Burnout is now rife across the software community, with almost half of developers turning to self-help apps

Software developer burnout concept image showing female programmer sitting at a desk looking stressed.
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Software developer burnout is by no means a new problem, but little headway appears to have been made to improve the issue in recent years. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of developers have experienced burnout at some point in their career, according to JetBrains’ 2023 State of the Developer Ecosystem report. 

Similar research from Haystack Analytics in 2021 found that 83% of devs suffered from work-related burnout. Increased pandemic-era workloads were a key talking point in Haystack’s study, but as global lockdowns lifted and the pandemic subsided, developers have still been left feeling overwhelmed.

This high-intensity culture within software development bears similarities to that reported by cyber security practitioners in recent years. The reality is that the nature of their work means it’s difficult to switch off.

The issue has now reached such an extent that nearly half (47%) of developers are taking proactive steps to keep tabs on their wellbeing, such as using self-monitoring apps and devices to track physical activity, sleep quality, and general health, JetBrains found.

Dave Stokes, technology evangelist at Percona, told ITPro that many developers have traditionally found it hard to self-monitor and be on the lookout for telltale signs of burnout and stress.

“Many find it hard to self-monitor for burnout and few know how to step away without full decoupling,” he said. “This is particularly bad around open source projects, where developers might be contributing in their spare time and not directly employed.”

What’s causing software developer burnout?

Martin Reynolds, field CTO at Harness, told ITPro that burnout is the result of a combination of factors, including heightened workloads and traditionally strenuous hours. 

This echoes the findings of Haystack research, which found the main contributing factors in this wave of burnout included cumbersome workloads, inefficient processes, and unclear goals and targets.

Developers have been forced to take on “more and more responsibilities” outside of coding, Reynolds said, which places additional pressure on teams.

“They are expected to become experts in every domain – even security and cloud spend,” he said. “Combine developers’ growing scope of work with a skills shortage and continued economic uncertainty, and it’s clear that they are reaching their limits.”

Working to strict deadlines has always been an occupational hazard for developers, Reynolds added. However, the issue isn’t the deadlines themselves, but more the additional workloads placed on them in the expectation that they stick to traditional timeframes.

“The issue isn’t necessarily deadlines, but the volume of work developers face,” he said. “Currently, most organizations will measure output rather than the quality of work - ignoring developer happiness and their overall experience.”

“This can lead to excessive workloads and inefficient processes, as well as an increased amount of time spent on manual and repetitive tasks, such as maintaining unnecessary scripts and repetitive manual testing.”

Stokes echoed Reynolds’ comments around workloads, noting that many teams lack the depth to spread work effectively and reduce pressure.

“Many projects require after-hours endeavors that then affect family or personal time,” he said. “These conditions are no doubt leading to burnout and adverse effects on work-life balance, job satisfaction, productivity and staff turnover."

Stokes added that perceptions of what constitutes “excessive overtime” can also vary on an individual basis, suggesting that some team members may not be able to contend with the rigorous after-hours demands of their counterparts.

Tight budgets and economic turmoil are impacting developer wellbeing

Economic uncertainty also plays a role in ramping up pressure on software developers, experts told ITPro, with tightened budgets creating a confluence of problems for dev teams. 

Added to the current trend of layoffs across the technology industry and the perfect storm of under-resourcing and growing demand, this means many devs are being pushed to their limits, according to Angel Benito, CTO at software development consultancy Zartis.

Long-term, these factors not only contribute to software developer burnout, but will inevitably lead to higher rates of attrition as employees seek opportunities elsewhere.

“Resourcing, or the lack thereof, is one of the biggest contributors to burnout,” Zartis said. “I’ve seen that many companies fail to see the additional cost of their company not hiring – the cost of stubbornly trying to stretch existing resources too thinly across new projects without additional staff.

“That’s a recipe for burnout, lower levels of employee engagement, and eventually attrition.”

What can be done to remedy the situation?

Michael Man, DevSecOps evangelist at Veracode, told ITPro that leadership teams should place faith in two key sets of DevOps principles, “The Three Ways” and “The Five Ideals”. 

“These are commonly accepted approaches that enable software development teams to reduce stress and ultimately not be burnt out,” he explained. “They include an emphasis on flow, and a focus on creating smooth, efficient, and fast-paced workflows, as well as promoting a culture of continual learning and feedback.”

Coding tools could also have a role to play, experts suggested, with AI coding assistants representing a prime opportunity to reduce developer workloads and drive productivity.

A significant portion of developers are optimistic that AI will reduce workloads in years to come, according to research from CoderPad. A study from the hiring platform found that 70% believe coding assistants will help reduce strain in their daily activities, and 60% said they want to use these tools more actively in their work.

Reynolds highlighted the technology as a potential game changer for developers down the line, enabling them to streamline and eliminate manual processes.

“This will give back valuable time to developers,” he said. “In turn, they can release their creativity, focus on innovation, and experience better job satisfaction.”

“This will bring considerable benefits for developers and the companies they work for. Output will improve, as will the quality of software being delivered.”

Ross Kelly
News and Analysis Editor

Ross Kelly is ITPro's News & Analysis Editor, responsible for leading the brand's news output and in-depth reporting on the latest stories from across the business technology landscape. Ross was previously a Staff Writer, during which time he developed a keen interest in cyber security, business leadership, and emerging technologies.

He graduated from Edinburgh Napier University in 2016 with a BA (Hons) in Journalism, and joined ITPro in 2022 after four years working in technology conference research.

For news pitches, you can contact Ross at ross.kelly@futurenet.com, or on Twitter and LinkedIn.