Uplevel Blog

How to support a developer in burnout recovery

Almost two years into the pandemic, we can all agree on one thing — we're exhausted. Have we hit our limits? In the era of the Great Resignation, it's time to check in with ourselves and our employees on our burnout levels and get ourselves into recovery mode.
Author: uplevel
Tags: Blog

Burnout feels like a total disconnect from your work. It is where fatigue meets apathy—and it takes intentional effort to recover. Check out this e-book we put together to specifically help developers and their teams get back on track.

Many employers feel driven to optimize their teams’ productivity. We all want to ship high-quality products on a swift timeline for our users, which requires strong output from our software engineers. When we transitioned to remote work, some leaders were concerned about reduced productivity at home. Instead, a year into the pandemic, 64% of engineering managers found that productivity was the same or higher than the previous year.

However, many communicated strong signals of another necessary focus: burnout. The blurred line between work and home, plus increased productivity during a pandemic, is pushing some people to their (understandable) limits.

Who needs to watch for burnout?

It’s not just the tech industry. This year, even Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez sent a dedicated email about burnout care. We love her recommendation to aim for a “1:1 ratio” between pouring from your cup (working, giving, supporting) and filling your cup (resting, recharging, self-care). 

When it comes to a loaded Jira queue, however, engineers might need more structured support than that. To respond effectively, it’s worth understanding the complexities of burnout, as well as how to address it on a personal and organizational level.

What do I need to know about burnout?

The World Health Organization recognizes burnout as an occupational phenomenon:

Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  1. feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  2. increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  3. reduced professional efficacy.

Let’s dive into the three stages of burnout. The first is exhaustion. A person reaches a deep level of depletion—while still managing their workload. The second is cynicism. That person might create distance from the burnout, which appears as apathy. The third stage is inefficacy. This is when that person will simply detach. 

That progression between the three stages can get harder to reverse over time. Once someone reaches inefficacy, the mindset has changed from “we have to fix this” to “that’s not my job.” Aimless TikTok scrolling might lead to purposeful LinkedIn scrolling.

Wherever it begins, there is one key truth about burnout: it is easier to prevent than it is to recover. 

However, recovery is possible.

What should you do if a team member is nearing burnout?

Burnout often occurs when someone is overworked, but it can also happen as a result of being underworked. Both ways, it’s about a lack of meaningful connection to the work.

First up, schedule one-on-one time with that person. The priority is to discover the “why” behind the burnout. Is the team facing an unrealistic deadline? Does this person have an unusual amount of work? Too much context switching? Are they bored?

The next key is to understand which stage of burnout this person is facing. Someone feeling exhaustion might benefit from a mental health day. Someone already feeling inefficacy might need a bigger conversation about their role and purpose.

How can a team member recover from burnout?

After you’ve reached an understanding about burnout, you’ll work together to find the way forward. It’s worth noting that some team members won’t immediately identify as being burnt out—they might simply feel disengaged and assume there’s no way through it. 

  • In the case of a heavy workload (or constant fire drills), you might load-balance work or revisit the process for work allocation.
  • If you see a standard workload, but frequent last-minute requests are adding pressure, talk about setting priorities or giving reasonable pushback to protect bandwidth. 
  • If meetings are dominating the calendar, work might happen in (draining) sprints ahead of deadlines, leading to some late nights and resentment. Encourage time-blocking windows of two or more hours for protected, interruption-free time. Our data shows that when developers have more time for focused Deep Work, they work less overtime.
  • If the burnout is more associated with the type of work, open a discussion about what kinds of projects that person would like to work on—or where they’d like to develop skills, like mentoring junior devs or documenting processes.
  • Next, zoom out to better understand the cause and effect. Were there predictable signs? How can you get ahead of them next time?

How can managers address burnout on a systemic level?

Leaders often think of burnout as a personal problem. When an engineer is feeling fatigued, it must be a sign that they should focus on stress management, right? Well, people aren’t often choosing to reach their limits — they’re responding to requests made by the company. Burnout is an issue at the organizational level.

What’s most important is listening to their feedback. How can you, as a leader, protect your team upstream? How can you support a safe environment for devs to share when they’re hitting their limit? How can you nurture a culture of prioritizing mental health?

Here at Uplevel, we’re committed to helping engineering organizations meet their product goals without burning out their teams. To experience how we can support your team, schedule a demo.