How to Prevent or Recover from Developer Burnout

How to Prevent or Recover from Developer Burnout


17 min read

Most ambitious developers follow the same pattern: they do 9-to-5 jobs, participate in hackathons and events, build their personal brands on social media and get even more passionate and motivated by the feeling of rapid professional growth. Soon after that, they start to experience mental fatigue, emotional numbness and loss of motivation, which they tend to ignore. These red flags keep on growing in number until developers feel overwhelmed and unable to code.

Read on to learn about the red flags of developer burnout, practical advice on how to prevent it and actionable steps of how to overcome burnout, recover from the damage and become even more steadfast than before.

Symptoms of Burnout

Burnout is a state of physical, emotional and mental collapse caused by stress or overwork. It is not a medical condition, but it still has severe effects on quality of life. Burnout manifests itself in different ways for different people. But one thing is for sure: burnout doesn’t happen overnight, but it creeps up on you. To prevent burnout effectively, you need to notice the symptoms early on and address them as soon as possible. Let’s see what symptoms may indicate that you are burning out.

Physical Symptoms

  • Physical fatigue. Sitting at the desk in front of a computer for 8+ hours per day is bad for your health: it causes body pain, headache, eye strain and more. If you don’t get enough physical activity, fatigue and lethargy become the norm. To beat this condition, many developers indulge in energy drinks and stay up late, feeling even more exhausted for the next few days.

  • Mental fatigue. Programming is a cognitively demanding job that requires you to solve complex problems. If you don’t take breaks, the fatigue accumulates. If you don’t switch activities and let your brains rest, the fatigue will eventually take its toll.

  • Lowered immunity. Mental and physical fatigue makes you less productive, increasing your levels of stress. Being exposed to stress for an extended period of time lowers your immune system and makes you more susceptible to colds and the flu.

  • Change in appetite or sleep habits. A lack of proper sleep, use of stimulants, accumulated stress and anxiety are most likely to influence your eating or sleep habits. For example, you may try to eat away your anxiety by having more snacks throughout the day, which may lead to overeating and weight gain, or sleep for 10-12 hours a day and still feel tired.

  • Frequent body aches. Body tensions, joint and muscle pain may appear not only due to low physical activity but also be caused by anxiety and exhaustion – one of the key symptoms of burnout.

Emotional Symptoms

  • Feeling pressured or exhausted. Physical, emotional and cognitive exhaustion are central symptoms of burnout that undermine the ability to work. They can stem from internal factors, for example, when you notice the decline in motivation and performance and your inner perfectionist and critic pushes you to work even harder. Or it can originate from external factors such as toxic organizational culture, intense time pressure or heavy workload.

  • Sense of failure and self-doubt. Let’s say you open your code editor but don’t feel like coding and it’s happening continuously for weeks. Such decline in your work performance can make you engage in negative self-talk, minimize personal accomplishments and think that you are not good enough for this job, or even consider switching your career.

  • Detachment, feeling alone in the world. You may notice self-deprecating thoughts running through your head. For example, you may struggle to maintain the productivity level and feel like there’s none there to help you with it. You don’t know what to do but feel like you have to deal with it on your own.

  • Depersonalization: cynicism and indifference. According to WHO, cynicism, also known as depersonalization, is a symptom of burnout. It’s when you feel detached or even callous towards your colleagues, projects and clients. The most common reasons for it are high workload, workplace unfairness and conflict. If this symptom persists, chances are that you lost enjoyment in your work and are burning out.

Behavioral Symptoms

  • Inefficiency and reduced performance refer to the feeling of incompetence and a lack of productivity, achievement and recognition. If you feel exhausted and unmotivated, you may worry that you won’t be able to handle specific tasks and situations, which is usually true: either you are too exhausted to deliver high-quality results, or you don’t have clear expectations, enough feedback and recognition, or both. If your manager leaves you wondering about your quality of work, it drains your motivation and energy.

  • Withdrawing from responsibilities. When drained and in doubt of your skills, you are most likely to procrastinate and avoid taking on responsibility to avoid possible failure.

  • Absenteeism. If you notice the tendency to come late at work or take multiple sick days or day-offs, then chances are you are burned out. Consider discussing this issue with your manager before they reach out to you concerned about your absence pattern.

  • Isolating yourself from others. You may no longer want to talk to friends or coworkers, decline invitations, become angry when someone speaks to you or even come in early or leave late to avoid interactions. When you feel overwhelmed and exhausted by your job, it seems like you no longer have energy for socializing, which translates social isolation into loneliness and aggravates burnout.

  • Food or alcohol abuse. Burnout is most often accompanied by stress, anxiety or depression that you may want to eat or drink away. If you have many snacks during the day or spend every evening in a bar, it means that it’s time to take a break and face the problem.

Causes of Burnout

To understand how to prevent or overcome burnout, first, we need to understand its causes. Even though IT jobs are not considered stressful, there are more reasons not related to work. Burnout is a multifaceted issue that requires a multifaceted solution.

Let’s see what factors contribute to burnout. Use them as a checklist to recognize burnout tendencies that require your attention.

  • Workload that exceeds your capacity. If you’ve been pushing yourself for too long to meet the demands of increased workload, start to lose motivation in your work and feel chronically exhausted, chances are you’ve already crossed that threshold and are nearing burnout.

  • Lack of autonomy. If your manager requires constant progress updates from you, i.e., micromanages you, you may experience a decrease in engagement and trust, which in the long run will lead to burnout.

  • Chaotic environment. You feel like the priorities and requirements are constantly shifting and you can’t get a grasp on them. Or you don’t feel like you get a predictable amount of time and resources to get your work done effectively.

  • Mismatch between invested efforts and rewards. You put in a lot of effort to get the most of your work and deliver quality results, but you don’t get enough appreciation or payment, which makes it look like your efforts are not worth the payoff.

  • Stagnation. Monotonous and unchallenging assignments cause feelings of apathy and boredom and don’t contribute to job satisfaction. If you feel stuck, consider it a red flag.

Model of flow as related to challenge and ability

  • Unsupportive or toxic community. How trusting and supportive are your relationships with colleagues and clients? Do you notice any passive-aggressive behavior coming from or towards you? Then it’s time to rethink your work relationships.

  • Unfairness. Do you receive fair and equitable treatment? Or does your work go unnoticed? Do others take credit for your work? This behavior can be both intentional or not. Speaking up is your only chance to sort things out.

  • Values mismatch. You might have missed the part where during the job interview, your boss highlighted values, ideas and motivations that are foreign to you. Or they might have switched them in the process so that now you don’t feel aligned with the company values. Ask yourself: do you feel good about it?

  • Work from home. Telecommuting contributes to social isolation, inability to disconnect from work, lack of support and appreciation, which accumulate and decrease job satisfaction in around 69% of remote workers.

  • Lack of visible results. You’ve been working hard on functionality that is not visible on the front-end and not appreciated by clients, so you don’t feel like your work matters.

  • Work put on the backburner. It is often the case, especially in the Agile environment, when developers put a lot of effort into a feature that is never released due to the changes in the project plans or requirement specifications.

Lifestyle Causes of Burnout

  • “Type A” personality. If you are an achiever who tends to take on a lot of responsibility and be overly competitive, you are more prone to stress and feeling overwhelmed.

  • Poor work-life balance. You devote most of your time to work, putting relationships and hobbies on hold and increasing chances of mental fatigue.

  • Lack of meaningful relationships. If you have people to spend an evening at the bar with but no close relationships, you may experience a lack of love and support.

  • Not taking enough care of your body. This is especially true for young people who don’t take their health seriously. Lack of exercise, poor eating and sleeping habits don’t take its toll right away but accumulate and eventually get out of control.

  • Not taking your feelings and wishes seriously. This is one of the top reasons why psychology services are so popular nowadays: we get so immersed into work and money-making that we tend to ignore our true wishes and feelings, which leads to burnout.

Personality Traits Contributing to Burnout

  • Perfectionism causes self-doubt and stress, which may drain your energy and make you cynical about the work.

  • Pessimism. Pessimists tend to see the world as threatening, which causes anxiety and stress, making them vulnerable to burnout.

  • Reluctance to delegate. You may fear that delegation will take a lot of time, that others will mess up or take the credit for work. Whatever the reason why you refuse to delegate, you are most likely to end up taking a lot on your shoulders and burn out in the process of dealing with it.

How to Prevent or Recover from Burnout

All the advice on how to deal with burnout mentioned in scientific articles and self-help books can be summarized in the following three steps:

  • Recognize the warning signs of burnout (download the checklist or save this article)
  • Reverse the damage: seek support and manage stress
  • Build resilience by taking care of your physical and emotional health or even changing your job to prevent the symptoms from accumulating and affecting your wellbeing

Now that we know that work, lifestyle and personality traits may cause burnout, let’s see what we can do about them to prevent or recover from burnout effectively. Save this article to get back to it anytime.

Career Advice

Work-related problems are the most common causes of burnout. These may include project management issues, your career attitude, toxic work environment, lack of career growth opportunities and more. So let’s see what you can do about your work to maintain a healthy relationship with your work and advance in your career.

  • Recalibrate your compass. Review your current job and career. Where are you going? What do you need to get there? Does your job and opportunities at hand bring you closer to your goals?

  • Review your job responsibilities. What do you like to do and what would you delegate? What new responsibilities would you like to try? Think about what you’d like to improve about your current job and discuss it with your manager.

  • Expand your professional horizons. Block time in your schedule to learn new skills or build your own project. Venture beyond your comfort zone step-by-step and allow these small daily efforts to accumulate and turn into a better job or promotion in the future.

  • Reduce exposure to job stressors. Identify relationships and activities that trigger stress at work. Discuss activities that cause anxiety or pressure with your boss, establish boundaries with colleagues to manage relationship stress.

  • Seek out connections. Develop continual personal and professional relationships with colleagues, coaches, mentors that will contribute to your emotional and career wellbeing. Try volunteering to switch environments and network.

  • Update your CV and portfolio. Even if you are not going to quit your job, updating your CV will help you take a broad perspective on your career, review your recent achievements and skills and figure out your next steps.

  • Sign up for industry events. Attend meetups and conferences to meet like-minded people, learn about industry trends and technology, get a fresh perspective on your career.

  • Invest in your tools. Replace an old chair that gives you backache with a new comfortable one. Get a PC that won’t crash after you open ten tabs in Google Chrome. Invest in high-quality headphones that will block away the noise.

  • Have a conversation with your manager. Discuss your responsibilities and workload, your next assignments and pay raise, ask for their feedback and share your concerns relating to projects, priorities, deadlines.

  • Consider changing projects or jobs. If you are stuck doing a tediuos and soul-sucking project or job, schedule a meeting with your manager to discuss other job responsibilities and project opportunities. If nothing aligns with your interests or values, consider quitting this job.

Time Management Advice

Time management is an underrated skill that allows you to advance in your career faster and manage your time and activities outside of work. So, if you are struggling with work-life balance and personal productivity, and look to become more disciplined and achieve more in less time, consider the following tips.

  • Get a schedule. Most of us use schedules to plan work-related tasks, but you can create schedules to plan your life outside work as well to keep track of your work time, family time, friends time and personal time.

  • Schedule free time. This one may sound boring because planning your free time sounds like robbing yourself of spontaneity and fun. Do the opposite – plan fun activities even if you didn’t plan any – put dinner dates, date nights, movie visits into your calendar.

  • Learn to prioritize. Use one of the prioritization techniques to rank-order your tasks and do first the one with the most impact. Get rid of low-impact items and delegate the rest.

  • Say no. When you know your priorities, you can tell whether incoming activities will contribute to your goals or not. So you need to say no to activities that don’t add value to your life, career or personal wellbeing.

  • Know your limits. Explore your energy limits and don’t overwork. Don’t take more responsibility than you can handle. Keep track of your people-pleasing tendencies, if there are any, and put your interests first.

  • Get comfortable with imperfection. If 20% of efforts produce 80% of results, think of how much time, effort and opportunities you rob yourself of due to perfectionism. Review your attitude to take some pressure off, relieve yourself of stress and anxiety that you put yourself into.

  • Practice single-tasking. Multitasking slows down your progress, makes you prone to making mistakes and stresses you out. To concentrate on one task at a time, start a timer and measure time spent on this assignment only.

  • Track your time. Pick a time tracking tool that fits you best: timesheet app, desktop time tracker, mobile app, browser extension or even a stopwatch timer.

  • Estimate your activities. When building a work schedule, set up the start time and end time for individual tasks and events. Use time trackers to define time estimates and compare them with your time spent on them. Use this difference to create your next schedule and plan your next workload more accurately.

  • Review your performance regularly. Use Google Sheets or time trackers with project management features to record time against tasks, get analytics reports, identify your weak points and be more productive next time.

For more time management advice, continue reading: 20 Most Common Time Management Problems & Solutions

Lifestyle Advice

Burnout happens not only due to work-related reasons but also because we have unbalanced relationships with other people, our bodies and our needs. So this part is devoted to building a set of healthy habits that will contribute to creating a supportive environment where you can recharge your batteries.

  • Discover and follow your North Star. Review your talents, dreams, activities that excite you and combine them to create your own direction in life. Stick to it outside of work to bring more excitement and fun into your life.

  • Indulge in other passions. Engage in other activities outside your work: try different sports, cultural events, fishing or gardening, photography – anything you’ve been putting off recently. Doing something unrelated to your “actual” work might reignite your passion and spark new ideas.

  • Improve your soft skills. Let’s say you have to deal with a toxic colleague at work and feel upset every time after talking to them. Have you ever wondered what you can do to solve this issue? What do they tell about it in the books? It’s time to find out.

  • Review your needs and habits. Block out at least half an hour to disconnect and contemplate what could make your life even better. Maybe you’d like to socialize and go out more? Or find a sports buddy and go to the gym together? Create small routines around these wishes and see how your life blooms day after day.

  • Practice mindfulness. What was the last time you spent quality time with your family and kids? Do you remember the last meal that you really enjoyed? If you are new to mindfulness, try being 200% present at random times of day to appreciate a sip of coffee, a smile of your partner, a walk with your dog or any other tiny detail of the day.

  • Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Introduce some new hobbies, events and routines into your schedule. Go on international trips to experience a new culture and change your environment for a while. This will add a little positive stress into your life that will fill you with new energies, ideas and perspectives.

  • Fill your days with joy. What was the last time when you were very excited about something? Include small things that make you feel better into your daily schedule – be it dinner in a cafe, a weekend party, a glass of wine at the end of the day – whatever makes you alive and allows you to celebrate life.

  • Start therapy. It may take a while to find the right therapist who you are comfortable with, but it will be worth the effort. Share your thoughts and doubts to discover fresh ideas and insights about your personal life and career.

  • OR practice journaling. If you can’t afford or have a skeptical attitude towards therapy, try journaling. Record your emotions and worries, break down your goals into actionable steps, review your values, plan your next day.

Self-Care Advice

Prioritize yourself: replenish your physical and emotional energy, take care of your mental health. Choose some of the following tips, squeeze them into your schedule and make them habits to help your body prevent or recover from burnout. If your schedule is too packed, give yourself time to assess exactly how you spend your time using a free time tracker and remove low-impact activities.

  • Review your daily activities. For each block of time, record what you’re doing and how you feel on a scale of 1 to 10 and how valuable the activity is. This will help you find opportunities to limit your exposure to tasks, people, and situations that aren’t essential and put you in a negative mood.

  • Spend quality time. Block time when you can be yourself with people who love and support you to feel loved and more balanced.

  • Eat high-nutrition foods to keep yourself healthy and energized.

  • Develop a consistent sleep schedule. Get up at the same time every day, even on weekends or during vacations. Sleep hygiene reduces stress and relieves body tensions.

  • See your doctor to get a routine checkup. Get the treatment or identify and prevent the illnesses early on.

  • Establish personal boundaries. If you struggle to say no and feel drained often, discuss your concerns about work and career development.

  • Stay physically active. You don’t have to purchase a gym membership – start with choosing stairs instead of an elevator or taking 10,000 steps daily.

  • Try meditation. Meditation is known for decreasing stress levels in your body after only a few weeks of practice.

  • Spend time in nature. Time in nature calms the nervous system, reduces anxiety and improves mood.

  • Seek support. Ask your parents or partner to help you with your daily responsibilities.

How to Beat Burnout?

Burnout can be summarized as accumulated stress and frustration originating from poor work-life balance. And one of the most common reasons that trigger it is a feeling of making little or no progress that emerges due to poor time management habits. So, one of the crucial things that can help you and your team keep track of their progress is time tracking.

Consider actiTIME – time tracking software that makes productivity tracking effortless and stress-free. Log time using the web interface, start timers in your browser extension or mobile app and sync the data with your weekly timesheet. Set up deadlines, time estimates, review project progress and productivity trends, automate accounting, including payrolls and client invoices. Explore the whole set of features with a free 30-day trial or request a product demo to get a product tour and find out if it’s a good fit for your needs.

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