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7 tips for avoiding burnout

Burnout can be a huge problem in high-intensity careers like system administration. Here's how to recognize when it's happening to you and others, along with what to do in order to recover and avoid the problem in the future.
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A match on fire

I have this saying: "Community doesn’t stop at 5:00pm on Friday." It reminds me of several things, but most importantly, this saying reminds me to keep my work balanced, reserve time to take care of myself, and review for potential signs of burnout.

I had the unpleasant experience of approaching burnout in early 2017. This case was the perfect storm of personal, home, and work stress culminating in what was medically diagnosed as severe anxiety—close enough to burnout to scare the daylights out of me. Based on my experience, I’d like to share what I learned so that you can avoid that path.

1. Know the signs of burnout

One of the first steps to addressing any problem is knowing what you’re dealing with. Burnout has both physical and emotional symptoms. In fact, burnout sort of looks like depression. See this brief list of the symptoms, and ask yourself if you’re experiencing any of these on a regular basis:

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Forgetfulness
  • Increased illness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Loss of interest
  • Separation from people

You should know these signs of burnout not only for yourself, but for others. If you see a co-worker or a family member exhibiting these symptoms, ask them some questions to help prevent burnout. If you run a search for "symptoms of burnout" there are a plethora of helpful articles to sift through.

2. Take care of yourself before taking care of others

It might sound a little harsh, but you can’t help your team or your family if you’re not in a good spot. I like to use the analogy from the pre-flight safety check announcement: "In the event of a loss of cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will drop down. Put on your mask before helping others."

In other words, make time for yourself (also known as "me time"), whether that means making time for meditation, reading, exercise, or your favorite hobby. And avoid creating a habit of skipping this time in favor of work. In fact, you should protect this time above all things.

3. Avoid the "always on" feeling

It’s easy to be connected 24 hours a day. But being connected all the time is not healthy. One way to avoid being "always on" is to share your availability. Your calendar can be a great tool to do this, but there are special times when being more specific about your schedule—beyond times and dates—can be handy.

For example, when you’re out of the office for a conference—or on vacation—communicate your time constraints and availability with the people you work with. Let them know if you’re checking email, phone, and chat, and how to get help while you’re away.

If you’re on vacation, your answer should be, "I am not checking messages until I’m back in the office." Use an auto-responder to set expectations, share your schedule, and provide other contacts if someone needs assistance.

4. Set limits

Imposing limits can help you save time and prioritize important things in your life. You can set limits on the amount of time you research an issue before reaching out for help. You can block time in your calendar to avoid interruptions. I was recently setting up a meeting, and literally saw a block of time on a colleague’s calendar labeled "absolutely no meetings."

Another great example from my personal experience is attending meet-ups. I could attend several meet-ups each week here in the Triangle region of North Carolina. About the time when my daughter turned three years old and my son was nine, I realized I wanted to be home in the evenings more to see my kids. I didn’t want to turn around 10 years later and see that my children are all grown up, but I meet a lot of great people at these meet-ups. So I decided to set a limit: I could attend up to two meet-ups per week. This policy made me prioritize which meet-ups were important, and gave me more time with my family.

5. Document "after-hours" work

Sometimes, It can be tough to explain all the things you do to managers and co-workers. If your day looks anything like mine, it involves meetings, conference calls, email, and magically finding time to do your day job. But then there are other things that are part of the job, such as creating and delivering presentations, attending meet-ups, and late-night outage windows or code releases.

You should document when and how often "after-hours" and extra work happens. Not only for your own benefit, but to share with your manager, and your team. Not to brag, but to keep you sane!

6. Maintain a flexible work schedule

Having a flexible work schedule can be a key way to address "after-hours" work and all those extra things that come up. But it’s also helpful for someone like me to manage my productivity. I’m not much of a morning person, so I reserve my mornings for exercise. My morning workouts get the blood flowing and help me prepare for the day—and they’re a great stress reliever.

When approaching your schedule, let your team know what your "core hours" are. If something comes up, work or personal, that impacts those core hours, communicate any changes with your team. My team does this every week in our Monday team meeting.

Here is another example: If you have a late-night code push, adjust your day to start later, or take off early on a future day. My team does code releases in the morning. When that happens, I shift my day around to get up early and QA the code release in production, then adjust my day making sure I don’t give up my "me time."

7. Plan how to address burnout

Another key to avoiding burnout is to have a plan on how to address it, but more importantly, how to recharge your energy levels. Be intentional about creating time and space to be alone, and to be with your personal network, friends, and family. Here are a few ways.

Plan vacations and long weekends. As mentioned before, remember to communicate and let your coworkers know you’re not available, and how they can get help or a response while you’re out. Launching this community was a great example. The site went live on May 20, and I already had a vacation planned, flying out on May 22. My manager and coworkers knew my schedule and were supportive. (Guess what, the site survived for a few days without me.)

Even the organization you work for can have policies to help prevent burnout. I see more and more organizations implementing vacation policies where if you don’t use days off, you lose them. I have yet to meet a colleague who wants to give up a vacation day.

Another example is around workload. If you feel your workload increasing without other tasks or responsibilities being removed, raise your hand, and ask for help. You could delegate some tasks to other co-workers, work with your manager to readjust, or learn the art of saying no.

And, finally

Don’t suffer in silence. Whatever you do to approach burnout, remember, you don’t have to face it by yourself. Approach your manager, or talk to a trusted colleague. Get help before you burn out, and seek medical attention for more serious cases.

The good news is, if you do experience burnout, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Once I figured out what was wrong, I was able to devise a plan and recover. Mostly, I found time AFK (away from keyboard) helped. And while I still have intense moments at work, I’m much better equipped to deal with them, because of my experience and support from my team.

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Topics:   Sysadmin culture   Career  
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Jason Hibbets

Jason Hibbets is a senior community architect at Red Hat which means he is a mash-up of a community manager and project manager. He works with the Enable Sysadmin community, but also dabbles with Opensource.com and the Open Organization community. More about me

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