People, not machines. How to prevent burnout in IT?
The issue of professional burnout in the IT industry was first brought to my attention by the Netflix series “Playlist.” It’s a fictionalized story about the beginnings of Spotify, the startup that revolutionized the music industry by creating a streaming platform. In the fourth episode, “The Coder,” we learn about the story of Andreas Ehn, CTO of Spotify, a programming genius and perfectionist idealist. The film not only showcases his tremendous analytical talent but also his sensitivity, introspection, diligence, and dedication to the goal. Watching Andreas’s work style in a highly demanding environment, I saw a growing crisis and… the process of a person burning out.
Today, the technological revolution is so fast-paced that there’s practically no aspect of our reality, near or far, without a digital drive. Innovations on the scale of Spotify are emerging every day, with software controlling rockets, cars, and vacuum cleaners. At the same time, the results of various studies (including surveys by Talents International, Just Join IT, TwójPsycholog.pl, Awareson, and Haystack Analytics) are sounding the alarm: the IT industry is burning out!
How do IT professionals burn out?
Just a decade ago, burnout was mainly associated with support professions like healthcare, teaching, and activism. Today, we know that this problem affects many industries and environments, including IT. According to the “Professional Burnout in IT 2022” report prepared by Just Join IT and TwójPsycholog.pl, over 70% of tech industry specialists recognize symptoms of burnout in themselves. The most commonly mentioned symptoms include lack of energy and motivation, decreased concentration, difficulty focusing on tasks, and increased irritability. Pressure for performance, time constraints, remote work, and the need for continuous development are just some of the variables contributing to burnout.
Andreas Ehn not only worked non-stop but also constantly experienced work overload. He operated on an “on-demand” basis, attempting to meet unrealistic expectations. Shifting rules, non-transparent communication, lack of adequate recognition, and the founder’s ruthless behavior further contributed to the gradual loss of control and purpose. Other significant symptoms accompanying burnout include sleep problems, insomnia, headaches, backaches, neglecting other important activities – including recreational ones – in favor of work, neglecting relationships, loss of interest in sex, and reduced control over emotional reactions.
Emotions – a taboo topic in IT
Although the problem in the IT industry is growing, it’s still easier to talk about a sore wrist than about destructive emotions that are difficult to handle independently. According to the World Health Organization, professional burnout contributes to a deterioration in health and is a basis for providing medical assistance and comprehensive psychological support. In the WHO’s classification of Diseases and Disorders, it also indicates a state of significant exhaustion, which can encompass a spectrum of symptoms and complaints, including anxiety, low mood, and decreased motivation. Its causes are directly related to the environment and working conditions.
60% of the respondents declare that companies from various industries (the hi-tech industry fares similarly) do not support their employees’ mental health in any way.
Remote work – the trap of the Holy Grail
Since the pandemic, remote work, which was previously a privilege for the chosen few, has become an egalitarian form of service provision for employers. Saving time on commuting, autonomy in organizing work, the ability to flexibly balance professional and personal life are undeniable advantages, but at the same time, it’s a kind of trap. In certain situations, remote work means the absence of a clear separation between the private and professional spheres. For many IT specialists, it also involves working late into the night. According to the Awareson report, over 40% of IT specialists work beyond the norm, with nearly 10% of them working more than 50 hours a week. On the other hand, research by Talents International shows that 32% of people in the industry have difficulty separating work from private life. This is the result of a shortage of IT experts and the constant increase in demand for their work. Additionally, in this industry, as in no other, Goethe’s saying, “if you’re not advancing, you’re falling behind,” translates into additional hours spent delving into new solutions. Work overload is thus a mix of the form of work, the number of tasks, and the need for continuous learning. Added to this are personality traits and individual predispositions, which – in general terms – are often present in the IT industry.
Predispositions to burnout in IT.
First clue: isolation.
Regardless of how much technology supports us in our daily lives, biologically, we are still predisposed to function in groups and draw from their resources. Once, isolation was a form of torturing another person. Today, we often impose it on ourselves, exposing ourselves to loneliness and a loss of relationships. A symbol of our era is the Ministry for Loneliness, established in the UK in 2019. Remote work, characterized by physical distance, contributes to anonymity and reduces the chances of being appreciated. Combined with the increasingly popular contract work and a sense of weak connection to the employer, this isolation can lead to a breakdown of the community, which is one of the factors contributing to professional burnout.
Second clue: male loneliness.
The IT industry is dominated by men, and they usually have more difficulty in forming satisfying relationships. American social psychologist Roy Baumeister distinguishes between the female and male styles of building relationships. According to him, women create a few strong and close social ties that they actively care for. In contrast, men build many weaker and superficial relationships. Remote work becomes an opportunity for many men to loosen these connections and reinforce their desire for “self-sufficiency.” Reluctance to return to the office today may be an opportunity to rekindle neglected relationships and conversations. It’s worth knowing that the exchange of information is not the only benefit we get from face-to-face interactions. Research shows that a handshake or a pat on the back can alleviate the physiological response to stress and even help combat infections and inflammation. So, as introverts like to think, “machines are more predictable,” but it is in real human contact that genuine exchange occurs, opening up the possibility of giving and receiving support.
Third clue: passion in Latin means suffering.
Andreas Ehn felt satisfaction when “something perfect emerges from a chaotic world.” He was a perfectionist and worked with passion. Research from HBR confirms that if we are passionate about what we do professionally, we experience less stress, are more productive, and, at the same time, happier and more fulfilled. But… there’s always a “but.” Passion can also be a “turbocharger” for professional burnout. Thanks to it, we are less likely to let go, dedicate more energy to improvement and finding new solutions. It sounds great, but it’s not without cost—it involves more effort and, consequently, greater fatigue. When working with passion, we often work with dedication, are willing to spend more time on tasks, and find it harder to stop thinking about work during our free time. It’s not for nothing that in Latin, passion means… suffering.
The social cost of professional burnout is high. People who experience it go through a crisis that leads to attempts to relieve tension (reaching for alcohol and other substances, extreme sports), a decrease in psycho-physical immunity, the breakdown of family life (Andreas’ fiancée eventually leaves him), and an existential sense of loss. From the perspective of organizations, the cost is a decrease in the engagement of valuable specialists or even their loss. To effectively counteract burnout, actions must be taken – at both the individual and organizational levels – to support mental health and resilience in the workplace.
How to prevent professional burnout in IT
From the perspective of an individual who is dealing with or at risk of burnout:
- Develop your personal stress management strategies,
- Look for healthy and adaptive ways to relieve tension after a challenging day (e.g., physical activity, sports, conscious relaxation, emotional expression),
- Ensure that you finish your workday and do not exceed 8 hours of work per day,
- If you work remotely, establish rituals that allow you to separate work from your private life,
- Prioritize quality relaxation,
- If you tend to take on too many tasks (in terms of quality or quantity), check if you are overestimating the time you have to complete them and assess the personal cost associated with excessive work,
- Train assertiveness and delegation skills,
- Intentionally focus on supportive experiences and emotions (gratitude, self-appreciation, and appreciation of others),
- Set goals outside of work, nurture your passions, and do not give up recreational and hobby activities,
- Strengthen your mental resilience – give yourself the right to make mistakes, learn to seek support, and focus on self-development,
- Plan days without work consciously and take care of post-work moments – without access to email and corporate messengers,
- Seek professional support if you feel that your coping strategies have become ineffective,
- Build relationships and nurture connections!
From an organizational perspective, it is essential to:
- Build a culture in which people feel safe, can talk about their weaknesses, and support each other,
- Create comfortable working conditions, including controlling the qualitative and quantitative workload, recognizing the right to regeneration and rest, and abandoning ASAP-type work cultures,
- Foster a well-being-oriented work culture within the organization,
- Promote transparent communication and a culture of feedback,
- Develop leaders and management focused on recognizing and dealing with stress, overload, and mental health crises (both in themselves and in their teams),
- Support high-flyer personalities,
- Manage for effectiveness, not exploitation,
- Implement systemic solutions to support stress management in the workplace,
- Prevent professional burnout – awareness and understanding of the phenomenon, the ability to recognize symptoms and respond to them before the burnout process takes hold.
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Author: Danuta Rocławska, psychologist and business practitioner specializing in the topic of professional burnout, author of the wypalenie_bez_tajemnic (ig) project.
Cooperation: Anna Jaglińska-Prawdzik, Head of Marketing at Awareson.