Burn-out: the scourge of IT

  • user
  •  06.12.2021
  •  6 MIN

A study conducted by Haystack Analytics earlier this year revealed that 83% of software developers were suffering from burn-out. This is an alarming situation at a time when well-being at work is a key concern for many companies. We met with Fabien Trempon, a software engineer, who experienced this situation and came out of it, and S., an information systems director (ISD) of a large group who accompanied one of his employees during his burn-out. 


What is burn-out?

Burn-out is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by a (too) long period of stress in the workplace. It becomes impossible to carry out even the simplest task, you feel overwhelmed, tired and sometimes even disgusted with your work. It reduces productivity, lowers morale and energy levels.

Moreover, its negative effects can spill over into one's personal life, whether it be with friends, family, children, etc. This is why it is necessary to recognize the signs of burn-out as soon as possible in order to get out of this infernal circle.


Where does this term come from?

The term “burn-out” is borrowed from the aerospace industry to refer to the exhaustion of fuel in a rocket, which causes the engine to overheat and explode. Metaphorically, this is exactly the same thing that happens to a person suffering from burnout.


The term appeared in the 1960s and was later conceptualized by the New York psychoanalyst Freudenberger in 1974 in his article entitled “The Burnout Syndrome”. In this article, he observed the appearance of burnout symptoms in many Free Clinic volunteers.


However, burn-out has never been recognized as an occupational disease. In France, François Ruffin had however initiated a bill in 2018, aiming to “recognize work-related psychological pathologies as occupational diseases”, but this was rejected as being unsuitable “to the extent and complexity of the problem”.


What are the signs of burn-out?

To begin with, it is important to remember that burn-out is a disorder that never happens overnight. It is a progressive deterioration in morale, the signs of which are more or less visible depending on the individual.


It can manifest itself in different ways:


  • Physically: permanent fatigue, backache, migraines, insomnia and sleep disorders, blockages, etc.


“I remember that one morning, we found ourselves by chance taking the tram together, we were talking about banalities. When we arrived at the door of the company he said to me: “Excuse me, I have something to do, we'll meet later”. So I went in and didn't ask myself any more questions than that.

As the day went on, I could see that he still wasn't coming. And in fact, that was one of the signs of burn-out: the blockage, when you physically can't get through the door and face the world of work.” S, CIO.


  • Emotionally: pessimism, feelings of powerlessness, loss of self-confidence, feelings of vanity and emptiness, anxiety, in all its forms (generalised anxiety, phobias, panic disorders or obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD)), etc.


“He would say to me, “I've tried, I've tried, but I can't do it. I can't do it anymore.” And that's when I saw this desperate side. I asked him what had happened, and he said he had a client who was complicated, very demanding and changed priorities all the time and for whom nothing was ever good enough and nothing went fast enough.

He added “We can't take it anymore with my teams, it's exhausting we feel like we're doing our best and in the end it's never good.”" S. CIO


"You don't realise it, but it comes gradually. I used to fall asleep at my desk in the afternoon, crying over nothing and I had no control over anything." F. Software Engineer.


  • Relationally: excessive isolation, aggressiveness, impulsiveness, disengagement, etc.


"Then I asked around and I saw that there were indeed warning signs. Like the fact that he had gradually withdrawn from the group.

I understood that it was complicated for him because everything was becoming problematic. Our role is to solve problems, but when he couldn't find the solution to simple things or when everything seemed extremely complicated, that should have alerted me. Besides that, we didn't talk anymore, he was completely withdrawn." S, CIO.


  • Cognitively: difficulties in carrying out a simple task, in concentrating, in producing quality work, etc.


If the working conditions do not improve, other more worrying symptoms can then appear such as eating disorders, or even substance abuse (alcohol, drugs, medication, etc.)

Persistent work-related stress can trigger symptoms of depression, but also other serious health problems such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, musculoskeletal and immune disorders, which will aggravate the symptoms of burn-out.


What are its causes?

There are many possible causes of burn-out, but in general, there are a few recurring risk factors such as


  • Too much work (47%)*,
  • Too much pressure from customers or managers,
  • Lack of perspective on one's work,
  • Inefficient processes (31%)*,
  • No or little recognition,
  • Value conflicts
  • Lack of clarity of established objectives (29%)*, Lack of means to achieve objectives (29%)
  • Lack of means to achieve objectives,
  • Etc.


*The top 3 reasons for burn-out in IT, according to Haystack Analytics' 2021 study


"It's being conscientious and wanting to do your job well that leads to this kind of situation. It's often those who are the most invested in their work who are affected by burn-out." F. Software Engineer,


Why are we talking about burn-out in IT specifically?

According to ISACA's Tech Workforce 2020 report, 64% of technology and IT professionals would be affected by burnout.


"If you want to earn more money and gain more responsibility you become a manager, but some people don't like it or don't do it well. As a result, more and more pressure is put on developers to meet deadlines.

It's a stressful job, because what comes up the most are bugs and therefore mistakes. There are very few good things that come out. You see more of the bad things coming back than the good things. It's hard to say that you're doing a good job. F. Software Engineer.


This was true in 2018, when the long-awaited Red Dead Redemption 2 was released by the Rockstar studio (the creators of GTA). At the time, Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser claimed that some employees had worked almost 100 hours a week to develop the 300,000 animations, 500,000 lines of dialogue and therefore many lines of code to make it work.

For Dan, these inhuman hours were a very good marketing argument to demonstrate the quality of the game to future users.  


Besides, in the video game industry in particular, so-called "crunch" periods are commonplace. A crunch is an intense period of work characterised by the pressure on employees and the length of the working day or week required to achieve the set objectives.


Unfortunately, the concept of crunch is not dedicated to the video entertainment industry. Even though in other sectors it is not called that. For any IT department, there are very busy periods when you can't expect to be back early.


Indeed, from a business point of view, one of the key differentiating factors for achieving business objectives is the time to market of the product, in other words the product time-to-market. In other words, you have to be the first to release your product in the new technology sector in order to outperform the competition. In order to meet the deadlines, employees usually work overtime.


"What caused this was mainly the stress of deadlines. You have to deliver something to the customer and it has to work.

Sometimes, I think in certain situations, it's hard to put what you're doing into perspective and you get overwhelmed by the fact that I have to deliver this thing by such and such a time. So you start working more, more, more to just get the goal." S, CIO


How to react in case of burnout?

  • If it's me: First of all, it's important to talk about it with your manager (if possible), as he or she will be able to support you and help you manage the situation. Next, make an appointment with your GP to discuss the situation and perhaps arrange for you to take time off work or to receive appropriate treatment.


If you can take time off work, do so. Rest and sunshine are natural solutions to burnout.


"Apart from stopping and not working any more there is no solution in my opinion. There is something broken and broken in the developer's head at that point. There is only rest, even with antidepressants or whatever" F. Software Engineer.  


Finally, when you return to the office, it is important to make a gradual return to work. Without seeing the operational side. Take the time to bond with your colleagues again and return to work little by little.


"You have to accept that you are in this situation, even if it is complicated. Not being well has to be accepted. That's how you get back on track. Fighting against yourself never works.

When things get better, you have to ask yourself what you have to do to get better and avoid it coming back. But you have to do it afterwards, not while you're brooding. F. Software Engineer.  


  • If it's my colleague or a member of my team: If someone tells you about feelings similar to burn-out, try to direct them either to a manager (if you are a colleague) or to a doctor (if you are a manager). Be a good listener and empathetic, this is fundamental for the burned-out person to feel taken into account.


"What is sometimes the most difficult is the way the manager or other people in the company look at the person who is burned out. In the previous company where I worked, people used to say 'these people are fragile', 'he doesn't have the shoulders for it', and so on. And that had a big impact on me because it's not fair.

He was a person with a very strong commitment to the company and this showed a strong lack of knowledge of the subject on the part of those who were saying this. S, CIO.


Try to find a suitable solution with him or her, such as teleworking, time off, adjustments to working conditions, etc.


If the employee takes leave, check in regularly and anticipate his or her arrival at the office. Do everything possible to facilitate a smooth return to the office, both for the individual employee and for the team.


"He had taken a few days off. It was important that he came back and that little by little things got better. I told him not to open his emails, to talk to people and to take his mind off the operational side of things and take the time to talk about the social environment of the work.

Afterwards, things got better and today they are going better. But I remain convinced that we have to be constantly vigilant about this kind of thing. S. CIO


In the medium term, it is necessary to act on the work environment to prevent this situation from recurring. Indeed, burn-out is a strong warning signal about the working conditions in the company. This is why it is necessary to start by identifying the factors that make the working environment negative by asking the whole team for their opinion. It is also possible to set up a joint prevention approach.


"We had talked about it a lot in the Management Committee, and I had raised the subject by saying that we couldn't just underestimate the problem by saying 'It's just an individual fragility' because maybe there was a deeper problem in the company in the way we operate." S, CIO.


How can burn-out be prevented?

There are plenty of ways to eliminate the risk of burn-out, but the best way is to take action to reduce or even eliminate the risk factors.


"It was during a change of manager at HR level that there was an awareness of the importance of burn-out and training to identify it.

There were also discussions about quality of life at work, etc., which then allowed us to de-dramatise the issue and to say that if a person does not feel well, it is perhaps because the work environment is not the right one." S, CIO.


Here are some examples of collective actions to be put in place:


  • Monitor the workload of each employee,
  • Inform all members of the company about the signals
  • Train all employees in the right reflexes to adopt if these signals are noticed,
  • Ensure regular recognition for the work done
  • Create safe place groups to express oneself freely,
  • etc.


In short, protect yourself and take care of your health. This is the most important thing. Work is only one part of your life. A big part, but only a part.

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