Burnout doesn’t happen all at once. It happens slowly.
It is like an Obscurus - a parasite that forms in Book Fantastic Beast when a wizard or witch suppresses their magical ability. Just like Obscurus, it will eventually take over their host bodies. Burnout will take over one’s soul.
As a software engineer, Burnout happens when one is not recognized or satisfied after finishing the project. But it is also the anxiety and lack of self-confidence each time when trying to execute a project.
To prevent Burnout, a break from work is not good enough - the human mind will switch back to the old feelings after a long break and feel exhausted. Everyone has different ways of fighting Burnout. However, if you experience Burnout, I encourage you to take time off and consider what makes you burn out and which factors you control.
From A Personal Experience
I experienced Burnout when I worked for a startup.
I was initially excited to join a startup and make an impact. I have always thought about those crazy stories in the startup world that friends often discussed during family dinners. Working in a big company has become more and more political and repetitive. I felt like I needed to go for a smaller company so that I would be able to make a bigger impact and continue to advocate the benefit of functional programming through my colleagues.
I get to push code to production and enable the big feature on the first day of work. I was ecstatic.
I wanted to experience the culture of a startup, and I got to feel what it means to “put off fire all the time.” However, one important aspect of joining a startup is that I didn’t think about its mission.
I thought that if a startup is in a growth stage, you don’t have to care too much about the mission, as it found the product market fit. I never thought about how important the mission is within a startup.
The mission is what creates the culture. Believing in the mission is what motivates all of the employees to work long hours and on weekends. The mission is what prevents the company from shattering. If you don’t fully onboard with the mission, every day will be an uphill battle - the easier you will get Burnout.
It all Started with High Expectation
I was shipping great code, and my team was very impressed with the speed and the impact that I produced.
I was determined to be promoted to the next level. If I keep up with this speed of execution, they will promote me in a short amount of time. However, the feature that our team is responsible for wasn’t making enough impact on the overall organization, and we decided to pivot and disband the team.
It was normal to always pivot as a company. I was disappointed with the result of our hypothesis but am excited to move on to the other team.
The Moment when Feeling Turn South
I have a conflict with an influential staff engineer in the team.
Every PR was rejected because the approach wasn’t the way he wanted. Although he mentioned that it was not the correct approach to the problem, he gave vague suggestions. He expects me to guess what he thinks.
Instead of accepting various approaches to a problem, he has a full picture of what the approach should be. I spent a large portion of my time trying to guess what he thinks.
It delays the time to move the project forward.
Every standup meetings become like an interrogation session. I am trying to justify why I couldn’t finish the task at every meeting.
The X stages of Burnout
The X stages of Burnout started with wanting to prove my worth by working more hours. That leads to health, relationship, and financial deterioration in every aspect of my life. Then, you can’t handle it anymore by not caring about my work. Lastly, you tap out by losing purpose in my life.
I started trying to prove to the team that I could do this. However, the team didn’t recognize my effort because it didn’t impact any business metrics. The team denied my idea of introducing new tools to increase developer productivity because it doesn’t impact the business metrics.
Every action needs to be correlated to business metrics. Every action needs to go through that staff engineer’s approval.
Eventually, I felt exhausted. The setback made me question every action I took in shipping products - it destroyed my confidence.
I felt like I was a cog in a factory to help increase some important metrics of the company so they could raise more funding in the future.
I stopped caring about my health and my surroundings. I started to check my slack channel and PR when I woke up to know if I had hit the jackpot in predicting what he was thinking. I had high hope at the beginning of the day that I would be able to push my project forward. Yet, luck has never been in my favor.
I received comments on every PR from the staff engineer that the design approach is incorrect. I direct message him asking for more clarification, but he didn’t respond for more than an hour.
“There are only 24 hours in a day, and I couldn’t afford to keep waiting for him because I got some updates that I need to tell the team on standup tomorrow!” I thought.
While waiting for his response, I try to make some changes, hoping this assumption is correct. I pushed the changes and tried to ping him one more time, hoping this change would be it.
A couple of hours pass, and he eventually responds to my message - but he responds to them in the group chat.
I was astonished.
“This guy didn’t respond to my private message but tag me on a public group chat to show everyone how incapable I am in front of all the team members.”
I had another back-and-forth discussion in the group chat with him until the end of the day - realizing that I am still at the same progress as yesterday.
Anxiously, I wrote down my justification notes on reasons for tomorrow’s status update.
I went to sleep feeling guilty and ashamed.
I felt guilty because I couldn’t justify another reason why my PR is still under review. I felt ashamed because the team saw me as lacking the competency to unblock and move things forward.
I stopped caring about eating lunch or dinner. I spent most of my waking hours thinking/trying to move about my project. Even though I felt physically exhausted at the end of the day, I had difficulty sleeping because my mind kept feeling anxious and racing.
I stopped writing about technology blogs because my mind was exhausted.
I briefly discuss with my manager about my concern. However, he thinks that I lack confidence in writing code and that he told me that I need coaching.
Because of not being able to care hurts the performance review.
Finally, on my performance review, my manager discussed this issue where I have a problem moving the project forward, and he thinks this aspect is an orange flag. I will be in an improvement plan if I cannot improve on this aspect.
Enough is Enough
One influential colleague that is hard to work with can influence the performance and motivation of the team.
I thought before quitting and taking a break. I want to take another chance by exploring another opportunity within another team. Perhaps the root cause is not the company’s culture but the team’s culture. I searched if there were any opportunities elsewhere within the company. This feeling may go away if I don’t directly work with the staff engineer. There is an internal job posting available within the company, and I contacted the Hiring manager. The process went smoothly during the transition, and I mentioned to my manager that I would like to explore transferring to the other team.
A few weeks later, a new colleague discussed with me that he encountered the same issue with the same staff engineer. I thought it wasn’t me who encountered conflicts with that engineer.
I reciprocated my feelings, giving him some advice on handling such a situation. I had closure on the doubt myself for these past couple of months.
In my experience, Burnout started when you feel like you want to prove something because you are not valued. Over time, your mind gets exhausted with constant misalignment of output and expectation.
You started having difficulty caring for and focusing on your daily task. You quite quit, because you are mentally tapped out. If you don’t take further action, your mind will get more and more exhausted. Eventually, Burnout takes over your soul and destroys your physical and mental health.
At this moment, it may take months or even years to recover.
Burnout can be hard to quantify and talk about because it manifests so differently for everyone. For some folks, it stems from the organizational culture or workload.
For others, it can be the nature or intensity of the work or team dynamics.
Burnout appears in different shapes and sizes, and it can even be mitigated if it’s caught early enough and addressed effectively. But in more severe scenarios, the best (and maybe only) solution is to leave the workplace that was contributing to and causing your Burnout.