We, software engineers, live a luxurious life. Especially according to those who consider hard work to be done with an axe on the shoulder and with big manly muscles, maybe even a mustache. We engineers sit down all day in our cozy chairs, drink warm fresh brewed coffee, and relax in front of the computers.
We don’t need to bring out the working clothes, even though it is pouring outside. We most often manage our work time with flexible hours, we get good salaries, good perks.
Yes, I agree, we are spoiled in a way. Let’s keep that thought, and start asking ourselves, why?
It is not that companies are stupid and pay us good money because it is fun. They pay us well and treat us well because we are worth our weight in gold to them. Any automation that removes the need for manual labor is a big win in the long run, not only does it free up your staff to address more critical tasks, it also saves money by being able to reduce work hours needed for mundane tasks. Removing repetitive boring tasks also makes the staff more pleased, and a happy staff is worth much.
Why am I addressing the importance of software engineers? Well, understanding how critical engineers can become in a company helps us understand the biggest danger of working as a software developer.
Companies start to rely on the software we create, they reallocate resources, they start to forget the manual processes required.
Being software engineers requires us to solve complex problems and find solutions for issues that occur. The more we solve and automate, the more the companies start to rely on us.
This reliance and expectations are the underlying cause of one of the dangers I see for engineers. I have met many engineers and developers who have fallen ill due to the mental strain the work can have.
Other than a sore arm och wrist, there are not many physical dangers related to software development. However, let us not neglect the importance of mental wellness.
According to me, the biggest threat to any developer is burnout. The software we create has to keep running and working as expected, this can create massive pressure on the engineers and is a heavy burden to carry. Some engineers do not have these issues even though they share the same burdens and expectations, it comes down to how you as an individual can cope with it. Burnouts are more often occurring in people with certain personality traits, such as perfectionism and high work morale.
If the company you work for calls and says there is a production bug that costs them millions, you are gonna feel terrible.
If they call saying the software is down for some reason and money is being bled by the second, we will be expected to work and solve it, fast, at any hour.
Not only is there much responsibility to handle, but there is also stress. Stress can tear a person down, badly. Stress can be because of a deadline closing up, and the software not doing what we told it (You all probably know the feeling). Stress can also be introduced by other factors, personal life, etc, but spill over into the work, or the other way around. Stress has many negative effects on a person’s health, I think most of us are aware of this.
So what is burnout? Burnout is usually induced by work-related stress. The symptoms often express themselves as fatigue. You just don’t get feel rested, and even a good long sleep fails to recharge your battery. You can find yourself feeling physically and mentally drained.
One other major symptom people suffering from burnouts usually occur is a lack of motivation to work. But this lack of motivation is not constrained to only work, it can also make hobbies and other activities that you usually find exciting and motivational, feel dull. Everything just feels boring and drains more energy.
People with burnout often find themself in a very downwards spiral, the loss of motivation induces other symptoms. Many people report that they during burnout starts to self-doubt their abilities, and feels that their projects are a failure.
Negativity starts to grow on them, and the negativity brings more negativity. Many reports that they start questioning their work position, workplace, and colleagues.
There are different levels of burnouts, sometimes they last a day, sometimes weeks, some even suffer from them for much much longer periods.
Are all engineers doomed to suffer burnout?
No, not every engineer is affected by burnout, some people can handle an enormous amount of stress without being affected by the slightest, and some have a harder time cooping.
There are ways of preventing burnouts, it might be harder for some individuals, and easier for some. As mentioned before, some personality traits are at more risk.
One important prevention mechanism is identifying the symptoms early. If you manage to identify the symptoms before the burnout has blossomed, you can start countermeasures in time. This can be just talking about it with a manager, getting a bit of workload offloaded from you, or help with whatever is stressing you out.
Physical workout has also proven to be very helpful in building stress resistance. It also provides you with time to reflect on other things than work, which is exactly what you need in that situation.
I, myself, am an expert at something I call micro burnouts. I call them micro burnouts because they usually pass in a few days. I often find myself in love with programming, I blog about it, I work with it, I try out different frameworks in my spare time. I am very engaged in my work, etc.
Some weeks I work a lot more than 40 hours because I find it fun and exciting. However, other weeks I find that I can’t even be bothered opening my laptop in the evening, just the sight of it makes me nauseous. I drag my feet to work, barely wanting to go there. I don’t want to work, play video games, etc.
It is important to find a balance, I have been struggling much in the last year to find this balance. I want to work and engage, but I can’t engage and work too much. I am blessed with a fantastic spouse who helps to remind me when I boot up the laptop an hour before sleep, that it might not be the best idea.
There are a few things that help me, physical workouts are one of them. Just leaving work for an hour to go out jogging is such a stress reliever and helps relax your mind. It can make a super stressful day turnaround. I know it might be hard sometimes when there is a lot of work to be done, to do the opposite.
Something I have noticed, however, is that physical exercise makes me perform better the rest of the hours. At least this works very well for me.
My best stress reliever and work performance booster are coffee breaks. Not the coffee, that is just a perk, but leaving the computer for a few minutes.
When I started as a developer I skipped breaks to gain time, I thought that I gained time to solve issues. I was dead wrong, time and time again have I been proven wrong in this case.
Debugging the same issue for a prolonged time has rarely made me solve a bug. What has worked for me, is debugging until I run out of ideas, but instead of keep bashing my keys, taking a small break often ends with me figuring out a solution.
I have friends who work with some seriously dangerous physical jobs If they make mistakes. It might sound silly to say that being a developer is not all risk-free, but I don’t think burnout is something to be taken lightly.
Whatever you do, prioritize your health first. I am very bad at this myself, but I try. In one of my articles, I express my view on the profession of engineering, one that explains why I often find myself in burnout.
Feel free to reach out to me, with any questions, ideas, and thoughts.
What I would love to hear about is if you ever experienced burnout, and how you noticed, and how you figured your way out of it.
If you like my writing, feel free to Buy Me Coffee.
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