Burnout: An IT epidemic in the making

Burnout is quickly becoming a widespread problem for IT organizations. The wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, mass tech industry layoffs, and the demand to keep pace with constantly evolving technology are all prominent factors contributing to a state of exhaustion among IT pros, according to industry surveys.

For IT leaders aware of the impact burnout can have on their staff, the reality of IT exhaustion is complicated further by the fact that burnout isn’t caused by just one thing. It is a problem that builds slowly overtime, leading to disengaged and unmotivated employees who have one foot out the door. And it can be hard to spot.

According to a survey from Mason Frank in partnership with Salesforce, 44% of full-time employees experience burnout, which directly impacts quality of life especially around job satisfaction, work-life balance, and overall wellbeing. Factors cited by respondents as directly impacting burnout include “unmanageable workloads, insufficient support, and unrealistic deadlines.” The 2023 IT salary report from Robert Half reinforces these findings. Its survey of IT pros and hiring managers across the US uncovered that the leading causes of worker burnout include heavy workloads (57%), lack of support from management (32%), lack of resources to perform job duties (31%), and increased commuting over the past year (31%).

Here is a look at this growing phenomenon and how it may be impacting your IT staff and your IT organization as well.

The stages of burnout

Developing over time, burnout builds in distinct stages that lead employees down a path of low motivation, cynicism, and eventually depersonalization, according to Yerbo’s The State of Burnout in Tech report, which points to 2005 research by Salanova and Schaufeli on the subject.

Exhaustion is typically the first phase, leaving employees feeling unable to unwind, recover, and restore their energy for another day of work. This lack of energy and fatigue can be so severe that it causes employees to develop depression, cardiovascular problems, and other illnesses that can be exacerbated by stress. After exhaustion, employees will often experience self-inefficacy, negatively impacting productivity and motivation as employees start to doubt their own capabilities and feel an overall lack of accomplishment.

The next phase involves cynicism, detachment, and apathy, as burned-out employees longer find satisfaction in their work. Cynicism is the highest predictor of turnover, according to Yerbo, as it often is the final push that drives employees to seek new opportunities elsewhere. The final phase of burnout is depersonalization, where emotions are shut down as a coping mechanism, leaving workers often distant and cold with colleagues and superiors. The further your employees descend into burnout, the more difficult it becomes to help them recover.

Ripple effects of burnout

Burnout can have long-lasting impacts on businesses goals, reputation, and overall organizational productivity. For IT professionals who report high levels of burnout, 42% are considering quitting their company within the next six months, according to survey data from Yerbo. Even among those who report low or moderate levels of burnout, 25% express a desire to leave their company in the near future.

And burnout is also impacting skills acquisition, as 43% of Yerbo survey respondents said they had to stop studying for a certification exam because they were unable to find time due to their workloads.

Further, burned-out employees who do leave are highly likely to negatively impact your company’s reputation by sharing their frustrations online and on review sites, where other potential candidates can see them. With tech talent markets always tight, increased burnout within your organization can quickly become not only a retention issue, but a recruitment problem as well.

The long toll of elevated workloads

Increased workloads sustained since the pandemic and elevated of late by accelerating demands on IT have left employees feeling exhausted. The survey from Yerbo revealed that 62% of IT professionals report that they feel “physically and emotionally drained.” For employees already stretched to their limit, adding more work to their plate after this year’s rise in layoffs might just be the final straw.

Nearly 75% of employees say they devote more than 40 hours per week to work, putting in more hours than they’re contracted to work, according to Robert Half. More than 25% said they have taken time off due to stress at some point within the past two years, relying on PTO to combat burnout. But those numbers might underestimate the impact, given that the survey also found that 33% of professionals say they don’t feel comfortable expressing feelings of burnout with their manager.

Overburdened, 51% of tech workers feel they aren’t living up to their full potential at work, falling short of their own expectations, according to Yerbo’s survey. Moreover, 30% reported that they feel inefficient at work. And as confidence in skills and abilities falls, so too does performance and overall motivation. While engaged employees feel connected to their work and invested in the company mission, 43% of tech workers report feeling less engaged at work and 27% don’t see value or purpose in what they do on the job. This overall lack of engagement leads to a sense of detachment, increasing the risk that many in your department may quit or completely check-out in their role.

RTO: A could-be burnout deal-breaker

The pandemic’s shift to remote work has triggered a more permanent shift in worker expectations, with only 8% of respondents to a Mason Frank survey saying they’d be happy to work in an office five days a week, whereas 44% prefer fully remote and 48% said they preferred hybrid working. And with companies increasingly rolling out return-to-office (RTO) mandates, IT leaders can expect growing dissatisfaction from their staff, as 76% of Mason Frank respondents said they would “reconsider working for their employer if they weren’t offered flexibility around where they worked.”

In fact, remote work has become one of the most sought-after perks, according to Robert Half data, with 63% of IT professionals saying remote work is a key perk, ahead of paid parental leave (20%), paid time off for volunteering (19%), company-paid meals and snacks (21%), and employee discounts (29%). Keeping in line with employees’ clear desire to have flexible work options, 43% also said that they valued remote work business allowances, to ensure they have all the necessary resources at home to effectively perform their jobs.

Women disproportionately affected by burnout

For women, the statistics around burnout are even worse. Nearly half (46%) of women in the tech industry report feeling burned out, compared to 39% of male tech professionals, according to Yerbo. This gap is not surprising given that women face many uphill battles in the IT industry, encountering obstacles that their male counterparts typically will not face in their careers.

The survey also found that women (69%) are more likely to express that they feel “run-down and drained of physical and emotional energy” each day, compared to men (56%). This can also be a result of tech’s diversity issue, where women often find themselves in a male-dominated environment where they must work harder to prove themselves. Data also suggests that women and minorities experience higher instances of discrimination, leading to additional stress that only makes burnout worse.

The slow road to fixing burnout

Burnout can’t be fixed overnight. Turning around burnout in your organization will require consistency and dedication to improving the employee experience. You’ll need to consider increases in resources, mentoring, opportunities for advancement, as well as evaluating boundaries around work-life balance and ensuring that a healthy balance is reflected and modeled all the way to the top.

Organizations that put in the effort to improve engagement and reduce burnout will reap the rewards in retention. Microsoft’s 2022 Trend Index report found that organizations that “doubled down on employee engagement in times of economic uncertainty” ultimately performed twice as well financially compared to organizations that did not prioritize engagement. And according to the report, “each additional point of engagement reported by employees corelated with a +$46,511 difference in market cap per employee.”

The benefits of curbing burnout in your organization include better retention, easier recruitment, improved productivity, and better efficiency from your workforce. Healthy workers help the organization thrive, cost the company less, and help ensure that you’re consistently meeting business goals. If your organization is experiencing the negative effects of burnout, it’s time to step back and evaluate the employee experience and identify what needs to be fixed and improved.

Staff Management