In early 2017, I was mentally in a bad spot. It was the perfect storm of stress, the kind that no one asks for, but you deal with the hand you're dealt. Work was piling up to a point where I couldn't process all the things that were expected of me. I was training for spring half-marathons, which should have been stress relief, but I was putting too much pressure on myself to perform at a high level. And then on top of the everyday family obligations, a surgery in our household turned us into a one-car family and seriously added to the mounting pressure on me to provide and take care of the family.
Then I broke.
It wasn't one thing. It was the culmination of things. And it hit me from the blind side, unexpected. I never thought I would be a victim of burnout. I was aware of it and thoughtful about the community I was managing. But "not me," I thought to myself, "I've got this under control." I remember thinking that something was wrong; something was off. But I couldn't quite put my finger on the source.
I distinctly remember the day where I cried at work, crumbling under the pressure that I was putting on myself. I consider myself a high performer in the office environment. I push myself to exceed the goals that my team co-creates because I want that success. I want the feeling that comes with it. But this experience was different. This wasn't a healthy win for my team or me. I felt like I let everyone down, including myself.
I was attending South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, where I was presenting my first Ignite Talk on applying open source principles to government—a talk that was well received by the audience. I remember practicing, and practicing, and practicing more the day before and the morning of my talk. I got that high that comes after delivering a great talk. I had a book signing at the City of Raleigh's Economic Development booth during the event, which was another emotional boost. Life was good. Upon reflection, that's when I started noticing signs of my burnout.
I didn't have much of an appetite. I was tired all the time. I was sleeping in, and not because of jet lag. I was exercising but wasn't getting the endorphins I was used to. And I wasn't motivated to do the work that I normally love to do. I was very blah and meh about getting work done or hanging out with people I love. These are all signs of depression and burnout.
After the trip, I scheduled my annual physical and talked to my doctor about my situation, who recommended I see a psychologist. I sat on the couch and talked things out. I was diagnosed with severe anxiety, which was enough for me to know that I didn't want to know what true depression felt like.
I learned my lesson the hard way. I'd like to share my experience so that you can recognize the signs and avoid going down this path. And before we move on, I must say that it's perfectly fine to ask for help. Ask a trusted co-worker or friend for help or guidance. We're human, and we need to help each other through the ups and the downs.
Three things to know about burnout
Work burnout is a form of depression where you are not motivated to do the things that are expected of you at your job. It's not the occasional slacking off or spring fever because the weather is nice. It's a buildup of emotional stress where you don't want to do what is asked of you at work. There are numerous factors that can lead to burnout.
Know the signs of burnout
Lesson number one about burnout is to know the signs. I mentioned some of the things I was experiencing, but there are many others. I remember one thing that was extremely abnormal for me (because I'm so social) is that I started to separate myself from my usual team activities and people.
- Hey Jason, want to grab lunch with us? Nope, I'm too busy.
- Hey Jason, Matt's in town, want to join us for happy hour? No. I've got work to do.
This is totally unlike me. I would normally have said yes to both those opportunities. According to the Mayo Clinic, here are a few things to ask yourself if you think you are experiencing burnout:
- Do you drag yourself to work?
- Do you have trouble getting started with work?
- Are you cynical or critical at work?
- Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers or customers?
- Do you lack the energy to be productive?
- Do you find it hard to concentrate?
- Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
- Do you feel disillusioned about your work?
- Are you using food, drugs, or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
- Have your sleep habits changed?
- Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, stomach or bowel problems, or other physical complaints?
You can check your own burnout risk at BurnoutIndex.org, an anonymous online questionnaire created in response to the high level of burnout in the tech industry.
The second lesson is to identify ways to prevent burnout. First, take time away from your job and plan time to unplug and unwind. This means planning vacations, staycations, or other time away from work. It's sometimes hard to unplug like this with the pressures and obligations we put on ourselves.
There are three different levels of paid time off (PTO):
- Best way to unplug: I'm totally cut-off, not logging in, not checking email.
- Decent way to unplug: I'm kind of checking in, but not as responsive as normal.
- Meh way to unplug: I'm available if you need me, I'll monitor email, but I'm away from normal office life.
Your situation will dictate which of these levels of time off will work for you. In my experience, you need at least two total check-outs a year. I typically have a blend of all three throughout the year, but since 2017, I have taken at least three week-long vacations each year to completely escape. It's working so far!
The third and final lesson is to manage stress effectively. My first go-to for stress management is exercise. I'm addicted to it. I work out pretty much every single day. And I like to mix it up: Cardio, weight lifting, swimming, running, cycling, surfing, and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) are staples in my exercise routine. I used to focus solely on running four to six half marathons a year, but I recently switched to triathlons. The multidisciplinary aspect of the activity has brought more joy and different challenges to my life.
Another way to reduce stress is to manage your time better. Time is our most precious resource. You've got to choose how you want to spend your time. Family, work, self, social? It's up to you. Find ways to work more efficiently, more effectively, and make sure that you put yourself first. It may sound selfish, but as I've learned from the airplane preflight safety videos, "you need to put your mask on first before helping others."
Burnout can lead to fatigue, excessive stress, sadness, anger, irritability, insomnia, alcohol or substance misuse, heart disease, and other medical conditions—all things that are not good for humans or for your team at work. I hope you can use these tips to put yourself first, reduce stress, and prevent burnout.
Jason Hibbets will present "10 things I wish I knew before experiencing burnout" at SCaLE 18x, March 5–8, 2020, in Pasadena, Calif. This article is a preview for the talk and a way to share a bit of his experience.