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Staring Down Burnout

JTK
She/her. Multithreaded wonder. Snark pinata. Come for the code, stay for the sass. Dev Lead, and head over heels in love with Python, SQL, and JavaScript.
・6 min read

I got a question recently that gave me pause because it is something heavily weighing on my mind lately.

To be honest with you, burnout is something that I'm very tuned into right now because if I'm really flirting with that line. I don't know that my advice for junior developers is different than for anyone else, so although the original question was from that angle I'm just going to talk generally.

I have burned out before

Who would have thought something positive could come out of burnout, hmmm? Well, I guess there is one thing. I know the signs I'm looking for.

I don't think I'm especially prone to burnout compared to anyone else. When it happened to me, I still worked in recruiting, a field people burn out of at a ridiculously fast rate.

For me, burnout looked like this:

  • Listlessness an inability to fully put down distractions or pick up work tasks, forever in a half-working half-distracted state getting nothing done
  • Malaise a lack of direction in my tasks, a feeling of disconnect, fatigue, and disinterest
  • Exhaustion dread of receiving emails, dread of the weekend ending, physical exhaustion, inability to enjoy my hobbies or do much but just "recover" during free time. My cognition felt foggy, I wasn't sleeping well either

Unscientific theories on why I burn(ed) out

I burned out in 2016 and when I think back on it there are a few things I think were unhelpful, at a minimum.

  • Overwork I was tied to my laptop during pretty much all my waking hours. No surprise that that could cause burnout. I also worked from home, in a tiny apartment. Work followed me everywhere. I didn't have a designated workspace I could leave, my living room was my office
  • Disconnect with the work In my case, this was a toxic work environment. I've heard other people feel disconnected because of structural issues on their team, assignments they hate or having so much work that they never can make a dent. I think all these situations have in common a sense of futility, or that what you do won't make a difference. I think that heavily plays into burning out
  • Personal upheaval when I burned out in 2016, my dad passed away. I've talked about that briefly elsewhere. Obviously that was a huge personal blow

Evaluating the burnout risk factors for my current situation

  • I'm not overworked by work which is a blessing - Red Hat has great work-life balance. However, I decided to go to school full time and have been since January while working full time. I would be lying if I said I wasn't overworked. All my weekends are spent on schoolwork, as are some weeknights. It is too much work, and I knew going in I might have to quit if I started feeling burned out. Jury is still out on how that will end
  • Disconnect with the work: In a way, I have been feeling this. Half my team is in another time zone (6 hours off from me). When I came on board, most of our projects were mature enough and had existing domain experts that had been with my team a long time. In a weird way, the lack of crisis made me feel irrelevant. I've done good work and been helpful, but until recently I didn't have a certain problem that I was the champion for. Something about floating around did make me feel distant from the work
  • Personal upheaval well, hello COVID. I didn't hang out with another person from March 2020 until spring 2021 when vaccinations became available in my area. The world is such a mess. I think it's hard for me and many other people to feel like work matters when the world is in an ongoing deadly crisis

How I'm trying to manage it

The one positive thing I can say for myself is that burning out before was painful enough that I did learn some things I took forward. Nothing I can tell you will be more insightful than a therapist or doctor, so if you can realistically do it, please go see someone before you burn out, and take my thoughts with a grain of salt. These are my own takeaways and may not work for you or halt burnout.

  • Either you can pick a time to rest and recharge, or your burnout will pick one for you. If burnout is in the driver's seat, this will not be pretty. For me, I walked away from a high paying job and a security clearance because I basically couldn't function anymore. It would have been a lot less of a disaster to take periodic rest along the way than six months off for mental health leave which is what happened for me. I'm not ashamed of it, but it was brutal.
  • Build up your wellness infrastructure You need a battery of small, helpful habits to keep you balanced. You can't just work on these things when it is too late and you are depleted. For me, that showed up in not being well rounded, being too much of a workaholic, not taking time for hobbies and exercise, never using my vacation. One thing I have credited with not getting burned out since has been daily hiking habits that keep me outdoors, better connections with friends, more regular contact with support networks. Also recently, therapy. Therapy has been hugely helpful in being aware of my own limits, staying cognizant of how I'm feeling, and refocusing my feelings about work to find the positives and find opportunities for things that engage me.
  • I also have come to be a big believer in getting away from screens I'm chained to a computer for work and then schoolwork, every single day of the week. It has become clear to me that my more restful downtime is definitely hiking/working out/reading/listening to podcasts and not TV/doomscrolling/video games. If you can get rid of things that make you look at your phone, twitter and email notifications, deleting the apps altogether, that's not a bad move.
  • Cut your losses before they get bigger Treat burnout like an emergency even if you are just starting to get those feelings. If you can punt on that weekend code side project, do it. If you have been sitting on vacation days because you don't have anywhere good to go because of social distance, honestly take them if you are able even if it just means a staycation or a cabin somewhere or camping locally. Not everyone can do all these things, but whatever is in your power. The thing is, burnout is one of those things where you can't unring that bell. You have to deal with it before it is critical. In my experience, there is no predicting how long it will take to recover once it gets really bad.

Closing & alternate paths

Despite my concerns, I am actually hopeful that I am doing enough to avoid burnout. Only time will tell. I'm also fortunate enough to have a lot of resources to help me along the way this time.

There have been times in my career where I either couldn't afford or access therapy, couldn't afford vacation and just wasn't in a position in life where I could take as good care of myself as I can now. For people in that situation, the following things are what I would do if I was still in that boat:

  • Get away from screens, I know I know I said it already BUT I mean it. I would actually say do something in your free time as unrelated to work as possible. No organization books, no programming courses, no side projects. Learn to draw. Read. Learn to knit. Listen to audiobooks. My savior has been getting outside and running on the treadmill inside. Not all your hobbies need to be challenging either. It is ok, GREAT even, to have purely relaxing hobbies that let you zone out with no end goal
  • Say no to everything extra, and ask for support it is ok to keep the status quo for a minute to protect your mind. Software engineers are an ambitious bunch, but this is the time when it is OK to say no to the high profile project at work, OK to tell your boss that you're having a little bit of a tough time and could use some patience, OK to ask your friends to check on you a bit because you are struggling. I never did any of those things because I thought I could handle anything. I was dead wrong.
  • If you can't access therapy, find alternate paths like Meetup groups for burnout, online forums and support spaces, and you may learn some of the most "together" people in your life have also burned out or are struggling with it currently. Journalling can help process your own needs and give you insight into how to help stay together. Your workplace may have an employee assistance plan that can offer some therapy.

I'll be the first to tell you that it is much easier to take good care of yourself the more resources you have, and it is unfair that people are in positions where a lack of resources can make it a burden to do that. Having been there, my heart does go out to you. I hope in some small way my experiences can be helpful to anyone struggling right now <3

Discussion (4)

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wellgravity profile image
Gravity Well (Robert Tomlin)

Having stared at burnout myself many years ago; an important question to ask yourself, and I think a therapist can help make this more objective is, “are you doing or heading in the direction you want?”
I loved pure mathematics but when it came time to apply to a PhD program, I felt dread. Five more years of living in my head with completely abstract concepts? I loved it but didn’t want to keep living there (was this going be my life?) The career path was chosen too. PhD, position at a university, push to publish within 7 years for tenure.
I love teaching and enjoy research, but on my own terms.
I decided to take a completely new direction. Putting together curricula and teaching computer science for a couple of high schools. Adjunct teaching mathematics. Low pay, but I didn’t care.
The takeaway is “dread” or sometimes a true panic attack (not just anxiety) at my future sticking with just abstract mathematics.
Sure I’ve had times in the tech world of overwork over the years; and stress ( often self imposed), but not on-going dread. Like a dark cloud hanging over you with no way out-despair.
Try to picture your life in 1 year, 3 years, 30 years. Obviously you can’t predict but trust me things don’t stay the same; good or bad.

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heyjtk profile image
JTK Author

I know a lot of people who are so bright and start feeling disillusioned during the PhD process, one of the smartest programmers I ever knew went that route - I think for him the sense of futility came from the amount of politics that can weirdly be part of academia. But I can definitely understand feeling that way

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wellgravity profile image
Gravity Well (Robert Tomlin)

To help address the Junior Dev burnout, let me share something. I started in tech by writing and teaching CS curricula. That gave me time to figure out what I liked/loved in terms of work. For me it was problem solving and teaching. My solution was to start a business of Software development, training and consulting. That gives me the balance necessary to keep from burning out, being able to shift areas when needed. This of course needs periodic re-aligning as it is not always in one's control. The periodic examination and adjusting is life-long. For me, work needs to be balanced with health and physical activity, and understanding my social needs. I've recently realized, during the pandemic, I want to get back in to teaching and training more. Again, adjust my work balance.
This was not meant to be a "follow your passion" comment, but self examination of needs, loves, likes and wants is important.
Thank you JTK for writing this blog and allowing me to share.

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lukeshiru profile image
LUKE知る

That's my secret, Cap. I'm always burned out...

Jokes aside, great article! Thanks for sharing! 💕