15 Dec 2013

Wikipedia defines burnout:

Burnout is a psychological term that refers to long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in work.

It is also defined by ICD-10 (a medical classification list created by the World Health Organization) as "state of vital exhaustion".

How it all started

For quite some time, when I started my career, I couldn't understand what this 'burnout' my colleagues sometimes mentioned was. I had no problems with working for 3 days in a row with little to no sleep to reach a deadline.

Engagement is characterized by energy, involvement and efficacy, the opposites of exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy.

I was engaged. Ready to be woken up at any time to handle an emergency, ready to stay up to finish some code.

Only recently, I realized how hard I was driving myself into a wall.

The crash wasn't very painful at first. I noticed that I hated working on particular pieces of code. Funnily enough, it made me work harder not to let my productivity drop. As you could've guessed, it made things even worse, especially with deadlines approaching and outages still happening in the meantime.

That's when I realized that I was losing contact with the outside world. I let my work define me. It got to the point where I was avoiding dealing with real life stuff because I simply couldn't handle it. I lost contact with most of my high school friends. I didn't go out or travel as much as I did before. My overall psychological state wasn't too good either.

All of it coincided with a huge refactor we were doing at Nodejitsu. It involved couple of big changes in our infrastructure which weren't possible to roll out incrementally. I was tired of not delivering for extended periods of time. I could see my software working locally and on staging, but I knew it's going to be a while before our customers could use it.

I made a decision that it was time to let go.

So I quit.

I didn't do anything for a week. Then I started slowly getting back into open source - submitting patches and starting my own projects. I spent maybe 2 hours a day in front of my computer but I already started noticing that I was being more and more enthusiastic about programming. I dedicated rest of my time to hanging out with my friends and going out.

I was slowly becoming happy again.

Lessons learned

I'm really grateful I went through this experience and that it happened at my first job.

Through all of that, I learned few lessons:

Don't let your work define you

Work should be an addition to your life. No matter what the deadlines are, working over 8 hours a day should rarely ever happen.

Maintaining a healthy work - life balance is really important.

Constantly deliver

Culture of delivering is important. Having to wait 2 months before you're able to roll changes out to your customers is extremely demotivating.

Take vacation

And avoid working for companies without clearly defined vacation policy. Mandatory vacation policy - when employees have to take some time off during the year - is even better.

Learn to say 'no'

If taking on one more project is too much for you, just say 'no'.

Delayed gratification is bullshit

People need to be gratified properly to work. Gym membership or beer keg at the office don't really cut it. While they're great benefits to have, hard cash is infinitely better. If your company doesn't have the culture of giving bonuses to people after certain milestones, it might end up demotivating you.

Burnout is serious

I feel like our community doesn't pay enough attention to this matter. Burnout is actually very serious and the correct reaction isn't always 'just take a month of vacation'.

Quit your job

If nothing else helps and you realize that you're not passionate about stuff you're doing anymore, quit your job. Being burned out is worse than not having a job.

What now?

Suggested reading

I came across those great pieces online: