Even if they are well-compensated and are working a manageable amount of hours, a lack of recognition and appreciation can still leave a developer feeling unmotivated and exhausted.
Early in his career as a developer, Tejas Kumar often found himself at the verge of breaking down during his daily commute. More than once, when a coworker found a flaw in Tejas’ code, they would launch into a series of racist remarks.
“Go back to India, where you came from,” one colleague commented.
“It was a mistake hiring you. We didn’t expect you to be this junior,” a manager piled on.
In those moments, Tejas thought of all the things his coworkers could never understand. That he was born in India, but grew up in Qatar — a place so diverse that he never thought about racial dynamics growing up. That he was only in Germany because his immigration status was ending in Qatar, and he needed socialized health care to manage the severe (and extremely expensive) type of hemophilia he was born with.
Tejas knew he couldn’t get his coworkers to see his perspective. Instead, he used their cruelty as motivation to improve himself.
“I felt so inadequate that I would go home, cry, work hard, learn, and improve. I would digest all the information I could.”
Tejas committed to growing as a developer and made meaningful progress over time. Slowly, surely, he became confident enough in his abilities that he felt comfortable advocating for himself. Walking into his annual review after two years at his first job, he asked what it would take to earn a reasonable raise in the next year.
“Oh come on, you’re not worth that!” the manager laughed.
At that moment, Tejas knew it was time to leave. And so he started searching on stackoverflow.co, more confident of his ability and value. He sorted open positions by salary, prioritized applying to the highest-paying ones, and soon found another job in Germany without much effort at all.
“I had grown like this,” he says, motioning in an upward trajectory, “motivated by shame.”
The importance of purposeful work and appreciation
The first day you work out, you don’t see the gains. Check the mirror every day, and you likely won’t notice the minute differences in losing weight or building more muscle mass at first. And when it comes to others, it often takes a fresh perspective to really notice change over time.
Tejas was able to gain confidence in his abilities because of his daily commitment to improving … but his managers couldn’t appreciate that professional growth in part because they worked with him every day, unable to look past surface level observations to understand the improved quality of his work.
In fact, bosses or colleagues at toxic workplaces may especially push minority employees to overwork by making it seem like it’s “to prove ourselves,” Tejas says, when it’s really “a means to an end for the company: profit for them, income for us.”
It’s a reminder that if you’re in a toxic work environment, your improvement may not be recognized, and that it might take you leaving to get the compensation and treatment you deserve.
Burnout isn’t just a product of long hours and poor treatment. It is also often the direct result of not having enough purpose and autonomy, Tejas says: “In one study, they found that burnout and depression are essentially the same thing — it’s the sensation of lacking purpose.”
That peer-reviewed study found “a clear link” between “a lack of control and burnout,” and found that employees were more likely to feel more involved and enthusiastic at work when they believed they had the capacity to …
- Influence decisions that affect their work
- Exercise professional autonomy
- Gain access to the resources necessary to do an effective job
It’s important for workers to feel that they are trusted to work on their own, and that their work has a meaningful impact.
People who feel their jobs serve a higher purpose are more likely to report higher levels of job satisfaction, according to a similar study conducted by European researchers. Lower job satisfaction, on the other hand, led to higher intentions to leave a position.
“As people spend more time at workplaces they start to see their jobs as the focal point in providing meaning and identity for their lives,” the researchers wrote — it’s no wonder then that people get burnt out when they feel like their work has become pointless!
In one role, Tejas attended 29 conferences in a single year, traveling the world in order to talk to developers about their needs. However, when he reported his findings back to his company, he felt like his observations from those conversations weren’t driving change.
Instead, he felt like his discoveries were overruled by somebody who hadn’t done as much hands-on research — although they did have a strong opinion on the subject. This was compounded by Tejas feeling surrounded by plenty of talk about diversity and inclusion without much action. He left that role as a result.
What works, and what doesn’t, in healthy workplaces.
Tejas used to work at G2i as Head of Vetting, and says he learned valuable lessons about creating a healthy work environment from his experiences here. “There’s a strong sense of ownership and autonomy at G2i that I haven’t seen anywhere else.”
Tejas appreciated that he could go to his supervisor — Chief Technology Officer Lee Johnson — for anything and Lee would always be available for him. At the same time, Lee made Tejas feel like he was trusted to do his work and make decisions on his own.
“I’d go to him with an idea and he’d be like, ‘Yes, do it. You’re in charge. I put you in charge because I trust you” Tejas says. “He would tell me, ‘You’re going to be great, I know it already. If you need anything, come find me, but I can leave you on your own and you’ll make things work.’”
As a person of color working in tech, Tejas felt seen in a way he hadn’t in past roles.
“I’m usually a minority on any team, and with that comes a lot of self-doubt. Do they see me in this ocean of whiteness…? Am I heard? Am I seen?”
That struggle is all too common in the workforce, according to University of Texas-Austin researcher Kevin Cokley, whose 2017 study found that “at least 70 percent of the population” struggles with feeling like an imposter.
Imposter syndrome was worse for minorities in the workforce, though, in part because it was associated with a strong impact on depression and perceived discrimination among African American and Latino students.
Tejas sees contracting as a potential way to guard against burnout. Companies often want their employees to feel part of a team, so they establish what he calls “an almost cult-like” family ethos.
This emotional closeness can lead to bad outcomes, like depression and burnout, if employees feel like they have to give more of their time and energy as a result, while still struggling with feeling like their work has little impact.
“The moment this ‘belonging’ and ‘being part of a family’ gets into it, you’re basically setting people up for depression,” Tejas says.
For Tejas, the contractor model facilitates better against burnout because it’s transactional — in a good way!
You’re not part of a company’s “family”. You get paid to do work for a company, but you have more freedom to leave if the work no longer serves you. And because it’s a business relationship, it’s harder to feel any guilt for doing so.
Whether through contracting or full-time employment, people do their best work when they feel they are trusted to make decisions independently. That’s why Tejas is passionate about leading teams in a collaborative fashion similar to what he experienced while at G2i.
In past manager roles, Tejas would hold a “sync” meeting with his team on Mondays. In those meetings, he would share the group’s priorities, delegate responsibilities … and then send everyone off to work on their own for the week.
“See you Friday!” he likes to say — and means it.
For Tejas, that attitude gives his team the authority, respect and autonomy they need to tackle problems themselves. Rather than micromanaging them, he focuses on instilling confidence in them, ultimately judging them by their deliverables and not how they reached those deliverables.
Committing to active listening and understanding
As he battled burnout in multiple settings, Tejas wasn’t shy about telling his colleagues when he felt like he was losing agency over his work or like his work was no longer having impact.
He hoped his concerns would be taken seriously. But instead, some managers would assure him his work was valuable … and then make it seem as if the fact that he felt like it wasn’t having an impact suggested a problem with him.
“Poor management, where gaslighting is more prevalent than active listening and understanding, has contributed most to burnout in my career,” Tejas says.
Supervisors can help empower their employees by rejecting invalidating behaviors and embracing active listening and understanding instead. Research shows that managers who actively listen reduce insecurities felt by employees, particularly in times of organizational stress.
If you’re in a position of authority, it’s helpful to think about the kind of leader you want to be, Tejas says.
Think about the way you want to be treated by your supervisor. Choose to be a leader who recognizes, respects and affirms your employees. Perhaps most importantly of all, remember that a colleague’s wellbeing isn’t just about the pay or the hours — it’s about the sense of purpose and agency they have in their role.