Burnout and how to deal with it

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.

Who either don't get out, don't protect against it or work for an organisation that is ignorant (or even worse don't care) about it.

[UPDATE : When you're done there is  Part two, preventing burnout in the first place]

What is it, how does it feel

Well there are two sides to it, 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.

According to a Dutch study GPs have one of the highest rates of burnout, though I dare say software engineers are a close second ! Maslach who studied this created a Burnout Inventory that uses three measurements to identify it
  1. Exhaustion
  2. Cynicism
  3. Inefficacy
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 "up beat American attitude" of "Yay everything is perfect or it's your fault", disagreeing with it can be call cynicism (or an opportunity for pill pusher to sell you something !).

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 be inefficacy due to ineptitude, inexperience, lack of motivation, lack of skills, etc 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 [cite],  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 realize 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
  • Depression
  • 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, and hopefully never again).

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 cant 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 (in most places) 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 at any cost", i.e. defending a coding sweat shop
    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 over clocking 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 time lines (ideally none) 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 a very 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, issues (and likely people) 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 :

    If you are "above" someone's role in your role, the it is your job and responsibility to check in on them, possibly manage them, and very importantly make sure they are are fit for their job (and that includes making sure they are actually capable opposed to believing everything they say). So in a word facilitation.

    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 lightning 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 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 (if you have some) might 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).

    Along with :
    • 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 well, so it's unprofessional to do so.

    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 (i.e. one person hurt and one OK, opposed to two out of action).

    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% of individuals that left, or want to leave their employment, is due to poor management.

    The future

    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 (use to) 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).

    [UPDATE : When you're done there is  Part two, preventing burnout in the first place]



    1. Re-read (if you didn't first time Didn't helptround) Tom DeMarco "Peopleware". Buy the people that are pissing you off a copy then, in the words of Tom "Vote with your feet".

      I sent the VC of BU a copy :) Didn't help, so I voted with my feet.

    2. "Burnout": to lose traction. Can apply to tires or life.-- Jebediah T. Whipplethorne

      The slippage associated with this condition can be both frustrating and dangerous. Only way out is to focus and stay in control. Worst thing you can do is to apply the brakes.

      Nicely explored and explained. Sounds like a lot of unnecessary grief. Guess my initial thought is: If you're spending this much time and creative energy thinking about it, then it's time to employ the Monty Python strategy. To wit: "Run away! Run away!

      In the end, you can't be rational with fools.

    3. Hey Jerry, take care man. If you have put this much thought into it, you either get it bad and often, or you are seeing it in others a lot.

      I've been down that dark hole twice since I last saw you, never gonna let it happen again. I've come close since but I made sure that I let everyone in the office, and my wife know what was going on. Then I took a big step back for several weeks. More exercise, indulge in hobbies and interests, take walks at lunch, with the family if possible. But ... let people know. They don't need to help, they need to be aware. Nobody would wish another person to go down that route just for the sake of a few weeks on a deadline once they have been told the reality of what is going on.

      Maybe I am wrong, or maybe I work in an understanding office.

      But seriously Jerry take care of yourself, and if you are in that hole now, do whatever it takes to get out.

      Steve F

    4. Great read!

      I think many of us in the "tech" profession have faced this at least once in our careers. I personally am striving for a better work/life balance myself right now. As Steve said, more exercise & less working late.

    5. Hi Jeremy!

      I just log off from one of my customer's servers and i really i don't know how, but i stumbled upon this reading of yours.
      I really liked the way you faced the problem.
      My actual personal experience is unfortunately the one of being obsessed by my job and your words were striking to me.
      There are a couple of things i need to change...
      Thanks man!


    6. @lessio

      I'm really happy that in some way it might make a difference and help. I remember when I was in the depths of it finding some kind of reason and seeing people talk about it helped.

      Now I'm on the other side I'm trying to help those experience it, and ensure I ward it off for myself first and then any teams I look out for.

    7. I work in the digital art field, and i think i've actually been through every single step you just outlined- now i'm looking for a new job, and am being taken seriously by serious people (of course, this could all fall apart still- my third round of interviews is next week and i could totally drop the ball)

      But I have an awesome family, and they really did an amazing job trying to remind me of my worth when being overlooked for promotions i was most qualified for, and dwindling intrastudio respect- my dad had me sit down and make a list of all the skills i bring to the table, and I have to admit, it was formidable!

      So as a coda to all of this, i'd suggest that if you have value- which is obvious because they hired you- don't let a bad supervisor or situation make you question your own worth. Go find someone who will appreciate it. They'll be thrilled to have you, and you'll actually be encouraged to find the balance that makes things enjoyable again.

    8. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    9. Hi Jeremy
      This is really a godsend!
      I am in the midst of a serious burnout(although I have REALLY had my problems facing and recognizing this.... and probably being a complete moron to the entire world in the process!)

      However... one of your comments.... "Unless you're a single contractor or the CEO, It's not your fault." .... if you are a single contractor then what ??? How to move on.. and/or get the feedback that you need to get out of the doldrums... ???

    10. Hi Nse,

      I did write a follow up that might help with prevention and care:


      I'd suggest you ease up on referring to yourself as a moron, we all get over whelmed sometimes, it's part of life and being human.

      Typically relieving the symptoms so you can address the root cause I've found the best tactic, getting professional help, or ultimately getting out of the situation that is causing it.

      Also don't run into another situation that could end up being the same, out of the frying pan and into the fire as it were.

      Learn all the signs of where you are, so you don't end up there again.

    11. Jeremy,

      Thank you for taking the time to write this article. I've been burned a few times now, and am seriously considering giving up electrical engineering (after 7 years). It's a shame, because I feel I am a very technically competent. It's just I can't manage to deal with the unreasonable expectations and stress. It's like quicksand; The more I struggle, the deeper I sink. Not to mention all the other emotional baggage of feeling like a failure in my career.

      Got to stay positive. Thanks again for these articles.

      1. You're welcome Jess. It's a shame to have to face giving up a passion because of the environment. Maybe trying to find ways to change or manage those things will help.

    12. After referring to my work team as the D team for the last... year, I am going to be passing this information along to my boss's boss.

    13. Do you really find that other people being aware helps? Do they sympathise? I burnout a lot and I know it's me who's doing it, so it's not like I'm blaming others, but if I tell people I'm burning out they just say things like 'well, if you will put too much on your plate, you will get stressed'. I'm not saying that I didn't miscalculate how much I could take on, so it's not that they don't have a logical point, it's more that it just makes me feel more stressed to be reminded that I am to blame.

      And in my case, I am to blame, because this isn't organisational work (my day job) this is my creative work (my night job), although to be fair it's really hard not to burnout if you have two jobs...

      1. It depends on the environment and people to be honest, though I do believe that most people care about others and help out when they can.

        Even if it is constantly self inflicted, then being reminded to set personal work load boundaries isn't a bad thing (a.k.a. "Well you take on too much"), the people are telling you to ease off.

    14. Thank you very much for this - your writing shifted my mindset back in the right direction.
      I am working in a startup and feeling mildly burned out lately (which is how I found your blog). The people I am working for and with are all great and kind, but after reading your article, I think the problem in my case lies in lack of experience. Nobody really knows what they are doing with their employees, because the bosses never have been bosses before. It is up to everyone on their own to take care of themselves, because nobody really considers that the sometimes chaotic managerial circumstances can cause frustration among employees. This "insight" now seems so obvious to me, but it hasn't occured to me before I read your post. I believe that this will greatly help me to deal with the situation, or, if not, to move on to a more structured environment.
      Thank you again, I am wishing you all the best.


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