Atlassian Blog Series

Burnout in the software industry

Burnout is a real issue in the software industry – so much so that the workaholic, obsessive coder has become a Hollywood cliché, sitting up all night in a dark room, surrounded by empty energy drink cans and mouldy pizza boxes. While this may be a slight exaggeration, a great many coders and software developers will admit to symptoms of burnout, and if nothing is done, the consequences can include a nervous breakdown or quitting the industry.

Why is it always coders?

It's a demanding role

Perhaps there’s something about the work – or the people that it attracts? Coding can be both complex and repetitive. It demands intense concentration and the avoidance of errors – both of which can appeal to perfectionists (otherwise known as people who don’t know when to stop). It seems that this is one profession where the 80/20 rule does not apply.

Many coders get into software engineering after starting coding as a hobby, before becoming passionate about the potential of this new activity. Passion can, of course, lead to obsession and a refusal to quit.

There is a ‘work hard, work hard’ culture in many software companies, with heroic status being afforded to people who work 80-, 90-, or even 100-hour weeks. Often the fault here lies with senior managers who may themselves have worked these kinds of hours and see nothing abnormal about other people doing the same.

How to tell if you're approaching burnout?

The signs are there

One of the tell-tale symptoms (and symptoms is the right word because burnout is effectively a medical condition) is a sudden loss of interest in things you were previously passionate about. This is often accompanied by a drastic decline in productivity. Another sign of burnout is a loss of perspective – you may feel that working more and more hours is the answer, but you’ll actually achieve less (or make more mistakes).

Inability to concentrate, fatigue and paradoxically, insomnia, are also signs of burnout – perhaps you recognise some of these signs in yourself, or in your colleagues.

What causes burnout?

Actually, it depends

These vary from person to person, but studies into burnout reveal several common factors. One of these is isolation from human contact – something that has been exacerbated for many people since the pandemic began, due to the rise in remote working.

Coding can be repetitive, even monotonous at times. It is also a pressure-cooker environment – often, multiple companies or start-ups are working on similar programs or apps, knowing that the first to market will take all the spoils, and coming second is worthless.

Poor eating and sleeping habits also contribute – even a lack of fresh air and exercise (or going out into the ‘big room’) can contribute to burnout.

How to avoid burnout?

Cover your bases

While burnout is an easy trap to fall into, it is also possible to avoid it by following a few simple steps – ultimately, it comes down to a different kind of self-discipline.

"If you get tired, learn to rest, not to quit"

- Graffiti, Johannesburg, 2020

On a daily basis, self-care is vital – taking regular breaks, eating healthier food and getting enough sleep all sound obvious, but they’re important. Holidays – a complete change of scene - can work wonders.

In the workplace, it’s important to keep things fresh – taking on new challenges, joining new teams and signing up for training to expand your skillset. Changing your physical workspace can also help – mix it up!

Perhaps the most important way to avoid burnout is learning to say no: however much you enjoy your work as a software engineer, it doesn’t define you or equate to your value as a person. So get out (for some air) before you burnout.