The burnout industry: A counsellor's perspective on tech

Why is there so much stress and burnout in the tech industry?

Is there something "wrong" going on or are people particularly vulnerable? And what can you do about it?
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I had worked in the tech industry for over 15 years before I decided to become a counsellor. Today, my counselling clients are mostly software developers, designers, team leaders and other professionals.

Even before I became a counsellor, I had a sense that there was a great amount of stress, burnout and tension in the industry, more so than in many other industries. I wondered - was there something "wrong" going on in tech?

Professional woman being crushed by stress and burnout

The influence of childhood

Thanks to my training in applied psychology, I am now able to look at the career stories of my clients and friends through a lens of psychosocial development theory. In my opinion, the tech industry isn't inherently "bad" or "exploitative". Rather, it is that people who are attracted to the tech industry in the first place are also more vulnerable to being exploited or more willing to let go of being treated badly. The same traits that make people choose working with computers over another career may also make them have high expectations of themselves and may make it more difficult for them to figure out and communicate their boundaries.

Many techies have experienced an emotionally difficult childhood, where their sense of being loved for simply who they were was lacking or missing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, parents whose child is good at maths and computers tend to expect a lot. On top of that, there can also be pressure to continuously be better than other children from teachers or during extracurricular activities at schools.

All in all, the child is given a message that it is his or her performance that matters to others, not who her or she is or how he or she feels. Over time, this can make a person think that the only way to deserve affection and love is to be really good at something. Naturally, the desire to overachieve and to be praised for it develops and is a powerful driver in adulthood.

Social isolation and anxiety

The second important thing that I've observed is that the more time someone spends with computers, in the virtual world, the more difficult it is for them to communicate with people in the real world. This works both ways. If someone finds it challenging to talk to people, they are more likely to avoid it, and perhaps choose a profession where a lot of time is spent in the virtual world.

For someone like that, it can be very hard to know what to say and how to behave with others. This is how social isolation leads to more social isolation. For many techies, it can be very stressful to have small talk with others, never mind difficult conversations that one sometimes needs to have with their manager about what works and what doesn't in their current role.

The spiral of social anxiety and isolation
So here we have two factors that often characterize a person who has been good with computers since their childhood: A drive to overachieve in order to feel loved or at least liked and a difficulty to communicate with others.

It is no wonder someone like that can feel pressured to work long hours, be unable to negotiate fair pay and may find it extremely stressful to turn up for job interviews.

What can you do about it?

Do the challenges that I'm describing remind you of yourself? The good news is that you don't need to become more extroverted and you don't need to quit your job and find another career to be happy.

Here are some things that you could consider doing:
  • Stop expecting that the next year or your next job will be magically "better". The only thing that you can really change is your own attitude towards yourself and towards others. You can absolutely learn be more self-accepting and self-validating. Putting energy into that is likely going to be more productive than waiting around for the world to change around you.
  • When things don't feel right to you, take some time to think about your boundaries. Knowing what you want and what you are willing to give is important when making decisions, both big and small.
  • Increase your assertiveness and your communication skills. Being able to state your boundaries to others can be tremendously helpful when you encounter emotionally difficult situations. There are numerous self-help books and Internet articles on this topic.
  • Critically examine your sense of self-worth. If you tend to feel like opinions of others on you matter a lot, you're probably also finding that eventually, no external achievement is ultimately fulfilling to you. Self-help books can be a useful resource, and exploring this in therapy may help you delve more deeply into how you perceive yourself and why you do it that way.
  • Keep getting out there. Enlist trusted family members and friends in supporting each other. Not only will this help you with your social skills, having honest feedback on what's going on at your work can help when things get confusing.
As a clinical counsellor, I help techies find a comfortable work-life balance and healthy self-esteem. Learn more if you need support.
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