What are the symptoms of a programmer's burnout?

How to recognize that you are starting to have the problem, so you can act fast and avoid the worst results of burnout.

What are the symptoms of a programmer's burnout? Blurred brown window blinds in the background
Photo by Bryan Geraldo (Canva photos)

Programmer burnout occurs when programmers are overworked, constantly pressed for deadlines, and not given a chance to take breaks.

It can happen to anyone, but high-performers are more likely to suffer from burnout. After all, if you are constantly chasing an ever-changing goal, you never have time for rest and celebration.

Burnout controversy

Programmer burnout is a controversial problem in IT, especially when you consider the perspective of people who don't work in IT or work in non-coding roles.

When non-IT people hear programmers complaining about being overworked or stressed, they call it "attention-seeking" or just BS. If they know programmer salaries, you may also hear that if you are paid five times more than other people, you shouldn't complain. Of course, in the case of the ridiculously overpaid programmers from Silicon Valley, the lack of understanding worsens.

For some programmers, burnout is a "badge of honor," a fashionable problem to have, or a not-so-humble brag. Like successful programmers complaining about feeling like an imposter, some people complain about burnout when they want to brag about their work ethic, accomplishments, or the sheer volume of work.

If you're one of those people, stop reading now.

You won't understand the article anyway. Please, don't behave like healthy people who claim they have OCD just because they clean their desks. You're diminishing the suffering of people who really have the problem. Just stop it.

Burnout symptoms

When we ignore the inconsiderate A-holes, we are left with the programmers who got burned out for real. If you're one of them, I can't help you yet. I'm still researching the topic of recovery and prevention methods for burnout.

Today, we will focus on recognizing when you start having a problem. Maybe (maybe!) if you act fast, you will avoid burnout.

What does programmer's burnout look like?

I've read several blog posts of programmers explaining their burnout and watched a few YouTube videos on the same topic. It looks that, in many cases, burnout starts in the same way.

Putting extra effort into your work

First, the programmer spends extra time and effort on the work. Not because they have to! No! They do it because they love programming. They love being the person who solves the problems, especially if they feel more productive than the rest of the team.

Many of us can admit we love programming (or loved programming at some point in our career). What about being more productive than everyone else?

Feeling more productive than others may come quite easily if you are on the wrong team. I was on a team where I felt like that. I was doing half of the work of the entire six people team. Was I better than them? Not quite. I was the only person practicing TDD daily (Seriously, it does speed up your work. Of course, it speeds you up after you learn how to use it properly, and I need a year to learn it.) and, frankly, the rest of the team was quite lazy.

Work becomes the most important part of your life

When you put extra effort for long enough, you start seeing the results of your work. It looks like you can master the skill of programming, so you want to spend more time doing it. You may be unsure what the "mastery" looks like, but you feel you are going in the right direction.

Ok, fine. It doesn't happen to everyone, only to the competitive people.

Anyway, you spend more and more time working. Because of that, other areas of your life suffer - friends, family, health, etc. It doesn't happen because you sacrifice them. No, it wasn't your decision. It happens because you don't have enough time for the rest of your life.

What comes next?

Fortunately, I can talk about the following stages only from the experience of others. I reacted fast enough, and it didn't happen to me.

Headaches and being tired

You are overworked. Your body doesn't want to do it anymore. It's increasingly harder to focus. You have more and more work on the table. After all, you had always been the high-performer. You can do everything. Can't you?

No, you can't.

Not anymore.

You go to work. Code for a few hours. Come home (or switch to a private computer if you work from home) and spend time playing games or watching videos because you are too tired to do anything requiring more mental effort.

Irritability and mood swings

It isn't easy to work with you anymore. You switch to the "my way or the highway" attitude.

I was unfortunate to work on a team with someone throwing his headset on the desk and leaving the room every time someone disagreed with him.

I was a junior programmer at that time, and I was happy to join a team with that person. I was told he was the best programmer in the company. He wasn't. He was a pathetic shadow of the formerly best programmer in the company. Perhaps even less.

You don't want to become such a person. Trust me.

Giving up on personal development

Next comes the programmer's death. It isn't the literal death, but a state when you give up on your career.

While programming doesn't change as fast as some claim, learning is still required. If you focus on your niche (for me, data engineering and MLOps on AWS), it may require carving out only a few hours a month, but you need to spend some time learning anyway.

You won't learn anything if you let your burnout come to the stage when you only want to get the work done, putting the minimal effort required to keep employed.

Is there anything beyond this point?

Honestly, this should terrify you! You can spend the rest of your career being a zombie programmer. Not quite dead yet, but only pretending to be alive.

You can also get promoted to management and become a hated middle-level manager. Some people decide to switch careers to something else and never look at code again.

Do you want it? I didn't. So act fast before you feel the negative impact on your life. It isn't worth waiting until you start hating on programming and other developers.