Developer burnout is a real thing that leads to decreased happiness, motivation, and productivity. There is hard empirical evidence that supports how it happens and what can be done to make it better. Anxiety, frustration, and exhaustion are the symptoms. Increased levels of collaboration, autonomy, training, and recognition are the cure.
In this article, we review some long-standing theories concerning employee happiness and motivation. We will then examine how the models in those theories might be employed to reduce developer burnout.
Understanding: A Day in the Life of a Software Developer
A software engineer sits at their desk working on a particularly complex piece of code. Suddenly the path becomes clear, and the pieces begin to fall perfectly into place. Line after line, a brilliant solution emerges. Compiled. Executed. Works like a charm. Looking at the clock, they realize that ten hours have flown by as if it had only been ten minutes.
I do not know the real name for this or if such a name even exists. I like to think of it as, “The great time warp of wonder.” It’s a common experience among software engineers who have been writing code for any length of time. When it happens, it is nothing short of euphoric. Being able to solve complex problems with your mind while compelling a computer to do your bidding is an extremely satisfying thing.
Unfortunately, the life of a programmer is mostly filled with tedious and mundane tasks that are not so glorious. The work we do has increasingly become a high-pressure occupation with long hours, tight deadlines, and a constant demand for newer skills. It doesn’t take long for the weight of these things to take a toll. When it does, frustration sets in and productivity plummets.
Burnout or Bust: Symptoms of Software Developer Fatigue
This is known in the software industry as developer burnout. Its many symptoms include exhaustion, frustration, cynicism, and feelings of detachment. None of these are conducive to having happy, motivated, and efficient employees. Burnout can have a significant impact on both individual developers and the companies they work for, leading to reduced productivity, absenteeism, and turnover.
You can see how software engineers might be especially susceptible to this since we tend to spend our time alone working on the tasks of the moment. With the advent of COVID-19, most developers are working from home, which reduces the opportunities for interaction even more.
For this reason, we have combined our industry knowledge and experience with professional guidance from the world’s most famous motivational experts – Maslow and Herzberg – to shed light on 8 critical factors that keep software developers happy and thriving.
The Maslow Model: Revelations to Improving the Software Developer Experience
While software developer burnout has been recognized relatively recently, the phenomenon has been well-known in other circles for a long time. The motivation and happiness of employees in general is a topic of great importance in the business world. It all started with Abraham Maslow back in 1943 when he published a ground-breaking article in the journal, Psychological Review1. Maslow’s thought process went something like this: There is a hierarchy of needs that pertains to all people. The conditions in one tier must be fulfilled before you can move to the next. Failing to fulfill a level prevents you from meeting your full potential and stops you from moving any further in the hierarchy.
When considering through the lens of developer burnout, Maslow’s theory indicates that software engineers may experience burnout when their needs are not being met. Below maps out how Maslow’s theory overlaps with burnout:
- Physiological Needs (food, water, sleep, shelter): If developers are working long hours and not getting enough sleep or exercise, they may become physically exhausted and stressed, leading to burnout.
- Safety (health, personal safety, financial security): If developers are concerned about job security or compensation, they may experience stress and anxiety, both contributors to burnout.
- Social Belongingness (friendship, love, trust, acceptance): Developers tend to work alone and are increasingly separated from their peers when working from home. Minimal interaction can lead to a sense of not really belonging.
- Esteem (respect, acknowledgment, reputation): Developers who feel that their work is not valued or that they are not making a meaningful contribution to their team may feel underappreciated.
- Self-Actualization: This is the pinnacle of the hierarchy and represents the ability to accomplish goals – this is where we achieve all needs being met for our developers within the workplace.
The Herzberg Model: Revelations to Improving the Software Developer Experience
Frederick Herzberg offered a similar model, with one important difference2. He believed that employee happiness was not a single continuum. Instead, Herzberg promoted the theory that there were two factors at play. The first he labeled, “hygiene.” Yes – it is a funny name today. Hygiene elements deal with essential needs but are not motivational. However, the lack of a hygiene factor can cause an employee to be unmotivated. The second is a set he called, “motivators” which are exactly what you would expect. These are the things that motivate workers if there are no gaps in the hygiene set.
A typical portrayal of Herzberg’s two-factor theory looks like this:
In this model, the hygiene factors must be fulfilled before an employee can be fully motivated in their job3. Note that there are similarities with the Maslow model.
Hygiene factors can contribute to developer burnout when they are not being met. For example, in cases where a developer feels that their salary is not commensurate with their workload or that their job security is uncertain, they may feel anxious and stressed.
However, meeting hygiene factors alone are not enough to prevent burnout. Developers also need motivators to feel fulfilled and engaged in their work. Software engineers who do not receive recognition or opportunities for growth may feel demotivated, bored, and dormant. Similarly, those who are not challenged by their work may feel unfulfilled and stop caring.
To prevent developer burnout, employers must ensure that both hygiene factors and motivators are being met. Employers can provide a safe and comfortable working environment, fair compensation, and clear policies to meet the hygiene factors. At the same time, employers can provide opportunities for recognition, training, and career development to meet motivators.
While Maslow’s theory was philosophical in nature, Herzberg presented evidence in the form of data from surveys and interviews. Anecdotally, I see this as a better depiction of how things are in the business world. This model supports the following lines of thought:
- Relationships, security, and status are important. Herzberg’s premise is that these will not motivate an employee, but their absence will prevent them from being motivated.
- Recognition, autonomy, and the opportunity for growth are motivational if hygiene factors are not absent.
There is an enormous amount of research in this field that continues to this day. Most of it uses Maslow and Herzberg as a foundation, with an improved methodology for research and the inclusion of new parameters.4,5 With that said, there are some obvious takeaways that can be used to thwart developer burnout.
As a baseline, the following should be done to avoid burnout:
- Competitive Compensation: Ensure fair compensation for software engineers, especially relative to their peers in other organizations.
- Culture of Collaboration: Take action to schedule more time for collaboration. Instead of viewing that time as lost productivity, recognize that a sense of belonging is part of a critical foundation that motivates developers in their jobs.
- Communicate Value: Emphasize that their work is important for the organization. It’s not all about how many story points they retire. It’s about the value of their individual contributions.
- Create Achievable Goals: Set realistic objectives and timelines.
- Opportunities to Upskill: Give developers opportunities to learn new skills, either self-directed or formal. Let them choose what they want to focus on (within reason). This will help to remove the fear of becoming obsolete and show that they are valuable, and that the organization is investing in them.
- Sense of Ownership: Give them the autonomy to make decisions, craft solutions, and play a meaningful part in the process. That level of involvement evokes a sense of trust. If they ask how something should be done, ask them what they think the approach would be.
- Celebrate Achievements: Many times, development cycles are powered by negative reinforcement. Turn that around and recognize the software engineers who moved mountains. Praise them and be sure to point out that this is an outlier and not an ongoing expectation.
- Career Pathways: Make sure they have a target for career advancement. Whether it is technical or managerial in nature, every member of your team needs a career plan so they have something to work toward.
Developer burnout is a common issue that affects the performance and well-being of software engineers from every walk of life. Even before COVID-19, nearly 60% of tech workers reported being burnt out.6 While there are multiple potential causes of burnout, there is a clear strategy that can be employed to avoid it. Implementing this strategy benefits the individual developers and the companies that employ them by creating a more motivated and productive workforce.
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- Maslow, Abraham H. (1943). “A theory of human motivation”. Psychological Review. 50 (4): 370–396.
- Herzberg, Frederick; Mausner, Bernard; Snyderman, Barbara B. (1959). The Motivation to Work (2nd ed.). New York: John Wiley.
- Herzberg, F. (1968). One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees? Harvard Business Review, 46(1), 53–62.
- Spreitzer, G. M., Sutcliffe, K. M., Dutton, J. E., Sonenshein, S., & Grant, A. M. (2015). A Socially Embedded Model of Thriving at Work. Organization Science, 26(2), 399–419.
- Reis, D., & Hoppe, B. (2020). Developer Burnout: Challenges and Opportunities for Researchers and Practitioners. In Proceedings of the 2020 IEEE/ACM 42nd International Conference on Software Engineering (pp. 625–637).
- (2018). Tech Burnout Survey.