It was 4:43 PM. As I headed out the door, someone asked, “Leaving early?” No malice, no judgment, just a bit of surprise. The office was still full, keyboards clicking and the drone of technical conversation dully throbbing. “I’m entitled to it, I just worked an incident for 3 days straight,” I shot back.
Was I entitled to bail early? Probably, but that wasn’t the right way to say it. I needed to leave. Despite handling the incident deftly, I still felt fucking awful, and in a dark, looming, nonspecific way. I needed to run from the firehose of problems, lack of solutions, apathy and anxiety. The incident in question was a days-long spam attack. It wasn’t my first rodeo with hackers, but this mitigation required bringing several groups together, which is always a challenge at a large organization. To add to that, there was a pronounced lack of resources from my own team. This attack came at a time when we were gearing up to launch a new product, and the team was completely focused on it. Even I had been intensely involved with ensuring the stability of a new, shaky platform. Being pulled away just added to my frustration.
I had already spoken with my manager that afternoon, told him I was tired. He kindly ordered me to go home, and take a vacation. I took the next two days off, calling in sick. This was the second time in a month I’d unexpectedly needed time off. At home, I crashed, played video games, watched a bunch of shitty movies my girlfriend normally wouldn’t palate, and generally just tried to avoid the real world. Physically, I wasn’t all that tired, considering I had only slept 9 hours or so over the past 3 days. But my mind and nerves were totally shot, and worse, I felt like I didn’t care, which I hated myself for.
In short, I burned out. Hard.
Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by
excessive and prolonged stress. It manifests itself in ways including anxiety,
loss of motivation and confidence, and even degradation of physical health.
Burnout can be prevalent in organizations that promote hero culture and where
employees maintain a strong a sense of duty...
I lead operations at a small part of a large company, and I’ve been there a very long time. My mission is to ensure the company’s online presence is up and safe. Admittedly, my sense of duty to the mission has always been somewhat overzealous. In fact, much of my identity is tied up in the job I do. Those sentiments have truly been assets in navigating a treacherous path, but it seemed clear that they have become a double edged sword. Once I got bored with Xbox, I went through a journal I’ve been keeping for a few years.
In it, there were multiple notes and rants pointing to the simple fact that I have an unhealthy work-life balance. I found a long running list of songs to learn on guitar, but I haven’t picked up my guitar in several months. I have notes on code projects I started but didn’t make any progress on for years. There are links to museum exhibits I wanted to visit that closed long ago. Reading through, I also realized I don’t have any more than a handful of friends outside of work. All in all, it was a pattern of regret.
But also a lot of reasons to make some changes. Burnout is caused by a combination of internal and external factors, some of which can be managed. My biggest realization, looking through my past, is that I don’t need a vacation, I need a change in how I manage my energy with regard to my sense of duty to my work. I need to be more cognizant of how I feel when external factors rear their head, recognize signs of nearing the burnout zone, and back away. Presented without comment, are my signs of burnout;
- Saying “No” to everything, even the reasonable things
- Shortness with team members during normal interactions
- Feeling like I’ve made no forward momentum
- Inability to express myself
- Constant amygdala hijack
- Inability to stay on task, or read anything longer than an email
- Many nights in a row falling asleep while attempting to watch the same episode of John Oliver
Things I need to do to prevent getting to this place in the future;
- Tightly limit my hours
- Let go of, or delegate certain things that I just don’t need to do
- Be OK with things not happening, and the failures that result
- Commit to things I want to do; cooking, music, projects, and social events
- Don’t accept any new work unless I truly have the capacity to do it
The other hard reality is that for me to affect this change, I will need to attempt to manage the external factors. There are going to be some failures, but I’ll need to be OK with that, or I’ll have to make bigger changes. I truly love what I do, but now is the time for me to take some of myself back.
Wish me luck.
A few great burnout resources that helped me write this;