Countdown To Burnout

We work in an industry that seems to suffer from burnout more than any other that I've personally worked in. Why is that? It's pretty much all about the dreaded CRUNCH. That time where everything has to be done yesterday, and everyone pulls insane hours to hit deadlines and get stuff out the doors. It's even more common in games dev, but here in web dev town, it still happens waaaay more than it should. The thing is, your body and mind can handle the pressure for so long before cracks start to show. Somethings going to give out if you're running at full pelt for too long, and it's probably going to be you.

... if you start to flag, or if you don't actually want to dedicate 16 hours a day to a project, you're seen as being somehow weak or not up to the task in hand.

There's also a very toxic culture around crunch (particularly in start ups), where if you start to flag, or if you don't actually want to dedicate 16 hours a day to a project, you're seen as being somehow weak or not up to the task in hand. When the reality is that some of us have other commitments (family for example), or we just value our sanity too much to put up with that sort of crap. It can be hard to say no when everyone's judging though, and our natural instinct is to not let the team down and be a team player, even if it's bad for us.

If you suffer from any of the following, the chances are you're heading for a burnout (or are already burnt out):

  • Fatigue - ranging from just being tired all the time, to being physically and emotionally drained
  • Forgetfulness/problems with concentration
  • Chest pains/heart palpitations
  • You get sick more often than usual
  • Loss of appetite
  • Anxiety (whether about work, or life in general)
  • Feelings of depression/hopelessness
  • You find yourself getting REALLY angry over trivial stuff
  • You've stopped enjoying work
  • You feel detached and cynical
  • You feel isolated
  • Feeling apathetic about work
  • Feeling ineffective
  • Reduced productivity

Before I go any further, you're probably thinking, "Who is this bald fool, he has no ideas!". Well allow you to tell you my own personal tale of woe! Cast your mind back to 2005, I had great big flowing locks and was working at a startup agency. Harry Potter ruled the roost in the Cinemas, and Snoop Dogg was dropping it like it was hot. It was a very high pressure working environment, the staff turnover was horrific and the workload was insane. But I'd hung around for several years, because I was an idiot, and because I felt I owed it to the company (hint, I didn't). I was regularly working 12+ hour days, and I was starting to forget what my friends looked like. I hadn't had a decent holiday in several years.

I was constantly tired, felt miserable, and I absolutely hated web dev. I just wanted out. I was drinking really heavily at the weekends just to stay sane and I dreaded getting up for work each morning. I started to look at other things I could re-train to do (my preferred gig was touring road crew, but my fiancé wasn't happy with that idea). Then I took a BIG holiday, after a particularly stressful couple of months. I went to Japan with my fiancé and some friends for two weeks, and after the first week, I had a bit of a Zen moment and realised just how toxic my workplace was, and that I just needed to quit. I got back, handed my notice in, with no real plans beyond giving being a freelancer a go (I figured if I still hated web dev, I'd re-train).

After a few weeks off after I finished my job, I started doing some freelance work to see if I still enjoyed web dev, or if I was done. To my surprise, I was really enjoying dev work again. The work was fun, the people were good. I slowly came to realise that almost all of my issues were caused by the job/workplace rather than the industry itself. As Pete Duncanson once wisely said, sometimes the obvious is only obvious once it's been pointed out to you. It's not all happy mind you, several months later I became very ill and was diagnosed with cancer, but after a fairly unpleasant six months of chemo, I was on the mend and back on track. As you might imagine, these days I am ALL about the work life balance and looking after my mental wellbeing with work.

Whilst I may not be a professional shrink, I'd like to share some of the things I've done over the years to help keep me from going insane and burning out again. I've come close once in the intervening decade or so, but by and large, I've managed to keep everything together and pick up on the signs of impending burnout and act to avoid it getting any worse and make things better!

I went to Japan with my fiancé and some friends for two weeks, and after the first week, I had a bit of a Zen moment and realised just how toxic my workplace was, and that I just needed to quit.

Separate Work and Home

This one is hard (especially if you're self employed or work from home). Sometimes you come home from work thinking about a problem and then end up staying up till midnight trying to figure it out. STOP! Go home, forget about work and relax. You'll probably find the problem is much easier to solve after you've stepped away for a bit and had a rest. Also, no answering work emails when you're not in work, unless you've agreed to for some reason. It's too easy to get dragged into an email conversation with colleagues on your day off and end up losing half of what is supposed to be down time!

Spend Quality Time With Your Loved Ones

Seems obvious, but it's easy to forget when you're stressed and exhausted. If you have kids, spend time with them, do fun stuff. They're only little once and I've been seeing a lot of tweets/posts from software devs who regret not spending more time with their family lately.

Switch Off

We live in a connected world, where everything is swipe of the screen away. It's good to switch off occasionally. If you're doing something you need to concentrate on, put the phone in a different room, so you're not tempted to check it idly. Don't keep your phone by your bedside. The less you fiddle with the phone, the more relaxed you'll be.

Exercise

I know this is an odd one, given the field that we work in, but a bit of exercise can work wonders. I noticed a MASSIVE improvement in my mental health when I started cycling to work as much as I can. It gives me time to relax and unwind in-between work and home (much better than being stuck in commuting traffic, or being rammed on a bus with a bunch of pissed off commuters). I also go to the gym at lunchtimes now, and have really felt the benefits. If you don't like one form of exercise, find one that you DO enjoy. If you force yourself to do something you don't like, you'll probably make yourself feel worse, not better.

Find Something You Love

Find something you love, and do that as much as you can. I discovered Snowboarding after I finished chemo, and I go at least once a year for at least a week. A week in the mountains blasting around on my board recharges my spirit better than almost anything else. My stress levels evaporate, and I'm more relaxed for MONTHS afterwards.

Get a Little Perspective

Sometimes it's good to take a step back and realise what's really important. Lets be honest, for what we do, as a general rule, no-one dies (unless you're the person designing the menu options for nuke warning systems maybe). It's hard to realise sometimes, especially when people are screaming for work to be completed yesterday all the time. Try not to get too swept up in people pressuring you.

Talk to Someone

Reach out and talk to someone. You'd be surprised how many of your fellow web developers have gone through a similar thing and are willing to listen. It could be a family member, or a friend, but just having someone to talk to can make a massive difference and help you work through stress and issues at work.

Make Time for You

This is sort of covered by some of the previous stuff, but you should always make some time for YOU. It can be hard, especially if you're juggling work, family life and other things, such as looking after elderly relatives, but it can be done. I try and have at least an hour a day of "me" time, where I just relax and do something I enjoy. It's hard to avoid burnout if you're constantly being pulled in a dozen different directions and you don't get any time to be you.

Walk Away

Sometimes you just have to know when to walk away. If a job is making your life so miserable it feels like you can't escape, it may be time to move on. No job is worth destroying your mental health for. By all means try and fix things if you can, but sometimes a workplace is so toxic that you just can't save it.

Recognise the Signs

Learn to recognise when you're getting frazzled and starting to struggle. When you can feel it coming on, acknowledge it, and try and deal with it if you can. Take a few days off, and start to do the things you enjoy for a bit and try and get back on an even keel. The longer you leave it, the harder it'll be.

When you can feel [burnout] coming on, acknowledge it, and try and deal with it if you can.

So there you have it. If you feel like you're on the verge of burnout (or are already sufferering from it), know that things can get better. Learn to recognise the signs and act on it before it spirals out of control and makes your life miserable. It's very easy to let everything get on top of you, especially in a fast paced, high pressure working environment. And if you do want to talk to someone who's been there, give me a shout on Twitter, I'm @attack_monkey and I'm always happy to listen.

About the Author

Tim Payne is a freelance developer, based in the north of England with over 15 years of experience who’s been working with Umbraco since v4. When he’s not slaving in the code mines, he can be found participating in crazy challenges because they seemed like a good idea at the time, or running around after his tiny daughter.

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