What Doesn’t Kill You Slowly Grinds Away Your Sanity: Psychological Burnout

Often you will hear people say that someone is “burnt out” or “I was really burnt out on [project/team/company].” Casually, this means you are exhausted or temporarily stressed on a team. This often is thought of as a passing condition. Unfortunately, there is a more formal type of burnout called “psychological burnout” or “occupational burnout.” Here I’ll talk about what this is, how it can ruin your life, and how to fix it.

IMG_20181023_092942
Top: this is your brain. Bottom: this is your brain crushed by burnout.

What Is It?

Burnout is a pathologic syndrome in which prolonged occupational stress leads to emotional and physical depletion and ultimately to the development of maladaptive behaviors (e.g., cynicism, depersonalization, hostility, detachment).

https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/nursing-and-health-professions/burnout-psychology

This is a fairly formal definition and doesn’t include a few key points:

  • This type of burnout can last years
  • You may develop long lasting mental health problems such as depression, alcoholism, and eating disorders
  • It can take months or years to recover
  • By the time you notice your “maladaptive behaviors”, it’s already happened to you

You May Have Psychological Burnout If…

We are all different and the signs of this type of condition are different per person too. On top of that, we have such poor mental health support (in North America) that we don’t recognize these problems as repeated exposure to stressful situations. Remember, these “symptoms” are a stress reaction, not a personality trait.

What To Look For:

  • No matter how hard you try to stay optimistic, you can’t see anything going well and you constantly fall into cynicism and criticism at work or elsewhere.
  • You take a lot of breaks at work to get away from work with activities like eating, drinking, or over-exercising.
  • Your week follows a pattern like this: work Monday to Friday, sleep Saturday to Sunday.
  • You become more resentful of people asking you do to things even if they are simple.
  • You start blaming yourself for not working hard enough, not being tough enough, or not being smart enough to overcome the challenges you have at work.
  • You enter a protective combat mode: you are argumentative and defensive about any changes or comments related to your work. When you look back on what caused it, these are usually no attacks on you but you can’t stop yourself from reacting that way.
  • You feel isolated. This can be emotional isolation: no one is there to help you, you need to fix this all on your own, your coworkers or boss don’t have your back. Or physical isolation: you start working from home more, you don’t want to participate in any team activities, you stop responding to emails or chats messages.
  • And much, much more…

The worst part is the slow creep: you won’t notice a big, sudden change. Instead, you’ll find yourself here without knowing how and you’re not sure how to get out.

Causes

When we talk about burn out in the casual sense, it’s usually caused by a tight deadline, late nights, or the frenzied kind of work we associate with “crunch time”. Interestingly, this isn’t the same as what causes psychological burnout.

This is how I sum up the cause of psychological burnout:

You put effort into something and you got no result (or not the one you expected).

Here are some examples of how that shows up:

  • You are asked to write a design or build a feature and just as you are halfway through, it’s cancelled
  • You put up a code review and no one reviews it for days or weeks
  • You prepare a proposal for a new feature, project, initiative, anything and it’s brushed aside by your manager or team
  • You write a masterpiece of an email reporting some fabulous result or finding and no one responds
  • You ask questions or make comments in team meetings and they are ignored

Some other causes you’ll see listed on medical websites call out other things like dysfunctional teams, lack of control, or boredom. To me, these fall into work that’s not getting the result you expect. If you are trying to talk to your team and they don’t respond, that’s effort wasted. If you find out your project was cut because you have no say in your team road map, more effort wasted. I find that any action by the team or company that sends the message of “you did all this work and we don’t care” is hugely damaging. It makes sense that people withdraw, start thinking nothing they do matters, and, of course, “develop maladaptive coping behaviors.”

When It’s Too Late

Too late to me means you’ve gone so far into your emotional hell that you start to see your relationships, productivity, and physical health suffer. “Too late” doesn’t mean you can’t get better, it just means that you will need to make a significant change in your lifestyle to recover from your new and horrible condition. Here are a few examples of what too late looks like:

  • You a few beers after work to get rid of the unhappiness built up during the day
  • You can’t remember the last time you slept well and find yourself self medicating with pot, alcohol, sleep medication or other substances to get to sleep at night
  • You’re are late to work because you can’t get yourself out of bed anymore
  • Your coworkers and managers tell you you’re angry and critical
  • Your friends are telling you to quit or they’re not talking with you as much because they’re tired of your work rants
  • You’ve been to visit your doctor to either get anti-depressants or increase doses
  • You have other minor physical problems building up: regular indigestion, random aches and pains, sprains, headaches, frequent colds or flues

These signs differ for each person. Some choose to drink while others over-exercise. Some will get angry and others consider self-harm. Either way, substance abuse, uncontrolled emotion, mood altering prescriptions, and a decline in personal relationships mean this is now taking over your life and something needs to change.

How To Recover

How did this happen? It’s complicated. A lot of different pieces came together at the same time to create this situation. To solve it, it’s also going to take a lot of different pieces coming together to work to get you better. Here are a few of the bigger things you can do to find your path to recovery:

  • Go to therapist or counselor: this person will help you identify the situations leading to burnout and track your improvement or lack thereof over time
  • See a doctor for mental health evaluation: you may have stress induced depression, anxiety, ulcers, or insomnia that needs medications and management with a physician
  • Take a break: take time off for as long as you can. By taking time off, you will see how unhealthy your life has become and seek better opportunities.
  • Change jobs: consider changing teams, managers, or companies depending on what you learn from introspection and counseling
  • Change careers: many people choose to change careers to escape the damage of burnout. Going back to school, choosing to invest in family, or becoming a travel blogger are common escape routes.

Make sure you do something. If you choose inaction, you’re damaging yourself physically, mentally, and potentially financially (medical bills, being fired).

Finally, find things that counteract the cause of burnout:

Do things that turn your efforts into rewards.

It’s Not That Bad Yet

If you’re reading through these signs and think “I’m putting effort and not seeing results but I’m just frustrated, not a depressed alcoholic” then you’re in luck! You can avoid the worst by getting away from your situation early. When you start to see people ignoring, cancelling, brushing off, or otherwise not returning anything on your effort, evaluate whether or not it’s worth staying where you are. It’s not just about wasting your time, it’s about damaging your motivation and joy in working. You can use mindfulness to identify what is going well and what isn’t to get yourself moving in a better direction.

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