide to seek employment elsewhere, but another option is to look for meaning in the supporting tasks you do for work. Perhaps you can provide mentorship to a junior engineer and derive meaning from that. Perhaps you can organize a group of your coworkers to help out in the community. For example, you could volunteer with organizations that teach coding to underrepresented groups.
No matter what form it takes, finding meaning in your work will help ward off burnout. As Shawn Murphy explains in The Optimistic Workplace,
“Actively participating in work that links purpose, meaning, and passion to advance the greater good is deeply satisfying.”
He goes on to phrase it in terms that might be even more effective at getting a manager’s attention:
“work without meaning drains and stagnates employee potential”
Similarly, in Uncovering Happiness, psychologist Elisha Goldstein explains how purpose keeps us away from the unhealthy habits that can hasten burnout:
“When you have a sense of purpose, you are less likely to need the artificial boosts you get from bad habits, because you get a natural boost by connecting to the world in a meaningful way.”
What burns people out is not doing hard work, but rather feeling like their work doesn’t matter.
2. Make Time For Physical Renewal
It’s time for a confession: I spent a significant part of my early engineering career as a stereotypically unhealthy software engineer. I ate junk food, I stayed up way too late chugging Red Bulls, and I loathed exercising of any sort.
Through all of this, I did well professionally by traditional measures, so one might be tempted to use my story to argue that healthy living doesn’t really matter to achieving success in tech.
However, I was failing in one important area that most measures of success overlook: happiness. I was tired and stressed out all the time. I didn’t have energy for any activities outside of work other than playing video games or watching TV. I was perpetually on the verge of burnout.
As software engineers, we primarily use our minds in our work, and it’s easy to forget our bodies. But, in truth, they have a huge impact on our mental capacity. Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz explain (emphasis mine):
“…physical energy is the fundamental source of fuel, even if our work is almost completely sedentary. It not only lies at the heart of alertness and vitality but also affects our ability to manage our emotions, sustain concentration, think creatively, and even maintain our commitment to whatever mission we are on.”
This is why a CEO I worked previously with didn’t mind when I took a long lunch to squeeze in a training run or when our talented — but temperamental — designer took the afternoon off to go swimming. He understood the importance of physical renewal to our work performance and our ability to collaborate positively with coworkers.
So as a manager, let your people take the time to do whatever physical activity renews their spirit.
As an employee, find that physical activity that staves off burnout. It might just be going for a walk or meditating quietly. Make time for it on a regular basis. Also, make sure you are getting enough sleep to feel well-rested in the morning.
Your diet affects your body too, so at least make an attempt to be mindful of you’re ingesting on a daily basis. Is it helping or harming your overall energy?
3. Cultivate a Growth Mindset
Burnout is often the result of accumulated stress. A clear solution to performance-related stress is to cultivate a growth mindset. Stress often results when reality falls short of expectations. Someone wasn’t able to execute fast enough. Someone wasn’t successful in making a project pitch.
The key is to recognize that reality is mutable. The fixed mindset says that these are the skills and abilities I have as an individual or we have as a team, and they’re just not good enough. The growth mindset instead sees the opportunity for improvement in every situation.
Steve McClatchy writes in Decide:
“The best way to combat burnout and stress…is to continuously seek improvement in some area of your life.”
If your team keeps missing deadlines, don’t resign yourself to complaining that things are never going to change. Instead, experiment with new techniques to see if you can improve productivity.
If your meetings feel ineffective, they could just remain the running office joke — “Oh great, another meeting. I guess I won’t be getting any work done today.” On the other hand, you could advocate for change. Remove useless meetings. Improve the structure of required meetings. Experiment, iterate, and ultimately, improve. This is the point of agile retrospectives. If you’re not doing them, maybe it’s time to start.
Similarly, if you keep receiving critical code reviews, you could just decide that you’re not a good programmer and stress out about that, and maybe give up. The alternative? Take a course online or attend a workshop. This doesn’t need to be a demand on your leisure time — talk to your manager about spending a couple hours a week on it, with the promise of improved code and productivity.
The point of a growth mindset is to recognize the truth of the moment, but also realize that you have the power to improve the future.
As Shawn Murphy puts it:
“A growth mindset will strengthen you when you face obstacles and enhance your excitement when you and your team achieve your goals, or when you fail from a mistake and learn quickly what to do differently next time.”
When you have hope for the future, it’s hard to feel burnt out.
Sustained focus on meaningful work is a great way to prevent burnout. If we could spend all day coding useful pieces of software, perhaps we’d be a lot happier. We’d stay permanently in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow” state.
Unfortunately, our jobs are full of other obligations and distractions, some of which have a strong negative impact on our emotions. Distraction alone is enough to make us feel bad. Winifred Gallagher explains:
“when you lose focus, your mind tends to fix on what could be wrong with your life instead of what’s right”
Sometimes the exact nature of the distraction makes matters even worse. Consider email, which often pulls at our attention throughout the day. As Cal Newport describes in Deep Work, given the subject matter of the messages in your inbox,
“the habit of frequently checking inboxes…ensures that your mind will construct an understanding of your working life that’s dominated by stress, irritation, frustration, and triviality. The world represented by your inbox, in other words, isn’t a pleasant world to inhabit.”
The solution he offers in the book is to limit our email usage and other distractions, and dedicate as much time as possible to focused, “deep” work because that is the work that provides satisfaction and fulfillment.
What can you do to limit the amount of email correspondence, meetings, status updating, and other ancillary tasks currently expected of you and your team?
5. Cultivate Compassion for Others and Yourself
Sometimes you’re going to feel stress or negative emotions at work. What’s important is how you respond to these emotions.
If one of your coworkers is being difficult, for example, try to approach the situation with compassion. Recognize the suffering your coworker is going through. Is she tired? Stressed? Could she be suffering from private concerns you have no idea about? Even just imagining the possible suffering your coworker might be experiencing can help you to be more patient and understanding.
Caring about your coworkers is important. The Power of Full Engagement mentions a Gallup poll that found:
“the key drivers of productivity for employees include whether they feel cared for by a supervisor or someone at work; whether they have received recognition or praise during the past seven days; and whether someone at work regularly encourages their development.”
Have self-compassion. When you are feeling stressed, recognize that you’re going through a tough time and that it’s a normal part of life. Consider what activities might bring you joy in the moment. Be patient with yourself.
You’re less likely to send yourself to burnout if you take the time to be mindful of your feelings and perform any self-care activities you need to improve them. Do you need a day off for mental health reasons? Do you need to work from home today so you can take a relaxing bath at lunch? Find ways to take care of yourself.
Managers, be flexible to your employee’s self-care requirements. You’re going to get better work from happier people. And you’re not going to get any work from people who are so burnt out they’re forced to leave the industry.
Hope for the Future
Burnout should not be considered an inevitable component of working in the tech industry. We should expect quite the opposite — work should be invigorating. As Shawn Murphy writes in The Optimistic Workplace,
“Work needs to be a positive influence, given that it consumes much of our waking time. The work we do and how we feel about it shapes our identity.”
Experiment with the above ideas in your life and on your team. As with any change, have patience with yourself or others during the process.
If you find that even after making a sincere effort, you can’t rally support for creating a healthier culture in your current company, is it perhaps time to move on?
About the Author
April Wensel is a veteran software engineer and technical leader who has seen too many people suffer from burnout over the course of a decade in tech. She’s been at startups, large companies, and research institutions in the fields of education, research, healthcare, and entertainment. She has also mentored and led workshops with diversity-focused organizations like Hackbright Academy and Black Girls Code.
Over the years, she has developed a suite of strategies for harnessing the power of kindness and compassion to build effective software development teams. She founded Compassionate Coding in order to share strategies with the wider community.