Coping with Software Engineer Burnout – Programmer Purgatory


My husband does a lot of web development and he’s very familiar with the experience of feeling burned out after working on a web dev project.

There have been times where he certainly doesn’t want to sit in front of the computer for another second. Come to find out this is a pretty normal experience for a lot of coders, programmers, and software engineers.

I wanted to do some research and find some resources that might be able to help him when he feels that he is in a slump or getting burned out.

So, what is software engineer burnout? Software engineer burnout and occurs when a programmer or developer loses their passion for writing code and programming. It often leads to software engineers leaving the field for good and looking for a new career path. It can have similar effects as PTSD and can lead to depression.

Often there is a correlation between a lack of appreciation and recognition for what the programmer provides and their passion for their jobs. Burnout can be so substantial that software engineers may end up leaving the industry altogether.

When we start to look at what burnout is and what the main reasons for the burnout are, it opens up into a vast array of factors.

In this article, I want to delineate between being tired at work and actually experiencing a software engineer burnout. These are two very different things.

I call actual burnout “programmer purgatory” because I think it is the closest thing to hell without actually being there you can get.

Unfortunately, while programmer burnout can have an onset that occurs quite quickly, the stages are typically as follows according to a Ted Talks video:

You can certainly watch the entire presentation, and I’ll paraphrase the most important points that I think will give you clarity on the subject.

Software Engineer Burnout Happens FAST

The first thing is that while burnout can occur quite fast, and conversely it can take quite a while to recover from it.

see source video above

The real kicker is that most end up quitting, and this is quite unfortunate because engineers have put a lot of time and money into learning how to program.

Who is most susceptible to software engineer burnout? Usually, it is highly motivated (overachieving types) software engineers coders and programmers who are at a higher risk of burnout. This is because they tend to push hard and make things happen, so logically they are given more work.

Organizations that want to prevent software engineer burnout need to look first is at people who tend to be high performers.

These individuals tend to be very passionate about what they do and when they feel like their efforts are somehow lost in the movement of the organization, they can begin to feel like their work doesn’t matter.

They are also likely to never mention how they feel about their work to anyone else.

Software production can come at a high cost when the company’s top performers suddenly quit.

Here’s what you need to know if you’re feeling burned out. Most of the time, it’s not usually because you’ve lost your passion for what you do.

It may be as simple as a lack of appreciation by the organization you work for.

You may also feel like you put a lot of time and invested a lot of energy into learning your skillset and it hasn’t turned out the way you expected.

It’s sort of like if you decide that you want to become a runner and you find that you can’t win any races. If you simply don’t seem to have what it takes, it can cause you not to want to run.

A lot of times, people simply don’t give themselves enough time to adjust.

But if you been a programmer for let’s say a couple of years, then, chances are, you have a pretty good understanding of what’s required in the job and whether or not you fit in.

If you lasted that long, then it’s safe to say that you are capable of sustaining a long-term career in the area.

How to know if you are suffering from software engineer burnout

Tell-Tale Signs of Burnout

Some of the things that engineers and web developers notice when they’re experiencing burnout are the following:

  • Poor Sleep Quality
  • Loss of Appetite
  • Dread going into work.
  • Reluctance to look at a computer.

If you find yourself staring at your computer with extraordinary reluctance to program then this is a good indicator that you’re feeling burned out.

It’s really hard sometimes though to accept that you are burning out because (let’s face it) we all realize that we have to produce.

So many programmers fight the urge of acceptance. This isn’t the best course of action and unfortunately it adds to the effect of it all.

You just feel overwhelmed and your lack of productivity leads to anxiety and fear of potentially losing your job.

The feeling of overwhelm and lack of productivity can produce anxiety and fear of potentially losing your job.

Recovering from work-related burnout can take up to 2 years.

According to experts (this was the time interval that kept coming up)

The worst part about burnout is that specialists say that it can take up to two years to recover from it.

This means that you may not be able to work for two years and most engineers, programmers, and web developers can’t sustain themselves for two years without working.

This means that you may have to go find a completely different job or start a new career.

Finding the road out of Programmer Purgatory – Recovery and Prevention

So if you’re experiencing burnout, you may want to ask yourself, “How appreciated do I feel at my workplace?” Start there if this is something that is really important to you.

We all differ from what we want out of our workplace and at the end of the day, most of us want to be appreciated. Take some time for introspection and ask the hard questions, really.

I have had a lot of great mentors. Two of them: Bob Proctor and Doug Dane have reminded me (and others) from a recent training to start “asking the right questions.” If you don’t ask the right questions, you will not get the answer you are looking for.

Even if the question leads to another question and another, keep going until you get there. Get reconnected to why you became a software engineer in the first place.

I used to ask my husband, “Are you really happy there (at an old job)? or “What are you really getting out from being someone else’s’ boy instead of being a business owner?”

He used to give me this look over his glasses that clearly communicates, “Did you have to go there?” He eventually learned to ask himself the right questions when it comes to his business and uses me as a sounding board.

Is it the work, or is it the lack of something else that’s producing the feelings of burnout?

If you find that your work environment is pretty good overall then you might want to start looking for other ways to enrich your life.

You want to look outside of programming and look at your daily life. Do you have some hobbies that you really enjoy?

My husband’s way of recharging when he can’t stare at his computer any longer is back-country hiking and camping for three days (think of like digging your own toilet kind of hiking/camping.)

When he wants to unplug, he disappears into the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.

Sports Related Activities to Accelerate Burnout Recovery

Since many software engineers are often goal-oriented individuals, it’s smart to add hobbies that can give you a sense of progression (meaning you can get better, break personal records and improve).

Here are a few that can help:

  • Mountain Biking
  • Cycling
  • Skiing
  • Wakeboarding
  • Kitesurfing
  • Crossfit
  • Bowling
  • Playing an Instrument
  • Spartan Runs / Mud Races
  • Running
  • Swimming
  • Rock Climbing

Social Activities to Recharge

Do you enjoy spending time with your family and friends? Look for things that you really like to do and start to work on your work-life balance, and avoid over-indulging. That’s a slippery slope.

Hanging out with some positive people and enjoying conversations with them for a couple of hours once a week might be a good way to recharge, if you like social settings.

Doing things with your family and friends that everyone enjoys can help bring about balance in your life.

Get connected with people. We are meant to connect with others.

Changing your Work Regimen to Prevent Software Engineer Burnout

Sitting in front of a computer for 8 to 12 hours a day with little to no movement isn’t healthy.

You may have heard that sitting is the modern day diabetes. Not moving around much can have a negative impact on your health.

I highly recommend the Pomodoro Technique.

If you don’t know what it is, it is a method that uses a timer to break work into intervals.

It is usually 25 minutes on and 5 minutes break, making sure you’re walking away from the desk and getting your circulation going.

Take a bathroom break, coffee break or do some stretching.

I’ve heard of some people pushing the time interval out to 50 minutes, but you will need to find the happy balance for yourself. Try it out.

At the risk of being Captain Obvious, I’ll just mention as well that you need great nutrition and rest.

If your job consists of sitting in front of a desk for hours, you will need to eat healthy foods that will not send you crashing after 30 minutes. You need adequate rest and sleep, and you certainly don’t want to neglect to have time to recuperate.

I’m sure you could imagine that if you only eat fast food and get three hours of sleep at night, the programmer’s life is going to get to you pretty quickly, and maybe even to an unhealthy weight.

According to the USA today, there are several studies that show the lack of sleep is linked to weight gain.

The crucial thing to turn your life around if you’re experiencing burnout is you want to look at precisely what inspires you about your job and get really connected with it.

What is your WHY? – Why did you become a programmer to begin with?

You need to start looking at your life goals and determine what it is that you want out of life and set some goals that are kind of scary.

Did you become a programmer to earn a solid living?

Did you have aspirations of developing the next big thing? Or write code and programs that Homeland Security and NASA will be using?

When you get reconnected to why you started in the first place, you’ll be able to work towards dealing with your burnout more positively rather than just quitting altogether.

Set Some New Goals that Inspire You

When you’re going after something that scares you a bit it will also make you feel alive.

If you didn’t have this kind of a goal before becoming a software engineer, now is a good time to do so.

For instance, Sir Edmund Hillary was a beekeeper in New Zealand who decided that he wanted to climb Mount Everest.

Now, it didn’t make sense for him to do this, and it took him three years of trying to finally accomplish the goal. But, this is what made him feel alive.

When was the last time that you asked yourself what really makes you feel alive?

If you can’t figure that out then I recommend you go do that first.

This is important because when you are burned out, it might not just be because you are overworked. It might be because you are just doing life, and your life right now is sitting in front of the computer 24/7.

You don’t have to leave programming altogether in order to chase these types of dreams.

But when you sit quietly and you give yourself permission to sort of dream about anything, what are the things that come to mind and what do you feel like you might be interested in doing?

Don’t worry about the “how” or whether or not it’s reasonable. Just get clear on what it is that inspires you.

Once you can determine what that is, then, you can start pursuing those goals outside of your programming hours and you’ll find yourself feeling alive.

Chances are when you were on your journey to becoming a programmer, you felt more alive and passionate because you were learning new things and you were moving towards a goal of one day working for a corporation be able to do what you love.

Unfortunately, once you get into the corporate environment, many times things don’t seem to be what you had envisioned for your work life. We’ve all experienced this feeling.

You want to discover new joys. If you are you typically coding in one language, you may want to start learning to code in another language just expand your horizon. Do something that will stretch you.

Pursue some interests “just because.” You matter! Good luck out there.

Kat Clukey

I am so glad you are here, and have chosen to spend your time reading my blog. For the past 4 plus years, I have been on an intense mission to read books, go to seminars, and generally turn myself inside out to find out why some people seem to feel good in their own skin while I've struggled with self-worth and low self-esteem most of my adult life. I hope you find insights that help you on your journey!

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