Lessons learned from burnout
Last ~2.5 years were wild. They sure were for me, anyway. During our collective trauma from practising social distancing because of a pandemic, I also had burnout. Not the kind most people talk about — where you’re mildly exhausted and need a holiday — but the severe kind. Before this, I didn’t know what burnout was or what it’s like, because few people talk about it. Let’s break taboos! I want to tell you how it happened, what it was like, what helped me get through it, and what I and others could’ve done to avoid it.
Escapism and guilt, escapism and guilt
My burnout didn’t happen overnight.
A daily worry of mine is the existential crisis: climate change. Or climate catastrophe. I frequently think about whether the changes we’re experiencing are reversible and what their impact is and will be. How it will kill, traumatize, and displace people. My parents might experience some extreme weather, and many of us may have to deal with drought and minor floods more regularly, but it’ll be life and death for less privileged people and for the generations after us. Researches also keep discovering new effects caused by climate change. In developed (and developing) nations, we collectively and reluctantly consume massive amounts of fossil fuel-based energy, even though we’ve known the impact for decades. The measures we’re taking now should’ve been done decades ago. Why are we so late to act? Can we reverse it, or at least prevent it from worsening? Why do boomers still think it’s a fucking solar or orbital cycle? And why the fuck do we waste energy on useless shit like proof-of-work blockchains?!
Then the SARS‑CoV‑2 pandemic hit. I didn’t mind sitting at home 24/7, but I was concerned about the physical and mental well-being of loved ones and the vulnerable. Additionally, it somehow became an opportunity for anti-government and anti-science QAnon crazies to thrive and spread the most far-fetched ideas as facts and run misinformation campaigns. I’m sure you haven’t escaped the “it’s just a flu” and “the vaccine will kill you” nonsense.
Amidst the crises above, I struggled at the agency I worked at. Without getting into details, I grew cynical toward the company and felt bad decisions were being made. Moreover, I worked on this big refactor/rebuild. When I started, I had a blast. The joy was gradually replaced with worry, as progress was slower than I wanted it to be. I was also convinced I was the only one with the knowledge to carry out the work, so I felt a weight on my shoulders to become more productive. Although my team wanted to help where they could, I worried that their help, or anyone’s, would slow things down instead.
Contrary to what I wanted, my productivity progressively worsened as I demanded more of myself. Every day, I’d start frustrated thinking about what I had to do, followed by a cycle of escapism and guilt. I’d work until exhaustion, unwind by allowing some slack, and then get back to work feeling guilty about my distraction until I felt exhausted again. Being behind schedule, I started working longer days (sometimes up to 12 hours) and was unable to fall asleep for hours, worrying about how much I had to do the following day. Despite falling asleep late, I’d wake up early in the morning (4-5 a.m.), unable to fall back asleep. Instead, I’d start working and lie to myself that I’d only work for 8 hours and stop at lunchtime. In addition to sleep deprivation, irregular sleep rhythm, and continuous guilt, I experienced daily headaches and was frequently dizzy. Morning walks, fresh air, the medication the doctor prescribed, stomach breathing, meditation, nothing seemed to work.
I kept going until the refactor/rebuild was done, switched teams within the same organization, and started on a promising greenfield project; just the break I needed, I remember thinking. The sleep improved, headaches quickly faded, and no more dizziness.
Although promising, the greenfield project had a tight deadline among many other problems. The ambition of setting the example of how a project ought to be quickly turned into a “let’s get things done”-mentality. Like the last project, I required myself to work faster than I could manage. As the only front-end developer in the team, I again thought involving anyone else would slow things down rather than speed things up. The cycle of escapism and guilt returned, and so did the physical manifestations of stress.
After some weeks of headaches and dizziness, I was fed up. I got in touch with the company’s confidant to tell how I felt, and kinda vent about work. After several check-ins, we agreed I needed to catch my breath by working less. I went from 8 to 7, and later to 6 hours a day. That was a huge relief, but did little otherwise. In fact, it may have worsened the situation, as I now felt guilty working less and wanted to get even more work done in 6 hours. I know that’s not how it works, but clearly, I wasn’t thinking straight.
In one of our weekly calls, I mentioned how things affected my personal life. I was fatigued, irritable, fell asleep right after work, couldn’t sleep at night, and had no energy for hobbies or household chores. All of that was going on for months. That’s when I was told I had to stop working immediately. I remember thinking about the work I had to do, but the confidant was resolute.
Burnout and recovery
There I sat, at home. For weeks. At the time, I told people I was home for “stress-related conditions” or “an almost burnout.” A bit out of shame, but mostly because I just wasn’t ready to admit it to myself yet. Especially in the beginning, I would talk myself into guilt trips like how I was letting everyone down and had to stop being dramatic.
Some days were better than others. I had days when I would wake up between 8 and 9 a.m., performed two household chores, and lie on the sofa for the rest of the day. On bad days, I’d stay in bed most of the day, force myself out to eat breakfast at 3-4 p.m. and lie on the sofa to sleep or watch TV. Sometimes I’d find the motivation to play a game for about 15 minutes at most. Normally, I don’t mind grinding challenging games for hours on end, but during my burnout, I changed their settings until they were free of any challenge. Despite that, I would still feel overwhelmed within a couple of minutes.
Hearing how other people experienced their burnout was comforting and insightful. Knowing other people experienced something similar and recovered gave me hope that I would recover in time, too. I did find that burnout severity varies greatly and people experience it very differently. Some people are just fatigued and need a couple of weeks to recharge. Others mentioned a daily routine of crying and sleeping.
I was somewhere in between; fatigue would set in before lunch (sometimes before breakfast), and I was extremely bored, yet couldn’t find the energy to do anything at all. Sometimes I’d ask myself, “what’s wrong with me? Why am I like this?” Hating my condition yet feeling powerless to change it did open the floodgates once or twice. It was a very confusing experience.
I vividly recall I was unable to perform some tasks. I always try to be mindful of what I do, even when it seems trivial. One day I had to pack some bags with gifts that I had to carry for a bit, so I tried to distribute the weight evenly. With the burnout, however, this simple task felt extremely challenging; I just couldn’t do it! I kept swapping items between bags as if I was brute-forcing every combination, and it was infuriating. My girlfriend had to calm me down and help me do it.
Anything computer-related was out of the question. Creative coding is, or rather was, one of my favourite hobbies. After some weeks of immense boredom, I gave that a go. That session lasted about 15 minutes until I crashed on the couch again. Like anything else, I couldn’t manage. Being fed up that fast with hobbies sucks big time. I felt I finally had all the time in the world, but couldn’t spend it.
One major breakthrough was deciding to get a new job. Making the decision alone lifted a huge weight off my shoulders. Before my burnout, I was casually browsing for new jobs for anything better, but during the burnout, I decided I’d move on regardless. Looking for a new job was the only thing I managed to find energy for. Fatigue would still kick in, so I took my time.
After approximately two months, I went back to work (at the old job). I’ve been told some people are back on their feet in a week or two, while others need half a year, so I’m glad I felt okay-ish after (just) two months. We started with 2 hours a day and slowly increased that number every week, depending on how I felt. This was standard procedure for all burned-out employees. In hindsight, I think I could’ve used a longer break as working felt like a lot at the time, but it kinda worked out. The pace was slow enough for me to continue my recovery, and the prospects of a new job helped me distance myself from work frustrations.
The post-burnout scars
Some friends who had burnout as well, told me they eventually became their old selves again, including the bad habits that got them into the situation in the first place. I can’t wait for my energy level to return to what it used to be. I’ve come a long way, but I still experience some effects from burnout.
I used to be hyped about new tech. I’d read tons of newsletters and articles, and watch videos to stay up-to-date with the latest specifications, libraries, and frameworks. One time I printed out the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines to read on the beach on my holiday, which people often joked about. If I had spare time on my hands, I’d dive into the deep unknown and try out something new on a side project. For the past two years, I barely have. At some point, I started to follow some tech news, but am very selective. It’ll probably get better, but I intend to continue limiting my intake so it won’t overwhelm me.
Most hobbies are coming back slowly. Playing video games is the only one I’m comfortable with again, but I’m cautious with very challenging games. Coding in my spare time was out of the question long after I got back to work, but that’s also coming back.
Easy tasks are easy again. Complex tasks can be tough but manageable. I also look forward to and enjoy spending time with friends and family. Maybe even more than I used to. Heck, nowadays I get out of bed easily because I look forward to work. How about that!
Unfortunately, burnout remains a constant nag. Some people that have experienced burnout can show post-traumatic stress disorder-esque behaviour, and I can relate to that. Whenever I get stressed, I get the urge to escape. At those times, it’s as if insignificant amounts of stress may cause huge setbacks, and I need to do everything in my power to avoid that. It’s a recipe for overreacting and makes me (over)cautious.
When I got back to work, my heart started racing just thinking about work. Less significantly but still noticeable is that my music taste has altered. I used to listen to intense and high-energy music much more than I do now. It illustrates perfectly how I try to eliminate whatever may increase stress, no matter how small. Classic, ambient, reggae, and lo-fi over metal and drum and bass. Writing this article is difficult: I’m reliving the entire thing, and it sucks. Like everything else, things are getting better every day.
What I’ve learned
Although a bit of self-diagnosis here, I think my burnout was occupational burnout per the World Health Organization definition — where the cause is chronic workplace stress. As I mentioned earlier, there were other stressors, but I was able to cope with those until work got extremely stressful.
A way out of burnout
Unfortunately, there’s no clear-cut plan to get out of it. I haven’t discovered the magic cure, but some things help.
Stress isn’t bad, but prolonged stress is, as your body needs time to recover to baseline levels. I felt I experienced stress for way too long and thus needed a long time to recover. Because of that, I first decided to avoid whatever were mental drains or takes a lot of energy. Relaxation is probably what most people will recommend. Unfortunately for me, this eliminated many hobbies.
A friend sent me a talk by Arthur Doler in which Arthur suggests stopping denying burnout, finding a new job, creating work/life boundaries, and seeking involvement elsewhere. I remember finding the advice weird and a bit extreme initially, although he adds nuance to it, and in hindsight, I must agree.
It took me a while to come to terms with my condition. Talking about it with friends and sharing experiences helped tremendously! As I recognized more of their stories in myself, I couldn’t continue denying it. And they told me of recovery, too, which gave me hope.
Finding involvement elsewhere is something I’ve done often to cope with little autonomy; I try to regain it elsewhere, often in a side project. I didn’t realise I was doing this until I watched a talk by Laralyn McWilliams, in which she expands on this idea by creating a game as a side project to regain control people might miss at their workplace. Unfortunately, during my burnout, I was too fatigued to do anything at all. It may work for others, though.
After deciding I wanted to find a new job, I had something to look forward to and felt I would be rid of the stressors that got me in this situation. This significantly improved my attitude towards work in general, but also towards the job I was about to leave — the cynicism was gone. I now see why people stay, but am still convinced I had to move on. This choice definitely gave me peace of mind and accelerated recovery.
Stress blinds you
When times get rough, I forget to take care of myself and my world starts to circulate around this stressful thing. All else becomes background noise. For example, I know I’m not a machine with a continuous output. I know working more doesn’t mean I’ll get more things done. But under stress, I get less forgiving. Although setting our minds to it and focussing may improve productivity for a moment, it’s not something that lasts long. Being so caught up with the stressor blinded me to how to get out of trouble.
Indicators may help us recognize when we’re spiralling down and may get us out of that hyperfocused state or see the need for change. I suppose they are different for everyone, but mine could include monitoring my working heart rate. I often had a heart rate of 80-90 throughout the working day. For an office job, where the body is typically in a sitting/resting position, that’s a shockingly high rate. I might be able to turn that into a passive indicator — a system that monitors my heart rate and notifies me when it’s abnormally high — which has its benefits.
Other indicators can be colleagues, partners, friends, or family members that might see you’re struggling and tell you. If we’re talking about occupational stress, colleagues are in the best position to help you out. For example, a manager could’ve seen me struggling and given me the help I refused.
Offering help is not helping
This is more of a social concern than a burnout-specific lesson, but hear me out.
Whenever I raised my stress, “I’m here if you need help” was the go-to reply. This is well-intended, I’m sure. When I had a lot of stress, however, I was too caught up, felt too guilty to ask, and often failed to see how anyone could help me out. I’m not pointing any fingers, but it would’ve made a huge difference if someone did intervene and got me the help I didn’t know I needed.
Anyway, I want to actually help people where I can, instead of just offering it. If I notice someone showing signs of stress or burnout, I’ll definitely check in with them and try to eliminate whatever bothers them.
Prevention is better than cure
A very cheesy saying, I know, but it’s true!
There’s this (unwritten) rule that our actions in our private life shouldn’t affect work negatively. Some contracts explicitly state it. We should have the same standard the other way around; work shouldn’t affect our life in a bad way. Just like I won’t pull an all-nighter on a new game and show up at work exhausted, I no longer want to work until I have no energy left to live my life. I don’t know how yet.
Deadlines and limited autonomy are the two things I need to look out for, as I can beat myself up trying to achieve the impossible. I’m transparent about my thoughts about whatever, including deadlines, but warning others we’re not going to make it only to be somewhat ignored doesn’t relieve any pressure. I guess I’d rather be the bad guy who insists on postponing impossible deadlines until they are postponed or lifted.
Lastly, I learned, to reevaluate my happiness more. Especially since we spend much of our time working — and burnout is often occupational in nature — we must enjoy our job. At least enough to get out of bed. Dan Pink says the three factors in achieving personal satisfaction are: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. My old job scored fairly good (but not great) on two of three factors. Additionally, I realized the work wouldn’t change the way I wanted it to, and the next project would have the same if not worse constraints: I needed to move on. To make sure I actually get to reflect, I might schedule a monthly ‘meeting’.
Burnout sucks big time. I don’t recommend it to friends. 1 out of 5 stars; big nope. I did learn how to deal with work stress a bit better.
The newly found insights are cool, but I hate that I lost passion and a bunch of hobbies. I’m not stoked about that I evaluate the mental health risk for pretty much everything, but I might be able to shape that into something healthy. But most of all, I hate how my condition affected the people around me. This could’ve been avoided if I’d learned to manage stress earlier.
I’m very grateful for all the help I got from my colleagues, friends, and most of all: my partner. Things would’ve been much worse without their help. They’ve listened, given me advice, and helped me out in a time I’m sure I wasn’t fun to be around.
I hope this lengthy post is somewhat insightful. Trust me when I say it sucks to be mentally broken, so be sure to look into stress management techniques — I can’t stress this enough, haha! I highly recommend watching Arthur’s talk[2:1] next.
Be safe! If you have questions or just want to chat: find me on Twitter.
RSA ANIMATE: Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us by Dan Pink (and illustration by RSA). ↩︎
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