Fix your burnout before it's too late

Guidance for identifying and dealing with burnout, based on my personal experiences with it.

Okay, the title of this post is hyperbolic and clickbaity… of course it’s never too late to fix the issues that are causing you to feel burnt out.

But, the longer you wait to acknowledge it, the more serious the effects on your mental and physical well-being it will have, and the more difficult it will become to address.

Everyone reacts to burnout in their own way, but some common symptoms, pulled from Mayo Clinic and verified by my own experience, can include:

  • Lack of motivation to complete work or perform other regular day-to-day activities

  • Changes in sleep and exercise habits

  • General sadness, anger, irritability, and cynicism

If unaddressed these symptoms can result in even more serious mental and physical health problems, such as depression and turning to alcohol to cope. We can help ourselves from getting to that point by being mindful and honest about the aspects of our work that burn us out, identifying what the root causes are, and actively working to address those root causes, ideally with the help of others.

There are a myriad of causes for burnout, each of which can effect people to varying degrees depending on their unique personality and needs, such as working too much, a feeling of never accomplishing anything, unclear expectations, lack of recognition for your work, working with a difficult coworker, having micromanagers that take away your feeling of agency and control, or an artificially induced high-pressure environment from leadership.

Whatever you think the causes of your burnout may be, it’s important that you bring up your burnout with your manager (or whoever has the most impact on your day-to-day work) as soon as you are starting to feel overwhelmed. All (good) managers care about the well-being of their team and want to help, but can’t unless you speak up. The initial conversation can also bring you an immediate sense of relief that can help you regain the energy you need to go about fixing the issues at hand, and help you start to feel good about work again.

It’s important that you and your manager come up with an actionable plan that gets to the root of your burnout, and that consists of more than just taking time off. Taking time off in the form of vacation and mental health days is a valuable and necessary part of recovery, but doing so without addressing what necessitated it in the first place will make that time away nothing more than a short-term distraction from the normal everyday that you will very soon be returning to.

In some (hopefully rare? 🤞) cases, you may find that your manager isn’t able or is just straight up unwilling to help you. Or, it could be that the factors that contributed to your burnout are so ingrained in your workplace’s culture that it would be impossible to address without a serious commitment of time and effort that you no longer have the energy for, or without drastic changes in the attitudes of leadership. In these situations the best thing you can do for yourself is to start making arrangements for finding your next gig as soon as possible before the cynicism and exhaustion take hold, ideally at a place that values the health of its employees- you can get a good gauge of this from the attitudes of your interviewers and by asking them pointed questions about work/life balance. The prospect of interviewing can seem daunting if you are already drained from being burnt out, but will be incredibly rewarding when you find that new role. Plus, escaping the hive mind and talking to people at companies with different cultures and perspectives can be very illuminating and rejuvenating on its own. Nothing like taking control of your own destiny to restore your energy reserves and feelings of self-worth!

The primary motivation for me writing this is a recent failure on my part to identify when I was feeling burnt out before it started to drastically impact my mental and physical health, most likely due to my extreme imposter syndrome from having learned most of what I know about software engineering from and a book entitled “C# for Dummies”, which, when combined with a… “fast-paced work environment”, to put it mildly, made me feel like I was never doing enough or the right thing for my team, despite working long hours and practicing what I thought was good engineering.

This failure resulted in me gaining a considerable amount of weight (mostly thanks to Burger King), a change in my usually cheerful personality to becoming cynical and mostly a bummer to be around, and turning into a late riser because I was too tired and overwhelmed to get out of bed and face the day. This all changed almost immediately as soon as I was able to identify that this was all being caused by my being burnt out from my working environment and not from me being incompetent or weak, and started to take the steps necessary to remedy my situation.

Since then I’ve started ordering Burger King much less frequently and lost a decent chunk of that weight, am looking forward to starting the day much more often than not, and have regained my love of software engineering that I thought I had lost while I was burnt out.

My experience has definitely pushed me to be more mindful about my own mental health at work and that of my teammates going forward, and I hope it can do the same for you too.