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How to build a strong foundation to combat burnout in your development team

16 October 2023, by Karin Bothma

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Burnout is a common occupational hazard in the software development industry. As a software engineering manager, you have the unique opportunity to shape the work environment and culture that directly impacts the well-being of your development team. At OfferZen, we’ve implemented technical practices, process improvements and cultural changes to buffer our teams against the risk of burnout.

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Burnout is pervasive in software development

Burnout is a problem in many software development teams. There are many contributing factors, among these are:

  • Software development often involves solving complex problems requiring extended periods of intense concentration. However, developers don’t always get the focus time needed and may feel like they don’t have enough time to complete the work allocated to them, leading to long working hours and a poor work-life balance.
  • Software developers often work on tasks with competing priorities, timelines, and stakeholders. This leads to unclear or constantly changing priorities and developers multitasking in an effort to meet unrealistic expectations.
  • An organisational culture that emphasises blame instead of learning from mistakes and prioritises quantity over quality will create a fear of failure and discourage innovation, leading to increased stress and diminished morale.
  • Software development is often a solitary activity. When engineering managers don’t build a supportive and collaborative culture, it amplifies stress and contributes to burnout.

Post-pandemic, the shift to remote work has become more widespread. According to OfferZen’s 2023 Developer Nation Report report, most developers prefer remote work and its many benefits. However, remote work has definite challenges, including a lack of interaction with coworkers and less separation between work and personal life.

As an engineering manager, you play a crucial role in addressing these challenges.

By taking proactive steps to address these factors, you can foster a work environment that promotes higher job satisfaction, increased productivity, and the overall well-being of your team members.

Best practices to prevent burnout

Preventative measures should start with adopting sound technical, process and cultural practices. Here’s what you can do to increase the well-being of your team:

Technical

Implement continuous delivery practices

Deploying to production is among the most significant contributors to stress and anxiety within software development teams. Adopting continuous delivery practices will reduce deployment pain, leading to less stress for your team.

Continuous delivery ensures software is delivered safely, quickly and sustainably to your users by automating processes like deployment and testing and implementing monitoring systems to alert teams early of production issues.

Even though implementing continuous delivery practices are challenging, your team will feel more confident and less anxious about the changes they’re deploying to production.

There are several reasons for this:

  • Deployment to production becomes routine instead of a stressful big-bang event.
  • Automating deployment eliminates the risk of human error and manual intervention. While computers handle repetitive tasks, developers can focus on solving problems.
  • Automated testing gives developers confidence, and less anxiety, about the quality of the changes they are deploying to production.
  • Teams can deploy during regular working hours without affecting users.

Process

Work in process limits

Engineering teams often have too much to do and too little time. It’s tempting for developers to juggle multiple tasks to try and optimise their time, yet multitasking has the opposite effect. It slows down your team’s throughput and increases developers’ stress levels.

Work in process (WIP) limits restrict the number of tasks that can be in progress simultaneously. For the engineering teams at OfferZen, it means that a developer will work on only one task at a time until that task is tested and in production. When you implement WIP limits correctly, it will — and must — lead to idle time for developers. Idle developers means more capacity to help the rest of your team push work through the delivery pipeline.

WIP limits help reduce stress and burnout in your team in multiple ways:

  • When focusing on a single task, developers can achieve a state of flow where they are fully engaged, energised and absorbed in their work. Flow promotes a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, reducing stress and burnout.
  • Developers need to work together and support each other to complete tasks. This builds a sense of community and belonging, reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation that often plague software developers.
  • It makes your teams more predictable. As you improve your capability to plan and achieve better control over the flow of work through your delivery pipeline, developers will feel less overwhelmed by the constant influx of new tasks.
  • Focusing on delivering results to users and stakeholders brings a sense of relief and satisfaction for developers — they know what needs to be done and can concentrate on doing it without distraction.

Implementing WIP limits will highlight bottlenecks in your process. When you address these, your team will feel less frustration and stress caused by inefficiencies and delays.

Cultural

A good company culture and the working habits of your team members also have a massive effect when it comes to preventing burnout. Here are some top factors to keep in mind:

Create psychological safety within your team

Encourage a culture of trust, openness and non-judgment by prioritising psychological safety and leading by example. Developers should feel safe to experiment, propose new solutions, and challenge the status quo without fearing negative consequences. In such an environment, your developers will feel empowered and in control of their work, leading to less frustration. They will also be more likely to reach out to their teammates for support and guidance, reducing the isolation and pressure that lead to burnout.

By fostering a culture of psychological safety, you’ll create a supportive and inclusive culture that enables developers to thrive, collaborate effectively, seek help, learn from mistakes, and maintain their well-being.

Pro tip: Hold blameless post-mortems

  • Use the 5 Why’s framework to investigate when things go wrong. This framework is designed to help you analyse where a process or system needs to improve instead of blaming one person’s actions.

Measure your impact

It’s essential to assess and monitor the effectiveness of your efforts in reducing burnout in your team. In addition to regular check-ins, you should measure the level of job satisfaction in your team by running periodic surveys. Higher job satisfaction protects against burnout. When developers have a high level of job satisfaction, they have a greater sense of fulfilment and engagement and feel valued.

Pro tip:

  • Implement quarterly surveys that measure your team’s job satisfaction. This can shed light on factors such as work-life balance, satisfaction with management styles, the level of support team members receive, recognition, social interaction, decision-making ability and skills utilisation. Use the results from the survey to inform your strategy each quarter.

Establish healthy habits for your team

Lastly, there are some simple habits that, if implemented day-to-day, help stave off stress in the long term.

  • Value and recognise the contributions of your software developers.
  • Encourage developers to prioritise their well-being and to set healthy boundaries.
  • Discourage working overtime.
  • Encourage your team to make time for activities that contribute to their health and well-being (such as exercise or meditation). It’s helpful if your culture allows flexi hours so team members feel comfortable incorporating this whenever suits them best.
  • Remind your team to take regular screen breaks.

As a software engineering manager, your role extends beyond delivery management and technical guidance. Nurturing the well-being of your software development team is vital for their long-term success and productivity.

By implementing continuous delivery practices, establishing WIP limits, and creating a psychologically safe environment, you can significantly reduce the risk of burnout and foster a team that thrives on creativity, collaboration, and personal growth.

Addressing burnout requires a proactive and ongoing effort. By adopting these strategies, you can create an environment that protects your team from burnout and improves their professional satisfaction and overall happiness.


Karin Bothma is a senior software engineering manager at OfferZen, with extensive experience in software development and leading engineering teams. She currently leads an engineering team at OfferZen and is helping other engineering managers drive performance improvements in their teams. When she’s not coaching teams to reach their highest potential, she’s out on the trails with her Jack Russels or playing board games with friends.

Thanks to OfferZen team members Nic Botes, Nick van Noordwyk and Kyle Gani, who contributed to this article.

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