Burnout in Tech - Part 1: Declaring war

People working in Tech are privileged. We don’t deal with occupational hazards; we are paid well, have access to wonderful perks; and most importantly: we get to build stuff with talented like-minded individuals. The appeal is obvious! 

Behind the scenes however, sometimes things include: long hours, performance reviews graded on a curve, very tight deadlines, a constant push to deliver better, but faster and … *drumroll*...  burnout.

This article is the first of a four part series about Burnout in Tech. Part 1 will explain what burnout is and why it’s such an urgent issue.

Why am I writing this?

I’m declaring war against burnout. 

Who should fight this war? All of us.

You have a role in the war against burnout, whether you like it or not. Perhaps you’ve been affected by burnout, or perhaps you’re directly or indirectly perpetuating burnout culture. Either way, this series should give you ideas of actionable steps to take in fighting burnout for yourself and for others.

Regardless of whether you’re an Individual Contributor (IC) or in a Leadership role:

  • If you’ve never experienced burnout, this series will help you identify whether you’re on the road to burnout, and perhaps even prevent it altogether.

  • If things just feel off, hopefully this series can give you a better language to express and troubleshoot your own experience. Identifying and quantifying the stressors will inform you what to do next.

  • If you’re experiencing burnout right now, you’re not alone, and you’re not broken. Your pain is real, and it will pass. There’s life after burnout. This series can help figure out how to process it and heal.

  • If you have experienced burnout in the past, you’ll gain more perspective and understanding about what caused your burnout, so that you can move on and not repeat the same mistakes.

If you’re a manager, this series is definitely important for you to read. Ultimately, *it’s your job* to ensure a healthy work environment, and to constantly monitor burnout susceptibility in your team for prevention purposes.

If you’re interviewing with a company, it’s important to assess the company culture for burnout. Do they glorify over achievement? What’s the typical tenure at the company? Can you get a sense directly from employees of how stressful the work environment is? Assessing a company while interviewing will be addressed in a subsequent article.

Burnout is expensive

This war starts now. Burnout should be tackled with urgency. It’s expensive and both organizations and individuals are paying for it.

A burnt out employee is disengaged, hence produces less and usually ends up quitting. Employee turnover incurs costs for recruiting, onboarding and training new employees, productivity loss and negative impact on employee morale. The industry’s grapevine is strong and a company with a reputation of burnout culture will have a harder time attracting good talent.

Burnout has a huge individual toll, it impacts people’s wellbeing, mental and physical health (anywhere from mildly to severely), and might also have a financial impact.

My burnout

Hi, my name is Irina and I’m recovering from burnout (group: Hi Irina!).

I’m a Senior Software Engineer and have been working as a Tech Lead at various well known Silicon Valley companies. After more than 10 years of scrambling up the software engineering ladder, I *surprise surprise* burned out and quit my job. 

Burnout made me think: “My tech career was a good run, had some fun times, did some cool stuff, too bad it has to come to an end”. I was convinced my only choice was to start another career from scratch.

I didn’t realize the extent of my burnout until months after I quit my job.

I had to ask myself: “Why me? Why was I able to work so hard on building a good career for everything to suddenly come crashing down?” (Yes, I can be a bit of a drama queen, but bear with me). 

So then, why me? Because I needed to learn some lessons. 

This “Burnout in Tech” series is about the lessons I had to learn the hard way, so that maybe you can avoid it yourself. If my experience can help anybody, it will have been worth it. 

Understanding burnout

On paper

The 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases defines burnout as:

“...a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.

Three main dimensions characterize burnout:

  • Generalized exhaustion, apathy, feelings of dread

  • Cynicism, negativity, loss of hope, deep disillusion

  • Feelings of decreased professional ability

Internal causes for burnout are correlated to personality traits, attitudes or behaviors. External causes refer to your work environment, how conducive it is to extreme stress levels and how supportive it is in helping you deal with stress. 

Specialized literature talks about burnout in the context of caregiver burnout or hazardous jobs. There is not a lot of research that focuses on the Tech industry.

No matter your industry, healing from burnout can take anywhere from months to years.

In real life

For the most unlucky of us, there can be internal and external stressors happening at the same time—a recipe for certain disaster.

For me, the first symptom of burnout was the feeling of constant exhaustion, no matter what I did during the day or how much I slept. The feeling that I don’t know how to do my job properly anymore was the hardest to understand. How was that possible? Did I have amnesia or what? It’s like my brain refused to work.

Sounds a bit wacky, no? It’s because it is.

Burnout is confusing because it makes you feel weak and helpless, and messes up your ability to trust yourself and others.

Logically, you know you should be grateful for everything you have. From the outside, it might seem you have a great life, why don’t you just feel happy? You start by trying to “power through” and just “work stuff out” or to “get over it”, only to hit a wall and realize it’s not working.

Admitting you’re struggling and asking for help can cause a lot of shame. Who could you even bring this up with? How can you admit to anyone that you’re feeling less competent than you used to? And even if you did, it still isn’t clear what you can do about it. Let’s be real, how many managers really know how to help someone deal with burnout? How will admitting burnout at work affect your performance reviews and access to opportunity?

We’re all in this together

Transforming the workplace is a joint effort between leadership and employees, and eradicating burnout is no different.

Leaders must internalize that beyond being responsible for business OKRs and deliverables, they are human beings whose decisions deeply affect other human beings. Ultimately, leaders have the most power to really fix workplace dysfunctions, employees can only do so much.

However, employees need to have agency to participate in the workplace transformation for the collective good. Or know when enough is enough and feel empowered to quit.

In a dysfunctional work environment, if you’re experiencing burnout, it’s likely that other people are too. By calling out the issues and helping correct them, you give others permission to do the same, thus creating an anti-burnout cascading effect.

Change is possible

Burnout in Tech is pervasive, but change is possible. This series is not meant to spread the cloud of doom. I’m not blaming companies and I’m not blaming people. Hope is most certainly not lost and you shouldn’t quit your job (just yet). No workplace will ever be perfect, and there will always be struggles. And that’s okay. At the same time, it doesn’t change the fact that we can all do better.

So let’s start by getting brutally honest, look inside and outside ourselves, identify the issues and fix them. Easier said than done.

And please, be kind with yourself and others while reading this material. We don’t know what we don’t know, but once you see, you can’t unsee.

Let’s dive deeper

Not everyone experiences burnout, and those who do can end up suffering from it in a myriad of ways. In order to understand the many common misconceptions regarding burnout, we need to examine what causes it. In the following articles, we’ll do a deep dive into the internal and external burnout causes in Part 2 and Part 3, and then we’ll explore anti-burnout strategies in Part 4.

If you found what you read so far useful, check out Part 2 where we will explore the internal causes for burnout.

Many thanks to everyone else who provided precious feedback on this article and especially to Padmini Pyapali, Sonya Ives, Erica Perry and Syrie Bianco!

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I’d love to hear your thoughts on this piece, if there was anything that you could relate to or any feedback that you might have. Also, I would really appreciate it if you shared this article with anybody that might be interested!


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