Burnout & You — Recognising the Signs

I’ve been wading around the murky waters of various IT organisations for the past 11ish years, and have worked in many different roles with varying responsibilities throughout. This is the latest in a series of frequently-aborted attempts at blogging and brain-sharing. With any luck it’ll stick and you, dear reader, will remain in my thrall for many a moon.

What hastened me to put some words down this Friday evening was a link to this email by the ineffable Linus Torvalds that one of my oldest (and weirdest) friends put me on to earlier in the week. For the uninitiated - Linus is the creator and principal developer of the Linux kernel. He has a reputation of being a bit of a despot with regards to generally abusing the maintainers of and contributors to his codebase, and famously gave NVidia the bird during a developer meeting in his native Finland:

The lesser-spotted Linus Bird.

The thing that I found most jarring about Linus’ email (as I’m sure the rest of the community stumbled over whilst scanning the text) was the new-found clarity or mindfulness about his behaviour, his manner. In an unprecedented departure from the norm, Linus recognised that he had been a bit of a shit and had driven away many potential kernel maintainers in the process. But what had lead to this sudden epiphany? An intervention? A great flash of inspiration or spiritual enlightenment? Or was this something a little more subtle — had Linus’ fiery tenacity been eroded away over time? Had he simply given up?

But this post is not about Linus. This post is about humans, and coping.

If you’ve worked in IT for any stretch of time I am sure that you, like myself, will have come to realise that you are committed to a career which requires you to continue learning and development at a rapidly increasing pace. Not only does tech evolve over time but so too does the mechanism of working - the path from design to delivery. If you mix this need for continuous improvement with the needs of the business to provide features and deliver value; it’s easy to see how even the top tech firms are reporting high levels of burnout amongst their staff.

But what does Burnout look like? Do you ever find yourself unable to completely “switch off” from work? Do you ever struggle to sleep because problems continue to swim around in your mind? Have you ever felt detached from reality during your working day? Have you ever felt like you no longer enjoy other activities, hobbies that you used to love?

Chances are you’ve already experienced Burnout. Whilst this is a malady that affects not only IT professionals I believe that its prevalence in tech is something that we should all recognise, especially when considering new hires and on-boarding younger staff.

HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES

During a recent 2-day “spike” to create some tooling for our team I was confronted with an emotional conversation with one of my developers whom it seemed was feeling overwhelmed with the amount of stuff she was having to learn (and in this case, subsequently throw away: the spike failed to meet our criteria). I dealt with this by highlighting that she needn’t worry about “wasted learning”, as the tools we’d been using we will need to use again at some point. But in hindsight what I think I failed to recognise was that this was a cry for help — When will the learning stop?!

Truly, the answer to this is never.

I believe the real problems facing IT today are not mechanical, procedural or financial — they are human. Whilst you can continue to reduce feedback cycles by removing barriers to deployments and work to deploy small batches of code so as to mitigate risk; what strategies exist to help reduce cognitive load? How can we safely continue on this path of learning without sacrificing our mental health?

The answer for me is to ensure that you create a safe environment for learning. Dedicate time away from “Business Work” to allow each other to learn and grow without the stress of that learning being tied to a Project. Pick something to learn completely unrelated to the needs of the Business in your own time to rediscover the joy of learning. Above all try to remain as flexible as you can for your team. Understand that we’re all on a journey, and that the roads we travel may all end in different destinations.

So the next time you feel as though you may be reaching capacity — make it known. Pull the Andon cord and signal that you’re struggling. Find time for your own learning outside of work (as counter-intuitive as that sounds). Above all recognise that you’re not alone in this. It is not a failing to acknowledge Burnout, but if you pretend that everything is ok you run the risk of hurting yourself further.

Look after each other — You’re a long time in work, and nothing is worth sacrificing your mental well-being.

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Chris Shepherd

Chris Shepherd

Thoughtworks.com dev, barbershopper, homebrewer and human (not necessarily in that order).