Do you work in the technology industry, and feel burned out? If you are, you’re not alone. Global studies have shown two in five IT professionals are at high risk of burnout, and in IT security, it’s more than half. When Covid-19 hit and people shifted to work from home, many tech employees got more stressed, not less.
So, why are professionals in the industry so strung out?
In this article, we answer that question, as well as the signs of burnout to look out for (in yourself and others), and what you can do to fight it.
What are the signs of tech burnout?
There are three major signs of burnout you should look out for, according to the World Health Organization and the work of Dr. Christina Maslach, one of the world’s most foremost burnout researchers.
1. Extreme cynicism
Do you feel like your negative feelings about work are crowding out the positive ones (if there are any)? That nothing you do is appreciated, everything is terrible, and nothing is going to change?
While some people may dismiss the “cynical IT professional” as a cliche, cynicism is actually a red flag of burnout. If you or someone in your team is seeing work as a glass half empty – or completely devoid of water – it’s time to question if it’s a sign of a bigger problem.
Cynicism can manifest in a number of ways, including:
- Constant frustration
- Loss of meaning
- Feeling disillusioned
- Being snarky
- A lack of enjoyment in work
- Dehumanizing colleagues (e.g. “X deserves it.”)
This can impact your work performance and others, particularly if you’re in a people-facing or team-based role. If you work in IT support, you might respond to a ticket with a snarky LMGTFY link, and put in minimal effort to help because “nothing matters.” As a software developer, others on your team might hesitate to ask you for a code review, because you’re impatient and grumpy to take on “yet another task”.
2. Chronic exhaustion
Do you lack any energy at all – barely able to get up in the morning, not firing on all cylinders at work, and completely wiped at the end of the day?
Normally, when someone has a hard day, they’re able to bounce back after some rest and downtime – like their batteries get recharged. But for someone with chronic exhaustion, it’s like the charge is all gone, and you just can’t get it back.
It may seem like your tiredness is situational – caused by crunch due to the latest big project, or because you’re on-call and the servers keep going down. But if you’re tired all the time – even when work finishes, or you come back from holiday – this could be a red flag.
Some other signs of burnout-level exhaustion:
- No motivation
- Feeling a need to ‘soldier on’
- Inability to concentrate
- Fear of taking time off to recharge
- Overwhelming relief for the weekend
- No energy to be constantly productive
3. Negative self-evaluation
Like most STEM jobs, tech is a field full of high performers, which is why feeling like you’re not performing can be particularly devastating.
Nobody likes feeling incompetent at their job, or like they’re just not achieving anything. If you feel like you’re working all the time and getting nothing done, or “everything I do is wrong”, this might be a sign of burnout.
Some other signs might include:
- Feeling inadequate in your role
- Thinking catastrophic thoughts
- The work feels chaotic and high pressured
- Feeling like you’re doing far too much for too many people
- A sense of your efforts not making a difference
In a research report by Yerbo, “The State of Burnout in Tech”, 30,000 IT professionals were surveyed across 33 countries. Among these professionals, they found:
- 56% of men and 69% of women can’t relax once their workday is over
- 43% feel disengaged from their work, and 27% don’t see the value in it
- 51% feel they are achieving less than they should
These three factors: exhaustion, cynicism, and negative self-evaluation are the telltale signs of tech burnout.
Signs of burnout tech leaders can watch out for
If you’re a people manager, you’re not a mind-reader, so it can be hard to tell if someone is feeling any of the above. To help, Pluralsight has created an infographic of signs you can watch out for.
Why do tech employees burn out?
Burnout is caused by a single thing: unrelenting, chronic stress. But what is the cause of it, and how long has it been going on?
According to a talk by Dr. Cristina Maslach at the 2018 DevOps Enterprise Summit, stress in the tech industry is nothing new. In fact, it’s been part of it since the 60s.
“In the early days of Silicon Valley, we were hearing a lot about the Burnout Shop. People were trying to hire, saying, ‘We are the Burnout Shop. We don’t want just type A people. We want type A+++ people’,” Dr Maslach said.
“Interestingly, what I think we’re seeing more and more of now is that this has become the business model in a lot of occupations… You have to give up time. You have to give up other things in your life, in order to do this.”
In STEM, there is a “sink-or-swim” mentality right from the outset, with 40% of students leaving those programs within four years.
In terms of causes in the workplace, a survey of top tech companies by Blind cited poor leadership, work overload, toxic culture, a lack of career growth, and insufficient reward as primary causes for burnout.
How can I fight tech burnout?
You’re feeling burned out, and you want to do something about it. Here’s a list of things you can try to get back to a healthy place with your work and safeguard your mental health.
1. Set boundaries between home and work
Remember how I mentioned tech professionals reported feeling more burned out after the pandemic started, even when they got to work from home? It’s because the line between home and work blurred, so there was no escape – they were “living at work.”
Here are some things you can do to establish that physical boundary:
- Remove your work email and messaging platforms from your phone, or turn off notifications for non-work hours
- Set out-of-office emails when you’re off for the day, weekend, or vacation
- Set periods in your calendar to automatically reject meetings in your downtime
- If you work hybrid or remotely, set up a separate room for your office, and don’t go in there for recreational activities
2. Automate what you can
According to Adam Bertram, one of the tools tech pros can use is to automate everything where you can to lessen the load.
“Automation is the next best thing to actually getting more warm bodies in the department to help out,” he said.
“Take a moment to breathe, dial it back a little and realize that in order to save time you must first find the time to automate.”
3. Reach out to others
When you feel like you exist to work, then it’s hard to value yourself outside of that. Spending time with your family members and friends, or simply being out in the world, can make you start to value the “real you” instead of just thinking about the “work you.”
If you’re feeling burned out, reaching out to a health-care professional (like your doctor, a counselor, or psychologist) is important. Because burnout is so common, know that you’re not alone, and there are a lot of tried and true methods that can be used to help.
Asking your colleagues for help – or simply talking to them about your problems – is a good move. Not only is this good for you, it encourages them to do the same when they are struggling. If your workplace offers an Employee Assistance Program, this is also worth taking advantage of.
4. Talk to your boss
Sometimes, your supervisor doesn’t know you’re struggling. Telling them you’re not okay isn’t a sign of weakness, but a sign of professional strength and maturity. Remember, your boss wants to succeed at their job too, which is making sure they support their team.
It’s not uncommon for employees to feel like they’re jeopardizing their job by telling their boss they’re not coping. If you feel this way, just remember it’s a lot more trouble for them if you burn out and quit. Then they’ve got to put out a job ad, interview people, spend months training them up – and that’s assuming they even find a replacement. All of that takes time and money.
In the grand scheme of things, making a few concessions to make sure you don’t burn out is in both your interests.
Some of the things you can discuss:
- Moving some tasks to other team mates, or outsourcing the work
- Changing the deadline on tasks that are making you feel overwhelmed
- Reinforcing boundaries so people come to you less often, particularly in off hours
- Changing your role responsibilities to resolve what isn’t working for you
- Taking paid time off to rest and recharge
- Using flexible working hours to work when you feel most productive or functional
- Giving you more autonomy, recognition, and meaningful work
- Asking for clearer job expectations
5. Find a company that values you
Sometimes, it’s not you, it’s them. One of the biggest parts of burnout in technology is feeling like you don’t matter and you’re being treated unfairly – the work environment is toxic.
If you’ve brought up the issues and nothing is going to change, it’s time to investigate your other options. However, when you’re escaping a terrible job, it can be tempting to take the first offer you get.
This can be a mistake – you might wind up in the exact same situation all over again! Instead, when you’re being interviewed for a new job, make sure you’re interviewing them as well. Be confident, and know what your happiness is worth.
Here’s some things you should try to find out about your new workplace:
- What is the company culture like? Are there company events or happy hours?
- What is their attitude towards overtime and flexible hours? What are your hours? Does it include weekends and holidays?
- How much holiday leave is there?
- Will they want you to always be on call? Are there crunch times?
- How many duties are you expected to perform? If there’s “additional duties as needed” on your PD, what does that include?
- Do you believe in their mission and product? Do they donate to charity or support causes?
- How do they recognize their employees, if at all?
Other tips and tricks from tech professionals
Here is a list of personal techniques used by Pluralsight’s authors on how they have avoided burnout during their tech career.
Preventing employee burnout in tech teams
Wondering how to deal with burnout in your team? We recommend reading Pluralsight’s guide, “Battling burnout: How to keep your technology team productive and happy.” To access it, click here.
If you’ve got employees on call, Pluralsight offers a free course on “How to build a healthy on-call culture.” We also recommend listening to this podcast by Dr Tracy Bowser called “Perspectives in Leadership: Bath bombs don’t cure burnout.”
If you’re experiencing the symptoms of burnout, it’s your body’s way of telling you that all is not well, and something needs to change. Thankfully, stress and burnout are remediable, and acknowledgement is the first step to dealing with it.
Remember, you deserve the best possible you!