“Burnout is self-inflicted”

I experienced burnout several years ago. It took me quite a long time, and thousands of dollars in medical bills, to recover. I will probably be recovering for the rest of my career.

After my burnout, I sought to change careers, thinking the problem was in the industry. That didn’t work out so well, and I ended up back in software development at a company that I will call StartupCorp. StartupCorp liked to think they had the energy of a startup but the presence and stability of a corporation. To be sure, they had large, stable clients, they were the market leader, and had a product that was necessary for their clients to do business in the modern world. This all sounded great walking in the door.

The problem with StartupCorp was that they became corporate, took huge tax incentives to relocate their business halfway across the country, and subsequently laid off all of their developers, support staff, testing department, and product managers, and most of their executive officers. To be fair, they did offer to allow each of those people to relocate with the business — paying their own relocation expenses — but employment in the new location would be at a lower pay grade, because of the cost-of-living adjustment. Naturally, this was not enticing.

Once they got out here, the few people left in the development department hired up from scratch. And from the bottom of the barrel. I, with my 2.5 years of experience, was the most experienced developer (not engineer) they hired. I was desperate for employment, so despite my reservations, I took the job.

The developers I ended up working with had a lazy, haphazard approach to software. Push all code, and the test department will tell you if it’s broken. No need for unit tests. No need for the developers to do acceptance testing. No need to check that new code didn’t break existing functionality.

I spent the bulk of my time at StartupCorp fixing problem my co-workers introduced but did not care to fix. After one particularly difficult sprint, where I had stayed late every day and worked two weekends in a row supporting the testing team, who had to work weekends because the developers couldn’t get their code done in a timely fashion, I noticed the scrum master was treating me with more disdain than he usually showed.

I requested a meeting with him, to ask him about why he had such a negative opinion of me; that is a story for another time. One of the things I finally extracted from him was that he was afraid I was going to burn out. I admitted to feeling a bit exhausted after the last sprint. He said that’s exactly what he meant. I didn’t understand. He told me:

Burnout is self-inflicted.

Of course, my immediate reaction was anger. No, I thought, burnout is caused by unpleasable managers. After some reflection, and some distance from that particular individual, I have come to see the truth in both statements.

Yes, my burnout from my previous job was encouraged by my manager, from which the only feedback I ever received was, “Is it done yet?” Even after I had finished something, there was always the next task that I was already behind on. But in this particular job, at StartupCorp, I had gone down that pathway myself.

My work ethic, my determination to produce a quality product, my high expectations of myself and others, had led me to overworking myself. When my co-workers did not live up to my expectations, I voluntarily took it upon myself to ensure quality — no one had asked that of me. When I saw how bogged down the test team was, how they were unable to do their jobs because the builds were not being deployed on time, how they could not make basic configuration changes to perform their tests, I voluntarily stayed late and on weekends to help them out, to ensure that they didn’t get stuck, and to fix any bugs that were preventing them from being successful — no one had asked that of me.

Because I was working in a company and among people that did not share my values, I was setting myself up for failure. When I looked back at my first job, where I burned out, I realized I set myself up for failure there, too. Sure, my boss was pressuring me constantly, but it was my choice to internalize that pressure and work myself into the ground. In that situation, I was too inexperienced to know that the corporate world does not appreciate you for working “harder” or “more” than they’re paying you for. I thought I knew better, going into StartupCorp, I thought I understood the unrealistic expectations line.

What I didn’t realize is that line is internal as well as external.

As much as it galls me, the scrum master at StartupCorp did end up teaching me something important. Sometimes I am my own worst enemy; sometimes it is my own expectations that drive me toward burnout. Although burnout is helped along by external factors, I always have a choice to accept or reject the pressure. And if I can’t reconcile my expectations and the company’s, if I can’t relieve the pressure, I can always get out.

So that’s what I did.