A CTO case study: What happens when you don’t realise you’ve burned out?

CTO Lawrence* reflects on his days as a technical architect and advisor, climbing the career ladder and how he coped when the work became too much and he suffered burnout

That was then

‘I can’t really put my finger on it because there was no real trigger moment. I just remember feeling like I never wanted to code or work with code again. In fact, I didn’t want to even work with people who worked with code. The very idea of getting involved in that kind of thing, made my blood run cold. I needed an out, but I couldn’t, because I was my own boss.

Working in a startup environment, code was everywhere and I’d loved it once upon a time so I didn’t understand why I now felt this way. I’d gone from giving my all, to becoming so withdrawn on some days that everything was a challenge — I had no energy or mental capacity to do anything. On other days, the simplest things would annoy me and even basic requests from colleagues had me feeling combative; I don’t know if they noticed.

Being self-employed, I lacked the support and assistance I needed to help with what I now know to be burnout. But if I’m honest, I never actively asked for help either. I didn’t know where to start and it felt like yet another insurmountable task when at that point, I couldn’t even manage to write a line a of code without exhausting myself.

Feeling constantly sluggish meant my productivity nose-dived and eventually it forced me to cut back on commitments which lead to a period of not working save for some ad hoc consultancy projects. Slowly but surely, I began to feel like I could cope and when an opportunity arose to found a startup in the creative industry, I jumped at the chance. And despite spending most of my time not actually using a computer, I rediscovered a passion for what I did and realised that fun could be had when building things using computers.

This is now

Have I recovered fully? Yes. Will it ever happen again? Hopefully not, but I know that it remains within the realm of possibility if I don’t regularly take a step back and look at the way I’m approaching my work. That going hell-for-leather at a project to ensure delivery and quality at any cost? Not healthy behaviour. And only I can take responsibility and address that. I’m also more organised with where I direct my attention, so I no longer get sucked too far into any one thing. Without fail, I have a designated breathing room wherever I’m working for the day / week, because often it helps to just walk away and get some perspective when things become overwhelming.

The tech world is without a doubt the most progressive, but when it comes to mental health and pastoral care, companies can be somewhat retrograde. Now, I work at multi-national organisation which ensures there’s a lot of support available, although it’s not always obvious. There is however, an onus on managers to recognise when members of their team are struggling which requires someone who knows what they’re doing and what to look out for. Small companies underestimate the importance of an effective HR function and support, assuming it’s not really a problem, or it’ll be obvious if they need to do something.

My experience makes me more attuned as a leader, but there still needs to be some more recognition among senior management as to the prevalence of burnout among technologists, because I believe this problem is not going away anytime soon. Ignoring it for much longer will only lead to devastating consequences for businesses, their products and their teams.

*Details have been changed to protect identity.