You wake up in the morning and you're late again, more exhausted than you were before you went to bed. This whole new day is looming over you, demanding you give a little bit more even though you have nothing left to give. What little sleep you managed to get was interrupted by an untouchable dread; you're not doing enough, you can never do enough.
You can't remember the last time you had a good day and it's starting to feel like you'll never have one again. Worse, you're not even sure if you care anymore.
When I reached that point, I was still a few months away from quitting my job and walking away from my career. I had missed the early signs of burnout and I was already starting down a dangerous path.
I can only credit my tenure with that company, ten years at that point, as the reason I managed to keep my job as long as I did. When I could even force myself to show up at work I was hours late. I did little work, and only a tiny fraction of that was of any quality. I spent shocking amounts of time in the toilet, sometimes weeping, sometime sound asleep. I was a complete and total wreck.
When I found myself daydreaming about crashing through a guardrail on my way to work one morning, I realized something had to change. This job, I thought, was killing me. I had to save myself, so I quit, and I spent the next few years draining my savings account. It was an incredibly destructive period in my life, but I did manage to do one very positive thing: I saw a therapist. It was through therapy that I started to understand what had happened to me and how I had gone from being productive and happy to being so miserable I could barely force myself out of bed. I learned about burnout.
In the simplest terms, burnout is exhaustion. It can be physical or mental, but it's almost always the product of long-term exposure to heavy stress, or situations that are physically or emotionally taxing. Burnout is where we get to when we've pushed ourselves to the limit and then kept pushing. It's when a two-week crunch turns in to six months of twelve-hour days and six-day weeks. It's what happens when we stop resting behaving like we're in a life-or-death struggle for survival instead of just working a job.
There are three primary symptoms that are associated with burnout:
- Exhaustion - Persistent tiredness accompanied by an inability to perform up to your ability. Chronic fatigue, insomnia, increased tendency to get sick, and forgetfulness are common signs of physical and mental exhaustion.
- Cynicism and Detachment - Lack of patience with others, lost interest in or feelings of hopelessness about your work. It's common to feel pessimistic about life and work and to isolate yourself from others.
- Ineffectiveness - Feeling that you can't accomplish anything and have no ability to change for the better. Burnout can make you irritable and apathetic and sap your ability to be productive.
I nearly lost my career to burnout because I didn't recognize it until it was too late. The company I worked for offered an excellent employee assistance program that could have set me up with a mental health professional trained in dealing with occupational burnout. Your employer may very well offer a similar benefit.
If you don't have coverage through your work, you can reach out to other mental health providers. In the US, you can usually find help through the American Psychological Association.
If it's just too much and you're even a little worried that you might hurt yourself, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the US at 1 (800) 273-8255 or your local crisis center.
I eventually returned to software engineering, very reluctantly. I needed money and health care and this is the only skill I have that lets me earn those things for myself and my family.
This time, though, I made a few changes to protect myself.
Get Involved - I make sure not to isolate myself. The first thing I did when I rejoined the industry was force myself to start attending meetups. Friends who understand your work are an incredibly powerful tool to prevent burnout and help you keep your perspective. It can be so hard to open yourself up to strangers but if you can manage it, it's amazing how fast strangers can become friends.
Make Health a Priority - Make the time to care for yourself. Eat well, get enough rest, and do the things that make your mind and body happy. Make these things a priority in your life. A healthy you comes first.
Set Boundaries - Even when all the deadlines are crashing in, take time away from the computer and disconnect. Learn to say "no" and guard your personal time carefully--you can't get it back!
Learn to Manage Stress - Find something that works for you and make it part of your routine. Go for runs, pick up table tennis, or learn to thrash on a guitar. Stay connected to the important people in your life. Their support will help you more than you can imagine.
Burnout starts slowly and by the time you realize something's wrong, it can already be too late. Learning to recognize the warning signs can help, but it's just as important to build a strong support network that you can rely on. They can help you manage the stress that leads to burnout and help you realize when it's time for a break.
Like many of life's struggles, burnout can lead to a new beginning. Just remember that even when it seems hopeless, or like nothing can ever get better, you can survive and you can thrive again.
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