Software Product Development Pills

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At the heart of the burnout epidemic

These days we’re dealing with a job burnout epidemic. Everybody speaks about it, there’s a lot of awareness, and yet things have been getting worse and worse every year. So what have we been missing?

Curious? I’m going to offer a contrarian take, as usual. So buckle up and keep reading.

What burnout means

Job burnout is a state of emotional, physical, or mental exhaustion, experienced because of work. Burnout can have serious consequences, including frequent illness, disengagement and detachment, insomnia, feelings of frustration, helplessness, anger or irritability, hopelessness, and loss of motivation.

How can you tell if you might be experiencing job burnout? Ask yourself:

  1. Have you become cynical at work?
  2. Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?
  3. Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
  4. Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
  5. Do you find it hard to concentrate?
  6. Do you dread Mondays?
  7. Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
  8. Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
  9. Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?

The usual explanations

Common explanations for job burnout include:

  1. If you work long hours or have an excessive workload.
  2. When a job is chaotic, you need constant energy to remain focused, which can lead to fatigue and job burnout.
  3. Lack of rewards and acknowledgement. If you don’t get recognized and compensated enough for your efforts.
  4. Poor self-care: not taking care of yourself outside of work.
  5. Juggling many things at once: work, family, study, etc.

Everybody talks about it

Perhaps unsurprisingly, job burnout is getting a lot of attention. Everybody talks about it.

Companies offer stress management courses, coaching, more holidays, etc. However, the reason why they care is purely pragmatic:

  1. Burned-out employees are 2.6 times more likely to be actively seeking a different job.
  2. Burnout syndrome accounts for a large part of all occupational illness cases.
  3. Burned-out workers are way more likely to take a sick day.
  4. A report by Gallup and Workhuman discovered turnover and lost productivity due to employee burnout cost businesses around $322bn globally, with the cost of voluntary turnover due to burnout alone being 15% to 20% of the payroll budget each year.

A burnout epidemic

And yet, job burnout is an epidemic. I don’t want to go into this at length, but here are a few bullet points that convey the pervasiveness of the problem:

  • American Psychological Association: 3 in 5 workers reported experiencing negative mental and physical impacts due to work-related stress. 26% noted a lack of interest, motivation, or energy, 32% reported emotional exhaustion, and 44% noted high levels of physical fatigue.
  • Indeed: 52% of workers reported feeling burned out.
  • Deloitte: 77% of workers have experienced burnout at their current job.
  • Mental Health UK: 46% of workers felt “more prone to extreme levels of stress” compared to the year before, while a massive 1 in 5 reported feeling “unable to manage stress and pressure in the workplace”.
  • Mental Health America: 75% of employees experienced burnout.

And it’s getting worse, year-on-year burnout grows at a rate of 5% to 8%.

The popular model doesn’t make sense

So why is burnout on the rise, despite the increasing efforts to address it? And despite the fact that working conditions are generally getting better?

Think about the factors that are commonly cited as the causes of burnout, and look at their trend over the past two decades:

  1. Working long hours and excessive workloads.
  2. Unstructured work without clear goals.
  3. Lack of rewards and acknowledgement.
  4. Poor self-care.
  5. Juggling many things at once.

Do you see what’s odd here? Haven’t all these things improved, compared to 20 years ago?

Aren’t we all working fewer hours per week? Hasn’t work become more structured? Aren’t companies more thoughtful about incentives, recognition, and bonuses? Or aren’t people getting more support with mental health days off, paid gyms, and private healthcare? And do we really think people have to juggle more than they used to juggle 20 years ago?

So why has burnout continued to rise, even when its stated causes have improved?

I believe the reason lies in a fundamental lack of understanding, resulting in an inability to see what the actual root causes of burnout are, and to effectively address the problem.

Companies don’t get it

Companies are worried about loss in productivity and the voluntary attrition. So they offer coaching, counseling, mental health days off, more holidays, more breaks, shorter weeks, more flexibility, helplines, and awareness programs.

But what do all these support mechanisms have in common? They are all directed at helping employees cope with the stress. It’s always “when you feel like this, this thing could help”.

Companies seem to believe that job burnout has to do with the employees, and how they poorly manage the stress they see as intrinsic to the work.

So it’s all about what the company should do about the employees. Never about what the company should do to eliminate the stress. Not about changing how the work works, so that stress isn’t an intrinsic condition, and so that it doesn’t eventually cause burnout in every employee.

At the heart of the problem

What if a state of continuous stress wasn’t intrinsic to work, and was somehow worse these days, compared to 20 years ago? At the heart of the problem, there must be a fundamental human need that is not met.

I believe that job burnout is the consequence of the need for self-actualization not getting met. People yearn to fully exercise their capabilities in pursuit of something meaningful.

Some folks find ways of meeting this need outside their main job. It’s somewhat acceptable, and these people are the few ones that tend to be protected from job burnout, to an extent. It’s still pretty miserable, as they cannot bring themselves to love their job, and only see it as a way of getting a paycheck. As a company with aspirations, you shouldn’t want these folks anyway.

For the majority, though, work is the only way of getting this fundamental need met. After all, most people work and commute for roughly two thirds of their waking hours.

Various coping mechanisms

When this need is not met, people inevitably suffer and enter a state of perpetual stress. This can wreak havoc on a person’s mind, leading to various kinds of coping mechanisms.

Some folks feel under-challenged, not capable of fully leveraging their skills, of stretching, and of reaching further proficiency levels. They resent their job, and leave as soon as they find something they feel would be more challenging.

Others, having been robbed of their intrinsic motivation, pursuit the illusion of self-actualization by chasing recognition (bonuses, career advancement, etc.). They play the game, overwork, and do anything to advance. They hate their job as well, but compensate by getting recognised. They inevitably either run out of steam at some point, or leave the company for a promotion elsewhere. These people are also not good for a company.

And last, some other folks abandon all hopes that doing meaningful work is even possible. They get angry at things and at people, hate their job, their company, and their co-workers, and stop caring about anything at all. This last type of burned-out people tend to stay in the company, as they’re disillusioned enough not to believe it could be better anywhere else. As a company with aspirations, these are arguably the people you should want the least.

What’s preventing self-actualization at work

There are three components that must co-exist, for the self-actualization need to be met:

  1. The work must be in pursuit of something meaningful.
  2. The work must exercise the person fully, stretch their limits and, as a consequence, develop them.
  3. The person must feel their work contributes to advancing the company towards the meaningful objective.

They are all important, and all are suffering more and more these days. Finding a job where these aspects co-exist is becoming increasingly harder, across most professions, and certainly in software product development.

About the meaning of work, it’s rarer and rarer for companies to aim at greatness, to tackle important problems, and to advance society and the human condition.

The division of labor is increasingly restricting the boundaries of employees’ contribution. Companies are more and more divided into people who think and decide, people who operate and manage, and people who execute without questions. There’s also a widespread intentional push for mediocrity and good enough; the days when excellence was encouraged or even expected are long gone.

Teamwork has lost its meaning. Nowadays, it does not mean working together with others towards a shared goal. It’s about working individually, exclusively within a domain area you happen to share with other individual contributors.

Overall, people find themselves doing work that doesn’t challenge or excite them, with people they don’t trust, following plans and decisions made by managers and executives they don’t respect.

Parting words

Job burnout is an epidemic, and it’s getting worse. Companies believe that stress is intrinsic to work, so they offer coping mechanisms and support. Instead, it’s how the work works these days that creates this perpetual condition of stress, by not meeting the self-actualization human need.

The impact this has is tremendous. Companies superficially worry about productivity, or how quickly and efficiently people do what they’re told. They don’t realize that burnout damages contribution the most. Burned-out people don’t actively shape the work and how the work works, so companies cannot tap into the collective skills and intelligence of their employees.

After all you read, do you still think job burnout is normal? Or do you think now believe it’s the result of ineffective and anti-systemic ways of working? If you’re experiencing burnout, or if you see burned-out people at your company, do you now see what the problem is?