At the start of 2023 New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced her resignation, citing burn out as the primary reason for her departure from office. Evidently, burnout can affect anybody, all the way up to the top office in a national office. Tech isn’t immune to this; in fact, a 2022 study uncovered that 42% of tech workers are considering quitting due to excessive stress and 62% reported they felt ‘physically and emotionally drained’. As people quit their jobs in record numbers (in what has been dubbed ‘The Great Resignation’), we’re going to look at the primary causes of burnout, and what can be done to combat it.
It is important to firstly consider the external forces that can cause burnout. Last year we saw record layoffs at big tech companies such as Google, Microsoft and Twitter, with a reported 649% increase in layoffs resulting in over 150,000 techies losing their jobs - a tenfold increase on 2021. This has resulted in techies feeling disposable and vulnerable. It is also inevitable that workloads will increase, due to the decrease of employees. With the economy showing little sign of improving, it is likely these cuts will continue into 2023, with some reporting that if the layoffs follow the same trend as the last few years, we will again be looking at a year of record redundancies. When you consider the uncertainty around both the economy and tech roles at the moment, coupled with higher workloads, it is clear that this is going to cause, or accelerate, workers mental health struggles, inevitably leading to quicker burnout.
Whilst external factors must be considered, most of the stress that leads to burnout will come from within the workplace. A recent study stated poor leadership and unclear direction, work overload and toxic cultures are the biggest sources of burnout, with lack of career progression and poor salary and benefits also having a significant influence. This isn’t anything new in tech roles, and it could be argued that this culture can be traced back to the early tech companies in Silicon Valley in the 1960’s. Back then, companies almost seemed to pride themselves on their relentless work ethics, labelling themselves ‘burnout shops’ as they churned through workers at a rate not seen previously. The hangover from this attitude can still be seen today, and has been best exemplified in recent times following Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, and the subsequent expectations he placed on his dev team. Ultimately, we saw how that played out - an estimated 50% of the Twitters’ developers chose to leave, rather than play to Musk’s rules. However, the message from Musk was clear - burnout was essentially a mandatory condition of working for Twitter, and it was time to accept this, or leave. There are accounts of a similar attitude across all FAANG companies, where roles are so coveted that they are able to impose unreasonable expectations. Don’t want to play their rules? No problem - there’s hundreds of devs waiting to take your place. Whilst FAANG companies are perhaps an extreme example of this, similar attitudes can be seen across tech. If you’re working for a company where you recognise any of the aforementioned issues, it may be time to decide if you’re really willing to put your job before your mental health. Sometimes, by the time you realise how burnt out you really are it’s already too late.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as some companies are now beginning to recognise the impact of burnout, and the positives of countering burnout before it’s too late, and the benefits of this for the employee, and subsequently the company itself. One particularly positive point is the recent wave of companies embracing a 4-day working week. In a recent trial across the UK, 56 out of 61 companies who took part have extended the 4-day week trial, with 18 making it permanent. The resounding feedback from the companies that took part was that employee wellbeing increased dramatically, and this subsequently had a positive effect on production. Despite fears that 20% less work would get done, the results evidence that the opposite is true - a better work/life balance leads to benefits for both the employee, and the company. This does a lot to dispel the aforementioned attitude that has been historically prevalent in tech that you must work yourself into the ground to be successful. By maintaining your mental health, you are actually more productive, and more valuable to the company you work for. It appears that employers are finally starting to catch up and realise this.
It is important to recognise the other provisions that companies have put in place in recent years to improve employees’ wellbeing. In stark contrast to previous generations, mental health is given a lot of consideration in most companies, with many offering access to mental health professionals as a benefit. Others now allow employees to take sick days for their mental health, with mental conditions being recognised on par with other medical issues. Discussions around mental health are now actively encouraged in many workplaces, with some having dedicated spaces where employees can take a quiet minute, away from the hustle and bustle of the office. Sometimes, this is all that an employee requires to keep themselves at their most productive. It is encouraging to see the steps that are being taken by employers to safeguard their employees’ from burnout and other mental health afflictions, as well as seeing some of the historical and outdated attitudes towards mental health in the workplace start to be phased out. If you don’t feel your current employer has the correct attitude towards employee wellbeing, don’t wait until it’s too late and you’re already burnt out - there are plenty of companies out there that do take mental health seriously, and have made positive strides towards better employee wellbeing.
Ultimately, the bulk of the responsibility for your mental health falls on your shoulders. Unlike other medical conditions, the symptoms of burnout are not always instantly recognisable, and no-one other than you knows how you truly feel. Firstly, it’s important to be aware of and recognise the main signs that you’re approaching burnout;
#1 Decreased productivity and a lack of motivation.
#2 Emotional exhaustion: Burnout can cause you to feel emotionally drained and unable to cope with stress.
#3 Physical symptoms: Burnout can cause physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, and insomnia.
#4 Detachment: Burnout can cause you to feel detached from your work and colleagues.
#5 Increased absenteeism: Burnout can cause you to take more time off from work due to illness or stress.
If you start to recognise any of these symptoms in yourself, you should act before it becomes a much bigger issue that will take more time to fix. Firstly, you need to look at what is causing you to feel like this. If your issue is with the culture of your workplace, it may be time to consider looking for a new opportunity, at a company that will be more supportive of your mental health. If your problem lies within your workload, or feeling like your lacking control or recognition, you should approach your manager and explain how you’re feeling, and discuss steps to rectify the situation. You should always address burnout before it becomes a much larger issue, that will be much more difficult to fix.
It is clear that whilst burnout has always been an issue, particularly in tech, positive steps are being taken by employers to recognise and rectify this. Mental health provisions have never been more widely available, and employee’s have never had the amount of resources now available to them to maintain their mental wellbeing. Ultimately though, no-one else truly knows how you’re feeling, and if you’re starting to feel burnt out, take steps to fix this before it becomes a bigger issue. Your mental health should be your priority - look after yourself!