How to recognize and avoid career burnout

Practical guide for avoiding burnout and living a happier life

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As open source fans, we tend to spend a lot of time curled up in front of our computers. Many of us we work in front of computers during the day, and some of us even work on or with open source projects, too. If you are anything like me, spending an entire day in front of a screen and then spending most of the evening there, too, is not uncommon. Today is a good example: I started work at 8:00AM, and at 8:21PM I am starting to write this article...

OK, spoiler alert: Spending too much time in front of a screen is not all that healthy. You knew that, though.

As my fellow open source fans, though, I want you all to lead happy, healthy lives. So, in the holiday spirit of giving, I am going to share some quite ridiculous life choices from my early years that have helped illustrate important ways of keeping healthy in mind, body, and spirit.

Now, before I go on, I want to make something very clear: I am not a doctor. Thus, take all of my guidance here with a semblance of common sense. If you are in doubt about anything regarding your mental or physical health, go and see a doctor. Seriously: Don't listen to me, listen to a doctor.

Avoiding Burnout

Many years ago when I lived in the UK and I took a trip down to London, I felt weird. I couldn't quite explain it. I didn't feel sick; I just felt anxious, tired, and on edge. I found myself snapping at friends and colleagues. I wasn't sleeping quite right and I laid awake on many evenings worrying about work, relationships, and all manner of other things.

What I didn't know at the time—which I now know—is that I was burning out. This is when you start experiencing worsening levels of stress that can potentially wreak some havoc in your life.

Although burnout is often difficult for some to self-diagnose (typically as they always find other reasons to justify their symptoms), when you have experienced burnout, you can often see it in other people. As such, I always encourage communities to know and understand burnout symptoms, not just for self-diagnosis but also for seeing it in your friends, colleagues, and community members.

When I wrote The Art of Community, I wanted to write about my burnout experience and was looking for some kind of scaffolding to better explain it to my readers. This is when I discovered the June/July 2006 issue of Scientific American, which presented The Burnout Cycle by Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North. It was exactly what I was looking for.

Basically, the Burnout Cycle is the 12 worsening staging of burnout. It explains common symptoms and experiences some people may have. Not everyone will reach all stages of the cycle (thankfully), and sometimes you may even skip over a stage; they don't necessarily happen sequentially.

Now, I am about to walk through the cycle. While I do this, I want you to play a little mental game. As you read these stages, be honest with yourself about how far along the cycle you think you are. When I have presented this at conferences and when people have shared feedback about my book they have often told me how surprised they were with how much the burnout cycle described their experience. Some people have even told me that they subsequently sought medical help to help manage their burnout, which is fantastic.

Without further ado, here is the burnout cycle:

Stage 1. A compulsion to prove oneself

Often burnout is triggered by an obsessive commitment to prove yourself. This desire is founded in demonstrating to your colleagues—and particularly yourself—that you can knock the ball out of the park. Some people may feel a sense of imposter syndrome; others may feel the stress of fitting in and succeeding in their peer group. Overall, there is just a nagging feeling of wanting to prove that you are competent at what you do.

Stage 2. Working harder

To prove yourself, you believe that hard work is needed. This manifests in long days, longer nights, and an inability to switch off. You take fewer breaks, you start working through lunch, you find yourself working more in the evenings. You also find it easy to get mentally distracted by work when not at work.

Stage 3. Neglecting one's own needs

At this stage, simple pleasures such as sleeping, eating, socializing with friends, and watching Netflix are seen as just that: pleasures, and as such, a distraction from work.

You start justifying these non-work activities as things that get in the way of accomplishing success and the validation you seek in proving yourself. As such, your work/life balance is out of whack and common activities that help you to unwind are often replaced with more work.

Stage 4. Displacement of conflicts

In this stage, you don't really understand the problems that you have. If they lead to discomfort or even panic, you will dismiss these impressions because they feel threatening. As such, you are resistant to the notion you are burning out. You justify it as "just a bit of stress" or "I am just really busy right now". The reality of having burn out, on top of all the other things you need to worry about at work, just feels overwhelming. So you choose to shut it out.

Stage 5. Revision of values

In this phase, the obsession and focus of work means that traditional values, such as friends or hobbies, are dismissed, rejected, and pushed aside. Here your primary evaluation of success is being good at your job.

This is a troubling time, because spending time with friends, hobbies, and hanging out socially are important for helping to deal with stress. In your head, though, the compulsion to prove yourself keeps driving your choices.

Stage 6. Denial of emerging problems

In this phase, cynicism, intolerance, and aggression raise their ugly heads. Colleagues are dismissed as idiots. Your increasing problems are blamed on lack of time, incompetent coworkers, and unfair workloads.

This is when you can exhibit unpleasant behavior and overreactions to typically normal conditions. Stressful conditions at this phase will be handled with more anxiety and frustration than usual. You feel the world is on your shoulders and lots of other people are just making things more difficult. This leads to more frustration.

Stage 7. Withdrawal

You reduce your social interaction and contacts to a minimum and dial up your work to 11. You may start relieving the stress by boozing more often during the week or possibly even resorting to drugs. Whatever your choice of substance, you appear to be indulging in it a little more than usual—and dangerously so.

Stage 8. Obvious behavioral changes

Your strange and erratic behavior is obvious to your friends, family, and colleagues. You are not yourself, and your nearest and dearest can see it a mile off. People are concerned for you and may try to help you. You may continue to be dismissive of their efforts, though, because you feel you are OK and just going through a tough time, and that the world is just making life more complicated for you.

You are exhausted and tired of feeling like this.

Stage 9. Depersonalization

At this point, you feel like you offer no value to the world, and lack confidence in what you feel you could once do. Your life feels like one long series of mechanical and emotionless functions. You struggle to take pleasure in the world, and the things you used to enjoy seem more alien than they used to.

Stage 10. Inner emptiness

You feel an expressed sense of emptiness. You resort more to booze or drugs, or possibly find relief in overeating, strange and exaggerated sexual behavior, or other activities.

Stage 11. Depression

Here you feel hopeless, lost, and exhausted, and see little in the way of rays of light for the future.

Stage 12. Burnout syndrome

At this, the most serious level, you feel suicidal and desperate for a way out. You are on the verge of mental and physical collapse and need medical support and attention.

As you can see, things get rather bleak as we ramp up the stages. Now, think about what stage you got to. Whatever number that may be can illuminate the level of adjustments you might want to make in your life.

The good news is that you can fix your burnout. The first step is accepting you are burned out and that you need to make some changes. Maybe today is that day for you.

As an example, when I burned out, I got to stage 6. I knew I needed to make changes and I went on holiday for a few days to visit a friend and totally unplugged from work. It really helped, and I felt more refreshed when I returned. I was then disciplined about unplugging in the evenings and spending time on hobbies and with friends. This helped to stave off the burnout. Fortunately, when you have had burnout you can often feel it creeping up again, and thus you can make suitable changes earlier in the burnout cycle.

If you found you are further up the burnout scale, you may want to think about talking about your condition with someone such as a doctor or therapist. It may really help bring relief to what you are experiencing.

Avoiding hand and arm pain

Many moons ago, I used to be a journalist. Back then I wrote for about 12 publications, and every day I had to churn out around 3,500 words. As such, I was doing a lot of typing and sat in front of a computer screen for hours every day.

About six months into this work, I started getting pain in my hands. The pain usually emanated in the fleshy part between my thumb and index finger. So, off to the doctors I went and I was referred to a specialist.

This is when I discovered the importance of ergonomics and micro-breaks.

On the ergonomics side, it is important that your back is straight, your chair is at a suitable height, and your monitor is at eye level. (I have been informed that your eyes should be level with the top-third of the screen.) You should use a good keyboard and preferably a mouse, as trackpads make you pinch your fingers and the tension goes all the way up your arm. Your arms, wrists, and hands are all connected, so reducing tension to avoid the knock-on effect further up or down your arm is important.

Micro-breaks are a technique my specialist also recommended. Essentially, micro-breaks mean regularly stopping typing for a few seconds to let the blood flow and your hand rest. When I was churning out all those words every day, I had to resort to a little piece of software that would regularly lock my screen for 5 seconds or so every minute. This was tremendously helpful and reduced my pain quite substantially. Sure, it was annoying at first, but I got used to it.

These days, I have switched to a standing desk for part of my work. Although this is great for posture, you should again ensure that your monitor and keyboard/mouse height are at suitable levels. There are lots of guides and videos online that can help with this.

The risk of caffeine

Caffeine and open source have gone hand in hand for years. When I started seriously getting into open source and thinking about making it a career, I learned the hard way of how bad caffeine can be for you.

In a nutshell, I was staying awake most nights fiddling with open source. To keep me awake, I was pounding cans and cans of full-fat Coke. Yes, I know, not a wise health choice. In the midst of this, I would often drink 6-8 cans of the stuff every night.

Before long, I started getting awful headaches and started feeling dizzy. It was clearly the caffeine. The doctor recommended I go cold turkey and come off the Coca-Cola. The next week was miserable. I had chills, I was vomiting, I was laid out in bed feeling awful.

Fortunately, a week or so later, I was back on my feet and all the headaches and dizziness was gone. I had rid myself of the caffeine beast.

So, although you may see epic tales of people pounding Monster, Red Bull, Jolt Cola, Mountain Dew, or buckets of coffee everyday, just try to keep things in balance. Trust me, you don't want to experience what I did.

Eating and exercise

I have a confession to make. Although I may live in one of the most health-conscious parts of the world here in California, I don't particularly enjoy eating healthy and exercising. I know why this is: I developed bad habits as a teenager eating lots of crappy junk food, and although always mentally active, I was rarely physically active.

To be honest, if I could get away with it, I would never exercise and I would eat delicious fatty, salty, gooey foods every day, washed down with delicious craft beers and gin and tonics. The thing is, doing that isn't going to get you very far. So, a little healthy eating and exercise can go a long way. This isn't about turning into a health nut—just about getting some balance.

Let's start with the healthy eating. Like many lifestyle changes, it all boils down to habit. According to habit theory, if we can stick at something for 66 days straight, it tends to set in as a habit.

On the healthy eating side of things, I have tried to develop a simple habit: Weekends are for eating the delicious unhealthy stuff, but during the week I try to be good. I have a healthy breakfast, try to be sensible at lunch, and deliberately avoid having sweet things in the house. Every brain has two personalities: a sensible planner and victim of temptation. You want to equip your planner to make great choices, as the victim of temptation will often take the easy way out and succumb to the unhealthy options. Thus, keeping the junk food out of the house is a good technique; if it isn't there, you can't eat it.

Like many of you, for me vegetables are a necessary evil. I have found a rocking solution though. Go out and buy a blender and make a smoothie. It is simple: Throw in 4 apples, some ginger, a load of kale and spinach, a full cucumber, and some broccoli. You will get all the nutrients of the veg, but it will taste good because of the apples and ginger. I make a big pot of it at the beginning of the week and drink a glass every day. Lovely.

As for the exercise—again, habit is key. Find something you enjoy and do it at least three days a week. You want to get your heart rate up usually, so buying a chest heart rate monitor is a great way to exercise and ensure it is making a difference. As an example, I try to get my heart over 140BPM and the monitor ensures that I get the most out of my 30 minutes of exercising.

Another key thing about exercise for me is distraction. As an example, I often exercise on an elliptical trainer at home. This is because while I am working out I can watch Netflix on my tablet. It makes the time spin by quicker, so I think of exercise less as a thing I have to do, and instead as a thing I happen to do while watching obscure documentaries.

As a side note, and this may not apply to you, I encourage you to check out running. I have recently gotten into running and absolutely love it. There is a real sense of disconnecting from work—which helps reduce burnout—and getting outside feels invigorating. I recommend you give it a shot.

So, there it is. Bacon's holiday guide for being a healthier open sourcerer. I hope some of this is helpful, and be sure to share your stories of getting healthy in the comments.

About the author

Jono Bacon - Jono Bacon is a leading community manager, speaker, author, and podcaster. He is the founder of Jono Bacon Consulting which provides community strategy/execution, developer workflow, and other services. He also previously served as director of community at GitHub, Canonical, XPRIZE, OpenAdvantage, and consulted and advised a range of organizations. Bacon is a prominent author and speaker on community management and best practice,...