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Neurotic software developers have a higher risk of burnout

Some personality types are more susceptible to burnout. This study shows that software developers are no exception to that rule.

Beaker singing Bohemian Rhapsody, seemingly in full panic mode
Why do bad things always happen to meeeeeee?

Stress is natural. It makes us more alert and can improve our ability to handle difficult situations. However, when high levels of stress are sustained for a long period, our mental and physical health may suffer.

People who experience long-term stress are at greater risk of burnout. At the same time, some people appear to thrive in high-intensity environments for long periods of time. What causes these differences?

There are several factors that affect the likelihood of burnout. Examples include work-family conflicts, decision latitude at work, (lack of) social support, and someone’s personality. This study looks at the relationship between personality types and stress. This is something that has already been studied for many different professions – but this is the first study that focusses on software developers.

Models and measures

The study makes use of two well-known models, FFM and SMBM, which I’ll briefly describe below.

The Big Five Model () consists of five main personality types, which together are often abbreviated OCEAN:

  • Openness to experience: People who are open to new experiences are often creative, politically liberal, and have a variety of interests.

  • Conscientiousness: Conscientious individuals are often career-oriented, organised, thorough and methodical, and satisfied with their jobs.

  • Extraversion: Extraverts enjoy social interactions and often feel energetic and talkative.

  • Agreeableness: People with a high agreeableness score often experience happiness and a high level of satisfaction because they are less critical, more cooperative, and considerate, among other things.

  • Neuroticism: Neurotic individuals are more susceptible to negative emotions and experience more feelings of anger, worry, anxiety, and so on. This can lead to decreased job satisfaction.

The Shirom–Melamed Burnout Measure (SMBM) is a widely used method for measuring burnout. The SMBM defines burnout as a construct that consists of emotional exhaustion, physical fatigue, and cognitive weariness.

Both FFM and SMBM can be measured using standardised, online questionnaires. The International Personality Item Pool (IPIP) measures a variety of personality-related constructs, including FFM. The SMBM comes with its own questionnaire, the SMBQ.

Method and results

A survey was created that consisted of a simplified version of IPIP and the SMBQ. It was then distributed among contributors to major open source projects and developers who are active on Twitter. The survey received 51 responses, of which 47 were deemed suitable for further analysis.

Data from the received responses were used to construct models with different combinations of personality traits. These models were compared with each other and a null model that assumes that no relationship exists between personality traits and burnout.

The results suggest that the model with neuroticism as (the only) predictor outperforms all other models, which is in line with findings from similar studies in other fields. Surprisingly, the researchers did not find a strong negative association between conscientiousness and burnout, as in other studies. This is due to a small sample size or due to some unknown, (yet to be discovered) difference between software development and other fields.

Based on these results, organisations that want to focus on burnout prevention could be tempted to test employees’ personalities in order to identify high-risk individuals, so that resources can be spent primarily on those who are most likely to benefit from prevention methods like stress intervention and social support.

However, one should keep in mind that burnout is not exclusively caused by neuroticism and could be mitigated by other factors. Personality tests also do not take social aspects of the workplace into account, which can be very important; especially for developers who work in agile teams.

Summary

  1. Individuals with a neurotic personality type are more susceptible to burnout