I came to terms with reality a bit last week. It wasn’t fun. I concluded something attentive folks around me have likely known for a bit: I am dealing with low-level burnout:
- Have you become cynical or critical at work?
- Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started once you arrive?
- Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
- Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
- Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
- Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
- Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
- Have your sleep habits or appetite changed?
- Are you troubled by unexplained headaches, backaches or other physical complaints?
The Mayo Clinic (the source for that list) notes that if you’re suffering from any one of those, you may be experiencing burnout. By my count, I am experiencing six. If you’re looking at the list and wondering: the first six. No changes to sleep, no abuse of food or drugs or alcohol, and I haven’t started having physical problems yet, which is why I classify what I’m experiencing as low-level or mild. But burnout is tricky. I’ve know a number of people who’ve had more serious cases—cases which led into significant physical problems that took them years to recover from.
In my experience, when people think about burnout, they tend to think of the kind that comes from overwork or from a lack of rest. You certainly can (indeed: certainly will) burn out by pulling 80-hour weeks for years on end. But those are not the only way you can burn out. You can also do it by ending up in a spot where you have too much responsibility, or deep and lasting conflict within your working environment, or sharp ethical disagreements with your leadership, or even just—“just” being the wrong word here—lasting mismatches between your tasks and the things you care about.
The particular reasons for my mild case of burnout aren’t the stereotypical kind. I get plenty of sleep, I enjoy my hobbies, I exercise and eat well, and I very carefully maintain a limit on the hours I work every week. I’m not overworked. It’s a mix of other factors I won’t go into. The details aren’t actually that important here, and in any case my (genuinely excellent) manager knows them well and we are working on them together.1
What is important is trying to figure out how to keep the burnout from getting worse. And acknowledging that it can happen to anyone. And that you may not see it coming, may deny you’re experiencing till something finally makes it click for you.
What made this all finally click for me? It was this post by Carl Trueman, reflecting on his own very different vocation—specifically, his bivocational work as both a pastor and a professor:
A few months into my pastorate, an academic friend who had done the same thing for nine years wrote me a letter and urged me to be careful – as soon as I ceased to enjoy the hobbies and casual pleasures of life, he warned, I would be close to burn-out and would need to step down. I was glad of the warning – every minister I have ever know who has burned out has told me that there was no obvious warning: one day everything seemed fine, the next they were barely able to get out of bed.
That started me thinking on my own experience, and if I’m not quite there, I can see warning signs. The biggest danger sign, for me, is an utter lack of motivation around some of my hobbies. I generally relax, as my wife can attest, in weird ways—by writing, by building an open-source library, by reading hard-and-interesting books. For the last several months, I have had almost no interest in doing any of that. So I’ve a mild case at the moment, and I’m doing everything I can to keep it from getting worse.
Burnout like I have right now is not the end of the world, to be clear. It is manageable. Many people—including people in my own family—carry much more significant burdens in terms of physical and mental health. But it is real, and it’s dangerous in no small part because it can cascade into really serious mental and physical health problems if you let it spiral out of control.
So, two things:
If I’m a bit slower on open-source projects for a while, you know why.
I’d like to be that blog post for someone else. If you’re experiencing the things on that list, figure out how to change something.
You can assume that it’s not sharp conflict over ethical issues, because nothing in the world would make me jet from a job faster than that would↩