Burnout in Tech - Part 3: External Causes

When it's not you, it's them

While burnout is often portrayed as something exclusively internal (like a pot of boiling water, its temperature slowly getting hotter and hotter until it boils over… and eventually, boils away!), society needs to stop thinking of it that way.

Setting better professional boundaries and practicing self care is no longer enough to prevent burnout. We're dealing with a workplace phenomenon, and it’s time organizations and leaders start acknowledging their role in this equation and take responsibility for it.

This is Part 3 of a 4-part series on “Burnout in Tech”. I highly recommend first reading Part 1 and Part 2. Part 4 will address anti-burnout strategies.

Part 3 will help you:

  • Understand the link between psychological unsafety and burnout

  • Dissect psychological unsafety and how distrust, lack of accountability and chronic instability exacerbate it

  • See how psychological unsafety manifests in our day-to-day rhetoric

  • Recognize how bad management is a HUGE contributor to burnout

  • Understand what other external stressors may lead to burnout   

Though the focus of this article is on engineering organizations, parallels can be drawn to non-tech groups.

Before we start, if you work for a group in a company where there is blatant sexism, verbal abuse, authoritarianism, bullying, predatory or discriminatory behavior: RUN. Your survival there is a ticking time bomb and the sooner you get out, the higher the chances you’ll survive unscathed. 

Beyond these egregious issues, there are many other, often more subtle ways a seemingly “nice” work environment can be dysfunctional and lead to burnout. Nobody is yelling at anybody, people are genuinely friendly and fairly collaborative, and maybe you even get cakes each month for employees celebrating their birthdays. There could be some very positive aspects to this work environment.

As we’ve seen in Part 2, the internal causes for Burnout are an entagled mess, and so are the external ones! Let’s use the following diagram as a map for what we’re talking about in this article.

Psychological Unsafety

Burnout is not this big dramatic collapse, as many might think; in fact, it’s often slow and insidious. The dread, hopelessness, and negativity, discussed in Part 1, start creeping in gradually as a result of feeling psychologically unsafe, and they become our M.O. without even realizing it. This explains why even people who work 9-5 hour days can experience burnout.

Psychological safety means ‘feeling able to show and employ one’s self without fear of negative consequences to self-image, status or career.’ 

Just as psychological safety is one of the key attributes of high-performing teams, psychological unsafety is a direct precursor of burnout. It puts the brain into a high alert mode, flooding it with stress hormones, triggering our fight-or-flight system, and dramatically altering our behaviors.

As you’ll see next, there are some common organizational issues that exacerbate psychological unsafety.

Lack of Clarity and Accountability 

In a culture of accountability, people take responsibility for their own actions and hold others accountable to do the same. But first, organizations and leaders need to set clear expectations around job duties and desired results. 

For employees, not knowing what’s expected of them is a huge stressor!  When clear goals and expectations are not set, you go in blind to new jobs and scramble trying to figure out what they need to do. Since you can’t read minds, expectations are often missed. Whose fault is it, then: yours or your employers?

Accountability is not a punishment, but it must mean owning failure and committing to learning from mistakes. Without accountability, problems are either ignored or passed around like hot potatoes, and failed projects are silently swept under the rug.

There is a clear power imbalance when it comes to keeping various functions of the company accountable, and from my experience, it’s easier for folks in Leadership roles or in Product roles to deflect responsibility and push it down to other functions such as Engineering, Design or Ops. Employee surveys and scores for managers and directors are a way to keep Leadership accountable, as long as the results are actually used and anonymity can be assured (or else people fear retaliation).

Can you see the link between a lack of accountability and the negativity and hopelessness of burnout? When people repeatedly fail to keep their promises or take responsibility for their own actions, one loses hope that they ever will. 

Compromised Trust

An organization where trust is compromised is in big trouble, and employees in these environments are at severe risk of burnout.

Distrust is contagious, similar to a virus, and we can spread it to and catch it from others. No accountability, no trust. If people fail on their promises again and again, distrust naturally builds up. 

Distrust leads to feeling unsafe, which results in spending energy questioning people's  motives, personal agendas, whether they’re telling the truth, their reliability or their promises. In order to minimize negative personal consequences, you start operating defensively, which can be emotionally exhausting.

Distrust alters interpersonal dynamics too. If we feel like coworkers or managers don’t have our backs, then we’ll be disengaged and less willing to be open, collaborative and caring towards others.

Perceived Lack of Control and Learned Helplessness

As humans, we feel safe when we are in control of our careers. We need to feel like the work we do matters and will make a difference, and that we can influence the outcome of events in our professional lives.

When we don’t feel in control, we’re in high psychological distress, and slowly start to disengage. If nobody cares about the work we do, then “why bother”?

And if that isn’t bad enough, when an individual continuously faces negative, uncontrollable repeated aversive events, they learn helplessness and stop trying to change their circumstances, even when they have the ability to do so.

Chronic Instability and Uncertainty

High turnover, frequent leadership changes, consistent reorgs, unstable roadmaps, and constant changing requirements: if any of these situations sound familiar, then you know how dreadful it feels.

Sure, leaders might claim that it’s “business as usual”, but trying to do your day-to-day job while witnessing turmoil without being able to do anything about it feels very hopeless and it’s extremely destabilizing.

I’ve worked with leaders that loved the feeling of work “without safety nets.” Being bold and taking risks in business is good, but it is not the right mindset for managing an organization of hundreds of human employees. 

Whoever negates that they need safety and stability in their work is in denial. We, as humans, work better if we know where a company is headed and that our jobs are secure. 

Leaders don't need to predict the future, but they must be predictable now and in the future. 

Other Burnout Precursors

Manipulative Rhetoric

In a culture where leadership rejects being held accountable, the use of manipulative rhetoric to deflect and deny responsibility is prevalent.

One common way to deny responsibility is through gaslighting. Despite having plenty of evidence, people experiencing gaslighting still question themselves and wonder if the gaslighter is justified. They’re often left feeling confused, anxious, and unable to trust others.

As you’ll see in the following examples, gaslighting denies people their experience, and deflects responsibility by projecting it on others.

Making People Feel Like They’re the Problem

I’ve seen dysfunctional work habits being perpetuated by the false claim that you must be very passionate to put in the “hard work”, or else the job you have is “someone else’s dream job”. 

Yes, you heard that right. In other words, you shouldn’t self-advocate for more reasonable work conditions; it’s your fault you’re not passionate enough. After all, you’re replaceable. 

Similarly, when people point out these issues, they’re labeled as too negative or cynical. Despite a suspiciously high turnover rate, some companies still ignore the real reasons for their employees quitting, and instead, say these employees “jumped ship” (insinuating disloyalty) or “couldn’t cope with the stress”.

Falsely “Hero”-ifying the Job

It’s quite common to falsely hero-ify work to justify extreme deadlines and overwork when the customer and their livelihood seemingly depends on the product you’re working on. You can't fail the customer! Similar rhetoric is used with regards to your team, or the business. Without the project you’re working on, the competition will win and the company you’re working on will fall apart. The business needs you!

Yes, you should keep promises to customers. Don’t throw in the towel on that. But is it really such a black and white, life or death situation?

Hint: it’s generally not.

Falsely “Building Organizational Resilience”

I don’t know who needs to hear this but:  exposing teams to chronic instability is not “building organizational resilience.”

Resilient organizations invest in all levels of their workforce, provide encouragement, support, mentoring and basic training in how to manage personal stress.

The occasional difficult situations can bring people together and inspire their creativity. Working in a consistently unstable environment that doesn’t provide an adequate level of support is akin to psychological abuse and leads to burnout.

Unrealistic Expectations

I cannot count the number of times Product pressured me (a Tech Lead) to give much shorter estimates for projects. Even with working long hours, descoping, and taking shortcuts, ensuring a minimum acceptable quality was jeopardized to meet these insatiable demands. Despite my best efforts to educate them on “why things take as long as they take,” Product still tried bargaining for even faster releases. 

Whether it comes from Product or management, the disconnect between expectations and what’s reasonably possible stems from distrust, lack of understanding and/or lack of empathy.

Unrealistic expectations might look like: impossible deadlines, requiring people to work beyond normal work schedule or even weekends or working on too many “urgent” things at the same time. 

Glorify-ing how fast things moved in the “Early Days” is another unrealistic expectation. It shows that leadership either doesn’t really know or care about what is actually getting in the way of fast execution: people not set up for success, lack of documentation, lost tribal knowledge, tech debt that makes it hard to scale, etc. 

Being criticized for not moving fast enough over and over again is hurtful. It insinuates that people are lazy or simply unwilling to move fast. Again, it deflects from what should be leadership’s responsibility and also damages trust.

Being pressured to do more, faster, while constantly being understaffed, creates an insane amount of stress, and makes employees take shortcuts, work crazy hours and burn themselves out.

You can only cry wolf so many times! 

Bad Management

Failing to Protect People

Sometimes managers make employees’ lives miserable by being abusive. Other times they’re creating stress instead of reducing it, just because they’re incompetent.

Signs of management incompetence that play a part in burnout:

  • failing to listen and care for people’s needs

  • not helping remove roadblocks / reduce friction

  • passing down pressure

  • lack of support

  • failing to set expectations and give feedback

  • not helping bridge the relationships with other roles and teams

Unfortunately, managerial incompetence is most often hidden by the fact that people put up with a lot and end up self-managing, which puts more pressure on the employee. Plus, one can only do so much. 

I’ve been one of those people that for the most part self-managed, but ultimately I couldn’t do my own performance evaluation, give myself feedback or have career conversations with myself. I was limited in the opportunities I saw for myself and I didn’t have the authority to ensure fair performance evaluation or hold other people accountable.

To counter this, I tried to give feedback to management, but when the response was that “I’m weighing my manager down and giving them more work”, I lost trust that they cared if I succeeded. In the end, I stopped giving my manager feedback altogether.

Motivating through Excessive Pressure

All jobs are demanding at times, and it’s a manager’s job to motivate the team to perform at high levels. Unfortunately, some managers push people too much and project unrealistic expectations. Sometimes it’s because they don't understand or don’t care, or because it just makes them look good.

If pressure comes from Product, a good manager steps in and helps bring everyone on the same page. Bad management does nothing, and the pressure falls again on the engineers and creates … you guessed it… more stress!

Micromanagement

Employees who experience burnout are 3 times more likely to feel micromanaged.

Micromanagement severely damages trust, and leads to high turnover. It feels dreadful and suffocating, and hinders morale and performance. Micromanagement is exhausting for both the manager and the employee, and is a sure-fire way to burn people out.

False Empowerment

On the opposite end of micromanagement is false empowerment, an extreme version of a hands-off leader. This style of management is neglect disguised as empowerment.

True empowerment is somewhere in the middle. Managers need to take an active role in coaching people on how to solve their own problems, so that they don’t need to be involved in every single little thing. It’s asking your reports: “What can I do for you? How can I be of help?” and then *actually doing those things*.

Managing Low Performers

Let’s say there is a low performer on your team. The delays, picking up their slack, and even fixing mistakes that this person creates adds unnecessary stress on the people on the team that are actually invested and performing well.

If you, as a manager, ignore the low performer, you “achieve” 2 things: stressing out the strong performers and losing their trust because you failed to ensure accountability for the team.

Glorifying Burnout-Prone Behaviors

If your manager praises folks that seem to be working all the time, they are supporting burnout prone behaviors. In addition, if managers don’t lead by example and don’t themselves exhibit balance and good boundaries, these behaviors will inevitably trickle down to their team. Performance evaluation needs to encourage behaviors that are sustainable in the long term.

Failing to Coach Burnout-Prone People

As mentioned in Part 2, people can be susceptible to burnout due to personality traits. Good managers need to coach them on how to set realistic expectations and enforce better work boundaries.

Lack of Project Coherence

Have you ever started working on a project only to be asked a few weeks later to switch gears? Or were you told mid-implementation to stop and transition the project to someone else? Have you been asked to take over other people’s projects?

This sort of project incoherence due to unstable roadmaps is a huge stressor because you waste time and you don’t get to rip the benefits of completing a development cycle. 

Also, performance evaluations often depend on the number of impactful projects they delivered. Throw-away or unfinished projects don't really count for anything. In the context of looming layoffs, or performance graded on a curve, this is extremely stressful and problematic because it jeopardizes job safety, often when the decision to stop or pause projects lies outside of the employee’s control.

Tech Debt

In a company where all codebases are simultaneously touched by multiple teams, high turnover results in code chaos. At this point, nothing is intuitive and adding new code feels like walking on eggshells.

Writing code normally feels like being in a separate world (aka “the zone”), you’re creative, relaxed and all the wheels are turning in your head. It becomes a very stressful experience when the code is in a poor shape, and you can’t even refactor due to fear of side effects.

As software engineers, we take pride in the quality of our craft. We often try to find solutions that are the most “beautiful” or “elegant”. Being forced to write subpar “mercenary” code means lowering the standards we hold ourselves accountable to, is very stressful and disappointing, and over time can lead to burnout.  

On-calls and Firefighting

On-call is one of the most stressful and anxiety producing responsibilities included in the software engineering job duties. And that’s especially true when you get paged in the middle of the night, wake up groggy, and find that there is no useful documentation on how to handle the emergency.

How bad on-call is, tells volumes about the health of an organization. If leadership actually cares about the stress levels of people, they help by setting up proper on-call processes and documentation and holding people accountable to follow them.

Peer Pressure

If your peers work beyond normal work schedule, chances are you also feel pressured to overwork. It’s worse if your manager is supportive of that, because that shouldn’t be the norm.

If your manager or peers are permanently connected to technology and are always available over email or slack, it might put pressure on you to do the same. This is extremely unhealthy and interferes with your ability to recover from stress during your time off (discussed in Part 2).

Immigration Status

If you’re on a visa or your immigration status depends on your employment, I feel for you. 

Despite not having any realistic reason to worry about my job, I still did, in fact it once made me even dream about getting fired overnight, for no good reason.

Since burnout is a problem of compounded exhaustion and chronic stress, I felt like it was important to at least acknowledge how immigration affects both your willingness to risk and need for stability. We’re extra sensitive to any sort of turmoil and live with a baseline of stress that people who haven’t had to deal with it can’t really understand.

Conclusion

As previously mentioned, eradicating burnout needs to be a joint effort between leadership and employees. But this cannot happen if companies and their leadership don’t own their part and prioritize building a healthy and balanced work environment. 

Hopefully, after reading this article in conjunction with Part 2, you got a better sense of where to draw the line between leadership responsibility and individual responsibility when it comes to the fight against burnout.

Prevention is always better than the cure, so if you want to learn more anti-burnout strategies, stay tuned for Part 4.


Many thanks to everyone else who provided precious feedback on this article and especially to Sonya Ives, Molly Vorwerck, and Mihai Stroe!

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I’d love to hear your thoughts on this series, what resonated and what else you wish was mentioned. Also, I would really appreciate it if you shared this article with anybody that might be interested!

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