As a Silicon Valley Software Engineer I've seen my share of burnout cases, and had my own as well, due to the typical long work hours. What's typical for these long work hours? 60-70 hours per week, and in some cases you'll be spending all your waking hours at the office.
Obviously this leads to a completely imbalanced lifestyle. A former co-worker at a startup I worked for long ago told a story from his earlier work-life, that he had spent several months basically living at the office to get some project finished. He went home one day, came in the house, and heard his 3-4 year old daughter whisper to her Mom, "Mom, who's that man?" completely not remembering her father. That caught his attention, and at the time I worked with him he worked on Contract for a set number of hours per week.
Shorter hours in software: (February 22, 2005, 4:00 AM PST; By Ed Frauenheim, Staff Writer, CNET News.com)
This article talks of a wave (perhaps) of employees and employers loosening up. There was a series of news reports a few months concerning overwork at Electronic Arts (the game maker), and this may be part of the trend they're reporting. Also in recent months the San Jose Mercury News had an article of a husband of an Apple employee, who on a Saturday spent the day cruising Apple's campus with signs and a bull horn protesting the insane hours that are involved with working for the Think Different company.
Possible reasons include the reduced allure of dot-com riches and programmers putting greater emphasis on life outside of work. Also, observers say some software houses have learned to manage projects better. In effect, software makers are concluding that productivity suffers when employees work extended days month after month.
Yup ... The reduced allure is obviously a reference to the .COM's going .BUST. In general the practice is that when a company is in startup phase the people are expected to work insane hours. This ties back to the funding, where the company management and investors know there is a certain window of opportunity for the company to do R&D to create their product and get it on the market. The investors provide a pile of money, and it is the managements job to ride through the window of opportunity with that pile of money. If everything went well the cash pile will last long enough for product sales to kick in, keeping the company afloat that way. After all, running a company costs money.
The next step down the food chain is the employees. To manage the cash pile through to cash-flow-break-even, management must cut costs at every corner. This, by the way, was the major failing of most of the .COM companies who went .BUST, they were wasteful with their cash piles, a lesson the typical silicon valley startup already knew. One of the corners to cut costs is salaries. The employees get the expectation that if they work insane hours the company will fly, and otherwise it will fall. How are the employees incentivised? Why, by the stock options. If the company flies it goes public and the stock is worth a bundle, and this pattern was not invented by the .COM era, but was active in Silicon Valley for many years before.
My take, having ridden that pony, is that it's not worth the bother. I'd rather have my balanced lifestyle thankyouverymuch. I'm also greatly concerned about the quality of work - aren't there studies showing that people work tends to suffer after 'n' hours on the job per week?