The Burnout Equation
Let’s take a minute to talk about burnout. The reason burnout is so insidious is that the higher your stress levels rise, the easier it is to bury your head in the sand and keep on keeping on in the hope that throwing more hours, more focus, and more energy at the situation will make all your problems go away. As anyone who’s been through burnout will tell you though, it simply doesn’t work that way.
In an industry like ours where our daily output is mostly intangible (or any industry dominated by knowledge work), it’s incredibly easy to dismiss burnout. After all, how hard can it be to sit at a computer all day? Right? Turns out, when your work is intangible it can actually compound the pressure we feel to produce results. Add being remote or (gasp) genuinely caring about your work into the mix, and you have a seriously flammable concoction.
Understanding the burnout equation
In my experience, burnout is usually the result of a cocktail of overlapping issues. Lying at the root is usually one or more negative emotions combined with some form of pressure. When that mixture is allowed to fester for a prolonged period of time without respite, you wind up with burnout. I like to think of it as an equation:
That isn’t at all mathematically (nor even logically) sound, but you get the picture. Let’s look a littler closer at each of those factors.
The negativity can take all kinds of forms. Resentment, boredom, anxiety, fear, and apathy are a few I’ve had to wrangle at different points in my career, but you might have some different examples.
The specific variety of negativity doesn’t tend to matter as much though. The problem is that negativity (of any kind) has a pesky habit of reinforcing itself. You feel shitty because you feel shitty about feeling shitty, and it feels really shitty. Ring any bells? This negativity is typically the catalyst for burnout just like the dust particle high up in the sky around which a snowflake starts to crystallise (except imagine the snowflake is evil). Terrible analogy, I know, but it’ll do for now.
The pressure in the equation comes in two flavours: self-inflicted and external. External pressure is fairly self-explanatory. Tight deadlines, tighter budgets, company politics, career concerns, awkward team dynamics, economic climate, family issues, and so forth. The self-induced pressure is a bit harder to pin down though, because it’s often subconscious, and it can even feel like external pressure. Sometimes it takes some serious introspection about the things you experience as external before you realise that really it’s pressure you’re putting on yourself—pressure to keep going, to save face, or to measure up to some ill-defined and infinitely elusive standard of perfection. It’s important to identify what kind of pressure(s) you’re really dealing with if you want to have any hope of doing anything effective about it.
Last but not least we have time. Time is a bastard when you’ve got a giant cauldron of self-reinforcing negativity churning away in your head. Dealing with negativity and pressure wouldn’t be that bad if it remained static—you’d get in the swing of things eventually, but time takes that combination of negativity and pressure and turns it into a pressure cooker (which is actually another good metaphor for the equation: heat + pressure + time). The important point here though is that if you chart the path to burnout, it’s not linear, it’s exponential, and that’s because of time.
Short-circuiting the equation
So what can you actually do about burnout? Well, whether you’ve officially hit rock bottom or you’re just beginning to suspect you’ve got an express ticket to Stressville, I think the solution looks pretty much the same. Instead of wasting time on the endless treadmill of symptom fighting, you need to step back, take a breather, reframe what’s going on, and look for ways to tackle the root cause(s) of your predicament.
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
— Alanis Morissette1
In an ideal world we’d recognise burnout approaching far enough in advance to prevent it from happening at all. For people who haven’t ever experienced full-on burnout before though, it can be tricky to gauge how far along in the process you are, so the key is being self-aware enough (or having people around to drop some hints) to realise you’re on a bad path and take preventative measures. Here’s a few to think about.
Get better at saying no
Whether it’s unreasonable expectations, tight timelines, or even commitments that are perfectly achievable, saying no helps stops things accumulating on your plate in the first place. You should be especially wary of accepting tasks that seem like they’ll be unrealistic (or even just not enjoyable) from the outset, but even tasks you enjoy can contribute to the number of open loops you have to manage at any one time, and that extra mental overhead is the last thing you need when you’re getting burnt out.
Talk to people
Seriously. Go talk to another human. Everyone always underestimates how much this helps. The most helpful person to speak to will be different depending on your situation, but here’s some ideas to try:
Talk to your manager (if you have one). What they want is for their team to be firing on all cylinders, so it’s in their interest to make sure you’re happy, and that you’re able to focus on quality work. If there’s unrealistic pressure on you coming from somewhere, they need to know about it, and it’s their job to help you find a way through it.
Talk to your colleagues. If you’re feeling pressure, chances are the people you work with are feeling it too. Talk to other people on your team, or in other parts of your company, and you’ll probably be surprised to find that you’re not alone.
Talk to your non-work friends. You really should try and cultivate friendships outside your job (and even outside your industry as a whole) if you don’t already. One of the most helpful things for burnout is a change of context to distract you from your professional life’s fatigue, and healthy social time with friends is unbeatable in terms of grounding you in the bigger picture. This is something I’ve personally struggled with over the last little while due to moving countries, but that’s just helped me realise how important it really is.
Talk to your family. It’s not a great idea to continually bombard your loved ones with negativity spilling over from your professional life, but the people who love you want you to be happy, and they know you better than anyone else, so make sure they know what’s going on in your head. It can also be really helpful to get fresh eyes on your situation from someone who isn’t immersed in the daily reality of your work, and who you can be sure will advocate for your best interests.
Confront the negativity
Take the array of negative things you feel and look them dead in the eyes. If you feel resentful about your work, ask yourself why. Do the goalposts keep shifting on this project? Do you not think the scope is realistic? Are you being micromanaged? If you’re afraid or anxious about a looming change, look at what it is exactly you’re afraid will happen. Is that apocalypse scenario really that likely? Even if the worst did happen, how bad would it really be?
I don’t know what it is that you’re feeling, but the most useful thing you can do with negativity is examine it and acknowledge it, instead of just bottling it up and carrying on in the hope it will go away. Sunshine is one of the best disinfectants, so bring your underlying problems and fears to the surface and work out what it would take to make them less of an issue. Again, talk about these things with the people around you (see the above section). If you can limit the negativity you experience, you’ll minimise the effects of the whole equation.
Relieve the pressure
Pressure cookers have safety valves for a reason, so find a way to let some of the steam to escape. If the pressure in your situation is external, speak frankly to the people from whom the pressure is coming from about the way it’s affecting you. Try and find out the background context that’s causing the pressure in the first place. It’s entirely possible that they may not realise the toll it’s taking on you.
If the pressure is self-induced, that can sometimes be much harder to defuse, because it’s much more difficult to stay objective about the forces at play. One thing that I’ve found helpful is to run my internal expectations past someone else as a sanity check. Sometimes having someone tell you that something you expect of yourself is bat-shit-crazy really does put things in perspective and act as a circuit-breaker. Again, talking to people helps more than you probably think.
End of the line
It’s obviously better to prevent burnout happening in the first place, but sometimes reaching maximum frazzle happens before you know it and you have no choice but to deal with the fallout. If you get to this stage, the first thing you absolutely must do is stop. Just stop. Get off the train. The worst thing you can do is continue to push on. If you keep pushing, nobody wins. You’ll suffer, the people around you suffer (it’s no fun living or working with someone at the end of their rope!), and the quality of your work will suffer too.
I know I keep mentioning this, but if you haven’t talked to people about your situation yet, go do that. If they care about you at all, then they’ll tell you straight up that what you need is to take a hard break and completely disconnect for a bit to recover. While you’re disconnected, take care of yourself. Make sure you eat well, get plenty of sleep, and get outside and be active if you have the energy. Whatever you do, for god’s sake don’t try and keep one eye on your work emails or you’ll never truly disengage to the extent you need to in order to decompress.
Once is enough.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
— Arnold Schwarzenegger1
Once you’ve taken some time to pull yourself together, consider doing a personal retrospective or post-mortem (with your loved ones, or with the people you work with, if either of those feel safe) of what the hell happened that caused your burnout, so you can make sure you don’t let those same factors build up again.
I feel like it’s also worth explicitly calling out that if you’re in an environment where people don’t recognise the true costs of letting people reach burnout, and actively take action to support people who are in that state (or on their way), then you should seriously consider leaving and finding another job. It’s almost impossible to get burnt out if you aren’t passionate about your work in the first place, so if you’re one of the people who do care, then there’s plenty of other places who’ll gladly consider you.
It’s not all about you
One final tip for breaking the burnout cycle is to think of all the other people affected by your burnout other than yourself. If you’re not on top of your game, the effects ripple outwards to your loved ones, your colleagues, and even further downstream to your clients and customers. It’s easy to lose sight of that when all you can think about is the knotted ball of stress bouncing around inside your head, but sometimes forcing yourself to think about your burnout as an expression of selfishness can be a good way to kick-start your motivation to seek help. It may make you feel guilty in the short-term, but if that’s what it takes for you to take action, everyone benefits in the long-term, not just you.
BOLO for Burnout
Burnout is a real thing, and nobody is immune. Look out for burnout in the people around you, even those people who you wouldn’t usually expect. Whether it’s yourself, or someone you know, aim to step in and prevent it ever getting to the point where you need to look up blog posts by strange people like me on the internet. Remember, it always helps to step back from whatever situation is burning you out.
Do you know someone on the verge of burnout? If you know someone who might benefit from reading this, then please share the link with them. If I can help even one person by writing this, then it’ll have been worth it.