Burnout and the Developer

Burnout generally starts with debugging.  It’s the defect that you can’t seem to find.  The trudging through logs and poring through databases is seemingly endless.  Slogging through thousands of lines of code to find that one wrong thing can feel like it will never end.  That’s when burnout starts to make its stranglehold.

Burnout has been a part of the software development industry since the very beginning, with high-performing developers burning out in a blaze of glory.  However, it doesn’t have to continue to be this way.  We can continue to enjoy our work if we can figure out what burnout is and how it grabs us.

Defining Burnout

The first step is identifying what burnout even is.  While definitions vary, the consensus is that burnout is characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  That’s a great for identification, but it’s nearly useless for learning how to prevent burnout or recover from it.  The key characteristic is inefficacy and its effect on your beliefs.

Inefficacy makes us feel as if we don’t have any control, and that is the heart of decades-old research by Martin Seligman and his colleagues.  They defined it as learned helplessness at the time.  More recently, his former colleague, Steve Maier, discovered that it wasn’t learned helplessness at all – it was learned control that allowed the brain to be adaptive about finding a solution that made the difference.  Our belief about our ability to control our environment – our efficacy – allows us to be productive.

We’ve all felt like we’re unable to find a bug that’s been plaguing us or been faced with a technical problem that we don’t know how to solve.  It also happens when we’re trying to get our code to work and realize the build is fundamentally broken by other developers, so it feels like we’re spending all our time debugging other developers’ code.  The feeling that we’re not getting our work done can be frustrating.

Efficacy Expectations

Most developers get a feel for how long things are going to take.  Even the most optimistic developer has a sense for the effort.  They may estimate it low, but they know their estimates are typically low.  If the estimate and the actual effort are relatively close – after scaling – we feel like we’re getting things done.  However, if our expectations and our actual productivity differ for too long, we’ll begin to lose sense of our efficacy.

Whether the estimate was wrong, there were unforeseen circumstances, or some mixture of the two, we’ll feel this as an inability to get things done, and that increases our risk of burnout.

Perception of Results

Our perception of inefficacy isn’t always about the expectations of our efficacy.  Sometimes it’s that we’re not perceiving our results in a way that’s consistent with our actual performance.  We run late on checking in the feature we signed up for – but we do so because we created a reusable framework that pulls three times as much work off the backlog.  We only count the feature we checked in – because, after all, that’s the work we did.  We don’t count the additional value of the elegant and reusable solution we found to the project.

If we fail to recognize the unique and special value of what we’re doing and instead minimize or forget we even did it, our actual results and our perceived results are out of alignment.

When this occurs for too long, we feel like we’re not effective at doing our part to pull the project forward.  We feel like we’re not as effective as we should be.

Mind the Gap

In the end, burnout is the gap between our expectations of our effectiveness and our perceived results.  It’s the place that we crawl into when we feel like we’re not good enough, we’re not doing enough, or others are getting results that are better than ours.  If we have lowered expectations and lowered perceived results, we’ll be fine – it’s only the mismatch that challenges our feelings of efficacy.

While we should seek a reasonable expectation for our efficacy and a reasonable recognition of our results that are grounded in reality, it’s even more important that the expectations and perceived results are in alignment.  We can have an inflated sense of power as long as we have an inflated sense of our results.

Converting Efficacy to Agency

Our efficacy isn’t the whole story.  Efficacy is a backwards-looking measure.  It’s what we have done in the past, though we live in the present.  The result is that we must move from what we have done to what we can do today and in the future, and that is our personal agency.

You can think of personal agency as a bathtub.  The results we accomplish, the support we receive, and the self-care we do all fill our bathtub up.  The demands that are placed on us drain our personal agency.  When our personal agency bathtub is empty, we’re in burnout.

The key to looking at burnout in this way is that we have the capacity to change all of these.  We can focus on high-value activities that drive more impactful results.  We can ask for the support we need – and, by and large, we’re likely to get it.  We can choose to do self-care or not.

While it may seem like we have little impact on the demands placed on us, we have a surprisingly high degree of control.  We may not be able to tell our manager no, we won’t do what they want, but we can negotiate on the deadline and what will be impacted by high-priority projects.  By negotiating on the deadline and the impacts to other deliverables, our demands can become manageable.

If you want to learn more about burnout and how it works, you can find out more in the book I coauthored with my wife, Extinguish Burnout: A Practical Guide to Prevention and Recovery.

Burnout as a Badge of Honor

While most people don’t want to be in burnout, occasionally, you’ll meet the person who feels like burnout is a badge of honor.  If they don’t have burnout, they’re not working hard enough.  In a recent conversation, I heard, “I’ve been working this way for 40 years, and I don’t think that I’ve got burnout.”  From one perspective, that’s great.  From another, it’s not.  It’s like a goal that wasn’t obtained.  (There’s a bit of irony in being burned out because you can’t be burned out.)

Burnout isn’t about how much you work – or don’t work.  It’s not about how full your calendar is or how many exotic trips you take.  Burnout is about how you perceive your results.  If you believe you’re meeting the expectations you should have, then you’ll be safe from burnout.  Work 20 hours a day, and you’ll be fine.  Sleep on a cot in your office, if you must.  If you feel like you’re making a difference.

Here’s a challenge.  Think back to the point in your life when you felt the busiest.  Maybe you were getting four hours of sleep and dividing your time between three different things – any two of which being more than most people can handle.  Did you feel burned out or energized?  I’m not saying that there wasn’t a bit of exhaustion and a chronic lack of sleep in the mix.  What most people realize is that they felt the most alive when they were active and engaged.

Being burned out doesn’t mean that you’ve managed to work hard enough, and now you’re enough.  Being burned out shouldn’t be a goal any more than being exhausted should be.  If you feel like you’re not trying hard enough because you’ve managed not to get burned out, you may have missed the point.

Burnout is the negative result of the mismatch between your expectations and perceived results, not some desirable vacation destination that only the select few get to go to.  Feeling like you’re missing out on something or didn’t do something well enough because you’re not there isn’t helpful.

The most engaged, lively, and productive people we know have learned – sometimes repeatedly – how to avoid and escape burnout.  That should be your goal, too.

The Role of Shame in Burnout

There are some attitudes and perspectives that help make you resilient to burnout.  Others make it easier for you to deplete your personal agency (ability to get things done) and land in the state of burnout.  (Burnout being at least partially defined by your belief that you’re unable to change your situation.)  One of the most insidious of these attitudes is shame.  Shame robs you of your personal agency by shooting holes in your personal agency bathtub, thereby leading you to exhaustion of your personal agency and burnout.

Understanding Shame

Shame is the belief that you are bad.  This is different from you’ve done bad, which is guilt.  While the distinction can be covered in a few words, it’s often difficult to separate in our lives.  We believe that our behaviors define what we do, and if we’ve done bad, then we must be bad.  However, this is an unfair oversimplification.  If we do one good thing, it doesn’t make us a good person universally.  Neither should doing one bad thing make us a bad person.

Despite the simple logic, we often get hung up on the question, “How could I have done that?”  In the most condescending and judgmental tone that we have, the question reverberates through our consciousness with a resonance that’s hard to shake.

Shooting Holes

If our personal agency is viewed as a bathtub that is filled by results, support, and self-care and emptied by the demands are placed upon us that we accept, then shame shoots holes in the bathtub and allows our personal agency to leak out.  It’s difficult to accept our ability to do good in the world if we believe that we’re not good.  It’s hard to believe that we should be allowed the personal agency to make changes in the world.

Instead of our personal agency doing work through the demands placed on us by other people and ourselves, our agency disappears in frustration, conflict, and confusion.  The result is a more rapid loss of our personal agency and the onset of burnout.

Patching Holes

Of course, the easy solution to this loss of personal agency is to eliminate shame.  Once shame is removed, the holes in the bathtub of personal agency are patched, and the natural flow is restored.  However, it’s not as easy as snapping your fingers to get rid of shame.  The ability to separate what you have done from who you are – thus separating guilt from shame – is useful but not enough.

Recognizing that you’re not either good or bad but instead are – like all of us – a mixture of both can move things a bit further.  But, for most people, it’s still not across the goal line.  At the core of shame is self-judgement, and it is unfortunately much harder to get rid of.


The antidote to judgement is acceptance.  Unfortunately, you can’t just decide on self-acceptance if you’re unwilling or unable to accept others.  Acceptance – and lack of acceptance – seems to leak from one area of your life to other areas.  The more accepting you are of yourself, the more accepting you’ll become of others and vice-versa.  By fostering an attitude of acceptance, you minimize or eliminate judgement; and shame can’t survive without the self-judgement that fuels it.

To increase your acceptance of others and yourself, you can ask yourself, “What does it harm for them to be different than me?”  When judging yourself, you can ask, “Why must I be perfect?”  Our human condition is filled with variation.  With all of us imperfect humans, to not accept these things is a judgement that doesn’t match reality.

Shame accelerates the conditions for burnout.  Shame is a lack of acceptance and judgement of ourselves.  If we solve the judgement and acceptance problems, we vaporize shame and make it harder for burnout to grab ahold of us.

Impostor Syndrome

Sometimes the problem that causes burnout isn’t that you’re not seeing results.  It may be that the results you’re getting seem like they’re too much.  You may feel like you’re faking it – that you’re not really as good as other people believe you are.  You may live in relatively constant fear that others will realize that you aren’t as good as you appear to be.

To some degree, we’ve all felt it.  We’ve gotten that lucky shot, and others are amazed at our prowess.  But we’re confused, because we have no idea what we did, and, more importantly, we’re not sure how to replicate the results the next time we’re called on in a similar situation.  It feels like the results were haphazard and unrelated to us, but the results were good, and people attributed those good results to us rather than dumb luck.

At some level, there’s always more to learn.  Those who are concerned about being the best in the world will always be looking for the knowledge or skill they’re missing to advance to the next level.  (See Peak for more.)  So even those with what others would describe as “absolute mastery” of a task or skill might still believe that they’re receiving more credit than they should.  Perhaps the results are being magnified.  Perhaps the results are random and chaotic, and it’s only the great results that folks are paying attention to.

To prevent burnout – or recover from it – you must accept your role in the results you’re getting.  To be sure, there is an amount of randomness in the results.  We control only what we put into things, not the ultimate outcomes.  However, over time, our contributions lead to a cluster of results.  We can accept that our knowledge and skills lead to those results.

Until we accept that our hard work is delivering the results that we need – at least some or most of the time – we can’t see the fruits of our labor and we will eventually become burned out.  We need to not only see our results but to accept them as a result of our efforts.

If you feel like an impostor, there are some sure-fire ways to help resolve it.  First, tell others that you feel it.  Explain how you feel like you don’t belong or that the results that you’re getting aren’t a reasonable representation of your skills and experience.  Even if you can’t admit this to the person who believes in you more than you think they should, reveal it to someone you trust.  Even though this is a frightening prospect, it is an important step in recognizing your impact.  Let them walk you through why the results are appropriate.

Second, map a path out between where you are now and what you’d need to do to not be an impostor – and then walk it.  Much of the time when you map out this path, the truth reveals itself.  The truth is that most people in most roles aren’t trained for them completely.  Surgeons can’t keep up with new techniques – even if they’re at the top of their game.  Technologists are always wondering about new technology that they’ve not heard about.  The exercise may help you realize that no one else has it all figured out either.

Finally, if you feel like an impostor, give yourself some grace.  If you’re not intentionally misleading people, then you’re fine.  You can continue to figure out what is making you successful as you go along.  After all, unconsciously skillful is still skillful – you don’t have to know why or how.

The Role of the Corporate Communicator in Preventing Burnout

Burnout may be the corporate epidemic of our age.  Reports are coming in from everywhere about the rise of burnout and its implication in the poor employee engagement numbers.  Corporate communicators play a critical role in reducing the spread of burnout in the organization – and preventing it where it hasn’t started.  Playing your role starts with understanding what burnout is before discovering what you can do to stop it.

What is Burnout?

Burnout has classically been defined as exhaustion, cynicism, and lack of efficacy.  Reports vary about whether burnout is caused by the organization, the result a personal deficit of the individual, or simply a natural outcome of our world that impacts some people more than others.  No matter where the blame falls, the question is what drives it and what can we do about it.

The key aspect of burnout is the lack of efficacy, particularly when viewed from the perception lens that communicators are all keenly aware of.  The employee’s view of their efficacy is in question, not the objective reality of how they or the organization are doing.  Sometimes stretch goals and continuous striving for the next level of corporate growth leave employees feeling that they’re not successful.

Stretch Goals

Stretch goals are critical to many organizations’ approaches to driving performance.  The thinking is that, by creating goals that require a bit extra, employees will produce that little extra.  When they do and the goals are met, all is well.  But the challenge comes when employees deliver solid results but not the stretch goals that were hoped for.  Should the employees view this as a success or a failure?

Too often, the message doesn’t make it through that solid performance can still occur even when stretch goals aren’t met.  Instead of celebrating the successful completion of solid performance, the focus is on the missed stretch goal.  This leads to employees who don’t believe in their own efficacy, the efficacy of their team, or the organization.  That sets them up for burnout, particularly from the perspective of the continuing march of the next set of goals.

The Next Goal

As communicators, we’re expected to help the organization realize what the next goal is.  However, if we neglect to celebrate our success on the last goal or don’t integrate that success into the messaging for the next goal, we encourage employees to believe what they’re doing doesn’t matter.

Feeling like nothing you do matters is a driver to burnout and something that we want to avoid.  The more we can draw a connecting line between the success and the behaviors that the team did to create the success, the less likely they are to believe that their contribution didn’t matter.

The Communicator’s Role

As a corporate communicator you can slow the fire of burnout through your organization with these three simple tips:

  1. Celebrate Successes – Too little time is spent celebrating successes inside of organizations, because we forget that, due to our human nature, we don’t hear successes with the same intensity as we hear failures and misses.
  2. Connect Activity to Results – Too few people are recognized for their contribution to success.  Connecting the key activities that led to success allows employees to connect their contribution to the results, allowing them to see that their contribution matters.
  3. Connect the Next Goal to the Last Success – The constant march of new goals can make everyone feel like progress isn’t being made.  To combat this feeling, focus on how the current goal was made possible by the previous success.

In the end, the corporate communicator isn’t the only actor in the play of burnout in the organization.  However, it is a powerful role in preventing the play from being a tragedy.  A few well-timed communications can help bring a light-hearted comedy and dispel even hints of burnout.

Burnout Is Not Just About Work

Most of the writing about burnout has been in the context of work, even dating back to Freudenberger’s original writings about the topic.  However, when viewed from the lens of a gap between your perceived efficacy and your expectations, it’s easy to see how this psychological condition can occur in your personal life as easily as it can be applied to work. 

Exhausted, ineffective, and cynical could describe any home with children.  Parents are often overworked trying to do everything they feel their children need from them, from working to provide for them to transporting them to and from various events.  Every parent has had that moment when their child has done something, and they wonder if they’re really doing a good job as a parent or not.  Children have a way of being their own people, much to the chagrin of their parents.  All you need to do is mention in-laws to get a cynical reaction from most people. 

Clearly, the conditions can exist for burnout not just in the corporate world but in the family world as well.  However, burnout’s reach is even further than this.  The same set of conditions apply for community projects, where you can feel like you’re shouldering the bulk of the burden while fellow committee members practice their “social loafing” skills at the mastery level.  Whatever the goal of the community project, it’s unlikely you’ll completely solve the problem, so you can always point to those that you weren’t able to help as a demonstration of your failure. 

Burnout is not, then, the exclusive result of work.  In fact, we know that burnout in one area of our lives bleeds into other areas.  The manager who is burned out in his job comes home and doesn’t have enough energy left to engage with his wife and children.  The father going through a divorce will see his productivity dip at work, because he can’t help but wonder how he’ll be able to be the father he wants to be after the divorce is final.  The community leader or politician comes home questioning their choices in life to the point where they barely look up from their food at the dinner table, while their family looks on with the resignation that they can’t help.  When we allow burnout to take hold of our life in one area, we necessarily bring the impacts of burnout into all the other areas of our life. 

The good news is the same techniques that help solve burnout in one area of your life can solve it in others.  Learning how to both perform self-care and clarify your identity so you can accept support from others does a great deal to fill up your personal agency.  Learning who you are also makes it easier to set boundaries and pre-decide what you can and can’t help with.  So, while some may believe that burnout is caused through work, that isn’t always the case; but in every case of burnout, those around you who care, including your employer, should be focused on how they can help you get out of burnout – and stay out. 

Thrive, Don’t Just Survive!

There’s more than one way to avoid burnout.  For this blog, we define burnout as the perception that you cannot change your environment and thus have no personal agency (your ability to get things done).  One approach to burnout prevention is ensuring that your personal agency never drops to a low level.  Additionally, you can continually develop, enhance, and increase your personal agency so that running out of it is not a primary concern.  Both can accomplish the goal of avoiding burnout, but the second leads towards thriving, not just surviving.

Black holes are something of a mystery in astrophysics.  However, some properties, like their intense gravity, are well-accepted.  If you consider the idea of being close to burnout similar to being close to a black hole, it’s easy to perceive burnout as trying to suck you in.  The closer you get to burnout, the harder it is to get away from it.  Even outside the grips of burnout, the pull can be powerful.  The converse is also true: the further you are from it, the easier it is to stay away.

As nurses, the desire to be helpful and caring for others can keep us skimming along the bottom of our personal agency reserve, hovering dangerously close to burnout.  The more capacity we retain to help others in their times of need, the more powerful we become at avoiding our own burnout and helping others avoid it through substantial inflows of support.  While our desire to be compassionate would tend to drive us to giving as much as possible, thereby keeping our personal agency low, the better response may be to make judicious allocation of our resources to help grow our personal agency, not deplete it.

When you’re operating with a reserve capacity, momentary heavy demands can easily be accommodated.  When you have high reserves of personal agency and you recognize that demands are too high for positive results, then with support and self-care, you can make gradual changes to bring the system in balance.  Instead of reaching burnout and cutting off all external commitments, you can whittle down external commitments slowly until everything “just works.”  When you’re almost at the bottom of your personal agency, you don’t have the luxury of slow, subtle changes.  You must make changes quickly and completely to escape the pain of burnout.

The compassionate response when someone is in need around you seems like it should always be to help.  For example, in our office, there’s a stoplight hanging by our desks.  It’s a real, full-size, functional stoplight.  It’s designed as a visual reminder that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something.  “Can do” items are yellow lights.  “Should do” items are green lights – and “shouldn’t do” items are red lights.  Just because you can be compassionate and help someone doesn’t mean you should.  Perhaps they need to struggle for a while longer.  Perhaps there is someone else who needs to become motivated to help them.  Perhaps supporting them puts you and your situation too much at risk.

There’s one other important consideration for when you can help but maybe shouldn’t.  Sometimes there exists a trade imbalance.  You can do something, but the hardship of doing so is greater than the value the other person will place on the action.  In these cases, the right answer may not be extending yourself.  In these cases, the right answer might be to save more resources for yourself and to fill your personal agency to the point where you can experience thriving.