Burnout in Tech - Part 2: Internal Causes

"Starting with the man in the mirror"

Recovering from burnout doesn't always mean quitting your current job, though that misconception is common. In fact, while it’s nice to take some time off and start fresh, if your burnout causes were internal, and you don't address them, burnout will inevitably reappear. To not repeat the cycle elsewhere, you need to identify and correct the root causes.

This is part 2 of a 4 part series on “Burnout in Tech”. Before you read this, I highly recommend you read Part 1 first. Part 3 addresses the external causes, and Part 4 anti-burnout strategies.

This second part explores the psychological internal landscape that’s the burnout backdrop, the most common traits and beliefs that I’ve personally experienced, or have seen in others.

In the “grand scheme of burnout things”, the internal causes play (I dare to say) only a small part, but it’s the right place to start troubleshooting.

You Can Rewrite Your Story

In contrast to the external causes, the internal causes are 100% in our control.

Our brains have an extraordinary ability to change through growth and reorganization. It’s called neuroplasticity. That means our behavior patterns, habits and beliefs are not fixed! Change is possible through hard work, good strategies, and input from others.

Talking about personality aspects is not a criticism. Acknowledging a problem is simply the first step for solving it. As you’ll see, these traits and behaviors stem from a genuine desire to do good and to help. Taken to extremes or in the wrong environment, they backfire. A classic story of overdoing.

Internal Causes for Burnout

A good diagram is worth 1000 words, so I tried to come up with one to illustrate what we’re talking about in this article. Many of the traits and behaviors contributing to the burnout equation  feed into each other and create vicious cycles, so I figured a graph would be the most appropriate to give an idea of what an entangled mess the psychology of burnout is.

Work-Life Imbalance

Take a moment to reflect on the following:

What are the most important things that bring value and purpose to your life?

If I were to guess, work shows up in your answer. Work is important. We often spend more time at work than with our friends, family and significant others, so we better choose a work field that makes us feel useful and aligns with our natural abilities, interests and values.

Why do you work? What role does work play in your life?

If you’re experiencing burnout right now, chances are your answers are overshadowed by feelings of hopelessness.

What attracted you to your job in the first place? How did your job feel before burnout?

Are you busy all the time? How much time do you spend time with the people who matter to you? How do you self-care?

We’re encouraged to find jobs that we love and that we’re passionate about. Naturally, if your job brings so much satisfaction, you’ll want to do it all the time. However, there’s a slippery slope between “passion” and “overwork”, and employers know that.

When you rely so much on work for personal gratification, you chronically exclude other sources of joy. When we’re so busy at work, things like personal relationships, hobbies, self-care and leisure are the first ones to get de-prioritized. Problems occur when for some reason work no longer brings you fulfillment (layoffs, burnout, project cancellation, business shut down), and the other sources of joy aren’t there to sustain you. 

Work Addiction

Is work all you want to talk about? 

Do you have a compulsive need to check your work chat / email even outside business hours?

Are work thoughts invading your mind at night when you put your head on the pillow?

Work addiction is a compulsive need to *perform and achieve* status and success, and it often stems from a desire to avoid emotional distress, or fill a certain emotional void. It’s one of the most extreme forms of work-life imbalances. Work addicts often have neither the time, nor desire for things other than work. Work addiction varies on a spectrum from mild to severe.  

When I quit my job because of burnout, I didn’t have anything lined up. And it was during a pandemic, so I definitely *needed* a break. But I’m not gonna lie, the first months were difficult. Similarly to how an addict experiences withdrawals, my work withdrawals were rough. 

The idea of not having a job was terrifying and it uncovered the following truth: no matter how hard I tried to convince myself when I was still employed that my relationship to work was healthy, I was only able to see it for what it was after I quit. Work was a key part of the fabric of my life. 

Intrusive thoughts started popping up: “I’m so lazy,” “wow I’m wasting so much time every day”, “how unproductive today was”, “what am I doing with my life?”, “I’m spending so much money and making none, people are achieving things and here I am, doing nothing…”. In my head, I was officially becoming my own worst nightmare: a lazy slacker who bums around all day and does nothing else. 

In reality, I wasn’t actually bumming around at all, I was reading, cooking, doing leisure activities, *RESTING* (gasp, what a concept!), and overall doing enjoyable activities that just happen to not have a specific target in mind. I was living life. And I was still the same person, the same friend, the same daughter, the same me, no more or less worthy than before.

Oh so you think you’re *not* addicted to working? Take the work away and tell me how you feel then.

Productivity Obsession

Do you think “hustling” is commendable and “doing less” is lazy?

Maybe you’d be interested in starting a side passion project, but you’re worried it might be a waste of time?

Do you feel guilty if you haven’t crossed enough items off your “to do” list and better about yourself when you do?

As a society, we’ve become preoccupied with doing more, harder, better, faster, stronger, to the point that crosses the work barrier, and spills into our personal life. 

Topics like: time management, productivity hacks, productivity apps, biohacking have been increasingly trendy among blogs, podcasts and books. 

Similar to work addiction, the chase for productivity can become addictive too: living to cross things off “to do” lists and feeling inadequate and guilty when we don’t.

It’s all about the output of our time, what do we have to show for any given period of time. But sometimes it’s okay not to have to show anything, in fact, it’s necessary.

The chase for productivity is actually unproductive and it’s a direct burnout precursor.

For a productivity obsessed person, leisure time means one of 2 things: you’re either stressing out about all the things you have to do once your time off is over OR you feel unproductive and guilty. How is this supposed to be relaxing and rejuvenating?

The consequence is: we end up keeping busy, multitasking, and over-scheduling, until we crash. 

Overachievement

Individuals who "perform better or achieve more success than expected" are usually called overachievers. You might be thinking: what’s wrong with that?

It’s like Gretchen Wieners’ famous line from Mean Girls, except replace “popular” with “competent”, “ambitious”, “passionate”, “driven”, etc.

Taking on more difficult projects, and completing tasks above and beyond expectations comes with significant time, energy expenditure and stress. Overachievers are prone to suffering from work-life imbalance, and, on top of that, the disappointment from failing what’s for many people “a stretch goal”, adds up to the feelings of not-good-enoughness which keeps perpetuating this cycle of overachievement.

Overachievers may seem like a manager’s best dream, but they actually require special attention. A good manager should help set realistic expectations and encourage them not to work insane hours, while not stifling their performance.

When you feel so passionate about work, it can feel hard to put the breaks on it. The truth is: work never stops. At a certain point, it’s up to you to stop working.

Difficulty Saying “No”

“Yes, absolutely, don’t worry about it, I can take that on”.

How many times have you heard those words come out of your mouth and immediately regretted it?

Many of us avoid saying “no” when we are afraid that it will put us into conflict with someone else. We don’t want to let people down, make them feel rejected, or be perceived as lazy / not a team player. Or we’re just always up for a challenge, so we jump at saying yes to seemingly impossible things because we want to prove that we can.

The result is taking on far more work than you have the capacity for, which is stressful and exhausting. There’s a constant feeling of always being behind, like your life is a never ending to-do list, which doesn’t let you recover from stress even when you’re not working.

People pleasers are notorious for not saying “no” when they should. It’s a losing battle because you can’t make everyone happy no matter how hard you try.

Good Kid Syndrome

Do you ever question the authority of people that are more senior than you?

Do you just do things because “you’re supposed to”?

Some children are taught not to go against authority; instead they blindly obey their parents, teachers and others in power due to fear of punishment, or simply to please.

If you used to be “the good kid”, you might have a need for excessive compliance and could bring the same behaviors in the workplace. The inability to push back when necessary can lead to burnout.

I invite you to transform your “good kid” into a “good employee”. Challenging authority when appropriate is part of your job, including questioning unrealistic expectations.

Overextended Empathy

Empathy means the ability to relate deeply to the problems and stress of others. You feel with others, which comes with a certain emotional energetic cost, often overlooked.

On its own, being empathetic is a wonderful quality, not a red flag. However, if everybody around you is constantly stressed and miserable, being an empath can be extremely emotionally draining, people’s stress adds up to your own stress. 

Misplaced Loyalty

If loyalty is one of your core values, you stay through good *and* bad times. You wouldn’t be loyal if you quit at the first sign of bad. What would giving up say about you?

We have a saying back home: “Yes, they may be idiots, but they’re my idiots”.

Somehow, despite an acute awareness of all the ongoing issues, it’s hard for people to let go and accept that some things are never going to change. Each attempt to change the same thing requires more and more energy, and hitting dead ends over and over again is exhausting.

Conclusion

This article is an invitation for reflection, introspection and taking personal responsibility for our part in the burnout story. 

Most of these traits are intertwined, and gravitate around the same themes: worthiness, fear of failure, lack of boundaries and need for belonging.

I intentionally haven’t provided specific guidance on what actions can be taken because I think the overarching commonalities should be addressed as a unit. If you want to learn more, stay tuned for Part 4, where we’ll focus more on potential solutions and anti-burnout strategies.


Many thanks to everyone else who provided precious feedback on this article and especially to Sonya Ives 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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