The effects of burnout on employees and the organisations they work for can be far-reaching. But what can employers do to spot, address and prevent burnout?
Burnout has been a growing challenge in many sectors in recent years, but few more so than the technology industry. And with the added pressure of getting organisations working remotely, it’s perhaps no surprise that things have got worse during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A February 2020 survey from anonymous workplace chat app, Blind found that 61 per cent of tech professionals were burnt out in February 2020, rising to 73 per cent in May as the pandemic worsened. Furthermore, 68 per cent of tech workers felt more burned out working remotely than they did in the office.
But what is burnout, and why is it on the rise in technology? And what can companies in this sector do to improve employee wellbeing?
While there isn’t one universally recognised diagnosis for burnout, most definitions warn of similar symptoms. These include being cynical and short-fused, a loss of empathy, lack of energy, having trouble sleeping and increased absentee or presenteeism.
Dr Veerle van Tricht, a surgeon and burnout expert, lists these symptoms among others as signs to look out for. She says that, aside from the moral reasons to look after the health of employees, missing signs of burnout can have a knock-on effect for your organisation.
“If you exhaust your workers, they will make mistakes and it will rub off negatively on your reputation and that of your company,” she says. “For me it’s a no-brainer to make sure everybody is happy and healthy at work. It’s unfeasible for the human body to go without eight hours of sleep in the long run.
“When people are unwell you should be tolerant and more humanly flexible to people’s circumstances. If your boss doesn’t care about you, you won’t care for your boss either.”
While the data shows that burnout has risen in the technology sector since the beginning of the pandemic, it’s important to understand what has caused this. Tijana Kovacevic, Head of People Development at fintech company Wise (formerly TransferWise), says there are several reasons.
“As everything went remote, technology was one of the things that remained relatively undamaged,” she says. “People still needed tech brands to create and produce, to operate more actively and efficiently. From video calls to online banking, technology was under more pressure to perform as the world went into lockdown. With this added pressure, tech companies had the challenge of scaling under difficult conditions, ensuring that the growth of both their products and their teams could meet demand.”
Kovacevic adds that while the tech industry remained in demand and many colleagues within it were secure in their roles, they needed to meet pre-pandemic expectations.
“The fast-paced nature of the tech industry means that certain companies try to develop too quickly to stay ahead of the curve - the ‘adapt or die’ approach adopted by some doesn’t foster positive employee wellbeing.”
Dr van Tricht adds that, in her experience, the personality types that the technology sector attracts mean that many professionals may find it more difficult to let go of work, and that this may have also contributed to the challenge.
“There are a lot of perfectionists in technology,” she explains. “They never stop, they won’t give up and everything has to be perfect. If things don’t work out, they will blame themselves. It’s an emotion I work on a lot with clients, it’s very unhealthy and can make you sick.
“It’s rare that anything in life is really perfect. You have to realise that sometimes you have to say, ‘this is enough and I can go home now!’”
There are also different challenges for different groups of colleagues. A 2021 study by TrustRadius found that 57 per cent of women in the sector reported experiencing burnout compared to 36 per cent of men. But should this impact the support offered to employees?
“I think defining the experience between men and women might be a little linear, but we do need to consider the demands and experiences of different people in the workplace,” says Kovacevic. “For example, those who are in a later stage in their career, having made connections and with office space at home, will have found the WFH transition empowering. Those who have young children to care for, or other domestic demands on their time, may have found the lack of boundaries difficult to manage.”
Kovacevic says that being mindful of the unique challenges that everyone is facing is the most important thing, and that offering appropriate support structures will ensure that anyone can come forward if they are struggling.
“Team leads need to ensure that a truly open line of communication is in place, to understand the unique issues affecting certain people and teams,” she says.
While the pandemic certainly seemed to affect levels of burnout among tech professionals, it also provided opportunities. "One of the best things to come out of this is the honest conversations around mental health,” says Kovacevic. “People are so much more open now about their experiences, and many companies have been able to provide much better support and services because of that openness.”
She adds that some organisations in the tech sector have also been able to leverage their existing structures to relieve pressure on employees. “For example, at Wise, we have a network of global teams that were already used to working together remotely before the pandemic,” she says. “When the pandemic hit, we were able to leverage these global skills on a local level to help Wisers settle into working from home for a longer period of time.”
She adds that a willingness to continue working in a hybrid way will also put technology companies in good stead. “Many tech products lend themselves to employees being able to work well together remotely and most tech companies seem open to adopting a hybrid working approach, even after the pandemic. This is a great sign for the industry, as more flexibility will hopefully have a positive effect on employee burnout.”
The demands of the pandemic also led to special responses from some companies. In lieu of the organisation’s regular annual all-staff conference, technology giant Mozilla took the step of giving all colleagues a paid full week off to focus on themselves.
“As a long time, remote-friendly organization with a geographically distributed workforce working across multiple time zones, we’ve long encouraged flexible work hours and supported employees taking the time needed to care for themselves and for their families,” explains Mardi Douglass, Senior Director and Head of Culture and Engagement at Mozilla. “We consistently score above the highest benchmark for ‘work-life blend’ on our employee engagement survey, so we know our employees feel and appreciate it.”
She says that the company began experimenting with paid wellness days in mid-2020 after the difficult decision was made to end a wellness stipend – a result of the economic impact of Covid.
“The feedback we received after our first wellness day was so effusive that we added several that year, including additional days around the US Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays,” she continues.
“And then 2021 rolled in, with Covid still hammering down on us. We made a pretty early decision to add one wellness day per month through June, after which time we’d reassess the program. Folks were thrilled, especially with advanced notice about the days so they could make plans personally and so managers could adjust any work deadlines.”
The company then held a full Wellness Week from June 28 to July 5, receiving very positive feedback from across the company. Amy Maoz, an Editor in the Pocket team at Mozilla, says she spent the time going on hikes, visiting museums and seeing friends and family. And she says there was a distinct contrast between it and regular vacations, with the Wellness Week giving her a real chance to reset.
“There’s always so much pressure to make the most of time off and this week was the perfect opportunity to not do that, without feeling like I’m missing out on how to vacation right. It was enormous to know my boss, their boss, my colleagues – all of us – were taking this time. It made an enormous difference.
“I feel so cared for and taken care of. Plus, bright-eyed and energized for H2! I’m full of gratitude for Mozilla and incredibly impressed by this radical move. It’s been a true highlight of my year.”
Other companies took similarly radical approaches. Dating app Bumble, social media management platform HootSuite and surveying software business Momentive also gave colleagues a full week off in June and July. Meanwhile cybersecurity firm Absolute Software used monitoring (with their employees’ knowledge) to identify colleagues that were working long hours consistently and offered them a wellness check in.
While wellness weeks give employees a chance to reset, longer-term solutions are needed to keep burnout at bay.
Mozilla has asked all colleagues to input on a larger project known as “the future of work” that considers what professional life will look life in a post-Covid world.
“We were remote-friendly before Covid, but we know we aren’t going to go back to that when it’s over, explains Douglass. “Folks don’t want that. They want more flexibility: to come into an office when it makes sense, when their team is there, they want to be able to take care of kids and family while also making an impact. So, we’re really pushing ourselves on this. Having an explicit agreement about flexibility, what’s ‘allowed’ and what’s not, is incredibly freeing and will help all of us feel less stress.”
Wise also runs several initiatives to combat burnout in the long term, including the ‘work from anywhere’ programme (which allows employees to work from anywhere in the world for up to 90 days a year), an annual allowance of health days (outside of general sick days) and Wellness Months twice each year (where colleagues can experience wellness workshops).
“With all of these things, the most important thing is always feeling able to have conversations with your teammates and team leads about how you’re feeling,” says Kovacevic. “Signs of burnout, grief, or anxiety can differ hugely person to person, so it’s crucial we can spot them, normalise having those discussions at work, and support our people through them in the way that best works for them.”
Douglass says that it will also be important for tech companies to share best practice to improve wellbeing across the industry. “Tech companies must learn from each other and share more about what works and what doesn’t,” she concludes. “Embrace flexibility, trust that the folks you hire are doing their best, have empathy and evaluate performance based on impact, not hours or visibility.”
Tijana Kovacevic, Head of People Development at Wise, shares her own experience of burnout and offers her top tips for combatting it
In early 2020, before I joined Wise, I was having a very difficult time. I was onboarding at a fast-growing tech scale-up with a very ruthless culture and a leadership team promoting it. At the same time, I was the primary carer for my mother, who was suffering from progressive dementia and multiple other illnesses. On top of that, I lived abroad, over 1,000km away, therefore I was always travelling back and forth to balance caring for my mother and my ever-increasing work responsibilities.
Personal life was not on the menu and my breakfast, lunch and dinner were severe anxiety attacks, sleep disorders, a stiff back and even memory loss. I’m so thankful to my husband, who was compassionate enough to understand what I was going through and constantly reminded me to take my medication.
Work was a different situation though — instead of being supported by my lead, my personal circumstances and vulnerability were used against me, and I kept on being pushed beyond limits by unrealistic expectations. Eventually, I resigned.
Then the pandemic hit, and we were quarantined for several months. Borders were closed, so I could not travel to take care of my mother, who passed away three months after I had last seen her.
As hard as this time was, it came with hugely important learnings. I learned to recognise early signs of burnout and listen to my body, as well as trust myself more. I learned it’s okay to make mistakes and say, “I can’t”, “I don’t want to”, or “I don’t know.” I learned to seek professional help or chat my feelings away with a friend. I learned to prioritise my personal needs and communicate them assertively.
I try to bring all these learnings with me to work every day, knowing that there are too many others who might be suffering, just like I was. Wise has a one-of-a kind culture of working with people and supporting each other — no matter what.
From a people and organisational development perspective, here’s what I believe companies, leadership, and all individuals can do to help employees with burnout: