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Building Burnout Resistant Engineering Teams

By Anjuan Simmons

The software industry is filled with ideas about ways to better deliver features to end-users. There are development methodologies including Scrum, Kanban, XP, TDD, DDD and a host of various approaches to building and deploying software to users.

However, there are few conversations around how the ways we deliver software can burn out the people responsible for creating those features. We have to remember that, at least for now, we need humans to develop software. As long as that’s true, we should consider the human cost of our development life cycles. Also, the software development field has intrinsic evergreen stressors. There’s the ongoing feeling of being behind since frameworks, tools, and technologies change so often. Also, most software development teams labour under deadlines that they don’t always understand but are accountable to meet.

Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) reclassified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” and described three dimensions:

  • “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion” (i.e., the feeling that you have nothing left to give)

  • “increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job” (i.e., growing dissatisfaction with your job)

  • “Reduced professional efficacy (i.e., reduced satisfaction with even your own accomplishments)

Software developers who don’t have the tools to manage the stress in their professional and personal lives will eventually spiral into burnout and begin exhibiting all three of these dimensions. This results in the corporate costs of missed deadlines, reduced quality, and workplace conflict. However, there are also the personal costs of sickness, hospitalization, and, in extreme cases, death.

Organizations that invest in building burnout resistant teams will see a return on that investment in terms of reliable shipping schedules and an increased ability to respond to production instances. Most importantly, they will have a workforce that is happier and more productive.

My wife, Dr. Aneika Simmons, and I have seen countless people experience burnout in both her realm of academia and my career in the technology industry. We’ve also faced burnout to various degrees in our personal life. We created a three-part framework for improving your burnout resistance:

  • The first part is removing personal barriers and building viable human relationships.

  • The second part is getting rid of the things that drain your attention and harnessing the power of focus.

  • The third part is recognizing your unhealthy habits and developing practices that improve your overall health.

Healthy teams build healthy code, and improving the burnout resistance level of your software engineers will help your organization become more resilient and responsive.

Anjuan Simmons is a technologist with a successful track record of delivering technology solutions from the user interface to the database. He combines his experiences working at Big 4 management consulting companies as well as small technology startups to implement practical solutions that can be understood and scaled across organizations.


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