Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Tech skills: Upgrade your job

Developers are facing burnout. Here's how companies are trying to fix it

Tech teams have long been burdened with the responsibility of carrying their company through digital transformation projects. Now it's time to the share load with the rest of the business.

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Image: Westend61/GETTY

The Great Resignation, coupled with ongoing skills shortages and digital transformation projects, means that businesses have never been more obsessed with trying to retain their precious tech talent.

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Unfortunately, while companies are working hard to keep their staff, there are tell-tale signs that tech staff are not entirely content in their current roles, with many blaming it on feeling burnt-out and stressed.

A recent study by Mulesoft found four leading causes that contribute to these disgruntled feelings among Australian developers: learning new skills to adapt to new technologies and approaches; increasing workload and demand from other teams; the pressures of digital transformation; and difficulties of onboarding new hires quickly.

"There's recognition from the business side that the pressure is on and there's some empathy of, 'We know we're overloading you', but at the same time, the cultural divide between business teams within a company and IT…if you're on the business side, you'll just keep throwing stuff over the wall," Mulesoft digital transformation office VP and global field CTO Matt McLarty told ZDNet.

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Similar findings of burnout were uncovered by talent management software solutions provider Elmo. The company's recent quarterly employee sentiment index report, which captured how over 1,000 Australians feel about their jobs and their workplace, found burnout hit the highest levels at 46% between January and March 2022 -- up 34% compared to the corresponding quarterly report two years ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study found that about a third of workers are overwhelmed with the amount of work they have to do, while almost a quarter have taken on more responsibility at work. 

Elmo CEO Danny Lessem highlighted the importance of businesses listening to staff.

"It's really a question of really, really looking after your people, speaking to your people, and listening to them, and just to remember in the world of tech, people do what they do because they're passionate about it," he said.

"This is the thing; you've got to ensure that you fill that passion as well. People want to learn, they want to contribute, and they want it to be sustainable – it's not just cutting code, it's not what people want."

Interestingly, Lessem said the study showed that, of the total who were feeling burnt out, 57% were generation Z versus 21% who were baby boomers.

"I'm not suggesting that baby boomers are tough as nails, but it's the changing perceptions of what employees are looking for in the workplace. Younger people have got much more complex needs in the workplace in terms of what excels them and what burns them out," he said.

"I think that employers need to be cognisant, particularly in tech where you have more Gen Z and millennials working in the sector, so they're even more acutely affected by the burnout."

Easing the burden

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For McLarty, part of the solution to alleviate the pressure and stress is to distribute the workload across the business by enabling employees outside of IT to integrate apps and data for themselves, noting that the move could also help accelerate transformation projects.

"It's really about restructuring your whole organisation around digital business, so part of that is thinking about how do you get the business and IT teams closer together," he said.

"What we're finding is sometimes that pattern is emerging, without necessarily being intentional…where tech teams are popping up all over the business and that convergence is happening."

As McLarty puts it, some of the biggest shifts in history did not rely solely on a single team to make it successful, and digital transformation projects are no different.

"I look back in history and when businesses went through these big shifts like moving from steam power to electricity, but also thinking about automotive production, mass production, it could never could have got to the levels that it did in the twentieth century without this division of labour and being able to mainstream the work," he said.

"I've always felt like this is just a big problem in the software industry, is we're always biasing towards those coders, and so more and more falls on their shoulders, and they get stressed and move around."

Stephen Street, technology evangelist at Tableau, agreed that a skill such as data literacy, for instance, is something that can be shared with employees across the business, so that IT teams can concentrate on more meaningful work rather than just keeping the lights on for the business.

"If you can set up a platform which allows most people in the business to answer their own questions, then you no longer have to rely on key individuals to answer those queries, and what that does is, yes, it does remove some of that burden from them, but it also ensures those individuals aren't the ones consistently asked for answers," he said.

"It means they're no longer doing repetitive work…but now they're working on more valuable aspects of the business, so that they feel they're contributing in a much more valued way."

Empowering the business

Finance giant NAB is one company that has recognised the importance of boosting its skills base as part of its digital transformation journey. 

In 2018, the company set up its in-house Cloud Guild to provide Amazon Web Services skills training to its entire business – from beginners to developers. Since launch, NAB has trained over 7,000 employees with cloud-computing skills and delivered over 2,700 cloud certifications, which the bank claims is one of the highest levels in the southern hemisphere.

"Our efforts to provide ongoing training and development play a significant role, not only to close that digital divide, but also to ensure that our people are doing meaningful, fulfilling work that is sustainable for the digital future," said NAB personal banking executive CIO, Ana Cammaroto.

"Cloud computing is clearly becoming the dominant technology platform and our people need and want to have the relevant skills to deliver for our customers. On the flip side, customers are increasingly demanding seamless digital experiences, so providing these skills will develop and diversify our people while enabling them to build great tech."

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According to Cammaroto, the competition for talent is so fierce these days, especially with tech and digital roles, it was necessary for the bank to continue to provide training and development, even for those who are already working in the field.

"In addition to internally run programs, engineers at NAB have access to almost all major external digital-learning platforms so they can complement their NAB development journey with self-paced courses from industry-recognised companies," she said.

"So while we're seeing demand for skills increase, at the same time we're seeing record numbers of colleagues opting in to new training – there is a clear thirst for knowledge from our engineers.

"We're also seeing increasing participation outside of traditional tech roles who are looking to join a career in tech – a trend that we're accommodating through a number of initiatives including our 'Return to Work' program. This IT-focused program encourages people who have had a two-year or longer career hiatus to return to the workforce and leverage our learning and development offerings to upskill or even retrain."

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