Tales From The Git Keeper: Ain’t No Rest For The Overworked

When we are navigating through life, we often hear about the importance of boundaries. Boundaries come in different forms: ownership, intimacy, and work/life balance. Here is one of several cases where my work/life boundaries were crossed in the course of my employment.

Background

I was on a team as a sort of floating engineer working on some architectural designs rather than specific features or operations. My manager requested my help on an urgent project for 2 weeks and assured me it would bump me up the list for promotion, something I’d been working toward for the past 6 months. The catch was having to put aside some of the architecture work but I thought it would be a nice addition to my highlight reel.

In another part of my life, a close friend was going to be married 3 weeks from the day I was asked to help on this project. I had accepted the invitation and booked my flights several months prior as well as sending out the usual out of office calendar notices.

Incident

They didn’t warn me that I’d be working with someone who didn’t know the system. Instead of 2 weeks, it was 2 weeks of me working and 1 week of me undoing the mistakes of my coworker. As the deadline neared, I had increasingly detailed documentation of the remaining work and release plan so someone else could pick it up. I lived under the assumption that work would bend to my vacation plans, not the other way around. Until this conversation:

Project Manager: Hey, so is this going to be done by tomorrow?

Me: That’s not up to me. I have all the changes lined up and the validation scripts ready but I can’t make anything else go faster.

Project Manager: And you’re going on vacation?

Me: Yes…

Project Manager: Too bad we can’t cancel that, huh?

Me: No, my friend is getting married so it’s immovable.

Project Manager: Ah… well, let’s see what happens tomorrow.

My manager had been coaching me on not being so angry at work (gee, I wonder why that kept happening) and I knew if I indicated any emotional response to this, I’d be getting a stern talking to (this manager was a jerk). So, on the outside I just vaguely smiled and went back to work but on the inside I was calling this shithead all kinds of names and preparing to quit if they tried to make me stay.

I did go on my vacation and I did meet my deadline.

Aftermath

You might want to know what happened to the project, the promotion, and the project manager. Here’re the answers:

  • The project manager was fired for incompetence.
  • When I returned from vacation, the project was delayed and didn’t need me to work like crazy, under threat of losing vacation beforehand.
  • 4 months later my manager informed me that my work to this project “didn’t count” towards my promotion. He remains a jerk to this day, or so I’ve heard.
  • The walking incident of a coworker had been ejected from the team. It turns out he wasn’t only ignorant of the system but of how to do anything.
  • The only part of the project that worked without completely destroying all other integration points was the piece I implemented. It’s not because I’m a superstar developer. It’s because the team was all new randomly hired people except for me and one other guy. They had no chance.
  • My documentation was passed along and worshiped as the only documentation for the entire project that described how to validate anything.

What Did I Learn

  • Shit rolls downhill: Despite my intense irritation with the project manager, I saw he was under a lot of strain to get this project done. He was being asked to make a lot of personal sacrifices to make this thing happen. So when he implied that I would need to make sacrifices too, I wasn’t surprised but I didn’t think he’d cross that line.
  • Never trust your manager when his ass is on the line: Until the sudden foray into the project, I didn’t know anything about it. After getting back from vacation, I gained more context on what was happening. Apparently, there was this political battle between two directors and one of them was mine, trying to make a point about the effectiveness of his team. I got pulled in, not because it would benefit my career, but because it would benefit his.
  • The real deadline is when everyone else is ready: I had accepted the deadline given to me because I didn’t know anything about the project when I was enlisted. What I found out later showed me there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that any other team was going to be ready by the deadline. The fact that my work made my team ready was just an excuse for the asshat director to throw shit on other teams. It didn’t matter that I did the work, did it well, and did it on time.
  • A pattern emerges: Now that I had a history of Hail Mary passes, guess who came knocking at my non-existent, open-space door at the next crisis? That’s right, asshat director. So I started saying ‘no’. And then I changed teams. And then I quit the company. Sometimes my old coworkers tell me he says he’ll hire me back anytime. I hope he’s not holding his breath.

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.