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IT burnout: A personal story

Burnout is real. Here are some steps to come back from the depths of it.
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burning car in a field

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I've been in IT since 2002, having started out as a Windows support tech for a large healthcare facility. It was my first IT job and I was all in; I put in the hours, both at work and in my spare time, to get as proficient as possible as quickly as possible, going in early and staying late every day. Two years later, I moved to a new role as a Windows sysadmin but I kept up that pace.

I really didn't notice it taking a toll on me at the time but, looking back, I started showing symptoms of burnout fairly early. However, it was easy to push aside with the excitement of moving to new roles with increasing responsibility and continuing my aggressive pursuit of learning. Before I knew it, several years had passed and I was officially burnt out.

"Burnout" isn't just being bored or tired at your job; it's a serious issue with real consequences. The Mayo Clinic defines burnout as "a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity."

While burnout is not an official medical diagnosis, it goes hand in hand with underlying medical conditions such as depression and anxiety, which could make symptoms worse.

I wasn't officially diagnosed with clinical depression until 2012 but I've been dealing with it my entire life (and by "dealing with it," I mean completely ignoring it, which I do not recommend.) It wasn't until I started taking medication and seeing a therapist that I realized how much burnout was affecting my everyday life.

Some of the symptoms of burnout that I experienced:

  1. Loss of interest: I particularly wanted nothing to do with technology; tech-related to my job and tech in general. In my early days as a sysadmin, I dove headfirst into new tech, read docs for things I was interested in and set up my own home lab to try out new products. All of that went away. I got rid of my home lab and my home network turned into nothing but a cable modem and router.

  2. I dreaded going to work every day. Again, this is not just wishing you could relax at home instead of going in to work that day; this is like a deep gut-wrenching dread. What was I going to have to deal with? Did I have the knowledge to deal with it? What if it was something everyone around found really easy but I couldn't figure out? These feelings were due, in large part, to my undiagnosed depression and anxiety but, before that diagnosis, I had no tools to deal with those feelings other than to try and push them out of my mind. As you might guess, this usually failed miserably and caused even more anxiety.

  3. Loss of sleep: Being on call over a weekend meant that I wasn't going to sleep that weekend. At all. From Friday evening through Monday morning, I didn't sleep. I would constantly check my email, and refresh the landing page of our monitoring app way more often than was necessary. Most of the time, weekends were fairly uneventful and then, on Mondays, I'd crash as soon as I got home. The rest of the week, I'd rarely make it into work on time and was so tired I couldn't function, which – you guessed it! – just created more anxiety because I knew I wasn't performing. Repeating this routine every three weeks had me so exhausted both physically and mentally that I eventually switched to another team, but not before taking two weeks of PTO wherein I never left my house.

Things came to head for me in May of 2017. I was having anxiety attacks every single day and I felt like every single thing I worked on was the hardest, most impossible task I'd ever done. On a whim, I decided to cash out my 401k completely and put in my notice. I didn't think it through, I didn't plan ahead, but it didn't matter. I wasn't sure what I was going to do but I knew that if I didn't leave I wouldn't make it much longer.

I wish this was the part that said I'm cured and I won't have to worry about burnout ever again but that's not the case and it probably won't ever be. I still worry about burnout every day. But I am taking care of my mental health, I am back in IT in a job that challenges me on a daily basis and most of my days go by really quickly. My passion for Linux and being a sysadmin is back most days. I sometimes still feel the symptoms of burnout creeping in, but I'm very aware of when that starts to happen now. Some things I do to deal with those symptoms:

  1. Limit the amount of time I do after-hours work. Unless there's a major outage going on I don't even open my work laptop when I get home. I get incidents I'm working on to a stopping point or hand them off to the next shift if they can't wait until the next day. This has been good for fighting burnout, but also extremely challenging since my brain wants me to keep working at an issue until it is completely fixed.

  2. I don't have work email on my phone. For some, that's convenient, but it makes it harder for me to truly switch off from work mode. Not being on-call anymore definitely makes it a lot easier to keep work stuff off my phone (and off my mind) when I'm at home.

  3. I don't log in over the weekend unless there's a major issue. Now my weekends are for recharging. I've actually picked up some of my old hobbies again to keep me from sitting at home worrying about what might be happening at work.

  4. I got a dog. Obviously that's not the right choice for everyone, but for me, it is a great way to redirect my focus and a good excuse to get outside, get some exercise and clear my head; he's always up for a walk around the block!

It has been extraordinarily difficult to revisit some of these feelings in order to write about them, but I feel like it's valuable to share stories like these. It's important for those coming into the sysadmin world to understand that this job can be very stressful and that self-care and self-realization are just as important to a sysadmin as knowing how to check a log file on a server. It's also important for the IT veterans to recognize symptoms of burnout and take steps to head them off before they find themselves spiraling.

Sharing my story hopefully lets others who have experienced burnout know they're not alone, or broken, or failing at life. Take care of yourselves, be patient with yourselves and realize that working in IT is a marathon. There will always be something else to work on, so give yourself the breaks you need to keep going in a way that is healthy for you.

Topics:   Sysadmin culture   Career  
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Jake Walters

Jake has been an Enterprise Linux Systems Administrator for the 13 years. His goal has been to automate himself out of a job and try as he will he's been unable to do so, yet. In his free time, he enjoys fishing, kayaking, and knife making. More about me

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