I wanted to write this post to share my honest and personal experiences with burn out in the software and startup scene. I’m hoping that my experiences with getting to a stage of burn out can help someone identify if they’re going through the same thing. Hopefully someone will be able to take preventative actions before things get too serious, like I’ve been able to do. I’d also like to point out that I absolutely love my job (you’ll be reminded of that in my post) so my experience might be biased in some ways because of that. If I didn’t love what I do, I’d be finding another job where I did.
What is Burn Out?
In my earlier days at the company I work for, I remember my HR manager talking to me about burning out. It’s not unusual to pull all-nighters to work on something at a startup, and after hearing about this a few times, she mentioned to me that I need to be careful about this. She said I need to be careful that I don’t make a habit of doing things like that all the time or else I’ll “burn out”.
Now I had heard this phrase before, but never really spoke to anyone who had burnt out from too much work. From going to the University of Waterloo for co-op, I had heard about lucrative opportunities for some co-ops going out to The Valley to get jobs where they could work crazy overtime and make a killing. The idea was that on a co-op it was okay because after only four months you wouldn’t “burn out” too badly. Four months of 60-80 hour work weeks would be really intense and draining… But it couldn’t REALLY have that big of an impact on your life, right?
So that was really all I knew about burning out. 60-80 hour work-weeks for an extended period of time would result in burn out. And that meant… What? What did it mean to burn out? All I could think of was that you would become disinterested in your job and not want to work there any longer. You’d start to be tired all the time and resent going to work. You’d be an old cranky person in a potentially younger person body. Yeah, that sounds like it sucks. Is that far-off from what burning out actually is? Maybe not. But is there more to it?
Wikipedia (and yeah I’m referencing Wikipedia… deal with it) defines burning out as:
“a psychological term that refers to long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in work. Burnout has been assumed to result from chronic occupational stress (e.g., work overload)”
And that looks like it chalks up to what my initial definition of burn out used to be. It also mentions this though:
“The symptoms of burnout are similar to those of clinical depression”
So that one is a bit more extreme than the symptoms I had in my mind, previously. If you keep reading the Wikipedia article on burn out, you’ll get some spoilers for what I want to continue to talk about… The point is that burn out is actually pretty serious business and it’s a little bit more than being cranky and not liking your job.
My Early(ier) Startup Days
I had (and still have) my first job out of university at a company that was super small and appeared to have a really exciting future. A blossoming startup. In the really early days things were always moving incredibly fast. We’d turn out feature after feature in our software, triage critical bugs into the wee hours of the morning, ensure any customer we talked to was 100% pleased in every facet of the business, and we’d be doing all of this around the clock. It was exciting, and it still is exciting to be able to take pride in doing all of those things (although, there’s less fixing of critical bugs because… we’re like… perfect… or something). Having a really fast paced environment, a team of people you love to work with, an awesome product, and an incredible mission, it was easy to get sucked right into work.
I was still a 9 o’clocker. I hated (and I still dread) mornings. I’d like to sleep until noon every day if I could. I’d get into the office around 9 and head home at 5:30-6:00ish. It might mean I pick up the odd little thing at home or do a quick investigation into a bug if I heard something in an email, but otherwise those were my core hours. This worked out really well for me when I wanted to pull a really late night to work on something cool because I could still get enough rest to come into work.
I can think back to days (and I’m only talking about a couple of years ago, not like I’m some wise old man, so take that for what it’s worth) where I’d head into the office to triage bugs that we’d consider huge blockers until two or three in the morning. I didn’t have my bosses hounding me to do this, and whether they knew it or not, I didn’t care. I had pride in what we were making so I wanted to be part of ensuring that it was of the highest quality. I’d find myself trying to churn out some extra code on weekends in my spare time when I thought of something cool related to our product or business, or just to get us a little bit more ahead.
Between hitting the gym, hanging with my friends at bars/parties, playing video games, programming my own stuff for fun, or just relaxing at home, I’d find time every now and then to program stuff for work. Again, not because anyone forced me to… but because I wanted to. I wouldn’t let my gym/nutrition schedule slide during our hectic releases, and I know we had co-op students that can recall me popping out of the office for a couple of hours during crazy releases to ensure that was the case. I’ll make sacrifices into my other personal time, but ensuring I can get my gym time in is sacred to how I choose to live my life. I was still keeping in touch with my friends from university even though most of them moved away right after school, and I’d of course always have time for my close high school friends. Weekends were a great time to drive out (aside from having an old crappy car that was always overheating) to visit friends or have them drop in.
Early startup days were exciting and insanely busy. It was hard work but we always made sure we were having fun along the way.
… As Time Went On…
This trend kept up for a while… which was awesome for our company. We’ve received so many accolades for our success and it’s great to share a responsibility in that. We’d hear back from our clients about how we were making a difference in the world, and that was more fuel to keep doing such an amazing job. I knew by then that I loved where I worked and I loved what I was doing. I had received more responsibilities in my job by this point too, so I was not only programming but I became a people manager (which was an entirely new experience for me). There was more (and very different) work being introduced for my day-to-day activities, but it continued to be an exciting journey.
There were fewer late nights to triage bugs because we adapted to have much better systems in place. There were more people that knew different parts of our code base so I could rely on other people to help out. It was reassuring to know the right people were being brought on in our company to help out with all of the different pieces. Even though I felt like I had more work to do, the responsibilities were shared on some of the big pieces that I didn’t want to be entirely responsible for. That was a bit of a relief. The difference was that now I had to know the status of more things, which added pressure.
I started to be a little bit more distant with my friends. I think it’s a natural thing to happen after university (just like it was with high school) where some of your closer friends start to go off in different directions. It’s part of life. You can keep your close friends close, but you always know that you can catch up with your for-life friends even if you’re apart for long periods of time. Okay, let’s not get all emotional on the friend-front. I noticed that I was starting to put off visiting friends for certain work things at this point though. For example, if I had a big release I might skip someone’s birthday because I knew I had a stressful weekend coming up, and of course it didn’t help that we had a milestone with some project that was following right after too. I was trying to find ways to make it up to my friends for missing things because I felt bad about it.
My hobbies started to narrow a bit by this point. I’m still an avid gym goer, and I was during this time frame as well. I was going every single day like I had planned… even during those hectic releases. I was playing video games less because they weren’t really something that was productive. If I noticed I was spending a lot of time on video games, I could often convince myself that there was work to do that would have a positive impact if I could deliver it. Do I need to level up my digital wizard character again in some fantasy land that doesn’t mean anything, or could I knock off another feature from our roadmap? It’s not that hard to change your mind when you like what your building, so the choice would often come down to “what’s more productive”? This is also coming from a person who doesn’t watch TV ever because it doesn’t feel productive, so maybe I’m just weird.
After a couple of years of startup life, I was still loving it. Certain parts of my life were changing (less time for friends and hobbies… more and varied responsibilities at work), but the positives still outweighed the negatives. Besides, it feels really good to be productive.
It’s been a few years now, and yes, I still absolutely still love my job, what we make, who I make it with, our customers, and all of the crazy things we go through. If you talk to anyone on my team, they’ll let you know I’m a morning person now. Except that I’m really not. I actually hate waking up early, but rolling out of bed at 7 to get to work for 7:30-7:45 means that I get some extra time in the morning to work. My team would also let you know that I work late too, so if you needed to pop into the office because you forgot something, you could come by my desk and chat with me. My core hours aren’t 9-5 anymore, but they’ve evolved to be about 8 to 6. If I’m not at the office by 8, some of the early risers actually get worried about where I’m at. If I’m out of the office before 6, people will ask me what’s wrong because if I’m leaving “early”, then something must be up. I don’t really take vacation now either. I’ve been bothered (for what I believe to be all of the right reasons) by my HR manager to take more vacation than I do. And yeah, this is the same HR manager that mentioned the burn out thing to me. I don’t really take vacation now because it chews into my work time. Work often carries over into the weekends too. I’m working those Valley hours now trying to get as much productivity as I can in my 24×7 window.
My job responsibilities? They’ve shifted to encompass more things, which feels great. It feels good to put in time and be able to take on more responsibilities. However, with more responsibilities comes more accountability for things (obviously) which can mean pressure build ups when certain things align. For example, instead of being responsible for a single project or deliverable, I might be responsible for two to four of these things. If they happen to line up in a short period of time, it can mean an immense amount of stress. It can also mean that I don’t feel comfortable taking vacation during those heavy periods. Unfortunately, the more prolonged that goes, the more I need vacation and the more I feel like I can’t take it.
My hobbies are really narrow now. I hit the gym every day still. I’m still adamant about this. However, my nutrition has been starting to slack. I enjoy eating healthy, preparing food, and knowing what I’m putting in my body. The latest thing to give way is food preparation because it takes time, and it’s easy to get food in other ways. I’m not really proud of this or happy with this. Video games? I’ll take a day every now and then and binge on them to blow off some steam. Hobby programming? Not a chance. Blogging? Look at the frequency of my posts as of late to get an idea… It’s trailed off. My current frame of mind seems to revolve around the idea of “if it’s not work, I probably shouldn’t be doing it”.
My friends? I feel like I only have my closest friends still and my colleagues (and I love my colleagues like family, so that’s not a bad thing). I’ve done a really poor job of keeping in touch with everyone else because I’m not making any time for them. I’ve been doing a pretty bad job of keeping in touch with m y immediate family too. I didn’t even realize it until my parents started pointing it out, which is obviously a problem.
So What’s Going On?
Right now I’d say thing in my life probably aren’t what I would consider great, despite the fact that I’m living to all of the goals that I’ve set for myself. I’ve graduated from university with a degree studying computer engineering. I have a full time job that I love and work hard at. I have a car that I like. I have a condo that I love. Why aren’t things great?
I’ll direct us back to Wikipedia for this interesting little list they have. They’ve actually defined a list of the stages of burning out, and I can speak to a lot of them in the order that they present them:
- The Compulsion to Prove Oneself: New to the workforce. New to the job. New to the team. I saw great potential in the company, and I wanted to prove that I could be a driver in getting it to where it could be. I needed to prove to someone (myself? I don’t even know) that I could be that driving change. Could it be done without me? I’m sure my team could have gotten to where they are without me because they’re all talented people, and I didn’t bring anything to the table that they couldn’t have made up for. But I wanted people to look back and think that I was a primary driver in all of this.
- Working Harder: You can likely see it in the transitions I described above. I’m not a morning person, but now I wake up early to get more time for work. I stay up later to get more time in for work. I trade out my hobbies so that I can make time for work. I have tried to find any way I can to increase the amount of work I can get done.
- Neglecting Their Needs: I’ve probably been in denial on this one for a long time. I try to be as healthy as I can… But I’m neglecting my need to sleep sufficiently. I’m neglecting my need to spend time with friends and family. I often look at my “needs” as biological (good food and exercise) and my ability to keep a roof over my head. I’ve been neglecting the other pieces.
- Displacement of Conflicts: This is apparently the stage when people first start to realize something is wrong. Is that why I’m writing this post in the first place? Am I only at this early stage of burn out? I feel like I’m showing traits of some of the following steps though.
- Revision of Values: When reflecting on my current state compared to how I viewed myself at the end of university, I know things have changed. My highest valued trait is my ability to do work. If I don’t work as much or as hard, I value myself less. I’ve certainly become more emotionally blunt as well. Over the past few years, I’ve been referred to as robotic more and more frequently. Other people are noticing this too, so it’t not just me.
- Denial of Emerging Problems: My personality type tends to ride the line between introvert and extrovert on certain things. I can tell that my ability to be extroverted has become extremely demanding on me mentally/emotionally and that often means that I’d choose to be alone versus with a group of people. The article also states increased amounts of aggression and sarcasm are present. For anyone that knows me well, sarcasm is my middle name… And when I’m irritated, sarcasm becomes my weapon of choice (which is really unfortunate). I also blame all of this on the amount of work that I have and pressure that I believe I’m under. I don’t blame any of this on how I’ve changed my value systems over the past couple years, which isn’t fair.
- Withdrawal: I’m not quite sure if I’ve totally hit this step, but this really just refers to an increased level of wanting to be removed from social interactions.
- Obvious Behavioral Changes: I suppose this is for other people to observe. I’ve picked up a few cues that other people are noticing I behave differently. An example is my reduced emotional intelligence and tolerance for certain things I don’t find logical at face value. I generally get irritated by this kind of thing and then turn to sarcasm.
- Depersonalization: This point was interesting. While I don’t think that I’ve devalued myself or others necessarily, I do think that I view my life as a series of mechanical functions. It’s a rather boring way to look at life, but I’ll admit I look at things as a regular process and I look for ways to optimize my time to get more work done. The amount of work I can get done is how I determine my efficiency, and my life currently revolves around being more efficient.
- Inner Emptiness: I think I’ve arrived close to this point, personally. As I mentioned above… I’ve set a few personal goals in my life: education, good job, car, and place to live. I feel that I’ve achieved those things, and I’m always working to improve in those areas. I still feel completely empty in terms of achievement though.
- Depression: Next up? Depression. The great news is that I don’t feel depressed. At all. There’s a history of depression in both my mother’s and father’s sides of the family, so this is a fear of mine. I’m worried about falling into a depression, but I don’t believe I’m there yet. I actually think I’m a long way off from it. I think as far along into burning out that I might be, I can take the necessary steps to avoid getting to a depressed state.
- Burnout Syndrome: This is the final stage that involves collapsing physically and emotionally. While I do have a feeling of emptiness, I’m still quite physically healthy and I think I have the right frame of mind for how I’m looking at my state of burn out. With that said, I’m quite confident that I’m not at this stage.
I’d encourage you to actually check out the article on this because it’s pretty interesting; especially if you think that you’re on your way to being burn out.
I haven’t been totally oblivious to what’s been happening over time. Here’s my own list of the things I’ve picked up on:
- My emotional intelligence has been slipping and I’m always thinking in a more logical manner, often neglecting the feelings of others. I’ve had a few instances come up where I’ve said the wrong thing because I wasn’t really offering support for a friend, but instead telling them what I thought based on my more robotic personality.
- Being around people is draining. I hate to admit this one, but I find spending time around other people is draining. Spending time around people I don’t know for a night might mean that I don’t feel like hanging out with anyone for a week or more.
- I’m becoming socially challenged. When I need to meet new people, I don’t really know what to say anymore. I don’t have all that much to talk about now. I’d rather just be alone. Sure, I might be a programmer so people expect that my social skills aren’t up to average, but I’m actually noticing that I don’t know how to interact with new people now. It’s scary. You might not observe it if you meet me, which just means I’m doing a really good job of hiding it because that’s how I feel about it.
- I have one hobby, and it’s lifting weights. Unfortunately, I happened to pick one hobby that not a ton of people find that exciting. I don’t make time for creating music anymore. I don’t hobby program that often. I rarely play video games. I don’t feel like I have time or interest to go pick up anything new.
The Silver Lining
If you’ve made it this far without clicking away, falling asleep, or both, then it probably sounds like a pretty lame post about my life. That’s not the goal of it though, and that’s certainly not how I feel about my situation. I’m actually just trying to understand all that’s going on with regards to going through burn out. With that said, I think there’s a handful of really positive things I’ve picked up on over the past few years with respect to this:
- I’ve learned how I work most efficiently. I’ve had to work in a variety of scenarios on a variety of different projects. I know that I like working mostly in isolation or if I’m part of a team, then working around just those individuals. I like having distractions of my other responsibilities removed (which for my career, is often tricky given that I interface with many different people). I know that I like having some music going and being able to crank out code without interruption. I like to stay well caffeinated, and I like working in the evening more than I like working in the morning. I’m a typical programmer.
- I’ve learned that I love working with the people at my office. Call it corny, but I have my work family, and I love to work with them. They have a high level of trust in me, and I’m able to trust them. It’s a great dynamic and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many great people.
- I know that given enough time, I can work through most problems no matter how difficult they seem. I’ve had to come up with some really unique solutions to problems I originally thought near impossible.
- I consider myself the hardest working individual that I know. I pride myself in this, but… perhaps that’s the whole problem here 🙂
That’s the big question here. I’ve identified that I’m well on my way to burning out… So what’s next for me? If you’re going through something similar… What’s next for you?
- Spend more time with friends. Hands down. Number one priority. I’m going to start making more time for friends. If they’re out of town, I’m going to start offering to drive out to visit them more often if they don’t feel like making the journey here. Same goes for family. I’m getting regular Skype sessions set up with my family so we can stay in touch between visits. Friends and family are one of my needs that I’m neglecting, and I’m going to remedy that first.
- Vacation. I used to believe I lived the work-hard-play-hard lifestyle, but it’s just the work hard lifestyle now. It’s time to take some vacation and acknowledge that I need it in order to actually stay sharp and operate at the best of my ability. Taking vacations and having time for yourself (and/or your friends/family) is hugely beneficial. Just because it doesn’t let me turn out more lines of code doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing.
- Tell my HR manager she’s been right for a long time. And this will be my first step in seeking some external help. The first step is admitting the problem… and the next step is getting help for it 🙂
I’m keeping my list of goals pretty short for now. I need to start making changes in how I operate and then reassess how these changes are affecting my life. I’m expecting positive changes, but I’m not sure how fast.
If you think you’re on the way to potentially burning out, I think the most important thing you can do is be aware of it. I still don’t believe there’s anything wrong with working hard and pouring your heart into something you love doing. But like anything, the more time you dedicate to something and take away time from other places, you’ll find that it starts to change the person that you are. Pay attention to it. Be aware of it. It’s all that you can do to prevent yourself from getting to a state where you feel like it’s too late for you to make a change.
It’s never too late for you to work your way back from burning out.