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On burnout, and getting past it

It's easy to burn out in a high-stress industry like IT. Here's what to watch for, how to get out of it, and most importantly, how to avoid it.
Time on fire

We all know that feeling. You dread the commute to work. You loathe the meetings. You wonder why you keep doing what you do. Burnout affects us all at some point, even when we do work we love.

What is burnout?

Burnout is an interpersonal phenomenon. It stems from the interactions and relationships between people. Different people define it differently, but the short explanation from World Psychiatry sums it up well: "A clear link has been found between a lack of control and burnout."

The article goes on to say: "On the contrary, when employees have the perceived capacity to influence decisions that affect their work, to exercise professional autonomy, and to gain access to the resources necessary to do an effective job, they are more likely to experience job engagement."

In other words, when you work hard but feel ineffective, burnout takes over.

Some burnout-prone careers include information technology, information security, and emergency medicine. In my early career as an EMT, there were plenty of outcomes that I felt I had no control over. I did my best and worked quickly but situations occasionally turned for the worse.

Being busy is not a cure, but a symptom. A great article from the Harvard Business Review links busyness with a phenomenon called "tunneling," where a person deeply focuses on one part of their work and loses sight of the bigger picture—or the "why" behind what they do. Research from the Scientific American Mind suggests that we lose 13 - 14 IQ points when we are stuck in this "busyness paradox." That means an average person loses over 10% of their overall cognitive ability.

Am I burned out?

According to EMSWORLD, burnout has three main stages. The first stage begins with emotional exhaustion. Negative attitudes push optimism aside and people feel exhausted, both mentally and physically. Personality variances may make it difficult to detect burnout at this stage for some people.

Stage two involves depersonalization. If you find yourself thinking that people "deserve what they got," you may be in this stage. People in this stage often subvert others and find ways to dehumanize other people. This stage becomes more obvious to people around the burned-out person.

Finally, a complete loss of satisfaction and accomplishment takes over. People in this final stage have lost the love for the work, the people they work with, and sometimes the whole workplace itself. They often feel stagnant in their careers with no good options to consider.

How do I recover?

Embrace constructive behaviors, such as sharing feelings with others, taking time off, and other healthy interactions to reverse the effects of burnout. Avoid destructive behaviors that put barriers between you and other people who want to help. Nobody should ever believe they deserve to feel burned out.

The road to recovery has three paths: get in, get up, and get out.

Get in means to recommit to your work. If you enjoy what you do and you enjoy time with your coworkers, this is the plan for you. Anyone who says "the only reason I stay there is for the people" is perfect for this path.

Talk honestly with your manager and identify areas where you want more control and autonomy. Be sure to explain how that creates value for your manager. Also, find ways to be more open sooner with your manager and coworkers before small stressful moments turn into something bigger.

Sometimes you need to take a break, or get up. If you go home feeling unfulfilled, but you like your work, this path can help. This path also provides relief from the "busyness paradox" if done correctly, since this step requires taking real time off. Real time off means actively doing something you truly enjoy (not what someone else enjoys) that makes you feel recharged. Do not do nothing. That will allow your brain to wander onto work again. Take time to think about what makes your soul feel good and consider roles up, down, and sideways to get on a better career path.

Finally, you may be left with no other option but to get out. This path helps when you love what you do, but you disagree with your company’s direction, or your coworkers created a hostile work environment. In my experience, repairing a hostile work environment requires a significant amount of effort.

Before leaving your job behind, get your finances in check and calculate how much time off you can take to detach. Seek out trusted friends for guidance and look for positions at companies that have values similar to yours.

However, never burn bridges, rage quit, or scorch the earth as you leave. You may need those references and connections later for a role at another company.

Burnout is not the end

As usual, Jessie Frazelle said it best:

"Coming back from burn out is weird every day you are like this is me at 100% I feel awesome."

Next day: "No wait this is me at 100% I feel even better."

Day after: "Now I’m 120%."

And she continues: "I have this theory that burnout recovery is 25% the time it took to get burned out."

She's backed up by research from the Association for Psychological Science, which shows that both humans and lab rats can endure a highly stressful period and fully recover in about four weeks.

Burned out or worried that you're headed in that direction? Keep the lines of communication honest and open. The only way out of burnout, an interpersonal problem, is through help from other people.

Topics:   Sysadmin culture  
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Major Hayden

Major Hayden works on the Continuous Kernel Integration (CKI) project at Red Hat. In his spare time, he blogs at and learns more about amateur radio. More about me

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