Is burnout a systemic or an individual problem?

To understand how to prevent or overcome burnout, first, we need to understand its causes. The causes of developer burnout are quite complex; however, there are different areas in which we could fit them. To begin with, we can separate them between external causes–related to resources, company policy, team members and leaders, etc, and internal causes–regarding emotions and how a person deals with them. Down below you’ll find a more detailed breakdown of internal and external causes.

External causes

The following list highlights the causing factors that come from different leadership styles and choices; interpersonal relationships between coworkers; the way tasks and job positions are designed; and the impact that the organization has on a person. 

An important note here: these factors have the power to promote burnout risk or boost positive work engagement, all depends on how they are executed.

Leadership. Promotes Burnout: when there is role conflict, mobbing or bullying, absent leadership–no guidance that leaves everyone having to fend for themselves, lack of feedback. Boosts work-engagement: when there’s clarity in everybody’s role, quality feedback, recognition for both efforts and results.

Team. Promotes Burnout: when there are interpersonal conflicts, bullying, lack of coordination between team members, inefficient meetings. Boosts work-engagement: when there’s cooperation, group creativity, coordination, and efficiency.

Tasks. Promotes Burnout: when there is an absence of challenges, extremely demanding deadlines, lack of resources and tools, work overload. Boosts work-engagement: when there’s a correct use of skills, comfortable deadlines, available resources, and an overall challenging feeling.

Company. Promotes Burnout: when there is a perceived inequality, shame of being a part of the company. Boosts work engagement: when there are both proper economic compensation and non-financial benefits; when one feels valued, proud of being a part of the company.

Work-life balance. Promotes Burnout: when one feels overworked, pressured to be available beyond work-hours, when one doesn’t have time/energy for hobbies, poor off-time management, or even the complete absence of time off. Boosts work-engagement: when there is time and energy for relaxing activities that disconnect the person from the job; when a person finds challenges beyond work, when they feel in control.

Internal causes

There’s also research on the impact that certain mental processes (both cognitive and emotional) have on the experiences a person has at work, which can promote burnout or boost work engagement. A few of them are:

Emotional Self-Awareness. Promotes Burnout: when there are frequent negative emotions. It can also happen that the negative emotions are not frequent, but when they do come around, they’re very intense. Also, a low emotional ratio (which is the average between positive and negative emotions) can promote burnout. Boosts work engagement: when the person experiences frequent positive emotions. It can also happen that the positive emotions are not frequent, one simply cannot be happy all the time, but when the emotions do come around, they’re very intense and can often make up for any rough patches. Also, a high emotional ratio (which is the average between positive and negative emotions) can boost work engagement. 

Emotional Regulation. Promotes Burnout: when there are negative biases or mental traps such as the dampening of positive events. Also, burnout can be promoted when there’s maladaptive regulation, which is how we deal with stressful situations in a negative way, for example recurring to self-blaming, mental rumination, catastrophizing, among other mechanisms. Boosts work-engagement: when there are positive biases such as positivism. Also, work engagement can be boosted when there’s adaptive regulation, which is how we deal with stressful situations but in a positive way, for example, a person can face a stressful situation with perspective, emotional acceptance, focusing on plans, positive reinterpretation, among other mechanisms.