Even before the COVID-19 pandemic went full throttle in March, Micha Abram knew what it is like to feel burned out by his job. Abram, senior director of engineering at ResumeLab, says a tip he learned to help cope with burnout a couple of years ago was "to go off the grid" and "unplug for a while."
Now, Abram is back working at a breakneck pace, he says, and feels the stress bubbling up again. "Due to the spread of COVID-19, we were taken down by a wave we never saw coming,'' he says. "To keep our heads above the water, we have to double down on our deliverables and put in long hours."
In this current environment, many information technology (IT) professionals "are now expected to crank out strings of code at a breakneck pace, all while juggling a plethora of other extra projects," he says.
The increased workload has left Abram feeling he has too much on his plate right now, he says. "As a result, I sometimes feel apathy toward my work. Specifically, I catch myself feeling depersonalization and a lack of interest for my day-to-day duties."
Abram is far from alone. Before the pandemic struck, The Dice 2020 Tech Salary Report found that 60% of technologists who were unsatisfied with their jobs reported feeling burned out.
The traditional factors that lead to burnout include workload, lack of recognition for work, lack of work/life balance, and lack of challenges/monotony, says Art Zeile, CEO of DHI Group, Inc., parent company to Dice.
Other symptoms include "cynicism, lack of energy, irritability and impatience, difficulty concentrating, and negative changes in sleep and eating patterns,'' Zeile says. Right now, Zeile and others say, a lot of IT professionals are experiencing some of these traits. "Some of these factors are growing; between 2018 and 2019, we've seen higher percentages of technologists report burnout due to workload, hours worked, and friction with their teams."
Working remotely can aggravate employee burnout, Zeile says, "unless employers establish tight, constant communication loops with their employees." This means they should do frequent check-ins and place an emphasis on openness and communication, which can help mitigate many of these problems, he says, adding, "Employers and technologists also need to set firm, careful schedules in order to ensure that those employees working from home have a proper work/life balance."
The biggest contributor to IT burnout is that the function has become so critical within both small and large organizations, especially now, as IT is tasked with keeping business continuity seamless for remote workers, says Matt Mead, chief technology officer at digital consultancy SPR Consulting. "As a result, IT has a lot more pressure to both keep things running and secure, and also to help partner with the business to make customers stay, enhance revenue streams and add new revenue streams."
Mead says he also sees IT departments across mid-market to large corporations operating with fewer people who are being asked to do more, which puts them under added pressure. This is further exacerbated by the pace of implementing new technologies, and results in IT teams having to work harder to keep up with expectations, Mead says.
"External signs of burnout include when IT professionals seem to no longer care about their job, lack of attention to detail, making careless mistakes, feeling a loss of interest and lack of enthusiasm,'' he says. "On the other hand, an internal sign that can indicate burnout is about to happen, or is happening, includes the feeling of not wanting to do your job, especially tasks/activities that you previously enjoyed."
Even as IT professionals work remotely, employers have to help them achieve a healthy work/life balance, Mead says. "Additionally, it is important for IT leaders to make sure they foster an environment where employees understand how their work fits into the bigger picture and to make them feel valued. By doing so, they will feel supported and motivated."
Laura Hamill, chief people officer at employee experience company Limeade, says she sees burnout happen more typically among "top performers" who are so engaged they give everything they have to their work. "They might be 'on fire' in terms of productivity, but have low personal well-being, which gives them limited resources to sustain their pace,'' she says.
Echoing the others, Hamill says that "Once burnout takes hold, it shows up in three stages: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy."
To help prevent burnout, Hamill advises organizations to provide recovery time between big IT project rollouts, adding that managers must address unreasonable deadlines and overwork to help workers reconnect to their sense of purpose in their jobs.
Even with the additional stress Abram is feeling, he says he isn't considering leaving the industry; at least, not yet. Nor does he plan to keep working remotely. "Once the pandemic is behind us, I'll be more than happy to get back to the office."
Esther Shein is a freelance technology and business writer based in the Boston area.