Developer Burnout: 9 Tips to Help

A developer writing CSS on a Macbook.

Burnout happens — especially developer burnout. It’s unfortunate, but a fact of life. However, it seems to happen to developers (and maybe Doctors, but you’re not my target audience) far more often then other professions. It may manifest in the emotion of dread, knowing you have to go in to work tomorrow. Or it may manifest in sadness, just thinking about staring at code. Or it may possibly manifest as anger, thinking about the project that won’t seem to work.

Unfortunately, we’ve found that ping-pong tables and dart boards aren’t the cure for developer burnout. Instead, we’ve seen that being given ownership and shown appreciation for your work helps far more than the silicon valley staples of free food or entertainment. Plus, it also helps to have a team that you care about and that also cares about you. It’s all about being engaged in the day-to-day.

Unfortunately, burn-out is something that can be difficult for you, the developer, to prevent. It’s something best prevented by your employer, by ensuring that you can stay engaged and can focus on the work you’re interested in.

Whatever you experience in regards to burnout, you can fight it. I’ve successfully fought burnout in the past but have also failed to fight it — to the point where I just left my job.

Unfortunately, the consequences of burn out can be far more dangerous than just leaving your job. I’ve seen many people post about burnout and their “next play” being in a completely different field. There have also been recent discussions around a connection between burnout and suicide rates. However, with the proper help you can fight burnout and get back to doing what you love.

Here’s nine (hopefully helpful) tips I have to help fight burnout (without leaving your job).

1. Accept that you are burnt out.

When you’re thinking about work, coding, or a project and have no positive emotions about it — you’re likely burnt out. If you’re reading this post, it’s pretty likely that you’re burnt out or are on the cusp of becoming burnt out. And that’s okay! But if that is the case, you need to accept that you may be burnt out.

If you don’t accept that you’re experiencing burn out, you’re likely to only further your level of burn out. In the case of uncertainty, I would suggest treating yourself as if you are burnt out. There’s no harm in any of these tips if you’re not burnt out, and some can be rather enjoyable regardless of whether you are or aren’t burnt out.

A person wearing red shoes in a hammock.

2. Take a break or a vacation.

Take a vacation and just get away from work. Don’t bring your laptop and don’t check your email while you’re away. Instead of checking Slack, consider cutting yourself some slack and just “go offline” for a bit.

Studies are currently quite mixed about this, but from personal experience I can vouch for it. Taking a regular vacation is a great way to help prevent burn out and help fight it if you’re already experiencing burnout.

However, to be successful, you can’t just go somewhere else. You need to take an effort to leave work behind you, and just enjoy something else entirely. For me, this is easiest when exploring a new city. It’s very easy for me to get caught up experiencing new sights and new things while exploring a new city. This helps set my focus on “the moment” and less on work or projects.

3. Read a book.

Perhaps a vacation sounds intimidating or the logistics behind taking a trip is overwhelming — consider staying in and reading instead. I recently fell back into regular reading and it has been a fantastic way to relax, reduce stress, and just enjoy something created by someone else.

If you’re determined to keep up on soft skills or business news, you can keep up with the latest Business book or whatever Seth Godin has put out lately. However, If you find that to be intimidating but are still interested in reading something, I strongly recommend finding a nice piece of fiction written by a great world builder like Robert Jordan or Anne McCaffrey.

Four friends sitting with on a blanket, outdoors, with a small dog.

4. Visit with friends or family.

When was the last time you did this? I mean really did this. Not just a lunch date with a friend, or picking up your stuff from you parents place. When was the last time you actually sat down with some friends or family, not rushed for time, and just talked about your life?

A study in 2007 shows that having close friends and spending time with them has a direct effect on happiness. So reach out a friend and invite them out for a drink or to participate in a movie marathon. Maybe go for a hike or a walk!

Of course, the option of making new friends exists too. This idea works great, as often times, you can do this while doing #5 or #6 (we’ll get to those in a second). A great plan of attack to meet new people and work on something new or explore a new hobby is Meetups.

What is a Meetup?
Meetup.com is a website that lets you join a local group to meet people, try something new, or do more of what you love. It’s free to sign up and find meetups near you, but it does cost to list your own on their site.

While Meetup seems to have a ton of tech related Meetups, you can also find Meetups for other things. I’m in a local hiking group and a local kayaking group, for example.

5. Start something new.

Some companies offer perks like 20% time to work on something that you think is valuable to work on. It’s a great opportunity to mix up the mundane and work with new people or a new language or technology. Starting a side project can be a great way to focus and channel your energy, even if it’s not development related. Fun fact: This blog started as a burn-out side project.

But even if your company doesn’t offer these perks, that doesn’t mean you cant pursue a new project. Although everyone has different obligations in life, most people can make the time to work on something interesting — something they care about. If you spend an hour on Netflix each night after putting the kids to sleep, consider spending thirty minutes on Netflix and thirty minutes working on that book you’ve always wanted to write. In a week, you’ll have contributed three and half hours towards writing a book!

If you’re burnt out on “that terrible Java project” but still want to code on something, try exploring alternatives. If you don’t want to touch code at all consider starting a blog or try your hand at designing something. Maybe take the time to work on a home improvement project. Find something that will either challenge you or offer you a meaningful sense of fulfillment when completed and tackle it!

A person playing a ukulele.

6. Explore a hobby.

Explore a hobby – especially if this is a hobby that you’re naturally skilled at. This is great because if you’re skilled at it, you’re likely to succeed in your practicing of the hobby and it likely won’t be as mentally exhausting as development.

Ultimately the goal is to help establish an identity for yourself outside of being a developer. What does that mean? A lot of us dedicate a slice of our lives to our career. We may work twelve hour days, or be expected to promptly respond to emails 24/7, or maybe are always on-call. This leads us to always be work-focused.

And if it’s not work, maybe it’s something else that’s development related. Maintaining an open source project, working on a side project, or even trying to learn a new technology. It feels so easy to get caught up in the endless cycle of development, that, even if you’re not “working”, you’re still focusing on work or development.

Hobbies help give us something else that makes us who we are. I’m not just Brad, the Software Architect — I’m Brad, a hiker and photographer that does software for a living. An interesting side effect from having hobbies is that you have more people to socialize with, and you don’t bore the socks off of people by talking about programming when they just don’t understand it.

7. Go outside.

Not only are some of the most enjoyable activities outdoors, but studies have shown that sunlight helps the body produce serotonin, and serotonin helps promote positive moods and a clearer mind. Additionally, exercise has been shown to promote happiness. With these things in mind, I can’t stress enough how important outdoor activities are. When the weather is warm, I try to take a walk at work each day. Small, but helpful.

However, I wasn’t always a fan of being outdoors (that sounds weird, but its true). It wasn’t until about two years ago — when I met my dog, Luna — that I found myself making time to go outdoors. In a weird way, the responsibility of need to take her for walks helped force me to spend more time outside, and when we go out on those walks, I enjoy them a lot, now.

I’m not saying you have to go adopt a dog, but do try to find a way to motivate yourself to spend time outside. The sunlight and fresh air does really help.

8. Seek professional help.

If you’re struggling with burn out, professional help may be the best option. There is no issue with requesting psychological or even psychiatric help if there doesn’t seem to be a way to help your burnout. A lot of times, simply talking with a therapist or even a career counselor can help.

Fortunately, science is further investigating burnout, so there’s hopes for new breakthroughs in treating burnout. Unfortunately, for now, most of the evidence seems inconclusive in studies, but I’ve seen art therapy mentioned a lot with anecdotal successes.

Regardless, there are people and processes in place to help cope with (or fight) developer burnout. Finding the right one for you may take some time, or effort, but it’s definitely worth it.

Also, a lot of companies have started to offer mental health days and other psych-related forms of compensation.

A man smiling near his computer.

9. Stop exhibiting behavior that leads to burnout.

This one may seem obvious, but I want to mention it as its the most important. If you are burnt out, then you have to identify what is burning you out and stop doing it.

Maybe you’re working twelve hour days. If so — Stop. Talk to your manager about it and inform them of your concerns regarding a work life balance. If they want to keep you around, they will help you find that balance.

Maybe you’re working on a project that you just can’t stand to work on. Maybe it’s dreadfully boring or you’re struggling and just cant seem to figure it out. Either find help or find a different project to work on. Sometimes you do have to push through and see unenjoyable work to completion, but if that’s all you’re doing — consider doing something else.

If your burnout stems from your team, talk to them about it. Don’t point fingers or try to pass blame, but instead explain to them how you’re feeling and what you feel might help you feel better. If nothing comes out of that, talk with your manager and consider trying to switch team.

If your burnout comes from the thought of writing code, try to find something else to do for a while. While working as a Software Developer for CARFAX, I had a few months where I helped design internal tools. This was such a pleasant reprieve from writing code and really helped me stay motivated. Plus, it let me explore a new interest.

Just a note...
I usually blog about specific technologies, but I’m finding more and more need to blog about soft skills, developer psychology, and software leadership. If you’re interested in learning more about those things, you can check out more posts with the “meta” tag here.

How do you cope with burnout? Feel free to share your successes or concerns below. We’re all in this together.

1 thought on “Developer Burnout: 9 Tips to Help

  1. Really enjoyed this article. After reading, I started to realize that some of the hobbies that I’ve picked up over the last year was directly related to the feeling of burnout. From experience, over the last year or so taking some of these steps have seriously helped me cope with the feeling of burnout.

    The unfortunate part is that many companies (including some I’ve worked for) have this high expectation of performance without the understanding of burnout, or how serious it is. In these cases, for me, rather than trying to mitigate the burnout, I had to recognize it wasn’t a healthy relationship with that company and had to make a move to a different place of work. I attempted to mitigate the burnout but started to realize that it was just too much and wasn’t going to change. During my next job interviews I focused on if the company valued work-life balance. In the end, like you are saying it’s up to you to do the work to mitigate your burnout. Great read, man. Thanks for sharing.

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