What about tech leadership makes burnout more likely?

Burnout — ‘the disease of modern day society’ can be characterised as, A state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress’. While it’s well-documented that burnout is commonly suffered by those in caring professions, not enough has been said about those in the tech industry.

We think this needs to change.

Propagating several theories and expecting to be overwhelmed with information (and indeed corroboration), we were surprised when our recent research into tech-specific burnout threw up very little. Of any significance was a 2007 study looking at levels of burnout in tech leaders (showing a correlation between leadership personality types and suffering) and an article penned by ComputerWorld in 2010, which followed a LinkedIn forum discussion sparked by an IT director asking whether the role is ever more than ‘Paperwork, politics and squeezing the last penny out of every dollar?’.

The question drew a response from 54 international tech leaders offering empathy, support and advice, however there was also a backlash from more junior IT workers that demonstrated a lack of understanding about pressures ‘at the top’. The article (and even the original discussion itself which is no longer available) raised several problems with identifying and dealing with burnout. While initially acknowledging ‘pressure’ and ‘stress’ as main causes, there is a reductionist analysis that burnout simply equals a lack of motivation to do the job at hand. Plus, the summary of the tech leaders’ advice for addressing burnout was to:

  • Take pride in your team;
  • Look for a new challenge in the job;
  • Have a side project;
  • Promote your work;
  • Give yourself a pat on the back; and
  • Delegate your dirty work.

All good tips to apply to day-to-day working life, but the real issue? These ‘resolutions’ require a level of emotional capacity and completely ignore the mental aspect of burnout. When someone is suffering chronic exhaustion, detachment and an inability to cope with everyday, mundane tasks, searching for new challenges and taking on additional activities — even if they are side projects — may feel insurmountable.

Times have changed; burnout is more widely acknowledged and the definition has broadened to accept its all-encompassing effect on both the brain and body. So, what’s the point in looking at a 10-year-old study and assessing the pros and cons of something written seven years ago? Because it highlights the fact that although it happens, tech leader burnout is likely to be under-reported.

Why do we say this? Because the lack of academic and news reporting does not equate with a) the number of individuals over the last few years blogging about their personal experience and others’, and b) what the members at CTO Craft have seen /been through. We believe a crucial factor is being missed. Yes, being a CTO has all the usual characteristics of other high-performing jobs…

  • Long hours;
  • Management responsibilities;
  • Pressure to deliver; and
  • Toxic working cultures that reward 24/7 accessibility.

…but there may be more to it than that. And we think we know what it is.

In comparison to most other industries, technology is a very new discipline, yet everything relies on it. By virtue of its properties, the possibilities are endless. It follows therefore, that the demands of people who work in the sector are essentially, endless too. Like stem cells on speed, technology develops at a pace unmatched by any other construct — what is created one day can be broken, fixed, redesigned and expanded the next. Is it any wonder that on an individual level, it creates a huge amount of pressure for the tech leaders?

This perpetual call and response effect requires CTOs (and their teams) to be forever ‘switched on’ over and above other highly pressurised environments. Because, when the potential of something is infinite, so become the requests; it is this specific stressor to find something new, something better, and fast, that we believe makes burnout at senior level increasingly likely.

Now, we just need to find a way to fix it.

*******************************************************************Part of the new ‘Extinguishing CTO Burnout’ series — Follow us to be kept up-to-date on the next segment and other articles.

If you, or your CTO / technology lead would benefit from any of the services offered by the CTO Craft community, visit: www.ctocraft.com or contact us via email at: info@ctocraft.com.

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