Through the years, several of my close friends and colleagues have entered the journey to that dark place of confusion and despair known as burnout. Some faced a harder fall than others, which meant that the road back to a healthy state of mind was substantially longer and more challenging to navigate.
Stamina and the ability to ignore the body's warning signs seem to be the most direct route to severe burnout. In comparison, if you learn how to identify and react to early warning signs and act to change your situation, you have a much better chance of staying clear of a threatening burnout.
In this article, I will share my personal burnout experience, the components that led to this catastrophic system failure, and, more importantly, how I learned to identify the early warning signs that allow me to take corrective or evasive action.
From hero to zero
In technical support (where I worked), as long as you know the technological landscape and are familiar with the software and issues that are generally part of incidents, the days go by without any adverse effect, even when the pace is high and the pressure is on. Change the situation a bit by removing the control factor, and the experience is very different. This means you are responsible for fixing things where, for example, you have no access rights. Stress and frustration quickly go through the roof. Managers and users shout at you, but you have to rely on someone else to fix the problem.
In an outsourced environment, you might be restricted to looking at a ticketing system with anonymous entries without any feedback. You don't even know who did what. I have seen plenty of signs of burnout syndrome during large-scale outsourcing projects when technical staff goes from "hero to zero." While retaining responsibility for the environment, they are stripped of all essential access rights. They can only watch as the environment crumbles like a sandcastle as the tide comes in.
So how did I end up in trouble? Well, here is my journey.
I understood that many things were happening simultaneously and that it was starting to wear me down. However, I still felt strong and kept telling myself that I could handle the situation. Most days, I was very tired and irritable. Working harder trying to get through the tunnel did not change my mood. To make things worse (which I did not understand), I sacrificed most of my free time for relaxing activities like motorbike riding to get more hours in at work. Still, I was unable to improve the situation. The only outcome was that things kept going wrong at a faster pace.
My family saw the signs of fatigue and burnout way before I had a clue that I was heading for trouble. They tried to warn me but to no avail. I listened the least to the people who love me the most. How crazy is that?
[ For more insight, read 7 tips for avoiding burnout. ]
Being alone is not being strong
I was responsible for a critical area of IT production but my managers ignored all my reports with warnings and red indicators. Any incident in this production area would end up on my desk—together with a side dish of blame. My family was living in another country, and I felt alienated and alone in my tiny apartment. After three years, my assignment suddenly ended as part of a reorganization, and they kicked me out of the company and sent me home. Now I needed to get back into family life, reconnect with friends, and get a new job. I had not been in my home country for many years, had no contacts to start with, and so I had to start from zero.
Because I worked for many years at the company, I received a package that gave me enough time to find a new job. Coming home at the end of August, I decided to take a break for a few months and start my job search at the beginning of the new year, planning to have something sorted by April. Well, that did not happen. I needed a lot more time to get a new job.
Slowing down to take a break, I completely missed the freight train of stress right behind me. It caught up with a vengeance late one afternoon as I watched the dogs play in the garden. Suddenly, I had ambulance staff around me. I was trying to breathe while crying and shaking, I had severe chest pain, and I thought my heart was going to pop out of my ears. The ambulance staff told me that my heart was okay and the hyperventilation (and crying) resulted from a panic attack. I was left in the safe arms of my family.
Back to square one
In the months that followed, I felt like I was not part of what was going on around me. Dazed and confused, I spent most of the time either resting or walking with the dogs. I couldn't get my head in gear or engage in any functional activity. I would forget the simplest tasks and have the attitude of a passive bystander. You would get more conversation from a sack of potatoes than you would from me. During all this time, my family was there for me. It was not until much later—when I was out of the woods—that I realized how much their support and commitment helped me.
Climbing back up
Time went by, and thanks again to my family's support, I went to see a fantastic psychologist who gave me the mental tools and structure to regain control and reengage with my surroundings. Mentally structuring events in categories such as "work," "home," "family," "friends," "motorbike," etc. prevented me from mixing it all up into one big pile—which could lead to one troublesome category like "work" infecting another positive category like "family."
The second important tool that helped me regain control was using time capsules. By allocating time to a specific area, I could be in the moment and not have my thoughts wander off to some other place. I could give 20 minutes to the category "this is unfair," when I would feel a bit sorry for myself and dive deep into that moment. When I'd done that, I could let go and focus on something else, preferably something more positive. This mental structure worked well for me but we are all different, so you need to find your way.
What went wrong
I assumed that the root cause of my burnout was just too many things going on simultaneously—family, events, relationships, health, economy, work, expectations, projects, budgets, staff, etc. All these events contributed to the burnout, but why did it suddenly turn bad when it had been good for so many years? What changed?
While I was searching for the formula that caused my burnout, I was guided by what I learned from medical accreditation of healthcare software. In this area, we always had to "demonstrate control." We needed to show that we always had a structured approach, that we had everything documented (or a solid plan on how to get it documented). We needed proof of who did what, where, and when. We had to showcase how each new software release matched the requirement, and whatever deviations existed were adequately documented. If we could not demonstrate control, we were in trouble. So I thought burnout would occur when I felt I could not "demonstrate control." This was partly right, but of course, there was more to it.
[ Free cheat sheet: IT job interview tips. ]
Responsibility without control
The formula I was looking for was "responsibility without control." Now I just had to understand the meaning of it. My clever psychiatrist shared insights with me and, even though that was years ago, I am still learning of their importance. I have become better at assessing my situation so that I can navigate away from a potential burnout.
You can get responsibility as part of a role in a company, but it is also something you can assign yourself without really thinking about it. All the "musts" in life are so easy to pick up, although you often don't have to. For example, the world will not end abruptly if you don't cut the grass or make it to the recycling station before they close. The more stress we experience in daily life, the less common sense we apply to our everyday responsibilities. Stress drastically reduces your ability for logical reasoning and empathy. This negative behavior is often displayed during rush-hour traffic.
How to measure stress
I have been trying to find a measurement of how stressed I am so that I can take action before it's too late. My interest in quantum computers turns out to be one such sensor. If I don't find quantum-related news exciting or can't be bothered to read the latest research, I know I am experiencing stress because that's when I start to exclude things from my life that give me energy. I believe this is why burnout hit me with such force. Everything was fine until it wasn't. The warning signs for the low battery were there, but I managed to ignore them successfully. The lesson learned is that I must never stop charging my battery!
I can go for years at a high pace with plenty of responsibility and high pressure, as long as I allow time for my interests and have a good balance between responsibility and control. But as soon as I start excluding those relaxing and enjoyable activities because I need more time for work, I quickly find myself in for a hard landing in a scary place.
So, my advice is to identify what you enjoy, what you care about, and what gives you energy. The most severe warning is when you take inspiring and relaxing activities out of your life, thinking you don't have time for them anymore, so that you can allocate more time for work. Don't do it!
Passion defines you
Responsibility is fine, but it becomes the worst scenario if you don't have any means to control the result. I believe it is why so many people eventually reach the state of burnout. There is another underlying condition that intensifies the negative impact of "responsibility without control": passion. In my experience, passionate team members suffer more than those with a nine-to-five attitude to work. Their passion kicks in when they want to impact things and do something good or make a difference. I think most employers want staff who are passionate about their work, and I believe passion is a good quality. However, the employer must also make sure that responsibility in the working environment is coupled with a reasonable degree of control.
Working in a high-stress environment can be very satisfying, but alter just one of the prerequisites, and you could find yourself heading for burnout. A professional career often comes with increased responsibility, and in most cases, this is positive as long as it is linked with some level of control. However, if you carry all the responsibility but don't have any means of controlling the outcome, the level of harmful stress will increase dramatically. Couple this stress with being passionate about your work and not setting aside time for some of your favorite activities, and the downfall comes much quicker.
A few takeaways:
- Avoid accepting or taking on responsibilities where you have no means of control.
- Identify the things you do in your free time that give you energy.
- Remember to charge your battery!
When you let work take over time and space from your interests, take it as a stark warning that you are on a wrong trajectory. Responsibility should come with control. Also, make sure you allocate enough time for the activities that inspire you—because they are the ones that keep you going, even when the going gets tough.