Monitoring for and Dealing with Burnout
by Ryn Daniels
It’s often difficult to see burnout when you’re in the midst of it. I spent a solid 6-12 months getting more and more burnt out last year, and I didn’t realize how bad it was until my manager ordered me to take three weeks of mental health leave in the spring of 2017. I’d been trying to put together a brief high-level project proposal for something that, in theory, I was really excited about, but after several weeks I’d been unable to write more than a few sentences. As the kids say, I literally couldn’t even. And I couldn’t even see it.
Recognizing the Signs of Burnout
Recognizing the severity of your burnout can be difficult enough when you’re in the middle of it, to say nothing of figuring out how you might fix it. Because of this, it’s important that everyone learn the signs and symptoms of burnout so that we can watch for it in both ourselves and our colleagues. This is something can affect any of us, but it shouldn’t be a problem that is only on the shoulders of impacted people to fix – managers especially should help their teams prevent, identify, and recover from burnout.
Burnout is more than simply feeling too busy or stressed out, though our industry with its tendency to glorify “hustle” and “hero culture” certainly doesn’t help this aspect of it. Rather, it is a state of feeling ineffective, cynical, and physically, emotionally, and/or mentally exhausted, caused by conflicts between a person and their workplace, that can have serious short- and long-term impacts on both physical and mental health.
There are many symptoms that can be indicative of burnout, and not everyone in every situation will display all of them. I’ve found this quiz to be a pretty good one, though it does lean towards feeling overworked which, while it can be one indicator of burnout, isn’t always the biggest contributing factor. In general, keep an eye out for feeling cynical and exhausted. Do you feel like you can’t get anything done, like nothing matters, and you can’t summon up any energy to even try to fix it? You might be dealing with depression or something similar, or it might be burnout (or both!). The two bear more than a passing resemblance to each other, so if you are able, finding a mental health professional can be very beneficial.
Having other people who are willing and able to keep an eye out for signs of burnout and speak up and advocate on your behalf can be beneficial as well. A manager or peer who is able to help you recognize if you are starting on the path to burnout can do a world of good when it comes to preventing further damage. You can do the same thing for your colleagues. Of course, sensitive topics like this should be handled with care, but when done considerately and compassionately, the benefits to speaking up almost always outweigh the risks. This is especially true for members of underrepresented groups who are frequently told that they are “being too sensitive” or otherwise having their concerns about working environments not taken seriously. I’m generally more receptive when people come to me with questions about if I need support and how they can provide that, rather than starting with assumptions and perceived solutions. Don’t assume you know what someone is going through and what they might need better than they do themselves.
If you’ve dealt with burnout yourself and come out the other side, you may be able to better recognize your own unique signs and symptoms. For example, when I stop speaking up about topics I used to care deeply about, that is a big warning sign that I have emotionally checked out, which is a fairly visible thing that other people might be able to notice as well. When I start working with a new manager, I like to give them a “Care and Managing of Ryn” document, very heavily inspired by Lara Hogan’s Questions for our first 1:1, which also includes my symptoms of burnout. If you feel comfortable doing this, sharing your list of warning signs with your manager or some trusted teammates can help them to help you.
Significant research into burnout has been done by Dr. Christina Maslach, a professor, psychologist, and researcher who identified six key areas where a disconnect between a person and their workplace can greatly increase burnout risk. Those areas are:
- Workload (either having too much or too little work to do)
- Control (having autonomy over various conditions of one’s work)
- Rewards (feeling appropriately compensated or acknowledged for contributions)
- Fairness (a sense that one is being treated equally to one’s peers)
- Values (sharing values, morals, or beliefs with one’s team or organization)
- Community (a sense of belonging in the workplace)
The more areas in which someone is feeling disconnected from their team or organization, the greater their risk for burnout. When I got sent home on mental health leave, I was struggling with all six.
I’ve identified two additional factors that have also often played a role in my emotional state at work. Feeling disconnected from the industry to me has been very similar to Dr. Maslach’s community factor, but in a broader sense – community disconnect in one company or organization can often be fixed by changing jobs or teams, but feeling like you don’t belong in the industry as a whole can have notably more impact, as well as being harder to fix. I’ve also experienced multiple workplaces where I felt disconnected from my sense of self – I spent years in the closet as work, whether that was acting like “one of the guys” when I was the only non-male person in engineering or hiding my sexuality when I was the only queer person (that I knew of) in an entire company. Having to hide significant aspects of your identity in order to get by at work is both exhausting and damaging, and finding more supportive communities has done wonders for my mental health.
Monitoring your Mental State
Whether you’re recovering from burnout or worried that you might be starting to struggle with it, I would recommend trying to monitor your mental and emotional state, both in the short and medium term. For the medium term, I’ve found doing a monthly run-through of the high-level factors of burnout to be effective. Of the original six (or my eight) areas, where are you seeing a disconnect? And for each of those areas, is there anything that you can do, either now or in the relatively near future, to help put yourself in a better place?
For example, if your workload is too high, maybe a manager or teammate can help shift some responsibilities around. If you feel a lack of community, you could look for meetups, employee resource groups, or even Slack communities to join. Talking to your manager, you might find ways they can help you with issues around control and rewards (and if you find that your manager is unwilling to help address these issues, that’s at least valuable information to have). There aren’t always things you can do to immediately address big mismatches, but being aware of issues or trends at work is key to being able to eventually solve them.
In the shorter term, I’ve found that keeping track of both my moods and activities on a daily basis has been quite useful for recognizing trends and patterns. I’ve been using an app called Daylio that allows me to readily keep track of any number of activities that I define. I’ve been using it to track things like how often I go to the gym, how frequently I do something artistic or musical, or how regularly I’m making time to see my friends, but I’ve also used it to keep an eye on negative feelings, panic attacks, and how often I get sick – all signs that something not great is going on.
One of the features of Daylio I really like is that it shows me trends on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis, so I’ve been able to see that the months when I had the most “work rage” I was also doing the least amount of my creative hobbies. For me, this is a very big red flag. When I’m emotionally healthy and engaged with my life, I’m able to do both work and creative hobbies consistently. When I stop being able to do anything meaningful outside of work, that’s when I need to start taking a good hard look at what in my life might need some adjustment. Your specific patterns may be different, but in general a loss of interest in things you used to enjoy outside of work is never a good sign.
Patterns that indicate some sort of underlying issue are always worth investigating, and comparing the daily patterns with monthly burnout inventory can be a good place to start. Sometimes there are obvious changes at work to point to like a new manager, a reorg, or getting passed over for promotion, but other times the cause of a troubling pattern can be more subtle. Maybe it’s days upon weeks of microaggressions and feeling like you have nobody on your side to speak up for you, or even anyone to vent to (disconnect of community). Maybe organizational direction has been slowly changing over time and you find that you just don’t believe in the company the way you used to (disconnect of values). Smaller problems that build over time are where I’ve had a lot of luck increasing visibility through the daily mood and activity tracking.
One last thing that I’ve learned very clearly with burnout is that prevention is easier than cure. A big benefit of the monthly and daily tracking is that it helps me notice when things are slightly off-track, so hopefully in the future I can recognize and start addressing problems before they get to the point of requiring me to take a big mental health break. Catching burnout before it gets too severe makes the recovery process easier, and will be much better for your physical and mental health in the long run.
To Stay or to Go?
Of course, there aren’t always easy fixes to these problems. Sometime you will find yourself in a team or company that is simply a poor fit for you – the most severe cases of burnout for me were only able to be dealt with by leaving the environment that was causing it. If there are things you can change in your environment (such as switching teams, adjusting your workload, getting a raise, or even taking some mental health leave), those are certainly worth trying, but no job is worth sacrificing all your health or well-being for. If we can all be more aware of what burnout looks like and what causes it, we can work to create teams and organizations that are much healthier and more sustainable for the people in them. If we know what to look out for, we can help both ourselves and the people around us.
Ryn Daniels is a staff infrastructure operations engineer at Travis CI whose work has focused on monitoring, provisioning, and creating sustainable engineering cultures. Outside of work, they spend their time powerlifting, painting, making music, practicing photography, and befriending cats.