Earlier this year, I was burned out. Coincidentally, at the time, I was also researching the subject of burnout. It's taken some time for me to take what I researched and experienced and put it into words.
Recently, the International Classification of Diseases classified burnout as an occupational phenomenon. It defines burnout as a "syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed."
This definition leads to many questions:
- What does it mean to have workplace stress?
- How do you manage workplace stress?
- Can workplace stress be avoided?
- Is everyone who is stressed burned out?
Anybody can experience burnout, but certain people are more susceptible to it. People who do purpose-driven work—work they love and feel passionately about, can be more susceptible to burnout. This is one reason people in the open source community, who often are highly committed to their work, are at high risk for burnout. While my story isn't due to open source contributions, burnout connects all of those who experience it. It is especially important to understand in relation to a passion for open source contribution.
How passion contributes to burnout
In the tech world, "passion" has become a code word for people who are willing to work extra-long hours. When a job description asks for candidates with passion, they aren't using Merriam-Webster's definition of passion: "intense, driving, or overmastering feeling or conviction."
They are looking for Urban Dictionary's definition:
"Passion is when you put more energy into something than is required to do it. It is more than just enthusiasm or excitement, passion is ambition that is materialized into action to put as much heart, mind, body, and soul into something as is possible."
Passion means a person is willing to go above and beyond—and work a ridiculous number of hours. You can display powerful emotion and feel strongly about a company, but if others feel you aren't working enough hours and giving the company your all, you may get labeled "not passionate enough."
Passion at work does not and should not be all-consuming. There is no balance with this type of passion. The work deadlines, demands, and hours need to be balanced with rewards, recognition, and relaxation—otherwise, you will burn out.
Why are we so exhausted and burning out?
New technologies are raising customers' expectations at breakneck speeds. These expectations, in turn, are driving companies to deliver software faster. As customers push companies to deliver faster, companies push their employees to deliver faster.
When software has to be delivered faster, the balance between work stress and rewards is tipped. There is a false belief that things will slow down and get better after this project, after this release, after the holidays… Spoiler alert, once in this mode, things don't get better nor slow down.
Another contributing factor is a hero mentality. If you're the go-to person or want to be seen as a hero, taking on projects without asking for help can lead to burnout. You put more demands on yourself and, over time, the recognition and rewards decrease as these heroics become expected of you.
We don't need heroes; we need people willing to collaborate, to listen, and to mentor junior team members.
Common signs of burnout
According to psychology professor and burnout expert Dr. Christina Maslach, there are six common signs of burnout. When one or more are chronically mismatched between an individual and their work environment, the result is burnout.
Ask yourself the following questions to see if there may be a mismatch that could lead to burnout.
Imbalance in workload
- Are you working too many hours?
- Do you have time for activities outside of work?
- After working a project, incident, etc., do you have time to rest and recover?
- Do you have opportunities to learn new things?
Autonomy and control
- Do you have the ability to influence decisions?
- Can you say no?
- Is your voice being heard?
- Do you have the right tools to get your job done? And if you need something to be more successful at work, can you get it?
- What motivates you? Do the rewards you receive at work match your needs?
- Are you being recognized for the work you are doing? When was the last time you received praise, a promotion, or a bonus?
- Are people encouraged to take time off? Or are they praised for behaviors that lead to burnout, like responding to incidents while on vacation?
- Can you safely ask questions, ask for help, take risks?
- Is information openly shared in the organization?
- How are people treated during the decision-making process?
- How diverse is the team or company?
- What is the quality of the procedures and processes?
Values and ethics
- Do your values align with the company's values?
- Are you worried about the ethical implications of what your company is building or who they are doing business with?
Burnout takes a physical and mental toll on people. It overwhelms your cognitive skills, disrupts creativity, and impacts problem-solving skills.
My burnout experience
As I mentioned, earlier this year, I was burned out. Everything my team was working on was a high-priority project. New projects were added on a daily basis. Attempts to get work re-prioritized failed. When work of a lesser quality went out, we were criticized and chewed out. It was exhausting.
I wasn't alone in feeling this exhaustion at work. According to the General Social Survey, in 2016, 50% of respondents reported being consistently exhausted because of work; 20 years ago, this was 18%.
[Read next: 7 tips for avoiding burnout]
My job requires me to write. When I was burned out, this was a huge struggle. Creativity did not exist in my burned-out mind. I ended up in a vicious cycle of needing to write something, getting writer's block, writing something, hating it, rinse, repeat. This led to greater feelings of frustration. I was writing less and less, which made me unhappier and contributed to my burnout. As I started recovering from burnout, my creative juices starting flowing again. All of a sudden, I had lots of ideas for talks I could give, and I wrote many blog posts. I am once again a writing machine (as evidenced by this article).
What to do if you are burned out
First, I recognize that these suggestions come from a place of privilege. Not everybody has the ability to follow them.
Second, if you think you are experiencing burnout, please speak to a medical or mental health professional. Burnout is not like a cold, where a good night's rest will make it better. It will help, but it takes time to recover from burnout.
One of the most important pieces of advice I received is: If you don't take care of yourself, you can't take care of anything else. This is why the safety briefings on airplanes tell you to put your oxygen mask on before helping others. This isn't selfish.
- Take care of yourself.
- Take time off.
- Ask to work from home.
- Put Slack in Do Not Disturb after 6 pm.
- Delete Slack/email from your phone when taking time off.
- Practice saying no.
- Get eight hours of sleep a night.
Self-care can only go so far when dealing with burnout. What is needed is community care. If the workplace community can contribute to burnout, the community can also help reduce it.
Here are some ways the community can help.
- Lead by example; when employees see their managers working weekends, sending emails at 10 pm, or not taking time off, they think that is what is expected of them as well.
- Set appropriate boundaries and encourage people to take time off.
- Ask people how they are doing, but don't pry.
- Don't jump in to offer solutions unless they ask; they may not be at a problem-solving stage but could use a friendly, empathetic person to talk to.
- Listen to what they say; if people say they are overworked and overwhelmed, believe them.
- Provide psychological safety, which is the only way people can have honest conversations.
- Don't overschedule people.
- Don't take the last remaining block of time on a calendar.
- Check before scheduling a meeting very early, late, or over lunch.
- If somebody is traveling or works an incident, give them flex time.
We need to do more
Self-care and community care are short-term fixes that are treating the symptoms of burnout. As an industry, we need to do more than treat the symptoms of an underlying problem. In my next article, I will focus on the process, culture, and tools that can be used to change work environments to affect the long-term challenge at hand.
I will leave you with this thought that I wish someone had told me when I thought passion was everything: Work is not life. No one thing should take up all your energy. If you give one thing your all, there is nothing left for anyone or anything else.