Only You Can Prevent Tech Burnout
In May of 2018, Blind (an anonymous community work app) released a survey that revealed that close to 60 percent of employees surveyed considered themselves burned out. With over 11,000 respondents from the biggest tech companies in the game, it verified what those in the trenches were already well-aware of: burnout in tech is ubiquitous.
Burnout isn’t by any means exclusive to any one industry or role, but its prevalence within the fast-paced and competitive industry of technology is well-documented. At Rithm, we do our best to set our students (and faculty) up for success, including providing them with the knowledge and tools to maintain work-life balance. This post serves as a deeper dive into the topic and some strategies we recommend to prevent and recover from burnout.
Burnout is insidious: it begins slowly, barely perceptible and is often written off as merely feeling “off” or “over it”. Bad days coalesce into bad weeks, and soon enough, motivation is nowhere to be found. Tasks that were once trivial and enjoyable now seem insurmountable and torturous. As a result, our pace slows. Work piles up and we suddenly we begin to feel anxious about our performance. Or, alternatively, we stop caring all together.
We all experience stress at work, but when that stress becomes the new normal, things can take a turn for the worse very quickly.
As with most things, everyone experiences burnout — both the culmination and the build up — differently. The warning signs for one person may not be the same for the other, which underscores why it’s so important to consider your relationship to burnout as a highly personal one, rather than benchmarking against friends and colleagues.
Not Feeling The Burn
If you’ve already experienced burnout at some point, there is a silver lining: you’re likely aware of what your personal burnout warning signs are. Like an incipient cold, the moment you feel yourself coming down with “the burn” is the moment you should spring into action. The best way to deal with burnout is to avoid getting there in the first place.
Below are some effective habits to incorporate into your life to stave off burnout, or, in the case of vacation days, a potential remedy to apply once it’s gotten out of hand.
Use your vacation
Whether accrued or unlimited, be sure to take time off.
In the event that you’ve reached the point of full-blown burnout, put those days to use immediately. For maintenance, consider scheduling the occasional long weekend. Whether it’s escaping to a foreign destination or a staycation, it doesn’t matter: whatever works for you and allows you to decompress, do that.
A Note on Unlimited PTO
Unlimited PTO is a policy that is becoming more common, especially amongst startups. To the uninitiated, this may seem like a dream come true, but in the event that you find yourself within a culture that values giving 100-percent, 100-percent of the time, it can be difficult to break the mold by taking a step away from work to relax and refresh.
If you’re unclear on how many days is appropriate to take off in an unlimited PTO situation, have a chat with your manager and establish clear expectations early on. Having an explicit number of days you can utilize often makes it easier to actually put them to use and you can do so without the worry that you’re overstepping any unsaid cultural norm.
For example, you could frame it with something as simple as: “I think it’s great that we have unlimited PTO. That said, it would be really helpful for me to understand what expectations there are around the number of days taken off and if there are any particular times of year where it would be better to use them versus not.”
At my very first engineering job, I was asked to join a couple of colleagues for a mid-morning walk outside. I won’t lie: I initially found this silly (especially since the walk was around the Costco-sized parking lot out front) and politely declined, opting instead to eat lunch at my desk as I reviewed and improved my work one last time before submission.
But, eventually I relented, and in a few weeks’ time, the group had grown to our entire team of 15 — including the stoic, commit-at-2AM codeaholics among us, who perhaps benefited from the brief time outside most of all. Without fail, once we returned to our desks, our moods were lifted for the remainder of the day, which made us more collaborative and focused.
The positive effects of exercise on the brain are extensive. With boosts to mood, memory and learning, not only will you benefit from physical exertion, but your work (and those that have to work with you) will, too. Whether it’s popping out for a quick walk, biking to work, or committing to putting down the keyboard at 5PM each day to hit the gym, the self-care that inherently accompanies movement cannot be underscored enough.
If you’re devoting 8 hours to your company, the least you can do is afford 30 minutes to your own physical well-being each day!
Maintain (or get) Hobbies
More recent than I’d like to admit, someone asked me what I did for fun. I stared blankly at them, scouring my memory for an appropriate answer. And you know what? I had nothing. Or, rather, I had one and only one thing: work.
Don’t get me wrong: I loved the work I was doing, which is why I was spending so much time with it. But without anything else to break up my 17 hours of wakefulness, it felt like I was always working. And, in truth, I was. As a result, when I wasn’t feeling overworked, on the rare occasion I did allow myself to relax and decompress by playing a video game or watching a movie, anxiety and guilt pervaded my thoughts since, well, I could have been working.
Aside from revealing yourself to be embarrassingly 2-dimensional in social situations, working non-stop puts you on the fast track for burnout. Restricting mental pursuits to work and work alone robs us of the opportunity to disengage from what we must do in lieu of activities that spark joy, elicit creativity and otherwise find enjoyment in. Similar to exercise or meditation, spending time doing something unrelated to work will allow your mind to switch contexts and get the downtime it so desperately needs.
Yes, there will be intense periods of heads-down work, but beyond first getting settled into a new role or sprinting towards a looming deadline, there’s no excuse for abandoning personal interests.
This one goes without saying, but don’t sacrifice sleep. Aside from affecting your performance, your body repairs itself during rest and a lack of sleep is linked to a slew of health issues that you’re best avoiding all together.
Unless there is a hard deadline for a feature that is being shipped and must be flawless, it can wait until tomorrow.
Learn for Fun
Last but not least, as engineers, we love to code: it’s both a privilege and a joy to spend our days problem solving (and getting paid to do so). One strategy for avoiding burnout that tends to appeal to those of us who simply love to learn is to focus our efforts on learning something new that is entirely unrelated to our work. You know, just for funsies.
Learning for fun was the catalyst that allowed me to finally step away from my work without feeling racked with guilt. In my hyper-productive mind, because I was learning something new, I felt as though my time was still being well-utilized. Eventually, the mere act of diversifying my day with activities and topics of my own choosing made me realize how fettered and unfulfilled I’d been. Though I continued to produce excellent work, I had a much more relaxed attitude about my role and responsibilities, which also benefited my team. It was a win-win for everybody.
Whether it’s tinkering with a Raspberry Pi, picking up a new language, or learning to play the guitar, the options are limitless: choose something — anything — and see where it takes you.
Burnout is no joke. We often lament being “burned out” in passing conversation at happy hour with our friends and colleagues, but full-fledged burnout is incredibly serious and can be incapacitating if left unchecked.
Keep a pulse on how you’re feeling: check in with yourself regularly and take stock of your stress levels. And, most importantly, whether from the list above or elsewhere, find ways that work for you to allow yourself mental and physical distance from the work that you do.
Your future self will thank you.