The absence of flame (a burnout story)

December 26, 2021

One of the widely accepted definitions of burnout is classified as: “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.”

When I’m suffering from burnout I rarely FEEL like I’m overworked or stressed out, the symptoms of burnout usually present much less clear to me. I’ve also never really realized until recently that the feelings of being overworked or stressed can come from other aspects of your life than just work. Are you doing a lot of stuff outside of work? Outside stressors like financial problems? Well those can affect your at work life too!

Mayo Clinic has a fantastic article on burnout, Job burnout: How to spot it and take action - Mayo Clinic. I suggest you take a look at it, and see if anything is close to home. 

I wanted to write a post about how I’d solved my problems with burnout, but ultimately this story is still a work in progress for me… what I have done is write from my heart, I hope any parties referenced in this don’t take any offense, I mean no ill-will and wanted to be transparent in my feelings. With my burnout, I’m very much responsible for my own health at the end of the day… it’s on me to recognize and ultimately work through.

A need for constant success

When I was growing up, I was the target of much bullying. For things I could control, and especially for things I couldn’t control.  The constant bullying led me to develop behaviors that follow me to this day. I don't want to dwell on many specifics, but being told how much I wasn't wanted was a very common one.

In a previous job outside of my career in programming, I’d be reminded and told how I could never do things right and how I shouldn’t even bother and let someone else do it instead. What was it? Doesn’t matter, if I hadn’t done it before usually they’d tell me I should just let others do it instead. It really messed me and my confidence up.

I realized programming was a ticket to a better life, if I could break into it and get a job. Jobs want people with degrees and not dropouts from college like me. Or so I thought for many years.

So I started down my journey to absorb everything I could find on coding. Screencasts, podcasts, books, blog posts, tweets… you name it I was reading/consuming it, sometimes while driving down the road working 18 hour days for my soul-sucking day job. When I’d get home, I’d try things out. Try to make something work that I had consumed, to understand it, observing how my changes would affect the code… and then I’d get up the next day and do it again.

I took a number of interviews… always being told I wasn’t what they were looking for, or they were going with a candidate with more skills. Not good enough for a job in tech. Then I’d go back to the day job that was slowly killing me in a variety of ways.

Eventually, I got a lucky break. A company took a chance on me. I worked my ass off for the interview, spent hours in a little side office, building an app that’d schedule tweets. Someone in that interview process saw my drive and passion, and decided to take a chance on me. I turned my hobby and passion into a job. Finally.

I worked my ass off at that first job in tech, my first 6 months I went home every day with a headache from trying to absorb everything I was learning. I read every pull request other developers did. When I’d get home in the evenings, I’d consume more resources so that the next day I could put it to practice. 

I remember that I spent ages making a PR with a timeline at the top of this little Transfer Request feature as one of my first features, where you’d have 4 different approval stages (with differing bosses needing to approve it at each stage). That pull request got absolutely shredded in review. I think I got close to 90 comments on ways to change it. I implemented those changes, and tried to remember the feedback each time. I made it a personal goal to never get the same type of comments again. 

Eventually the more pull requests I wrote, the amount of feedback started dropping off. I would get less and less feedback, I was either getting better or learning to conform to the will of my reviewers. Did I slow down at home? No I was still reading every PR on top of my additional work, I would do extra work, upgrading dependencies or trying to add features we wanted to get to but never had the time during the day. I wanted to prove myself. I wanted to prove how valuable I was to the company.

I taught myself that the grind doesn’t stop at 5pm or whenever everyone would leave the office. I formed a connection in my brain that success would only come with long hours, sweat and tears. I wouldn’t get anywhere if I didn’t prove myself.

I have a spoiler: The Company didn’t care I was spending 60-80 hours a week on extra work. Companies don’t care about employees.

Obvious signs in hindsight

It wasn’t the type of work I was doing, or the hours of meetings I sat in frustrated, or the arguments I got into with the technical architects that did me in at The Company.

A coworker once remarked “You are way less salty after your trip to Colorado”, when I spent 10 days offline, in the mountains of Colorado (when I lived in Alabama). 

A brief fun medical fact for you, I have a condition that I will faint from certain triggers, like being sick, high pain, or even being highly stressed out for long periods of time. I’d take time off, sometimes from being forced to spend some days in the hospital, then feel better and return to work. It happened at least three times at The Company. 

Those, looking back were the symptoms of a greater problem. The problem, is partially fueled by my need for external validation and success.

No one told me to work as much as I did, in fact some perhaps raised concerns. I didn’t see those concerns as anything but noise. I was hyper focused on reaching my goals. I wanted to lead a project, lead a team, reach senior like everything else was aiming for. I needed the dopamine release of delivering that next critical feature or bug fix. I needed to feel recognized for my accomplishments. I wanted to make my impact on the project, the company etc clear.  When I wouldn’t feel like I was getting that, I’d work harder, work longer hours.

Eventually, I left The Company… and surprise, the burnout was fixed!!! Never to happen again! Right?? 

Nope. It was a temporary fix for the symptoms but not the root cause. As developers you may be familiar with doing Root Cause Analysis’s when something happens in production. I never thought to do this on myself, and my feelings. Perhaps it’s worth exploring down the road.

How did we get here (again)?

Throughout 2021 my manager and I have been trying to keep a closer eye on my burnout and when we’re both aware of it... changes can get made; this may come as a surprise but when changes happen early in the burnout cycle things CAN actually improve. 🤯 Someone should tell Andrea in 2018 that!

Which leads me to recent history;

Sometime in mid-September I realized I was burnt out, and described it to one of my friends as “I’m like, so burnt, that if you toasted toast three times, you’d be able to see how I feel”.  Which, for what it’s worth; I don’t recommend doing that, your toaster may start smoking, it’s a serious fire hazard… and yet, I pushed on at work without telling anyone. I don’t think my level of burnout was really clear to my coworkers or manager until sometime in October.

By that point, the cynicism was pretty hard to hide. It becomes pretty obvious when those small bumps in the road of shipping projects become major roadblocks. The kind that makes me yell, get frustrated and start to build up those negative feelings that can rapidly spread through a team, and the feelings that make me not want to get out of bed.  When I’m burned out I don’t have great control over my emotions and I become that unhappy Andrea no one wants to be around. 

Now, back to problem #2, why did it take me until October to tell my manager or coworkers I was burnout? That perhaps is a better question to be answered more completely between my therapists and I but, I think it has something to do with how hard I’ve found it to ask for help personally where I’m used to having to be self-sufficient. When someone offers to help me do something, I’m more likely to accept it… but asking someone tends to be something I will delay until it becomes a crisis event.

An unwritten ending

I don’t have all the answers yet. The ending to this story is still yet to be written for me. I do know this, in 2022 a major focus of Q1 will be to develop healthy boundaries. I can’t keep this unhealthy relationship with burnout.

Perhaps I don’t need to have Slack on my phone and can avoid checking it at bedtime, in the middle of the night and in the morning first thing when I open my eyes? Perhaps I should set a reminder at 5pm to wrap up for the day and pick it up tomorrow instead of trying to push through and finding myself still working at 11pm. Perhaps focusing again on my fitness will help provide me the physical and mental motivation and energy to let myself get rest. 

When I’m rested and have a healthy work-life balance, the flame will return. Until then, I have to work to fan the spark to restart the flame. It takes time to start a fire. 

Until next time ❤️