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A developer's guide to recognizing signs of burnout

Nov 1, 2021
 min read
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Burn-out is an occupational phenomenon, caused by chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Although it is not considered a medical condition or a mental disorder, burnout may influence mental and physical health and can sometimes be a reason for people contacting health services.

Most of us know someone who had to take a break from work due to burnout. I personally never thought about the burn-out syndrome, until it happened to me (Blog: How I almost quit software development and how I dealt with burn-out). I thought it shouldn't concern me since it was something that always happens to other people. Were there any signs that it might happen? Plenty, of course! But in order to recognize burnout, it is really important to see the bigger picture. Otherwise, it may be mistaken for fatigue, exhaustion, or depression. All of which can end in a feeling of mental and physical exhaustion.

It is important to know that burn-out happens slowly. It starts with little things like checking emails before or after work, working a little bit over time...

Fatigue and exhaustion can be caused by various factors, from lifestyle, environment, to medical, whereas burn-out is from prolonged periods of work-related exposure to stress. In depression, negative thoughts and feelings are about all areas of life and usually can't be fixed only by taking some time off work.

According to ​​the International Classification of Diseases, the burn-out syndrome is characterized by three dimensions:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job
  • Reduced professional efficacy.

Burn-out is specifically related to work experiences and cannot be used to describe other aspects of life.

Signs that can lead to burnout

It is important to know that burn-out happens slowly. It starts with little things like checking emails before or after work, working a little bit over time, sometimes worrying about work, and so on. But all of these don't necessarily mean that you are going to burn out. Usually, these become a habit and make you miss a workout, skip a meeting with your friends, and other "little" things. 

Truth be told, there are many signs that you may be on the road to burn-out.

Physical signs

The most common physical sign is feeling tired and exhausted most of the time. Burn-out can also cause long-term changes to your body, making you more susceptible to illnesses like colds and flu due to lowered immunity. Other symptoms may include headaches and changes in appetite and sleep patterns.

Emotional signs

Burn-out may manifest as showing emotional signs like feeling helpless, trapped, or not motivated. It can lead to a sense of self-doubt and a lowered sense of accomplishment. You may also feel like you spend your day on tasks that you find overwhelming and that the quality of the work is simply not up to par. Depending on your personality, you may not spot this one right away, but feelings of negativism or cynicism related to the job are also signs of burn-out.

Behavioral signs

Usually, people start procrastinating and taking longer to get things done. ​​Some take on too much responsibility without asking for help from others or even withdrawing from responsibilities. Taking out frustrations on others or isolating themselves are also common behavioral signs.

Personality can contribute to burn-out

This may not be the case with everyone having these personality traits, but perfectionists sometimes feel like nothing is ever good enough and have high expectations for themselves. Also, if you are not a team player when being overburdened with work, you may be hesitant to delegate to others or seek help when you need it. A pessimistic outlook on life can lead to worrying about everything that might go wrong or simply expecting bad things to happen. All of these can cause even greater stress, making people with these traits more vulnerable to burnout. 

Work environment

There are high chances that the burn-out is not only related to your response to stress, but also your company tends to overwork its people, which unfortunately many companies nowadays do. Sometimes the deadlines are impossible to achieve, job goals are unclear and detailed instructions are missing. There can also be an overwhelming amount of work assigned to you, and you can find yourself in a generally chaotic and high-pressure environment. All of this is something that you may not have control over but may make you feel like you should be working more, leaving you with much less time to socialize and relax.

At first, burnout was something spotted in the medical profession, but it is becoming known in other professions as well. People in the software development industry are also at risk when it comes to burnout. Unfortunately, many of my close friends have already experienced this, and it almost made me leave programming because of it. I know this is not a one-size-fits-all syndrome. We all have a different way of coping with stress, but maybe you can find some insight in this article if you are on your way to a burn-out.

If you are experiencing burn-out, try taking some time off to recover. Trust me on this, take some actions before you end up completely off-balance because brushing it aside won't do you any good.

Early recognition of burn-out and related risks can really help. If you catch any of the burn-out signs, try to find a way to address them. When you find yourself in a bind at work, tell your superior and ask for help. In case you're having a conflict with a coworker, sit down and talk it out. Consider taking action rather than sidestepping or avoiding these problems. Cut yourself some slack, and don’t always expect perfection. Despite feeling down today, you can pick yourself up and move on with optimism. Dealing with stressful situations is never easy, so whenever you feel like you need help don't be afraid to ask.

Making mistakes teaches us a lot, so with each mistake you make, you become a little bit wiser. Don't waste your time wishing you had done something differently, but instead make smarter decisions in the future. In my case, I rushed into a job that was not good for me from the start, so I would end this with a quote from Brigette Hyacinth:

"When praying for a job, also pray for a working environment that won't lead to burnout, depression and regret."

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Ákos Kőműves
Lead engineer, Csongrád, Hungary

When I was 15, I sold my first piece of software. I started making simple websites about 20 years ago. Since 2011, I have been a professional software developer; I have worked in different fields such as FinTech, E-Commerce, Acoustics, and Workflow Automation.

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