Burnout in Tech - Part 4: Anti-Burnout Strategies
For recovery and prevention
Burnout’s profound and chronic exhaustion results from a combination of increased workloads, increased stress levels, and poor recovery.
Naturally, designing an anti-burnout strategy should therefore focus on:
Reducing unhealthy stressors
Creating a sustainable workload
Recalibrating your environment
This is the final installment of a 4-part series on “Burnout in Tech”. I highly recommend first reading Part 1: Declaring War, Part 2: Internal Causes, and Part 3: External Causes. If you’ve made it so far, congratulations! You’re already well on your way in the fight against burnout.
Start with a Stress Audit
Not all stress is created equal. Some stress is necessary and productive. Most times, however, stress is unnecessary, unhelpful, and out of our control. There is also background stress, which is significant even if it's outside of our awareness space.
There is no one-size-fits-all magical anti-burnout formula. To find long-term solutions that work for you, start by auditing your current state of the world. Make a list of all the things that stress you out. Cross-reference your list with Part 2 and Part 3 and see if there are any hidden stressors that you might have missed.
Aim to understand:
What are your stressors? What type of stress is it?
Is it internal or external? Is it in your control?
Is it chronic? How did it become chronic?
Is there any background stress?
Oftentimes as we run on autopilot, we become oblivious to what motivates us or how we’re feeling. We fail to recognize our sadness, loneliness, and fear of not being good enough, and instead numb our feelings with more work or mindless scrolling.
We can take the reins back through mindfulness. Mindfulness training develops a conscious awareness that allows taking an outsider’s perspective of our own experience, helping reduce and recover from stress. It’s the foundation on top of which we can create lasting change in how we think and behave. That’s why developing a mindfulness practice such as meditation is crucial.
"We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them."— Albert Einstein
Start Putting Yourself First
If you’re running on empty, you'll be unable to show up fully and be as effective, doing others and yourself a huge disservice. Put your own metaphorical oxygen mask first, and then assist others.
Self-care is more than pampering or a nice-to-have selfish indulgence. It’s about really taking care of your own physical, mental, and emotional health. And it needs to become your #1 priority. All the anti-burnout strategies in this article are, in fact, examples of self-care.
Recalibrate Your Expectations
“Why am I burned out? Because I’ve internalized the idea that I should be working all the time. Why have I internalized that idea? Because everything and everyone in my life has reinforced it—explicitly and implicitly—since I was young.”
If you’re driven, busy all the time, a go-getter smashing those goals like no other, society will perceive you as a successful, well-adjusted person. They will applaud you, praise you, tell you how inspiring you are. How can we fight burnout if it seems to lead us to success?
Just because something is common, doesn’t make it healthy or right. To change, you must accept that the choices that are right for you might contradict what you’ve been told all along. Get comfortable with the idea of less praise, or maybe being perceived by some as rigid or not passionate enough. Taking responsibility for your own well-being is empowering, and matters more than other people’s opinions. It’s a radical proposition, but it’s also a permanent anti-burnout strategy.
Your Productivity Is not Your Worth
Working hard at something you’re passionate about can’t come at the expense of your human needs. Do you know who doesn’t need rest, fun, or social interaction? Robots. We are not robots.
Despite what capitalism deeply ingrained in us, our value isn’t determined by our capacity to work. Productivity is not a badge of honor, nor proof of one’s excellence. But, as Anne Helen Peterson puts it in “Can’t even: How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation” :
“As much as we like to believe in a society where a person’s value is found in the strength of their character, or the magnitude of their service and kindness to others’, it’s difficult to even type that sentence without being confronted with how little it reflects our current reality”.
We need to change that. Start by figuring out your identity outside of work. Who are you as a person? What do you value?
“No Pain No Gain” Is Bulls**t
Leaving our comfort zone is necessary to progress. But enduring suffering as the only way for good things to happen to us is a distorted way of thinking that we should deprecate.
The tech industry is inherently challenging. Building innovative technology is hard. One might think that the only way to excel in this industry is to work as hard as they can.
Burnout is proof that there is such a thing as working too hard. Once you start exhibiting the symptoms, you are running towards a brick wall. Don’t justify your suffering thinking it comes with the job. Stress comes with the job, burnout shouldn’t.
Nobody Is Coming
One of the most sobering anti-burnout mindset shifts is understanding that at the end of the day nobody is going to tap you on the shoulder saying: Close your laptop. Put that phone down. Go home. Send that email tomorrow. Go on that walk. Don’t skip that dinner with friends. Read a book. Go sleep. Your plate is too full. You deserve to be treated better. You’ve done enough today.
Sadly, when we start experiencing the physical symptoms of our stress—panic attacks, disturbed sleep, stomach issues, migraines, etc.—it often doesn’t even cross our minds that our jobs might be at fault.
Look for the signs explained in Part 1. Listen to your body. Trust your inner compass that knows when things are off, instead of talking yourself out of how you actually feel. Nobody is coming to save you. You are your own savior.
Break the Cycle of Overachievement
If overachievement is something you struggle with, there are ways out. You can stop running from one accomplishment to the other. Break the cycle by practicing the following:
One of the most common things we, overachievers, have in common is that we’re often being too hard on ourselves. We self-judge, self-criticize, and in some cases even bully ourselves into doing things.
The alternative? Self-compassion: talking to yourself like you’re your own best friend, using mindfulness to acknowledge your vulnerabilities and pain, and replacing criticism with a more compassionate and kinder response.
“When overstimulation has become a fact of life, I suggest that we reimagine #FOMO as #NOMO, the necessity of missing out” —Jenny Odell, How To Do Nothing
Resist the urge to overschedule. Just because you have a block of time free on your calendar, it doesn’t mean you must fill it up. Some things don’t need to be “squeezed in” the same day. It’s good to have days with no plans. Cut yourself some slack.
When we overschedule, we lose sight of what’s actually important. When everything is a priority, nothing is.
Boundaries are essential because they prevent burnout on all fronts: limit stress, reduce workload and carve out time for recovery.
In her book “Gifts of Imperfection”, Brené Brown defines creating boundaries as:
“Paying attention to how much is too much and learning to say `Enough!`''.
To do so, she points out, we must first believe we are “enough”. Only then we can begin addressing the not-good-enough feelings from Part 2; Internal Causes, breaking the vicious burnout-causing cycles.
Without boundaries, we overwork, have little time for self-care and form unhealthy relationships. We become angry and resentful. Simply communicating our limits is not enough. We also need to impose consequences when someone steps over them.
Here’s how to get started:
As a tech worker, your brain is your most powerful asset and you’re paid to think, not just to execute. Consider it part of your job to challenge unrealistic requirements. The key is in how you say no.
Here are some guideposts to use to keep in mind when saying no:
Be polite, but don’t sugarcoat.
Put your needs first.
I appreciate you asking for my help, but I’m stretched too thin right now, so I don’t have the bandwidth to help you.
Ask for what you need (whether it’s more clarity, documentation, or resources)
I want to take project Y on as well, but right now I’m focused on project X. Is Y more urgent than X?
I’d be happy to help, but before I can commit fully, would it be possible to provide me with X documents?
In order to complete this work, I need 3 weeks instead of 2.
Not sure whether to say yes or no? Don’t feel pressured to answer on the spot.
I need to check my calendar. Is it okay if I get back to you in <X days/hours/minutes>?
“Saying no” is like a muscle, the more you train it, the better you get at it.
Timeboxing means deciding how much time to allocate to a given task before you start working on it. It works best if marked on your calendar. The power of this technique comes from knowing exactly when a task is supposed to start and end. It works for tasks you hate, it works for tasks that never end (like emails), and it works for tasks you enjoy so much that you lose track of time.
Timeboxing is stress and workload reducing because it:
makes you feel more in control
allows you to take breaks
prevents you from overworking out of inertia
Timeboxing should be flexible because sometimes it’s hard to interrupt your train of thought if you’ve reached the end of your timebox. If you do make exceptions, know that you’re now in the energetical debt zone and that you’ll need to pay for it eventually.
“Separation from my phone is like phantom limb syndrome”—Anne Helen Peterson
If you’re reading this and nodding, know you’re not alone.
Excessive use of technology aggravates burnout. We live in the era of digital exhaustion. Whether it’s being constantly connected to social media, chat apps, or email, technology robs us of time that we could be spending doing activities that could counterbalance our burnout. No wonder we have a hard time relaxing, even when we’re not working.
Now more than ever it is important to figure out how to disconnect from our devices. Find some practical ideas on how to do that here.
“Work-Life Separation” is the new “Work-Life Balance”. Think of it as timeboxing work and life.
Covid surely killed what little work-life balance there was. Once people stopped physically going places, it all became a blur. The weekend became just like all the other groundhog days.
It became evident that we can’t achieve work-life balance unless we focus on specific ways to separate life from work. To do that, we need to put in place specific boundaries that don’t rely exclusively on our physical environment. Additionally, employers need to be aware and supportive of it.
Find what works best for you. Here are some examples:
Define clear working hours
Not available during PTO or breaks
Not installing Slack / Email apps on your personal phone
Only available for meetings between X and Y times
Before my burnout, I was (surprisingly) doing leisure wrong. I knew leisure was important, and I was making sure to have “free time” outside work, but I missed a very important quality of leisure: it’s not meant to generate value. Leisure is done for the sole purpose of pleasure and relaxation.
I used to approach leisure like I approached work, as a block of time that I should optimize according to my personal goals: my social life, taking care of myself, expanding my knowledge, or getting better at various interests. I had to progress and move my life forward even in my “free time”.
Sadly, my “leisure” ended up feeling a lot like work. I put in the effort to organize friends' hangouts, meet new people, schedule workouts and classes, plan and coordinate. I was productivity-obsessed at work and outside of work, and it felt like I was always running out of time.
Obviously, failing at doing too much (*hint hint* overachievement) made me feel even more stressed out. To give you an example: A while ago, as the end of the year was approaching, I started to feel anxious that I wasn’t meeting my reading goal on goodreads. Reading was supposed to be relaxing and there I was, hurrying to meet an artificial goal I set, instead of enjoying whatever I was reading. Big yikes!
It took me a burnout during a pandemic to reach a full halt and say “Enough with this nonsense”. Here are some lessons we can all benefit from:
Leisure is not something earned once completing our to-do lists
The quality of leisure matters more than the quantity
Leisure should feel restorative
The intention behind an activity can make it either restorative or stressful (eg: cooking for fun vs for necessity)
Play is one of the best forms of leisure
Nurture Quality Connections
“Nothing is more crucial to our success than holding on to the people around us.” — Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage
Unfortunately, when we’re overwhelmed with work, the first things that get deprioritized are those team lunches, coworkers’ coffee breaks, or casual hallway chats. We also skip spending time with friends, happy hours, or weekend hikes because we have to “catch up on work”.
Spending quality time with humans that really see us is one of the most healing and restorative experiences and a very potent anti-burnout antidote. These connections pay dividends, so invest in them like it’s your job!
Talk with Someone
A lot of people, myself included, are reluctant to ask for help. Partly because I don’t want to burden others, and partly because I first want to try everything I can on my own. Burnout can feel shameful, and an isolating experience. The more you burn out, the more you want to isolate and avoid people and that’s exactly the opposite of what you should be doing.
“Shame cannot survive being spoken. It cannot tolerate having words wrapped around it. What it craves is secrecy, silence, and judgment.”—Brené Brown
When it comes to burnout, ask for help as soon as you can. Talk with friends or co-workers about what you’re experiencing. You might find comfort and solidarity with others who feel similarly.
Not sure where to start? Try your organization’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
Seek Professional Help
Therapy is a great aid in dealing with burnout because it helps you get clarity about your situation, your needs, and what causes you stress and anxiety. It can help you redefine your relationship to work, handle your anxiety, and define and communicate your boundaries.
You don’t need to be in a really bad situation to try it. Some people start only with a vague idea about their problems, others simply out of curiosity or because “something feels off”.
Therapy is one of the best gifts you’ll ever give yourself. If you are lucky enough to have access to affordable therapy, use it!
Change Your Workplace
Either transform it or find a new one. Both work.
If your workplace is showing the characteristics described in Part 3, there isn’t much you can do on your own. You can self-advocate for change, and even find allies, but you can’t make yourself feel psychologically safe, suddenly trust your organization or make your manager a good leader.
Here are some ideas of what you can self-advocate for:
Ask for clarity
What is the team’s mission? What is the roadmap?
What is expected from your role?
Communicate your boundaries
Say no to more work when your plate is full
Not available to respond to slack or email during meetings
Not available for interruptions when coding / deep work blocks
This workload is unsustainable
We need to prioritize addressing tech debt / improving on-call
I’m feeling micromanaged/overwhelmed
Hold people accountable
The response you’ll get will tell you what you have to do next. If leadership acknowledges the problems, comes up with solutions, and follows through, that’s great. There is hope. If they gaslight you or overstep your boundaries, you’re working for a burnout factory.
Change Teams or Quit
You’ve done your part and things still don’t change? Now you need to figure out an exit plan ASAP. Set a deadline. You can’t outwork a broken system. A dysfunctional workplace is more likely to change you than to change itself.
Ultimately, companies have a choice:
Increase staff, push out timelines, shelve “stretch goals”, address dysfunctional work culture, and hire or train better leaders
Continue asking unreasonable demands, dismiss employees’ problems and perpetuate a dysfunctional environment at the employees’ expense
Thankfully, not all companies chose the latter.
“This is not a moment, it’s the movement”—Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton
This, for me, is the end of my burnout life chapter. But not the end of the burnout war declared in Part 1. It’s a cause I’ll forever advocate for.
Because I believe in a future where employees understand they deserve better and don’t settle for anything less. Where people don’t risk their mental health for anything or anybody. A future where tech companies (startups included) prioritize healthy work cultures and have systems in place to prevent overwork. And managers are better leaders. And taking mental health days off is widely available.
Meanwhile, I’m changing my ways, and I hope you do too.
Many thanks to Sonya Ives for helping me edit this article!
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