We all know the research is out there: burning out employees (and ourselves!) with an unreasonable workload is counterproductive. According to the Harvard Business Review article, Don't Overwork Your Brain, “The long hours you work each week may be good for your company’s bottom line, but not so good for your brain. Overwork may hasten the aging-related decline in memory and thinking skills.”
Other research tells us that overworking isn’t even good for the business in the end. It’s easy to understand how burnout can lead to “all sorts of health problems, including impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease. Of course, those are bad on their own. But they’re also terrible for a company’s bottom line, showing up as absenteeism, turnover, and rising health insurance costs,” as detailed in HBR’s Long Hours Backfire for People and Companies.
So why does this toxic trend continue to define tech culture — particularly amongst software engineers? Whether it stems from leadership demands, social pressure, or personal reasons, I have found that preventing burnout sometimes means learning the hard way: through lots of trial and error and letters of resignation.
As a developer who cares about my team’s health and wellbeing, I’m sharing my personal experience with overwork, including the hard-fought lessons that keep me in balance in my current role.
Developer burnout builds over time
Early in my career, when I put in a ton of overtime with no recognition or end in sight, I simply quit to escape an untenable situation. I assumed that I would be taken care of if I did all the things, as quickly and skillfully as possible...but all the things turned into even more things, and I grew exhausted and disappointed. Worse still, I learned that burnout stacks up over time. Each all-nighter hit harder than the one before. I could faithfully go down any rabbit hole, but I could no longer catch as many rabbits. I knew I had to find a way to set boundaries assertively, while still respecting my leaders.
Prevent burnout by setting boundaries
In my experience, work boundaries are an ongoing discovery process that depends on your childhood, previous employment, and natural disposition. If you have no experience in an environment where boundaries are respected (around privacy, work hours, weekends), it may be hard to assert your needs and enjoy your job. The first thing to realize is that if you don’t ask, it’s not going to happen. Listen to your gut to find out what and how strong your need is. Then you can figure out exactly what you want to ask of your supervisor. Next, you can gauge if a compromise is possible or if the boundary is a fundamental deal breaker. Whatever the outcome, I can say from experience that using your voice in this way brings more peace and confidence to your life.
Prevent burnout by finding the right workplace culture
It’s infinitely easier to set limits in environments where boundaries are honored. I’m lucky to work somewhere that values work-life balance, so it’s safe to act on what is healthy for me regarding working hours and time off. Ultimately, it starts with policy sponsorship at the top. If a healthy culture is actively endorsed, modeled, and protected by your team lead or executives, it’s a great signal that your boundaries will be met with respect.
Preventing burnout and maintaining healthy boundaries is a journey that I’m learning about daily. And I’m not alone. One developer admitted, “I worked so much that I couldn’t pursue my hobbies anymore and had no time to myself. I felt obligated to everyone but myself.” Her tips on How to Avoid Burnout as an Ambitious Developer are a good resource for fellow engineers committed to maintaining good mental health and rewarding personal lives.
How do you keep a healthy balance at work? Connect with us on Twitter and share how you block burnout.
Other resources on matters of developer mental health: