Thoughts on dealing with burnout in tech

Mental Health with Kelsey Hightower on the always amazing Software Engineering Daily podcast –

This was a great podcast, and I want to thank Kelsey and Jeff for doing this talk. Burnout is a topic we do not talk about openly in the tech community; at least that is my experience over the years. I wish Jeff the very best as he navigates this. In this blog, I share some thoughts about one mental health condition that some of us face – burnout at work. My thoughts here are tied to the software engineering occupation, but it might resonate with other fields too.

I am not a medical professional, so do not take my blog as professional advice. If anything this is to inform the reader that we all face such issues and asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Your best chance to resolution is having a healthy mix of social interaction with real humans (not social media), a good friends/family network to lean on, and in some cases seeking medical help.

Whether it is stress related to the pandemic, pressure from the grinding continuity of the work that never seems to end, or the 10s of video calls each day, we all face workplace-related stresses, and we all deal with them in our own ways. Stressful situations in moderate doses are healthy since it keeps us alert. There is the science that shows how stress triggers the part of the brain called the Amygdala, which generates emotional responses such as fear, stress, and anxiety. When faced with stressful situations the biological behavior gets our body alert to make decisions quickly to get us to a calmer/safer self. But when faced with constant stressful situations over a longer period of time, each of which does not resolve itself to a calmer/safer outcome, we could quickly end up burning out and impacting our health.

Companies speak about this topic occasionally, but it is hard to see what tangible things they may have done to reduce stress in the environment. At times it seems to be just lip service. Yes, it is hard for companies to monitor each employee’s condition, but they can definitely embrace certain cultural behaviors that can help reduce stress.

A recent example with Coinbase caught my attention. I have not worked for Coinbase, nor do I know anyone working there, but when Coinbase announced 4 weeks of recharge time for employees, that resonated with me. At times I wish everyone would stop at the same time and take a break so that there is no pressure or feelings of guilt or just the thought of work piling up when you get back to the office. I realize not all companies can do this, but they can IMHO introduce some measurable changes that can provide a positive impact on preventing stress in the first place.

Stress at work is not isolated from our personal life. It is possible that folks can “take” home this stress and negatively impact their personal life. Some are better at drawing the lines between work and life, while others are not as much.

I look back at pre-pandemic days when my daily schedule forced certain boundaries to separate work and life. Some common boundary markers are dropping kids off at school, commuting to work & back, picking kids up from aftercare, kids activities, and taking kids to activities in the evenings (during workdays). All of those went away during the almost 2 years of pandemic-infused lockdowns or slowdowns. It is only now, in Q1 2022, that we are getting back to many of these activities.

Many of us will continue to work remotely. I certainly welcome that since it provides me the flexibility to balance things at home. But we need to redraw (or draw new) boundaries to better balance work and personal life. There is no right or wrong answer, as this balance differs for each person. Once you know what it is for you, you may have to put in some effort to establish it into your work-life schedule. Without the balance, you will head towards health issues such as burnout.

There is a lot of material on the web to do a self-evaluation, but do not forget to take feedback from your friends & family. In cases where you find yourself with no (or not enough) physical human connection, you are in more significant danger. Some symptoms are explained in – What to know about burnout. Getting help from a medical professional should be an option too. But it all begins with recognizing that you have a condition that needs to be taken care of.

To all those in leadership roles I say, your tone & behavior can help your team handle this better or avoid it ideally. That is the bit you can do and you should. Regularly assess your own behaviors (ask for feedback) and listen to the voices in your team, to know where and when to jump in to tweak things for the better.