Signs of Burnout

Continuing the theme from yesterday about burnout, it is important to identify the signs and symptoms of burnout. This Wikipedia article on burnout is chock full of good details, and I advise you to look there for reference as I talk about each symptom. As I go through each phase of burnout, I detail what I unknowingly did in that phase, in the hope that someone out there can recognize what they are currently doing and prevent it from happening further. I feel quite exposed writing about all of this, mainly because of the feeling that people will see me as fallible but it is all part of the process of learning and growing.

First things first, I am not a physician but if you feel that you or someone you know is suffering from burnout, it is important to inform a doctor (or someone in the medical field) of the problem so that they can help you and watch out for troubling signs. The second item is that if you are trying to self-diagnose, you may not be able to see many of the symptoms listed in the article. There is an old saying that one can't "see the forest for the trees", which means that you may not be able to determine what is wrong with you because you and the problem are too close together 1. Sometimes an outside observer can see symptoms well before they exacerbate.

The article details the 12 distinct phases discovered by people that suffer from burnout. I will be honest and state that I have experienced every single phase, though not necessarily at the same time or in the same situation. I will be quoting heavily from the article, but please read the original article and its references further for more information.

Phase 1: The Compulsion to Prove Oneself

Often found at the beginning is excessive ambition. This is one's desire to prove themselves while at the workplace. This desire turns into determination and compulsion.

In my previous article one of the themes I presented was that I needed to please everyone and show them how good I was. I was young and there was a sense that I had to play catch-up with the rest of the workers, not to mention use the knowledge that I learned in school. After all, isn't that what school is for?

School, especially post secondary, is especially bad at teaching someone how to enter the real workforce. During school you are always going to classes and labs, working on homework, and studying every other waking hour. It is a work hard, play hard atmosphere that lasts for the 8 months that school is in session. After the 8 months a lot of students take a summer break and relax, and here's the crux: there are few jobs out there that allows a worker to take a 4 month vacation each year (the closest may be teachers at 2 months).

If you are in IT, and especially a programmer, you will have most certainly come into contact with job applications that list every conceivable skill known to man as either a requirement or a "nice to have". It is easy to say, "but those are just suggestions, apply anyway" and ignore the mountain of experience requested by an employer in order to obtain the job. But it does have an effect on your psyche, that you must keep improving and learning in order to get even the most basic IT job. My theory on this phenomenon is that these huge lists of requirements stem from the fact that (a) IT is a very young field, and (b) IT doesn't require any certification process.

If you look at many industries, from medicine to construction, they have decades of history that have been all but written in stone. Sure, new discoveries are being made everyday (heck, even something as old as Roman concrete is currently revolutionalizing the concrete world) but the fundamentals don't change very much. IT (especially the Web) has been around for about 20 years, but the bulk of the Web technologies we use change every year (fat client, thin client, AJAX, distributed computing). Employers can easily requrest experience in multi-core programming, not realizing that technology is (maybe) 10 years old. Because of that short timespan, there's no way to accurately qualify someone's skillset, or future-proof it when technology inevitably changes.

And change it will, because we know that every year computers get faster, more people and things come online, and technologists struggle to keep up with the learning curve. However, IT is a person's dream job, where they can read a book, code up some small application or website, and call themselves a programmer. This is not unlike the initial days of any field of study (e.g. geology). Even a Bachelor's degree doesn't necessarily teach someone how to build a robust Web application, it only provides the fundamentals of computing, some programming (depending on the school) experience, and the ability to teach yourself 2. And there is nothing wrong with that.

Except when it comes to employers asking about skill requirements. Employers ask for experience in LibraryA or ProgrammingLanguageB, and then they still have to test your knowledge through a series of questions and programming exercises. With my degree and fundamental knowledge, I have the ability to quickly teach myself anything in the computing world, but there is no way for an employer to believe that. Unfortunately, due to the lack of accreditation in IT there is no bar that everyone must pass before they can start writing software professionally 3.

So where does this leave the lowly IT worker? Right at the bottom where they must constantly prove what they know and, sometimes more importantly, how much they know it. This phase is practically built into every IT worker from day one.

Phase 2: Working Harder

Because they have to prove themselves to others or try to fit in an organization that does not suit them, people establish high personal expectations. In order to meet these expectations, they tend to focus only on work while they take on more work than they usually would. It may happen that they become obsessed with doing everything themselves. This will show that they are irreplaceable since they are able to do so much work without enlisting in the help of others.

If there's one thing I can attest to, it's that I am not a slacker. Of course, sometimes I feel like a slacker when I start reading about new technology or algorithm, but that is all in the course of learning. One of my worst habits is to wake up, read technology articles about the latest advances, work all day (typically 8-9 hours), then go home and study up on various new tools or techniques. It leaves little time for anything else in life, but I rationalize it by noting how quickly everything moves in IT. If you've worked in Java and JSPs for the past 8 years, you are going to stuggle to find a job now in many high-tech companies because they have not only moved onto new programming languages but a lot of processing is done on the client-side, not the server-side. This may change in another couple years, but to what and when, who knows.

When I have looked around at my co-workers, many of them do not keep up with the latest in technology 4. I see that as a sign of weakness but I can also see how that makes their life easier, because they don't need to work so hard to keep up. Instead, they learn on the job, only learning what they need to get the job done. While I don't agree with this type of just-in-time learning, I can see how it would reduce the amount of stress.

Phase 3: Neglecting Their Needs

Since they have devoted everything to work, they now have no time and energy for anything else. Friends and family, eating, and sleeping start to become seen as unnecessary or unimportant, as they reduce the time and energy that can be spent on work.

In the previous section I noted what a typical work day was for me when in the process of burnout. It is easily seen how one can rationalize away the omission of leisure time, relaxation and even friends and family. For me, I would never actively shun friends and family, but if work or study needed me, then I would make an excuse to be with the work instead of other things. Also, even when I was with friends and family, my mind was still attempting to solve whatever programming issue I was working on recently.

Since I never took advantage of downtime, I was never refreshed for the next work day, meaning I was always shaving a little more energy off the top each day, not realizing what I was losing. However, I knew that I was losing something.

Phase 4: Displacement of Conflicts

Now, the person has become aware that what they are doing is not right, but they are unable to see the source of the problem. This could lead to a crisis in themselves and become threatening. This is when the first physical symptoms are expressed.

This is the most difficult phase to see, even though paradoxically it is the easiest to get results from. One day I will feel "off", just not like myself and not know why. Maybe it's a nagging thought in my head, tension in my shoulders and neck, or a general uneasieness settling over me. I recall many times talking to my wife about how I "just didn't feel right", but I could never put my finger on what the problem was. It turns out that I was seeing this stage of burnout, not realizing that the previous phases had just accumulated upon my mind and body because I never worked them out of my system.

Everyone, at some point in time, abuses their body for some benefit. The easiest is to put off sleep in order to meet some goal – beating the next level in a game, finishing another chapter, or going that extra mile for work. The deal that everyone makes with themselves for abusing sleep is that they can make it up later in the week by sleeping in. However, our bodies aren't made like that; our bodies do not keep a debt ledger of your sleep patterns and allow an extra balloon payment when you have time. The number of sleep hours you get is but one variable among many when determining relaxation, so balancing out both sides of the ledger is all but useless 5.

Pay attention to the little aches and pains (both physical and mental) that happen every day. This is your body telling you that you are doing something wrong.

Phase 5: Revision of Values

In this stage, people isolate themselves from others, they avoid conflicts, and fall into a state of denial towards their basic physical needs while their perceptions change. They also change their value systems. The work consumes all energy they have left, leaving no energy and time for friends and hobbies. Their new value system is their job and they start to be emotionally blunt.

This is the part of burnout that, in the previous article, I discussed as being part of cognitive dissonance. One mistake I have made repeatedly is to refer to my body as just a plaything for my mind. It can take all the abuses that I throw at it and it will complain for awhile then bounce back. But fast forward 10-15 years and your body will start pushing back at you. What was once a small ache is now a constant pain. When you play sports or exercise and you pull a miscle or tendon, the doctor's orders are to get some rest and stay off of the affected area. There's good advice here, but sadly mental health is not seen in the same light as physical health.

In mental health, a revision of values is simply your brain trying to come to terms with what it sees as a bad behaviour. However, since your brain does not like to be at war with itself (or its body), it eventually conforms to whatever course of action it originally hated. This is the essence of brain plasticity and it is a great thing. To understand why it is a great thing, let's look at the reverse.

Just about every lifeform strives for one thing: to do the most amount of work for the least amount of energy to stay alive for another day. That way, the organism doesn't need to hunt for energy (i.e. eat) as much, which in itself is an energy-depleting endeavour. Your body would love nothing more than to sit on the couch, and it will reconfigure your musculature to suit this activity (which, unfortunately, can also lead to your death). So you try exercising and your brain hates it, always pushing you to whine and be emotional about it. This is cognitive dissonance in action, but in a good way. Because of plasticity, you eventually train your brain into realizing that exercise is a good thing and, after about 2-3 week of constant exercise, your brain grows to love and need it 6.

When you are in the process of burnout, your mind and body are telling you (albeit in a none-to-obvious way) that you need to stop the bad habits. However, if you persist in the bad habits your brain eventually gives up and starts wanting more of it and expecting that to be the new normal. Let me be clear: this is the beginning of the end for you because to return to your old normal you will need to reteach your brain what is right and wrong.

Phase 6: Denial of Emerging Problems

The person begins to become intolerant. They do not like being social, and if they were to have social contact, it would be merely unbearable for them. Outsiders tend to see more aggression and sarcasm. It is not uncommon for them to blame their increasing problems on time pressure and all the work that they have to do, instead of on the ways that they have changed, themselves.

This is a tough phase for me, because I am already a sarcastic person by nature (it constitutes the main part of my wit), so I am not prone to seeing how much more sarcastic I am becoming. However, I have noticed myself becoming more aggressive in my thoughts, starting to see conflict where there is none or, more often, making mountains out of molehills. When I would have conversations with other people I would engage them but still be thinking, in the back of my mind, about how much time is being wasted with idle chat.

In my previous article I mentioned all the time pressures that I was under, plus all the extra work that was required of me. Some of this was externally produced, but there is definitely some blame on my side as well. In IT is a badge of honour to talk about the scars of war when trying to get a project finished. On the one hand, it is good to talk about the failings of a project so that it can be prevented, but it altogether a different thing to glorify it.

Phase 7: Withdrawal

Their social contact is now at a minimum, soon turning into isolation, a wall. Alcohol or drugs may be sought out for a release since they are obsessively working "by the book". They often have feelings of being without hope or direction.

This is an interesting phase, and not one that I have had too much experience with. The two times I have experienced this phase I rationalized my isolation by thinking that I needed to focus in order to work. One such isolation tactic is to wear headphones. This is a common requirement in IT, because programmers are typically in open-plan offices or low-rise cubicles where even the smallest sounds are heard. But constantly wearing headphones is a form of isolation and it should be noted and stopped.

The other form of isolation which I have used in the past is alcohol. Not too much, but just one or two beers will really focus the mind. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing in moderation, but at one point I recall always having one or two beers so that I can drown out not only the outside world but also all the other thoughts in my head, just so that I can focus on coding. What I didn't realize at the time is that those other thoughts were my mind trying to relax and think about other things, similar to how you stretch your muscles from time to time when they have been in a tensed position for too long. I know that if I had kept up with the bad behaviour for too long I would be at risk of addiction, but I eventually stopped on my own accord when I realized that the cost of all the beer 7.

Phase 8: Obvious Behavioral Changes

Coworkers, family, friends, and other people that are in their immediate social circles cannot overlook the behavioral changes of this person.

I had some family members and friends tell me that I am acting weird or withdrawn, but I would always wonder what they are talking about. To me, I seemed fine, it was the world that was wrong. My inner echo chamber was working overtime trying to justify my actions by noting the amount of work that needed to be done in life.

The fact that mental health is something that is not taken as seriously as say physical, dental, eye health is a travesty in our work-centric lifestyle. I know that it will only lead to bad things in our society's future, but for now those affected will just need to seek help themselves in silence. For me, I didn't talk about it because I didn't want to be demonized or looked upon as being weak. That doesn't mean I remained silent about the issues, when I had the lucidity to see them.

I would talk with said friends and family members about my issues, but nobody could help me. I would get the usual patronizing remarks like "you are just overthinking things" or "only you can help yourself", which left me thinking that it really was just a failing in me. To be honest, a great deal of introspection does not need to be performed in order to understand what level of burnout is affecting you, but seeking help from others is a great way to begin the healing process. My advice here is limited because I have never found a great way to solve this problem. My wife is the best person I have talked to about this, but mainly because she lends a sympathetic ear, but doesn't just nod at everything I say 8.

Phase 9: Depersonalization

Losing contact with themselves, it's possible that they no longer see themselves or others as valuable. As well, the person loses track of their personal needs. Their view of life narrows to only seeing in the present time, while their life turns to a series of mechanical functions.

While in the process of burning out completely, I remember forgetting any and all of the things I had accomplished in my life. Of those things that I did remember accomplishing, I would minimize by telling myself how little they meant to others or myself. This is a process of tearing down one's self, and it's not pretty. However, I never told many people about this, because it was deeply disheartening to think of myself as worthless.

How does one keep themselves from feelings of worthlessness? My advice is to keep track of your successes either publicly or privately, by writing down what you do or by creating a portfolio. For me, I keep a private portfolio of everything I do, mostly as an exercise in building a resume, but it also served some use in helping remain focused on my accomplishments. Another way to stay cognizant of your worth is to talk with other people that are not in your industry. I am continually surprised at how many people think the simplest programming techniques or applications are pure magic, to the point where I begin to take it for granted if I don't ground myself every now and then. 9

Phase 10: Inner Emptiness

They feel empty inside and to overcome this, they might look for activity such as overeating, sex, alcohol, or drugs. These activities are often exaggerated.

This is a big one and my feeling is that it starts in Phase 7 but, if left unchecked, grows into a full-blown abuse and addiction cycle. For me, the standard drugs never made sense because they play with the mind and I was very cerebral and liked to remain in control. Instead, my drug of choice was caffeine, that magic elixir that somehow staves off most of the "bad behaviour" messages that the mind and body is trying to tell you and instead allows you to work faster and harder than ever before.

What caffeine doesn't tell you is that it is addicting in the purest sense, it is both physically addictive (headaches if you are going through withdrawals) and mentally addictive (that rush that allows you to think faster). I remember making 12 cups of coffee and drinking the entire pot in the morning, all because it has such great effects. Of course, as long as you are on the drug and, more importantly, the drug has effect on your system, you are feeling great. Just make sure that you never are away from it or else you will feel more sluggish and useless than ever before, which pushes you back into the worthless feeling of Phase 9.

I found that kicking the caffeine habit completely and switching to water not only provided me with more energy and clearer thinking, it also helped remove some of the physical effects from both the caffeine and Phase 4 burnout (like arrhythmia).

Phase 11: Depression

Burnout may include depression. In that case, the person is exhausted, hopeless, indifferent, and believe that there is nothing for them in the future. To them, there is no meaning of life. Typical depression symptoms arise.

There's not much to say here other than this is where I was stuck many times. I would often get the point where I felt a hopelessness in life, only really suviving day to day but not actually living. I was never depressed enough to be termed clinical, because the problem actually stemmed from the previous phases that I never wanted to admit were present. This is the problem, and full burnout is in effect.

Let me just say that this is not the way to live, you are just an empty shell at this point and you need to put a stop to it. In all honesty it is going to be one of the hardest phases to get out of because now the mind and body have been pushed to the edge and found a nice, cozy spot to settle in. But somewhere one has to find the energy and purpose to dig out of that rut.

Phase 12: Burnout Syndrome

They collapse physically and emotionally and should seek immediate medical attention. In extreme cases, usually only when depression is involved, suicidal ideation may occur, with it being viewed as an escape from their situation. Only a few people will actually commit suicide.

The way this phase is worded leads me to believe it is composed of two similar, but ultimately different, severities. I guess it depends on which phases one has travelled through before getting here. The former deals with burnout in the most physical sense, via extreme exhaustion. The latter mixes in depression with the exhaustion which adds a psychological aspect.

I have arrived at the extreme exhaustion once before, without any of the depressive symptoms. I was on pager duty 10 for over a month during the launch of a new billing system at TELUS. The component I oversaw dealt with batch processing, jobs which run 24 hours a day. For an entire month I was called day and night, and only really slept about an hour at a time. I tried to push through it and tell myself that this is what comes with the job, to ignore the physical and mental signs my body was throwing at me. Instead I completely ignored them until one day my body took over and I was a mess. I ended up being taken to the hospital with extreme exhaustion 11 and I spent considerable time recuperating at home (without pay; I was on contract and receive no sick leave). Even after several days of recuperation, where I could not even think (just imagine that), I was left much weaker than before – both physically and mentally. I pushed myself too hard, for too long and I learned right then that my body's autonomic functions are much more powerful than my illusion of free will.

The version with exhaustion and depression has also happened to me once. For me it was after I had left UBC (to which the previous article alluded) and felt completely worthless. In my defense I didn't know what was going on and I let it get to the worst point. It was only mitigated by the fact that I chose to reach out and talk to someone, and if you suffer from this too I implore you to do so as well. It is difficult to recall that time because, at the time, I was completely irrational and not thinking clearly, so my memories weren't forming properly (think about the last time you were blind drunk, you only really get snippets of reality, not a well-structured narrative). If you attempt to solve the problem yourself you will likely end up digging deeper into your mind's echo chamber and exacerbating the situation, which is why external help is needed. Even a long, honest talk over beers (in moderation) and good food can help to lift yourself up out of this phase. However, one talk and feeling slightly better doesn't mean the worse is over, it is only through continued treatment that burnout will be fixed 12.

Final Thoughts

All of this talk about signs and symptoms leaves one a bit depressed (colloquially, not clinically). But don't worry because soon I will talk about how I was able to overcome burnout and work to prevent it in the future. This article is only intended to shine a light on a problem which nobody wants to talk about, but many seem to struggle with.

  1. Another way of thinking about the issue is to stand extremely close to a large oil painting, about an inch away, and then explain what is happening in the scene. You are going to notice the individual strokes made by the artist, but you will miss the overall story being told. Sometimes, noticing how two seemingly disparate strokes on a canvas are used together on a canvas tells a greater story than in isolation. 

  2. The ability to teach yourself is, in my opinion, what university's main goal is. Each student that successfully graduates from a university should be an autodidact, but instead universities tend to focus on how it can get you a job or teach you about some piece of knowledge. No, this is wrong. It's job is to teach you to teach yourself. And that, I'm sad to proclaim without any further evidence, is something that is extremely difficult to do. 

  3. Sure, you can practice medicine on yourself without being certified as a doctor, but you will never be able to practice on others. And while software that people create will rarely coincide with people's health if it fails, there's a good chance it can cause other types of harm. 

  4. One particular project required that the site maintain a large amount of concurrent users (somewhere on the order of 15k to 20k). Much of the site was made static or cached, but each call needed to check for the user's profile in a backend system. The worry was that, while our site could handle the concurrent user load, the backend system would buckle. My developer mentioned to me that cookies would solve that problem, not realizing that (a) that is not the purpose of cookes, and (b) that if a cookie could not be set on the first request, each subsequent request would hit the backend system until it could set a cookie, thereby doing nothing to fix the problem. I attempted to explain this to him, but his lack of knowledge about how cookies work in a world where 20k concurrent users is the norm kept him back. 

  5. In extreme cases, which we will get to shortly, your body calls in the debt and forces you to relax by shutting you down. This is called exhaustion and it is definitely not a good thing. Hospitals are typically involved in on way or another.. 

  6. If you want to see an even better example of brain plasticity in action, watch a dog that has lost a leg. At first the dog will not only mourn the loss of their leg but also struggle to walk properly. Eventually the brain reconfigures itself and the dog is able to be happy as well as move almost as well as before the amputation. The brain is amazing stuff, just don't abuse it or it will abuse you. 

  7. You may laugh at this but it is truly the reason I stopped. It is also an interesting facet of the brain that is trying to escape a bad habit, whereby it will try to bring up other facets of your personality to distract you long enough to realize what you are doing. One facet of my personality is that I am incredibly frugal, and that notion helped me put the amount of alcohol I was consuming into context just long enough for me to recognize the problem and stop it. 

  8. You don't want to speak with someone that just nods and accepts everything you say. You want to find someone that is willing to push back and call you on things that you say that are incorrect or leading to destructive thoughts. And that person will become just as frustrated with you are (for different reasons, obviously), but in time the mental block will clear and lead to a better life. 

  9. As a counter-example, think about how amazing it is that a cardiac surgeon can bypass a heart valve or implant a shunt in a major artery. However, if you speak with that surgeon it all seems like a very routine set of steps. 

  10. Pager duty is where you carry a cellphone (in the past it was a pager, hence the name) day and night and respond to any call within a few minutes. There are typically service level agreements (SLAs) about how long you are allowed to wait to answer the phone before it gets escalated to a manager. 

  11. If you want a humbling experience, admit yourself to a hospital with extreme exhaustion. I am a very private person and getting taken to a hospital in an ambulance while breathing into a paper bag is not pretty. But the worst is that doctors diagnose patients by their symptoms, and wwhen you exhibit signs of exhaustion you come across looking to the medical system like you are under the influence of drugs. In my case, my doctor shooed my family out of the hospital room and asked me if I had taken cocaine. I was aghast (because it is completely against my principles) but deeply embarrassed that I would be asked such a thing. 

  12. Ever wonder why, when doctors prescribe antibiotics, they tell you to take the medication for the entire term? It is because the first few days of taking the medication you will feel noticeably better and even have many outward symptoms disappear. However, that was only the weakest of the bacteria and discontinuing use of the medication will only allow the stronger of the bacteria to multiply and reset you to the original state before the antibiotics were introduced. When something, whether it be a bacteria or a thought, takes hold and multiplies, it is a war that is only won after many long-fought battles, not some easy "quick-fix" solution. 

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