Part 0: Defining Burnout
“What do you do to keep your soul from getting a thick callus on it?” — Stephen Colbert, to Trevor Noah
One of the questions I often receive as an engineer and manager is “how do you deal with burnout?” The question comes almost rhetorically from people on tangential teams as a desperate last measure, because asking me feels safer than asking anyone closer.
The good news is that there are things we can do to both address and prevent burnout. Where we go wrong is a failure to recognize that burnout comes in many different flavors, each of which necessitates its own solution. Simply recommending time off as the blanket panacea is a lazy answer that does not give these very personal journeys the personalized attention they demand. It only perpetuates “burnout” as a generic term applied to a broad category of poorly-understood issues exhibiting similar symptoms.
Firstly, it’s important to recognize whether the challenges exist on an individual versus systemic level. Systemic issues require higher-level recognition and intervention. This article attempts to address issues and recommend actions on a level an individual can affect.
Secondly, I’m a big believer that a proper diagnosis is critical to applying a proper remedy. So let’s try defining a few slices of burnout at the individual level.
There are too many things. Everything is important.
This is the most common and well-understood type of burnout. For you, it is too easy to take on more without ever prioritizing or delegating.
You feel like you’re simply spinning in circles.
You’re doing a lot of things, but they must not be the right things. Or you just don’t have the scope, alignment, influence, resourcing, commitments, or whatever to achieve your goals.
From individual promotions to cross-organization deliverables and pitching for funding, this occurs when the box is so black and the path to success is so hazy that relentless hard work only builds frustration.
You maintain a constant pulse on the ever-evolving nuances of a team. You care about every individual, can’t help but work to address the critical issues for and between people, and generally anticipate and solve issues before they happen.
Taken to an extreme, you live every problem as your own, letting them grow rampant into a cancer on your mind.
Gaslighting. Harassment. Undermining. Sometimes there are just garbage humans.
With the potential to mutate into a form that drives people to question their own competency, toxicity can create one of the worst forms of burnout.
I don’t know if these are the right slices, but I do know that perfection is less important here than starting the conversation. Here’s to mining some of my past mistakes for things I could’ve done better for myself and others.
My hope is to start peeling apart different types of burnout, dive deeply into a few, aim towards a better understanding of the topic as a whole, and — hopefully — save a few souls from getting too callused.
Part 1: Overload Burnout
There are too many things. Everything is important.
Some signs that you may be headed into Overload Burnout:
- You’re doing the design, coding, testing, deployment, and customer support when there are whole teams of people dedicated to each of these individual functions
- You live by the notifications on your mobile device
- You find yourself still doing actual work in your head while showering
- You receive an average of >5 emails per minute
- You write a mobile app to automatically manage your emails
This is the most common and well-understood category of burnout. Things are generally working, but there are simply too many competing demands on your time. You’re making it too easy to take on more without ever prioritizing or delegating.
Learn to Renew Objectivity
These situations require the ability to prioritize and to know what to say no to in order to remain sustainable. Distilling clarity is a skill and maintaining that skill is key. Ensure you’ve got basic life maintenance down (e.g. sleeping and eating properly). Then find something that helps you renew objectivity on a regular basis.
Renewing objectivity is all about creating enough mental space to be objective again. It’s best to find multiple activities that work on different cadences. For me, exercise is my micro renewal activity, and vacation is my macro renewal activity.
A micro renewal activity should be an easy weekly hour or short daily practice of complete mental or physical focus that dictates letting go. If you’ve got a meditation practice, great. For the rest of us that find meditation absolutely maddening, anything from extreme sports or metabolic workouts to painting or ceramics can work. Just find that easy thing you can commit to which demands full focus, literally leaving no space for the mind to wander.
What’s key of a macro renewal activity is something which removes you completely from regular input and provides far more space and time for reflection. For me, that is international travel. For you, it may be taking a break with family, backpacking, a surfing trip, baking school, or something entirely different. Recognize that different things work for different people. Whatever you do, the goal is to separate well enough to bring back enough objectivity that you can 1) crisply recognize what’s actually important and 2) extrapolate higher-order solutions to address root cause instead of symptoms.
Renewing objectivity is a bit like weeding a garden — do it on a regular cadence and you’ll maintain sanity; delay it to once a year and it grows insurmountable. Make sure you’re weeding regularly.
An Extra Note for Leads
To protect yourself and your team from Overload Burnout, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of prioritization and delegation.
As a lead, you could be doing any one of a thousand different things at any given moment — it is critical that you’ve chosen the right things. People often struggle with the transition from an individual contributor to a lead by failing to recognize that what made them successful in the past is not necessarily what will make them successful in their new role.
It is now your job to distill clarity for others. Your work should optimize for this result. Delegate or de-prioritize all the other things. Embrace this realization and master the skills required. Then teach the individuals on your team to do the same such that they can avoid burnout and rise beyond the occasion.
Part 2: Futility Burnout
Alignment. Resourcing. Politics. False Promises.
You feel like you’re just spinning in circles. You’re doing a lot of things but they either aren’t the right things or you just don’t have the scope, alignment, influence, resourcing, commitments, or whatever to achieve it. This is a broad category which is simultaneously the least-understood and the one which carries the greatest range of meanings to different people.
From individual promotions to cross-organization deliverables, this occurs when the box is so black and the path to success is so hazy that relentless hard work only builds frustration.
Signs that you may be on the road to Futility Burnout:
- You have no idea what’s required to grow your career
- Incentives and values are not aligned — what people need to do to get ahead diverges completely from the mission statement and published values
- Every day is a new damn day — the promises people made to you yesterday are no longer valid today, because today is a new day!
- You think you’re on the road to Overload Burnout, but your thing that renews objectivity is no longer working
- What’s right for your team vs. your department vs. your company are increasingly mutually exclusive
Futility Burnout sucks because the harder you work at it, the worse it grows. This is often because we’re simply throwing compounded effort into the wrong solution.
The added danger to Futility Burnout is its power to masquerade as other types of burnout, particularly Overload Burnout. Applying solutions that work for other types of burnout simply makes things feel more futile.
Whittled to its essence, the true questions you need answers to are: 1) Are we really working on the right things? and 2) What else do we need in order to make this happen while it still matters? If you don’t know the answers to these two questions, you must at least know the next steps to find them. If you don’t know the next steps, why are you still doing what you’re doing?
The remedy is about de-black-boxing things and gaining the right resources, timeline, and commitments to deliver as promised. This can be as easy as correcting a nuanced misunderstanding or as complex as building a shared understanding across multiple roles and teams.
Ensure that you’re asking the constructive questions to build confidence that you’re working on the right things. Ensure that you are aligned with your manager, and that you trust them to find the same alignment up the chain. Ensure you have the right mentors for guidance. You’ll know you have the right ones if they are able to demystify things enough that you can set your frustrations aside and see the light at the end of the tunnel.
It seems that this type of burnout tends to sneak up on people. If you’re starting to feel that little progress is being made despite intense dedication, it’s best to stop and find the right help. You may be looking at a systemic issue requiring intervention at a higher level.
An Extra Note for Leads
Alignment seems to be one of those things where entropy reigns supreme — even if you have it today, you must actively adapt to keep it.
Choose to be a shit umbrella. Make sure you’re managing away all the things that cause unnecessary diversions — all the fruitless discussions, broken promises, and general sausage factory crap. On top of that, ensure priorities are aligned so that your team can focus on doing their jobs. Ensure that you, your manager, your manager’s manager, etc are on the same page. Also ensure that you’re communicating to your team to avoid surprises without eliciting worry.
Choose not to be a shit funnel. All of this is tough work. But do not complain about what you’re dealing with to your team. That’s what your manager and peers are for — to help you parse signal from noise and to work together to keep things moving. Note that avoiding the shit funnel does not mean you keep everything that’s hypothetical a secret. Give your team quick standup updates highlighting in-progress conversations, with notes on which ones you expect to go away versus which ones may become real if there’s a good reason. Keep these updates light enough such that they’re never distracting, but regular enough such that the team has insight into the world around them and trust that nothing will be a surprise.
Part 3: Empathy Burnout
I’ve had the pleasure of working with a few truly empathetic people who maintain a constant pulse on the ever-evolving nuances of a team.
You care about every individual, can’t help but work to address the critical issues for and between people, and generally anticipate and solve issues before they happen. This is a double-edged sword. Taken to the extreme, you live every problem as your own and take it upon yourself to solve all major issues.
Avoid the Mind Cancer
True empathy is a critical skill. But it’s important to recognize the weight of emotional labor it often demands. If you are one of these people, it is critical that 1) you realize that this is you and 2) you do not absorb everyone else’s problems so strongly that they become a cancer on your mind.
For you empaths, I leave the infuriating gift of the Serenity Prayer:
…grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference….
Aside from a commitment from you to hone this skill, you will benefit from having people around you with the authority and insight to help you hone said skill.
By its very nature, most people who experience empathy burnout don’t realize this is happening until a close peer or mentor points it out. Ensure that you’re surrounded by good people, especially strong mentors and managers who will naturally recognize this quality in you, help you separate the things you can change from the things you cannot, and channel your awareness productively for the benefit of the larger team.
An Extra Note for Leads
If you have one of these empaths on your team, congratulations. Guided wisely, these individuals are excellent canaries. Set up frequent 1:1s with multiple goals: 1) to get a true pulse of the team, 2) to free them from unnecessary responsibility, and 3) to refocus their minds on the right priorities.
Shitty leads will ignore or remove good canaries. Ok leads will listen, nod, and move on. Great leads will separate signal from noise, assume responsibility for addressing critical personnel issues before they happen, and de-escalate non-issues. Brilliant leads will teach the canaries these skills.
Part 4: Toxicity Burnout
Sometimes there are just garbage humans. Luckily it’s only unbearable if it’s both constant and comes from a source critical to your success.
Signs of toxicity:
- Undue claims of credit
- Working in isolation — there’s that one lone ranger going off destroying everything while the rest of you are just a small army cleaning up after them
- Gaslighting — people tell you that things did not happen as you experienced it, but your journal of factual-things-that-definitely-did-happen reminds you otherwise
With the potential to take on a form that drives people to question their own competency, toxicity can create one of the worst forms of burnout.
Toxic peers is not something you fix yourself — it’s something you escalate. And if it’s not fixable, figure out how to leave. I realize that having the ability to leave a toxic job is a luxury, but recognize that it’s achievable should you put your mind to it. Very little is worth sacrificing your self-worth. There are better places. Know that toxic peers are not your responsibility. Who we work with is arguably more important than the work we’re actually doing. Projects come and go — the people are what matter in so many ways.
An Extra Note for Leads
Stop coddling toxic people. I’m not talking about the obvious assholes that are impossible to work with. Those fire hoses are not the ones that cause long-term damage. It’s the subtle assholes — the ones who gaslight, the ones that cause others to question reality and their own competence — that are subversively damaging.
Recognize that toxicity is a spectrum and that identifying it is often half the challenge. Subtle assholes manage up well, hide well, and are easy to explain as well-intentioned. If you are a manager or anyone in a position of power, almost no one will tell you about these people directly. But you will know. Don’t ignore that knowing. If you are a lead, it is absolutely your responsibility to find, then fix or fire toxic people.
Note that leads have a tendency to assume that all their people are good people and an extension of themselves. Leads too often act as if they are the directly accused. If you are a lead, be aware of these biases and resist the urge to act defensively when someone on your team does something truly wrong. Assess objectively. Seek aid if you cannot be objective.
Above all else, do not become an unwitting asshole enabler. I cannot emphasize this enough so allow me be more specific. The goal is not to create more efficient assholes by teaching them what they can get away with and how to mask their true intentions. The goal is to fix the problem. Recognize that once a wrong has been committed, the actions you take — or fail to take — to rectify that wrong often have arguably more impact than the wrong itself.
This writing is not intended as a complete thesis. I simply believe that peeling apart a few specifics from the blanket term of “burnout” is a good a starting point to peeling apart the blanket term and taking action.
So if you remember nothing else from this ramble, here are some takeaways:
- Burnout comes in different flavors. Determine which ones are impacting you.
- Weed your mind garden. Learn how to renew objectivity so that you can prioritize quickly and say no to the right things.
- De-black-box it. Seek mentorship and clarity. If even simple next steps are not obtainable, you may have a systemic issue.
- Avoid the mind cancer. Do not absorb everyone else’s problems so strongly that they become a cancer on your mind.
- Escalate toxicity. If it’s still not fixable, leave.