Developer and blogger Jeremy Hutchings knows what it’s like to work yourself to the bone and end up completely burned out. He also has some great suggestions for how to deal with it.
Image by stuartpilbrow
Unfortunately, I’m not talking about the driving game — I’m talking about the all too common and serious condition experienced by many creative professionals who find themselves in situations that promote it — those people who either don’t get out, don’t protect against burnout, or work for an organisation that is ignorant (or even worse doesn’t care) about it.
What is burnout, and how does it feel
As I see it, there are two sides to burnout: Firstly there is what the individual experiences, and second there is what others see (and how they commonly mistake it, or write it off as something else).
For the individual it is wholly depressing, life-robbing, exhausting and frustrating. A Dutch study on burnout resulted in a Burnout Inventory that uses three measurements to identify it:
Personally I think exhaustion is the main indicator, as cynicism is too culturally sensitive. Being from a country where I think we have a balanced view, encountering what some call the “upbeat American attitude” of “Yay everything is perfect or it’s your fault”, disagreeing with it can be called cynicism. I don’t believe it is, and it appears others are coming around to the idea of balance and shared responsibility.
Also to put inefficacy in context, I would describe what I think is meant as a “Reduction in average capacity”, meaning someone can display inefficacy due to ineptitude, inexperience, lack of motivation, lack of skills, and so on long before they are burnt out.
So a list of symptoms/phases created by Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North, which I’ve lifted wholly from Wikipedia to here as I agree with them, and also to illustrate the experience of the individual, are:
- A compulsion to prove oneself
- Working harder
- Neglecting one’s own needs
- Displacement of conflicts (the person does not realise the root cause of the distress)
- Revision of values (friends or hobbies are completely dismissed)
- Denial of emerging problems (cynicism and aggression become apparent)
- Withdrawal (reducing social contacts to a minimum, becoming walled off; alcohol or other substance abuse may occur)
- Behavioural changes become obvious to others
- Inner emptiness
- Burnout syndrome
“Burnout syndrome” I think is a cyclical point here, either that or I haven’t found what Freudenberger and North meant by it yet!
They are mostly self explanatory and I can attest to them first hand though two major experiences of it in my life (so far).
A summary would be that you feel very alone, depressed, and judged. To compound it the more you try to get out of it (by doing more of the same) the more you experience it, much as a clever chap once said :
“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” -Albert Einstein
We will come to what we can do about it in a bit.
How does it look, and what happens
Now for people on the “outside” of the experience, i.e. colleagues, close friends, partners, pets etc. It can manifest itself in all manner of ways, very dependant on the personality and coping mechanisms of the individual. When pushed to the limit and beyond, how do you behave ?
From personal experience I know I freeze, withdraw and attempt to rationalise what is going on.
Which within itself is a double edged sword, I know I’m good at finding fault or noise (it feels autistic) which is great when dealing with systems (technical or social) as you can easily see the bit that is the root cause of the issue, it just is what it is.
Much the same way that a friend and colleague explained to me when writing regular expressions. When I asked how did he do it or how does it know it will work “Because it will, I looked at what you asked and that’s what I saw”.
So it’s hard for people who aren’t checking in or listening to see what is going on with me, till I’m pushed over the edge by more of the root cause, or the usual bug bears of engineers, constantly changing requirements, design by committee, poor environment, inept team member(s) who just make more work for you, etc.
At which point, I just don’t get out of bed, depression is in full swing by this point (combine that with a hobby in making beer and the temptation to self medicate is quite strong. Another social reason that men are treated for alcoholism to a much greater degree, it’s not socially acceptable for us to ask for help, and there are little or no social support systems in place for men, though I digress).
I’ve seen others lash out against management who don’t have a clue at what is going on, or at colleagues, a lot of brilliant but mismanaged (self and organisationally) people just resign and go else where, seeking a better environment.
I’ve heard the behaviour of the individuals being described as “volatile” (typically by the people(s) who are pushing them to do more work), angry, depressed, disconnected, etc.
It’s unfortunately rare for people who haven’t had actually counselling / psychology training (as I have) to ask questions that would uncover what is going on.
One of the dangers of being in this situation is the behaviour will be written off as what ever it suits the senior management to assign it to, the usual include:
- They have “personal” issues, they then focus on the symptoms of burnout to support their argument opposed to looking for root cause(s)
- That they keep complaining about person X (root cause ineptness) is just a personality clash. Always compounded when person X is very good at distraction or manipulation
- They are incompetent in their job and overwhelmed (disregarding past achievements i.e. proof)
- They don’t accept the “corporate culture” of “getting things done”, i.e. defending a coding sweat shop
As an aside the last point is an interesting one as many “managers” see their role as “achieving maximum productivity” by hook or crook, any study on X vs Y management will give you and overview of that.
Now, I’ve been overclocking CPUs for years I know how hot and unstable things get when you just keep telling them to go faster, and how utterly pointless it is, unless the first thing you put in place is the care, in the CPUs case water cooling and LOTS of monitoring. In a persons case, proper HR procedures, realistic deadlines with progression and experienced project management, etc.
Unfortunately the case it’s usually the other way around, “managers” will push an individual/team to breaking point and then set that as the point they “expect” for ever more.
There is a very lonely hot place in hell for individuals like that.
What to do when in it
So we have looked at what it is like for the individual, what it is like for the organisation how the internal and external behaviour manifests itself. We’ve also explored some of the (negative) management assumptions and behaviours in response to it.
Later we’ll look at not allowing things to get there in the first place, though for now what to do in the heat of the moment.
For the individual it is imperative to think of number 1, if you find yourself in a situation like this things way beyond your control have dumped a crap pie in your lap. If at any point you have a CEO or senior management sit you down to grill you about everything you did wrong in their eyes, leave immediately, seriously get out.
You’re in a situation where you are sacrificing yourself and things in your life for the sake of a organisation that obviously doesn’t care about you, so return the favour and just stop and take care of yourself and ignore them.
Unless you’re a single contractor or the CEO, It’s not your fault.
This is how I see responsibility and support in an organisation:
Also the responsibility for things flows up, it’s the double-edged sword in chain of command (it’s why they get paid more). Something goes wrong that lighting blot shoots up till it hits the person at the top, if they haven’t thought about having the correct people and processes in place, then constant electrocution is their deserved reward.
So with that in mind, it’s not your fault.
If you are in a large enough organisation then then go straight to HR and lay it all out for them.
If you are in a smaller organisation, which is more common then you’re going to have to find someone internally that you trust. In the absence of that you might be feeling very alone, though there will typically be some help available professionally within your community. Also your benefits should cover enough counselling to get things straight in your head that you can get back to a mental state from where you can deal with the issue (and it’s not the project it’s the organisation and the lack of process and care, etc).
- Get some exercise to help with general wellness (always do this !), as well as being properly tired for sleep
- Take a break
- Hang out with friends
- Ensure you communicate with your partner about why you feel bad (so they don’t think it’s them)
- Give the cat extra treats
- Remove yourself from things that are associated with work (i.e. sitting in front of a PC all day)
- Get help/advice from unbiased sources (very important, people at work have their own agendas)
So it is quite individual for the person. One of the main things I learnt training as a counsellor is “self care” (why the hell they taught it at the end I have no idea), if you don’t take care of number 1 you can’t do anything else.
The analogy I usually use for this one is the lifeguard (I’m a SCUBA Rescue Diver), no lifeguard will put themselves in harm while saving a stranded swimmer as then you have two people in trouble. If you are doing a rescue dive near a pier and you have the unconscious person, if a wave is going to thrown you into the pier, you put them in between you and the pier so you can carry on and get them out.
In counselling, it as unethical and very unprofessional to work when you are in a compromised state, as you will not be able to do your job and focus on the client, so just don’t do it.
Much the same if you are paid to perform as a Software Engineer if you can’t do it for X reason, then don’t. Likely X is something to do with the management of the situation or a lack of support so address that, opposed to blaming your behaviour in reaction to the situation.
How to avoid it
If you want a happy productive team, I would say at all costs. As with most things awareness and professionalism is the main key. Listening to individuals who are working at the coal face and in the fire line of production.
An great example being that when they complain about other employees work and behaviour, explore it, don’t fail over to the easy position of favouritism and write it off to a “personality clash” as you obviously have one individual not functioning (the one who is vocalising the issue) and very likely there is something wrong with the one they are pointing to.
Ignore this at your peril. Unfortunately most do, or allow their reactions to be directed by personal bias, i.e. attacking the individual who is trying to explain the issue.
In situations like this there is a Tessler coil of a bolt building up.
Professional and unbiased personnel management is key, though usually absent unfortunately. Recent surveys have indicated that around 50 per cent of individuals have let or want to leave their employment due to poor management.
Looks like we know what is wrong and when, though are too busy trying to grasp the outcome to see that it is the manner in which we do things that dictates the outcome, it’s really that simple.
“The product WILL be done by this date AND will be great, or I’ll mount on the pressure till it’s done, and then blame you when it goes wrong”
…err no, lets try…
“The creation of the product will be approached in this manner, which will be the state it ends up in, we’ll check in regularly along the way with the people, and then the project, as its the people that ARE the project. We will know when it’s done”.
When I worked for vBulletin helping to build version 3 (and ImpEx) and being involved in bits after that, the product was a reflection of the people involved, the passion, the happiness and camaraderie. The product reflected that at the time, from the quality produced by the tech team all the way over to the responsiveness and unrelenting calmness of the support team, even in the face of some very challenging situations.
That shined though and it came from the people.
Quality is an approach and an experience, akin to respect not something you demand or pay lip service to, something you exude, earn and are mindful of.
I know having been though all these things makes me a better leader, I just have to ensure I don’t forget what is important:
Take care of number 1, so you can take care of those you are responsible for, and they will take care of the project and we all get what we want!
(Also remember, this is an internet blog, I am sharing my experiences and ideas. You should always seek the help of professionals where necessary).
Burnout and how to deal with it [It’s a funny old game]
Jeremy Hutchings has spent many years building and taking care of software & technical systems. Now in a new direction (or evolution even) he’s focused on the building and care of the people and teams, who in turn take care of the technology