Recently I saw a tweet by Britt Barak stating that we don’t talk about burnout enough and she’s also recorded a podcast about it. This made me think about my experiences with burnout and it made me wonder if sharing my experiences might help others who are unfortunate enough to be experiencing it as well.
Before we get stuck in, I’d like to offer an apology to anyone expecting the usual tech article – this certainly isn’t one. However I hope that this may still offer some insights in to something which can affect us all irrespective how good or experienced you are at your job.
To begin with I think that it is fair to say that I work myself pretty hard. I run my own software development & consultancy business, publish a new article to Styling Android once a week, and speak at tech conferences. For the tech talks I have an unusual way of creating my slides which can be rather more labour intensive than using a commercial package. Most weeks I work a full 5 days on the business, and at least one day of the weekend on blog posts / slides. I regularly hit busy times where I have deadlines to meet, or need to get blog posts written in advance so that I can still publish when I’m on vacation or at conferences. During those times I’m usually working 7 days per week.
Although this can be stressful at times, I can cope with it. I have tried to enforce some degree of discipline and limit the number of hours that I work each day so that I do get some down time every day.
Although I’m sure that I have experienced degrees of burnout prior to this, the first time I really recognised it was a few years ago. I had been working on a long-term contract for over 18 months (I won’t name the company because it would serve no purpose), and we were approaching a major release – which can often be a stressful time anyway. I was actually working on two separate projects for the same company, and the closer we got to the release deadline the crazier it became. I was constantly being asked to switch between projects at short notice, often on a daily basis. The frustration that this was causing me became more and more intense – when you are constantly being required to context switch, you work slower because it takes time to switch your mindset from one task to another – particularly when you are working on complex software.
I am actually pretty good at saying ‘no’ to people, and I found myself protesting more and more frequently that the constant context switching was actually slowing things down quite enormously. The stakeholders on each project were increasing the pressure to get stuff completed but ignoring my protestations, so the switching persisted, and kept slowing me down. It became an endless cycle.
I began dreading work. I really wasn’t enjoying it, whereas I normally really enjoy work. I found that I was quite irritable and very quick to anger. My wife is incredibly supportive of me but I’m sure that she would agree that I wasn’t easy to live with at this time. I found that I was really struggling to sleep well. I’d be exhausted when I went to bed, but would then wake at 2 or 3 in the morning and be unable to get back to sleep. My levels of concentration suffered. Partly from the sleep depravation, and partly from the anxiety I was feeling at the increased pressure that I was getting. The quality of my work suffered as a result, and the slow downs caused by the persistent context switching increased because I found it even harder to switch my mindset from one project to the other due to my concentration being affected.
Things were spiralling out of control and depression began to set in. I was feeling ill most days, and the constant tiredness was debilitating. It really was not an enjoyable time in my life.
But this was the point when I actually realised what was happening, and recognised that I was experiencing burnout. This was a key moment because once I understood what was happening I could actually begin to deal with it.
The first thing that I did was get even stricter about my cut off times from work. I flatly refused to work outside my required hours, and argued that if I were able to manage my time myself there were ample hours in the day to get things done, but if others managed my time then there likely wouldn’t be. While the constant context switching didn’t alter much, I stopped stressing that I wouldn’t get things done. If it was outside of my control then it achieved nothing by me stressing about it.
I began to accept that I was actually working on a death march project (or, more precisely, two of them) and that it was that acceptance that enabled me to change my outlook and do as much as I could do without stressing about what I couldn’t do.
Quite predictably, the deadlines passed without us completing, so the project timeline got extended. At the time I could often be heard quoting the late, great Douglas Adams: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by”
Around this time my contract was nearing its end, and the company began making overtures about extending it, as had been done a couple of times before. While my burnout was certainly improving, I was still having difficulty sleeping, and knew that I was far from being clear of it. So, for the first time since I started my own business, I declined the offer of a contract extension despite having nothing else lined up, and the company offering to increase my rates of pay. I was honest with my reasons for not extending.
It still took a couple more months before I felt totally clear of the burnout, and my sleep patterns returned to normal. After taking some time out, I started working with the fine folks at Big Nerd Ranch who proved to be precisely what I needed. The work there was both interesting and demanding, yet working with people who are very smart, but also pragmatic meant that we were pulling together to get things done. Which felt like the complete opposite of my death march project(s).
The story doesn’t quite end there, though. Almost 2 years after I left the death march contract, and after my contact with Big Nerd Ranch had sadly come to an end, I started on another contract position where I very quickly realised that I was experiencing the same kinds of frustrations which brought on my previous bout of burnout. The project had been running for a while before I joined it, and I quickly began to see signs of burnout in others who I had worked with before on different projects. Recognising the signs early on made it much easier for me to prepare myself to try and avoid a repeat. But ultimately I could see that I might be headed back to burnout if I continued, and eventually I gave my required notice to terminate the contract. It was a difficult decision to have to take, but ultimately my health had to come first.
I am now working on a project which has some stresses, and we’ve had some delivery deadlines, but once again I’m working with some good people who support each other, and I certainly haven’t felt the early warning signs that I’ve seen before.
I still have my stressful times because of my personal commitments, but these days I try and manage things a bit better. I had a really busy period with various commitments in the early part of 2019 and was beginning to feel the strain. So I have eased things back a little and am making time to wind down. I have made sure that I have taken at least one complete day off each week for the last month, and intend to continue that trend.
Burnout can happen to anyone. It doesn’t discriminate or show favouritism. My experiences of it have been largely caused by toxic work environments, I believe. But that may not always been the case – sometimes we can drive ourselves so hard that we can trigger it.
The most important part of conquering it is recognising the signs and altering your mindset to deal with it. I was able to do that on my own, but professional help is also available for those that aren’t able to do it themselves. Seeking help is nothing to be ashamed of, and is certainly something that I would do if I ever found myself in the same position and was unable to deal with it on my own.
I am under no delusions that I’ll never experience burnout again, but I do feel that I’m much better equipped to recognise the signs early on, and know that I’m not afraid to make tough decisions if it means avoiding it.
Burnout is not something to be ashamed of. It happens. When it came up in conversation with various people that I wasn’t going to renew my contract on the death march project(s), I was pretty open and explained that I’d been experiencing burnout and felt it was necessary for my health to move on. But it wasn’t until I saw Britt’s tweet that I considered actually documenting my experiences.
So now you know my story.
Many thanks to Karen Allison, Natalie Norris, and Sebastiano Poggi for proof-reading and providing some invaluable feedback & suggestions.
© 2019, Mark Allison. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2019 Styling Android. All Rights Reserved.
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