Blogs

Software Developer Burnout: How to Spot Early Warning Signs

Julian Colina
November 11, 2020
  • toc-h2
  • toc-h3
  • toc-h4
  • toc-active

Is your team struggling with burnout? You should eat healthier!

Unfortunately, that’s the most common advice we got when we ran into burnout ourselves and it didn’t feel right to tell our team to “go eat healthier”.

Rather than giving generic advice like that, we thought it would be helpful to share concrete strategies we use at Haystack to spot and prevent software developer burnout before it’s too late.

In this article, we'll share some early warning signs, tips, and a helpful story you can use to stay ahead of developer burnout.

| Want to learn how we handled burnout at Haystack? Check out our story

What is burnout?

Burnout is defined as “a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.” The symptoms of burnout can range from physical symptoms like headaches or dizziness to health issues which can often resemble symptoms of depression.

It occurs due to long-term periods of stress, often brought on by issues in the work environment.


Why are developers prone to burnout?

While over half of US workers have experienced burnout, those with high-stress jobs are more likely to experience burnout.

Some reasons software development can be a high stress job:

  1. Unrealistic Deadlines
  2. Unmanageable Workloads
  3. High-Risk Deployments
  4. Technical Debt
  5. Unplanned, Distracting Work
  6. Lack of Support and Autonomy
  7. Miscommunication with Management

Many developers battle these challenges all at once.

You’ve got a tight deadline around the corner, meetings throughout the day, rapidly testing the next deployment, and getting a wave of bug tickets that “only you can fix”. When it’s all said and done you missed the deadline, fixed a few bugs, and produced more bugs in the process. With so much external pressure to 'move faster' and 'do more' is part of the job - making it difficult to have a conversation about burnout.

In most cases these causes of burnout slip under the rug - leaving developers in a stressful, endless battle against burnout.


How To Spot Burnout

The most important factor in preventing burnout is being able to identify it early.

When we identify burnout, we can take steps to address it with our team. Leaving burnout unaddressed can let it fester and grow into a big problem - often taking weeks or months to recover.

Common Strategies and Why They Don't Work

Most teams struggle to identify burnout because we rely too heavily on self-reporting.

It often takes weeks or months before a team brings up signs of burnout and by that time, it's already too late.

Current strategies used to identify burnout:

  1. 1-on-1s
  2. Shoulder Tapping
  3. Retrospectives
  4. Surveys

While these strategies can be helpful, they often allow burnout to go undetected (especially with remote work). That's because they put the responsibility on the developer to identify burnout and bring it up to their team. With so much external pressure to 'move faster' and 'do more', this puts engineers out of their comfort zone leaving them with a general feeling of being unsupported.

But there are other problems with self-reporting too..


As engineers, we don't:

  1. Don't realize we need help
  2. Don't ask for help
  3. Are worried we will be judged
  4. Feel proud of taking on more work

This leaves unresolved issues, burnout, and an overworked team.

A Better Approach: Burnout Alerts

Identify the signs of burnout early rather than waiting for your team to tell you they're burnt out.

But how can we do that?

Luckily, working with thousands of engineers has taught us a few things about how burnout rears its nasty head.


We’ve found these early indicators have the highest correlation with burnout:

  1. Unusually High (or Low) Workload
  2. Unsustainable Working Patterns
  3. Consistently Stuck in Development or Review
  4. Spikes in Weekend Activity

You should look out for these telltale signs of burnout.

They are easy to set up using Github's API and can help you prevent burnout before it's too late.

| If you'd like to learn about other signs we've found. Check out our book.

1. High Workload

High, unsustainable workloads can be a quick path to burnout - especially when they extend over long periods of time. You can see this example of burnout on Haystack's team and the impact of overwork even if just a couple of times.

Spike in workload causing burnout
Source: Haystack

2. Unsustainable Working Patterns

Working long hours over nights and weekends is an early warning that workloads may be unsustainable. When the typical 40 hours a week are not enough to handle the workload, this can quickly lead to software engineer burnout. When you see these bad habits, it's important to address them quickly.

Unhealthy working patterns causing burnout
Source: Haystack

3. Stuck in Development or Review

The impact of burnout on a developer's mental health is they feel disconnected, struggle to focus, and lack of motivation to start writing code. Because of this, you’ll often see a dip in productivity when burnout strikes.

Developer stuck, sign of developer burnout
Source: Haystack

4. Spikes in Weekend Activity

Spikes in weekend activity quickly highlights developers working overtime. When overwork eats into free time and limits a software engineer’s work life balance - its is a clear sign they are on their way to burnout

High weekend activity alert
Source: Haystack

Why Alerts Are Better

When an engineer brings up burnout it's often already too late.

These early warning indicators help us address burnout proactively rather than waiting for engineers to bring up burnout (which can be an awkward situation).

Alerts help us proactively check in with our team when the signs come up, allowing us to prevent burnout before it's too late.

Here are the main benefits we've found:

  1. Helps Identify Burnout Early
  2. Doesn’t Rely on Self-Reporting
  3. Hard to Ignore Telltale Signs
  4. Easier to Advocate for Big Changes


Early warning signs help address burnout early and prevent issues from going undetected.

| Want to see for yourself? Set up alerts


What if my team is already burnt out?

All this talk about preventing burnout doesn’t really help if you’re already feeling the pain so let’s talk a bit about what to do if your team is already burnt out.

We did some Google'ing and the most common suggestions we found were "eat healthy", "exercise more", and "take a vacation".

Helpful? We didn't think so..

Rather than telling our team ‘go eat healthier’, we decided to make actual change to combat burnout. We treated burnout like we do our product features or copy on our landing page.

We experimented, iterated, and measured so we can take actionable steps to improve.

Here are the general steps we took:

  1. Identify Problem
  2. Gather Feedback
  3. Brainstorm Solutions
  4. Take Action and Measure Impact

1. Identify Burnout - We kept seeing early warning signs telling us we were at risk of burnout. Specifically, huge spikes followed by large dips in workload.

2. Gather Feedback - After talking to the team it was clear that they had too much, monotonous work and it felt like an endless battle. On top of that, we had some pretty distracting meetings that were getting in the way of the team’s deep work.

3. Brainstorm Solutions - The team suggested cancelling standup and doing a ‘fun sprint’ as an actionable way to get us out of our funk.

4. Take Action and Measure Impact - We cancelled our meetings and tried a 'fun sprint' and the end result was amazing. We had our best sprint ever. We had faster speeds, got back to a healthy workload, and tackled a laundry list of backlog items. But most importantly, the team reported decreased feelings of burnout.

While cancelling meetings and trying a 'fun sprint' might not be the right decision for your team, you can use this framework to identify burnout early, talk with our team, and come up with immediate, actionable steps to address it.

Check out the full story here.

Main Takeaway: Be Proactive About Burnout

Software developer burnout is a big problem in today's world.

Too often developers find themselves burnout out and have anxiety about bringing it up to their team.

Left unaddressed, burnout can cause alienation from work, cynicism towards friends/family, and eventually can lead to much bigger problems like quitting and losing passion for their work all together.

It’s important to identify the signs of burnout early and take immediate, actionable steps to help your team deal with burnout.

Setting up Burnout Alerts

At Haystack we help teams identify the signs of burnout early through our dashboards and alerts. Start a free trial to set up burnout alerts for your team.

If you have any questions or feedback feel free to email us at hello@usehaystack.io or reach out to our founders directly.

We'd love to hear from you!

Haystack helps engineering leaders identify burnout and trends. Instead of guessing if you're improving, or constantly bothering your team for progress updates, simply use Haystack to get alerts in your inbox every morning. Plus a dashboard to track improvements over time.

Try it for free


About the author

Julian Colina
CEO & Cofounder of Haystack.

Our latest news

Discover our latest articles, feature releases, and more!

Ready to get started?

Start Free Trial