Exhausted developers are rethinking their work-life balance, with many going freelance or changing careers entirely. CTOs must change their mindset if they are to win this new twist in the talent war.

Developer burnout is increasing, with talented people leaving the industry entirely or switching to freelance. With talent scarce, they are replaced by less experienced workers, who are put under pressure to do the same work and therefore risk burnout themselves.

The situation is exacerbating the war for talent because companies are chasing fewer people and the best are changing jobs more quickly than before. “It’s not sustainable,” says Edd Strickland, Interim CTO and Development Team Lead at bp Launchpad. “It’s destructive to the knowledge-base within the industry.”

CTOs must do more to help. The days of an all-hours working culture are gone and organizations must build workplaces that are rewarding and satisfying. Happier workers will stay longer, repaying the investment in recruiting and training them, and they will help create a culture that nurtures new hires too and helps them feel rewarded. But doing this will take a mindset shift.

Burnout significantly affects developers

Burnout affects people in different ways but the World Health Organization describes it as a syndrome caused by “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. It leaves people feeling exhausted, mentally distanced from their job and unable to function as effectively. While many people recover after a few weeks, some experience significant health problems and need years before they are again working at their best.

Recent research has found that up to 83 percent of software developers have experienced burnout, with 81 percent reporting that the situation has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. Like workers in many other professions, developers have responded by reconsidering their work-life balance, with some going freelance and others changing career entirely.

“There are two sides of the coin,” says Mr Strickland. “During COVID, a lot of people joined the ‘Great Resignation’ because they realized what was important to them. But the flip side is that the uncertainty during the pandemic encouraged many people to stay put and now we’re seeing the churn from them because dissatisfaction has set in.”

Fewer talented workers are available

According to research, the top three causes of developer burnout are increasing workload and demands from other teams (39 percent), the pressure of digital transformation (37 percent) and learning the skills needed for new technologies and approaches (35 percent).

It’s logical to assume that going freelance would relieve some of these pressures. Freelance workers tend to be hired for a particular project and are less likely to be dragged into completing tasks for other teams or getting involved in the wider corporate digital transformation plan. And, of course, changing careers entirely would remove all of those pressures.

“Four or five years ago, a CTO would have as many as 20 CVs landing on their desk every week,” says Mr Strickland. “These days they will be lucky to receive five CVs a month.” The change in the amount of talent available is really significant.

Rethinking unsustainable working practices

The days of developers working 8 am to midnight, always at their desks, have gone, never to return. Workers are clearly rethinking the idea that excessive hours and an unsustainable workload are somehow a badge of honour. Even when that was the case, says Mr Strickland, developers often approached the job like professional footballers, leaving the industry by the mid-30s and hoping to have made enough money before then.

That is not only unsustainable but also excludes certain people from the industry. Those with families or caring responsibilities, particularly single parents, simply can’t take on these kinds of roles. It also affects people with disabilities and chronic health conditions that might prohibit long hours. Changing the working culture to focus on quality work, rather than quantity, will increase the diversity of the industry – something that has been shown to increase productivity and creativity.

Focusing on quality is more rewarding for developers, research has shown. A third of CTOs, developers, engineers and technical leads say they feel most productive when creating better quality code. Only 13 percent of respondents linked productivity to the quantity of code they create.

Changing mindsets to tackle burnout

CTOs must change the way they treat and view talent. They need to make it a priority to monitor their team for signs of burnout and have a plan in place for how to deal with it. Workplaces that are always working at maximum capacity have little scope for lightening the load, so some space must be found. It is also worth taking a look at the organization’s existing support for mental health and wellness.

Developers need to rethink their approach, too. Those who haven’t already reconsidered their working style to avoid burnout should do so. Even those who go freelance might find an unexpected increase in stress as they have to manage billing and accounts, finding new work, keeping their skills fresh and more.

Elastic teams can help to solve problems on both sides. These are private talent clouds of vetted IT staff, all of whom have met a certain performance standard. They can offer CTOs access to global talent on-demand, without having to find, hire and manage them. These are often workers who have already made the lifestyle change to work at their best while avoiding burnout, so organizations are getting top talent without putting them under unsustainable pressure.

A company, like Distributed, that manages the team, takes on the admin for the developers, allowing them to focus on what they do best, and creates a positive, supportive environment so that they feel part of the team. A sense of belonging to a wider team helps to balance the demands of working remotely.

Many organizations are finding the talent war to be tough – and productivity is suffering as a result. They cannot afford to respond to that problem by overworking existing staff and increasing burnout. It’s time to restructure and elastic teams can fill the gap while that happens.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Elastic Team, get in touch. 

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