Managing burnout isn’t easy in the best of times, and with the extra stress created by the pandemic, it’s more difficult than ever. With the ubiquitous shift to remote, people are more isolated and struggling to separate their home lives from work. Software engineers tend to work on the cusp of burnout in the best of times and the fact that the circumstances of the last 18 months have hit them hard should surprise no one.
Between the demands we place on ourselves to deliver quality work and the routine stressors in our personal lives, establishing career/life balance is vital to long-term wellbeing. Further, as we navigate the age of digital distraction - a time with abundant communications channels, games, apps and sites - our attention is more divided than ever. Distractions make us feel even more unproductive and overwhelmed, and, for software engineers unfamiliar with remote work, it can be made worse by a home office environment.
While burnout is different for everyone, engineers should watch for a few common warning signs. A major red flag is having recurring negative thoughts about writing code. Many of us entered this field because we grew up coding for fun. Of course, now that we do it professionally, projects can be less rosy as we work in front of the screen for long hours and succumb to the pressure of the never-ending to-do list. Still, we became engineers because the work appeals to us, and once that feeling fades, it’s a good indicator something is amiss.
Another indicator you’re feeling burnt out is lacking the energy to complete your work. If we don’t give ourselves mental and physical space from our jobs, it can become hard to focus on the task at hand. It can be as simple as a consistent absence of motivation to complete routine work or as extreme as struggling to get up in the morning to commute or log on to work.
There are many physical and emotional symptoms of burnout, but becoming impatient or angry towards coworkers is a classic symptom. It's critical to remain self-aware here, as your behavior can influence team morale and those around you. Once you start showing irritability at work, it's time for a reset.
How to mitigate burnout
Fortunately, there are ways to avoid burnout, supported by empirical evidence and scientific research. The trick is finding what works best for your personality, preference and routine. The following are a few recommendations.
1) Take breaks: Step away from your work regularly, and when you do, really separate yourself from it. As a rule of thumb, after focusing on a task for 52 minutes, take a break for 17 minutes. The brain naturally works in bursts, so work in intervals and put those periods of high productivity to good use.
2) Integrate wellness time: Burnout is typically a direct result of too much work and too little exercise and sleep. Restore some balance by setting aside an hour to exercise every day. This can be as simple as walking around. Another great option to help you relax during the day is meditation. Allotting yourself 15 minutes of quiet daily can make a surprising difference. Lastly, nothing is more important than quality sleep. The average person needs 8-10 hours of sleep each night so find a bedtime that works for your schedule and try your best to follow it.
3) Assess the corporate culture: Recognize that a work environment can be a factor, too, so examine it. Engineers should view each other as a support system not as a threat or competition. Your team culture should encourage collaboration and vulnerability. If you do not feel comfortable speaking up for yourself or asking for help, it’s a good indicator the environment isn’t healthy. The culture may need to change, you might need to examine your perspective or it's time to look for a job elsewhere.
4) Mitigate distractions: How many times a day do you find yourself deep into a task when you’re startled by a "ding" as an email or Slack message comes in. The notification pulls you out of your zone and diverts your attention. Time passes, you fall behind on your task, the looming deadline causing even further stress. A recent study showed it takes nearly 25 minutes for the average person to resume a task after an interruption - and that adds up quickly when you have a busy team working through multiple projects at once.
5) Regain work/life balance: The best thing anyone can do, not just engineers, is establish boundaries with work. Entangling the space you relax in with a home office can make it extra tough to disconnect regularly. Learning to separate your time is probably the most challenging adjustment for those with limited experience working from home. You should pick a room or area in your home specifically for work and prevent it from leaking onto the couch, your bedroom, or anywhere else you unwind. When you’re not working, power off your computer so you won’t be tempted to do “one more thing” in what should be your off-hours. Also, finding a hobby that you can immerse yourself in will give you a sense of accomplishment outside of work. Whether it’s crafting, learning a new language or just reading a book, a healthy hobby declutters the mind, helping to keep you engaged and curious in your day-to-day life.
6) Follow a schedule: To avoid staying too long in front of the computer and committing to extra meetings, map out your schedule every week. It's essential to put your personal activities on your calendar - this will hold you accountable for stepping away at a reasonable time. Also, really use the time you're giving yourself. If you are working on a hobby or passion project, forget about checking your email - it will still be there in the morning.
7) Reward yourself: Believe it or not, when we recognize our accomplishments, our brains experience a positive neurological change over time. Staying healthy and happy at work requires acknowledging and celebrating personal and team accomplishments. When you get to the end of an activity or reach a goal, incorporate a celebration ritual, and recognize what you've accomplished, whether the achievement is big or small.
Remember: You’re only human
There’s no fool proof method for entirely avoiding stress at work. Then again, the same goes for life. The best you can do is develop an approach that allows you to recognize burnout symptoms and reset periodically. The highest performers love what they do, which is why celebrating your wins and being kind to yourself is so vital. Reduce the time when work feels like work, and you’ll do away with some of the negative energy and focus on the positives.
Andrew Smith, Senior Manager, Engineering, Veeva Systems