In the middle of 2015, after 12ish years of working at the same company, I said to myself “I think I’m burnt out.”
I remember that after a few days of ruminating over it I finally decided and said out loud to myself “That’s it, I’m done.” By the end of the year I had left the company. I didn’t write about the burnout then, out of respect for my former employer. But it’s been a while, I think the time has come to write about it.
How do I know I was burnt out? I don’t believe there is any generally accepted consensus of symptoms for burnout, but I had a good set of indicators:
- exhaustion, both physical and mental. More and more often I found myself simply tired of everything.
- frustration with all the problems at work and the projects I was assigned to, frustration that we kept running into the same issues again and again (mostly relating to scheduling and deadlines and resources), and frustration that any concerns I raised were not being addressed
- thinking about work all the time, even on my off hours I would be mentally considered the open Jira tickets, etc
- a feeling of helplessness in the face of overwhelming and seemingly never-ending project issues, re:scheduling, resources, quality, and so on
- a general feeling that that the effort I was putting in wasn’t worth it or wasn’t appreciated as much as I’d have liked
- general lack of free time, and even when there was free time, lack of energy to pursue anything productive
- permanently broken sleep cycle (a problem I still struggle with to this day)
The work at my former employer had always been… challenging, to say the least. Overtime was not uncommon, and many people often quit citing the heavy workload. And yet I was generally happy/content working there for the better part of a decade. I kind of enjoyed and thrived in the environment most of the time, especially when facing technical challenges. Things got worse for me personally starting around 2014ish I think. There were a variety of challenges during this time, some of them due to the company/environment and some due to my own personal shortcomings.
- a large project with constantly changing requirements and overly aggressive schedules (due to sales/marketing push) and almost continuous crunch. It felt like we were always jumping from one crisis to the next
- needing to provide support for demo and live systems during off hours, due to the target clients being halfway across the world
- some clients and coworkers were challenging to work with
- during this period, the traffic situation in Metro Manila had gotten significantly worse, draining even more time and energy
I have a very strong sense of duty and responsibility. I realize this doesn’t sound like a negative, but it’d kind of a double-edged sword in that I take my duties as an employee very seriously and will sometimes sacrifice my own well-being if I think it is needed. For the longest time, one of my favorite quotes has been:
“Death is lighter than a feather, but Duty is heavier than a mountain” - Japanese proverb
I find this quote symptomatic of the “hustle culture” that tends to lead to burnout. That’s probably a topic for another time, but the gist of it is that most companies and projects are a never-ending well of work that needs to be done, so much so that oftentimes the reward for good work is often more work. i.e.
This “sense of duty” was so strong that even when I realized I was burning out, I still gave half a year’s notice for resignation, because I at least wanted to make sure everything was fine before I left. (Spoilers: it would take them a couple more years to actually finish the project). Someone reminded me recently that I expressed regret at leaving “in wartime” since the project got even further delayed and many of the issues were unresolved at that time.
related to the above, I also had a strong sense of pride. I considered myself very good at my job (justifiably so, based on annual reviews etc) and somehow had the mentality that I needed to be able to carry the weight of the project by myself. Whenever there was a resource or scheduling problem, one of my first instincts was to be to offer to take on the needed load myself, no matter how busy I already was.
Somewhat related to the above, but I also had (and often still have) an obsessive-compulsive need to read and reply to all emails and messages and notifications immediately, even outside of work hours
coupled with my strong sense of duty is a lack of ability to say no. As an example, for some reason even after I realized I was burnt out and notified the company I was leaving, I agreed to go live in another country on-site for three months. While it was good to experience another country, the work-life balance while I was there was even worse because the time zone problem still existed (except in reverse, i.e. the dev team was now on the other end of the world), and now I became a bottleneck (since I was one of the only two people on-site) and had to dedicate more time to bridging the gap.
As noted, I think many of these issues existed even before, but perhaps most of them were exacerbated by the fact that we now had to provide support across two time zones seven hours apart. That really took a toll on my work-life balance. Looking back at my emails during that period, I would often be replying late into the night or even early in the morning. I think it was really a question of energy and time being in short supply. I almost burnt myself out again in 2018, but at least I had the sense to recognize it faster and to step back as needed.
I must point out that I bear no ill will towards my former employer or the people who worked there. There was a lot of room for improvement but everyone was just trying the best with what they were given. And I share some of the blame since I was kind of in a leadership position – I should have pushed harder to make things better for everyone involved.
How to avoid burnout:
- set reasonable boundaries between work time and personal time. Having a strong sense of duty is probably fine, as long as you know where that ends and to prioritize your own well-being as needed. Guard your free time zealously. As much as possible, don’t accept calls/messages outside of agreed upon work hours. The occasional exception for an emergency is probably fine, but don’t let it become a regular thing. Having well-defined boundaries allows your brain to avoid overlaps - if you’re at home, you should get used to not thinking about work.
- understand your own value and your own limits. Having a good understanding of what you bring to the team and the limits of your own ability and capacity means you can more effectively allocate your time and energy.
- always be aware of the employee-employer relationship. It’s okay to have a good working relationship with your superiors and coworkers and even to be friends with them, but never lose sight of the fact that to the employer, you are an employee. You aren’t “family” no matter what the company says. You are being paid to do a job, and that job has limits. You don’t owe the company your personal time or your absolute loyalty. It’s a capitalist enterprise, not a nation. Remember that in the end, the company will need to look out for itself (especially for publicly-traded companies), so you will need to look out for yourself as well.
- learn to say no. This is coupled with the first two points above. If you know what your boundaries are and what your limits are, it will become easier to say “No” to unreasonable requests. And remember that your personal time is your own, you don’t need to defend or explain why you don’t want to work on weekends or such
- regularly reflect on how things are going. Check your energy levels to make sure they aren’t constantly low and that you’re getting enough recharge time. If you think are starting to burn out, pull back, take some time off, and reassess how to move forward. Assess also how the company is addressing your concerns, and if they aren’t or are unwilling to do so, consider whether it may be time to move on.
For people in leadership/management positions:
- understand the value and capabilities of your team and build them up. One of the best things about working in larger companies/projects/teams is that you have other people to back you up, to support you and handle things when you reach your limits. Understanding both your own limits and the team’s limits allow you to better allocate tasks to avoid burnout.
- it isn’t sufficient to simply be asking your team members “Are you still ok?", because if they’re anything like me, they may not be aware that they are starting to burn out already. Pay attention to how they are performing and how much time, effort and energy they are putting them in, and don’t push them unnecessarily.
- if your team members raise a concern, make sure to not only listen but to make them know what is being done to address their concerns. Unaddressed problems lead to frustration.
In general, software development is a demanding industry, and it tends to attract people like me - industrious people who enjoy and take pride in their work. (Hence the famous quote about laziness, impatience and hubris.) Add to that the common difficulties in estimation, scheduling and planning, and it’s easy to understand why burnout is rampant in this industry. All the more reason for everyone involved to be aware of the risks of burnout and how to avoid it, and perhaps to somehow help reshape the industry to better avoid it.