Stress in the workplace is sometimes unavoidable. Sometimes, a little stress can be a good thing, and some people thrive with a little pressure. The key here though, is sometimes and little. If the stress peaks too high, or is sustained for a long period, the effect can impact us in a myriad of negative ways. Over time, small amounts of stress can build up, and if we cannot deal with it in time, it can easily overwhelm us.
What is Stress?
Stress is how we handle potentially harmful situations; when we feel under threat, various chemical reactions in our bodies trigger our "fight or flight" mechanism by releasing a mix of adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine. These increase our heart rate, sharpen our senses, alter our blood pressure. Over a sustained period of time, these chemicals will also affect our mood and sleep patterns.
How Does Stress Manifest?
Everybody handles stress differently, and the effects can present themselves as a mix of physical, mental, and behavioural problems or changes:
- Aching muscles
- Chest pains and palpitations
- Sexual problems
- Problems concentration
- Short term memory loss
- Negative thoughts and pessimism
- Constant worrying
- Low self esteem
- Problems making decisions
- Feeling of being overwhelmed
- Change in appetite, eating too much or too little
- Change in mood
- Reliance on drugs or alcohol as a release
- Procrastination and avoiding important tasks
- Avoiding people or places
- Sleeping too much or too little
That's a fairly hefty list, and it makes it all the more difficult to really understand when you're approaching or even going through a burnout period due to stress. Work is a major contributor to feeling burnt out, so much so that the WHO classified burnout as an "occupational phenomenon".
What Causes Work Stress?
There's no specific set of things that can cause developer burnout. What is stressful for one person, is enjoyable for another. Everyone has different limits and points at which they struggle
A Personal Anecdote
I've struggled a little with this in the past on and off over the years. I've always been the kind of person that works on the weekend or an evening to meet deadlines that might otherwise have been missed. I would work on a plethora of side projects in my spare time for fun. This wouldn't leave a lot of time for non-work activities, things that I could lean into in order to relax my mind.
This is a situation that can quickly teeter towards an unhealthy direction, and as we all know, balance is important.
Things came to a head at a previous job when I saw several close friends leave in short succession. We were also knee deep in a couple of large projects.
While we had handled similar projects in the past, and learnt a lot from those past mistakes, there was still a huge amount of work to do and a deadline that absolutely couldn't shift. There was also the matter of trying to find some replacements, and then onboarding them. Join all of that with a sudden shift of working from home due to Covid lockdown restrictions, and it's a recipe made for generating large amounts of stress.
As the projects went on I was feeling more stressed; enough that I found it incredibly difficult to fully understand and invest myself in my work as I should have. We were still trying to replace the people that had left and the interview processes took up my time. Some roles were even closed as we had demonstrated we were able to achieve our tasks with a reduced team, so the thinking was that we did not need people in those roles. The part that got missed was that we were going above and beyond to maintain our teams output with a reduced staff, but this velocity could not be maintained.
I felt lost. I constantly felt that I wasn't good enough; that I wasn't cut out for the role. I was putting in many, many extra hours in order to help our team hit targets, targets that we weren't always hitting. I was easily irritable with my work team and my family, and I hated myself for it. Meals were skipped, I drank more than usual, and at the end of the work day I found no joy in my side projects; they stopped. My writing also stopped.
Looking back, I can see places where I could have avoided or changed some of the events that led up to me feeling exhausted, but it was almost impossible to see these options at the time whilst I was in the thick of it. Hindsight is one hell of a thing.
How Can We Prevent Burnout?
I don't know exactly how I didn't completely implode (or explode) from the pressure I faced in that role. I know I was suffering from burnout, and the large gap in my blog testafies to this. I think there were a few things that really helped me:
- I found a new job, one that has a great culture, and a strong emphasis on a work/life balance. While still being an incredibly busy role, I could see my input was valued, and there was investment in my team.
- I found small things I could spend my free time on; small hobbies that let me express my creative side.
- I put more focus than ever in my family. Instead of working beyond my hours, I set myself limits, and used my free time with my partner and children.
Maintain Other Interests
I was very lucky, I believe that the other things going on in my life helped me overcome my burnout. I've been a father for a few years now, and while the boys have heavily contributed towards my stress at times, they've also been a great distraction from software development. My partner was greatly sympathetic and helpful too in this time of my life, and very supportive with whatever I chose to do.
It really helps to have other constructive things in your life that you can turn to if you're feeling burnout. It could be gardening, woodworking, music, or art. Find something you really enjoy that you can do completely aside from a computer. Ideally, it's something that you can do any time you feel you need a quick break. I enjoyed some woodworking projects, and making costume pieces for my children.
If you don't have any hobbies like this, then try to do things every day that are not related to work. Exercise, read, or watch films. I used to do the washing up by hand each day, despite having a dishwasher, as I found it a relaxing task that let me "switch off" my brain.
Avoid Over-Extending Yourself at Work
You should avoid consistently doing more at work than you can fit into your contractual hours. As we all know and undertand, sometimes there are times when we might need to, but the important thing here is that these situations should be rare, and absolutely not frequent or regular without:
- A previous agreement, such as a contractual obligation.
- Some form of compensation, whether pay or time in lieu.
You should try to strike a balance between your personal life and work. In order to put more time into your work, you have to take it from somewhere else. Are you taking time away from something important that you can't get back later? Is that time coming away from your relationships or family? Perhaps that time is coming from the time you might spend on yourself. Are you forgoing sleep or exercise? Maybe you're cutting time out of healthy eating instead?
The more of this time you sacrifice to attempt to keep up with your work, the worse the problem becomes. Effectively, you're entering a destructive feedback loop, one that is incredibly difficicult to escape.
Ask for Help
Asking for help should be the obvious solution, but when in the midst of a stressful situation, it can almost feel like admitting defeat, like admitting that you cannot do your job. In truth though, these burnout situations are caused most often by extraordinary circumstances, so asking for help is what you really should be doing.
There are two options here:
Talk to Your Peers
Your peers may have useful advice to give you based on their own experiences. Perhaps they or someone they know has suffered burnout before.
- Perhaps they can suggest changes to the way you work that let you meet your targets.
- They could take on some of the work themselves if this is a possibility within your company.
- They may know of techniques and distractions that you can do in your free time that can help alleviate the burnout symptoms.
While your peers won't have the same options available to them as your line manager, they are an invaluable resource. Also, you will often have many peers to rely on, whereas you'll typically only have a single manager to bring your concerns to.
Talk to Your Manager
It might be that your manager isn't aware of the situation because of the amount of effort you're putting in, but there are actions that they can take:
- Pass some of your work to other people in your team or neighbouring teams.
- Some of your tasks can be de-prioritised to be worked on later.
- They can enable you to take some time off of work by shifting tasks and resources.
- Further positions could be added to the team to take on the additional work.
It's vital that you let your line manager know about your situation, because, ultimately, they are the best placed to help you.
Now, there are rare occassions where you ask and nothing changes. This will usually be because there's no way to make any positive change:
- The company might financially pressured and cannot increase the team size.
- Every other person on the team is already also at maximum capacity.
- Task priorities might be tied to a specific deadline, such as a client agreement.
However, these blocks should not be encountered often, there should always be something that can be done, even if it doesn't fully address the problem.
Sometimes, in very rare circumstances, no change can be made because the company doesn't want to make the change, for various reasons. Such was the case with Blizzard's game developers. If you run into this situation, where you're not valued as a person, then you might be faced with no other option than to look elsewhere for employment.
Finding a New Role During a Burnout
This is incredibly difficult, and especially so with a cold start. If you don't have some kind of up to date CV or portfolio website, then it can be a struggle to go through the process of creating or updating it when you're feeling at your worst. My best advice here would be to always keep your CV fairly up to date. Touch it up a couple of times a year. Even if you're not intending to look for a new role, the process of updating it can help you understand how much you do in your current one, expecially helpful if you're looking for a raise or promotion.
The process of interviewing can be daunting, and you may feel like you're not good enough. Try to break down your current experience into some hard facts. You have x years experience with ABC language? That's a fact, move on. Think about what it is that you do day-to-day, then over the week, then over the month. What skills are you using every day? Note down all the languages, tools, frameworks, libraries, and practices that you employ. Again, even if you're not actively seeking a new role, this is a helpful exercise, you can use it as an argument for promotion within your company.
Match the facts of yourself with the job spec. If you find some don't match, that's normal. A lot of roles put a whole wishlist upfront as their requirements, but will settle for less if you have what they really need. This is true of most roles, and seems especially true now where developers are in high demand. Sometimes it might just be a poorly written job spec, written by someone who isn't working directly within the industry:
I saw a job post the other day.— Sebastián Ramírez (@tiangolo) July 11, 2020
It required 4+ years of experience in FastAPI.
I couldn't apply as I only have 1.5+ years of experience since I created that thing.
Maybe it's time to re-evaluate that "years of experience = skill level".
The hardest part can be talking about yourself. Try practicing with a friend or infront of a mirror. Yes, it seems silly, but all the practice can help. Just talk about yourself, what you can do, and what you can do for a company looking to hire you. If you have someone you can practice with, ask them if they can ask you some practice interview questions, you can find many of these online.
As a developer, burnout through stress is a very real concern. A study performed back in July 2021 found that 83% of developers suffer from burnout. There were an estimated 24,300,000 developers in the world in 2021, which would put the number of those who would be affected at around 20 million. That's a huge number, and should be an indication to us all to take this very seriously.
So if you feel like you're entering the early stages of burnout, take preventative action as soon as you can, your future self will thank you for it!