Reflections on Burnout
Burnout doesn’t happen overnight — it happens brick by brick, one decision after another
I can remember the exact moment that I realized the gravity of it. A coworker had sent me a link to an article from the Mayo Clinic on Slack. I skimmed the article until I reached a section called “Job burnout symptoms”, which included a bulleted list of questions to help you diagnose whether you were suffering from job burnout. I slowed down to read the list.
Have you become cynical or critical at work?
Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?
Do you lack satisfaction from your achievements?
With each question that I read, my heart sank a little further into my stomach.
Do you feel disillusioned about your job?
Are you using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel?
Have your sleep habits changed?
I checked Slack again to see that my coworker had followed up with a second message.
“I don’t mean to scare you, but this is pretty serious stuff,” he had written.
Burnout doesn’t happen overnight — it happens brick by brick, one decision after another, until you suddenly realize that you have built a massive cage around yourself and you don’t quite know if there is a way out.
For me, that moment of realization came in the middle of the night, hours after reading that message on Slack. I laid awake, staring at the ceiling, thinking about that Mayo Clinic article. I kept replaying the list of questions in my head, realizing that I had answered “yes” to each and every one of them. I cycled through the medical consequences of burnout: fatigue, insomnia, heart disease, irritability, high blood pressure. Perhaps it was seeing the side effects of burnout listed out so matter-of-factly and in a medical context that finally made it hit home for me. Perhaps that sinking feeling in my stomach was because I knew it was true.
Trying to push through
When I first started a new remote role at a startup in January of 2020, I was excited and hopeful. It seemed like I was going to finally have the opportunities for growth that I had been looking for, and I had a good feeling about the team and the ambitious product that we were all working together to build. Given that we were already remote, our work culture didn’t shift nearly as much as some other companies did when the pandemic hit in March.
As the year and the pandemic wore on — and as the company grew in size — I kept focusing on my growth as an engineering leader, while also trying to smooth over pain points in the company as I encountered them. I advocated for a written parental leave policy, pushed for clear leveling and career laddering, and was a proponent for salary transparency across the company. I saw a future for myself at this company, and I was invested in trying to tangibly make things better — not only for my future self, but for the people around me, too. I wanted to help build a company that I would want to work for many years down the road.
By December, I had been promoted from senior engineer to lead product engineer, and with it, was given more management and leadership responsibilities. I knew that I had worked hard throughout the year to earn that position and wanted to prove that I could not only succeed at the lead role but had the talent and potential to climb so much higher than that, too. Coinciding with my title change came a significant organizational restructuring — one that revealed some more pain points in our processes and structure. So I decided to try and help fix it.
I poured so much energy and time into championing a new product development process to help improve our workflow. I worked with leaders across the company in order to help our processes scale with our company’s size. I wrote plenty of proposals, joined who knows how many Zoom meetings, and tried to be a good (new!) manager at the same time. I felt like I was carrying a stack of books, and with each week and every newly-encountered problem, more and more weight was being added to my pile. The pile kept on growing, and I kept thinking on that it was okay for it to grow, that I could handle it.
I just need to get through this month, I would tell myself. Then, this will all calm down and get better.
With each passing week, I wrote less code and floated further away from engineering. I started taking on more product and leadership responsibilities.
I just need to get through these next two weeks, then it’ll get better.
By March, my job had evolved to the point where the very little time I had for coding all but completely disappeared. I felt an immense responsibility to my reports and the new process that I had worked so hard to put into place. Anytime someone needed help or needed to be unblocked with the new process, I found myself putting in extra hours, even when I had ostensibly worked “enough” for a day. I was doing more product work — which often felt invisible or unrecognized — and very little engineering work. Yet I still had “engineer” in my title, so every week that I didn’t write any code, I felt immensely guilty for not doing my fair share of engineering work, despite averaging 50–60 hour workweeks. I kept on picking up the tasks that I could see needed doing and weren’t getting done by anyone.
I just need to get through this week, then it’ll be better.
It didn’t get better.
Becoming cynical, jaded, and deeply unhappy
Over four months, my emotional, physical, and mental state steadily deteriorated. I ended my days feeling exhausted and completely drained. My partner told me that I was coming up the stairs after work every day “with my head in my hands”, and urged me to think about why I was putting myself through so much when it was clear how miserable I was.
I was too tired to do anything in the mornings or evenings. I reached for a drink after work more often than I’d care to admit. My back, neck, head, and eyes throbbed with pain. I was chronically stressed all the time. I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about work, I would dream about work, and I was completely all-consumed by it. The anxiety surrounding my job even triggered my first ever flare up of eczema, an autoimmune skin condition that often reveals itself when your body creates an excess amount of cortisol as a side effect of emotional stress. I dreaded Sundays, because it meant that I had to return to work the next day. Three day weekends no longer felt refreshing. And a full year of pandemic life certainly didn’t help with any of this, either.
I could feel that something was wrong — my body was manifesting this reality as a fact — but I kept trying, kept insisting to myself that I try to push through. I didn’t listen to my body, nor did I listen to loved ones around me telling me that they could see how unhappy, frustrated, and exhausted I was.
I’ve worked hard before, I can work through this too, I tried to convince myself.
By the time April rolled around, I had started to lose faith that I would ever be able to keep up with the work or do enough to help make the company successful. I was becoming cynical, jaded, and deeply unhappy. I started questioning why I was doing what I was doing, and whether there was even any point to any of it. I was disillusioned, and wondered why I had joined the company in the first place. My conversations with coworkers were increasingly negative, and I felt sad about the state of the company, my role in it, and any potential future I might have there. The excited, hopeful person had devolved into a negative—and likely somewhat depressed—person who constantly felt ineffective and hopeless.
A pivotal shift
A few days after reading the Mayo Clinic article, I decided to try quantifying the work I was actually doing to see if it matched (or at the very least could explain) why I felt the way that I did. I wrote down every single type of task I did at work, and grouped each of those tasks by topic — product work, engineering work, leadership and management work. I created a document called “What Vaidehi Does”, which detailed all the work I had been doing over the quarter, breaking down how I spent my time, and categorizing it into the different types of roles I had been inhabiting. I also copied my job description into the document. Once I read through that document and saw the tangible, empirical evidence of what I did every day side by side with what I had originally signed on to do, I finally felt justified in my exhaustion. Seeing it written down made it feel real. I could see just how much energy I had poured into my job, and how much of that had been out of scope for my role. I had been doing far more than I should have been. I had been giving far more than what I needed to give.
I sent that document to my manager, explaining that I was burning out with my workload, unclear job expectations, and lack of support; it took nearly three weeks for us to have a proper conversation about that document and the situation around it. During those three weeks, I experienced a major emotional shift: I realized that if I hadn’t created that document as an exercise for myself, nothing would have changed. I would have gone on doing all of this extra work at no cost to the company but at a great—perhaps even incalculable—cost to myself. It dawned on me that only I could draw the lines around what I was or wasn’t willing to give to my work. I started to realize that I ought to have created those boundaries much earlier.
At the same time, I made a conscious choice to drop down to only 40 hours a week. While I did my best to unblock my coworkers and manage my reports during that time, but I was (intentionally) no longer doing all of the things that I had listed out in my document. If something didn’t get done, I accepted that it simply was not going to get done—and that was okay.
Eventually, my manager and I finally did have a conversation about my workload and decided that I would drop my product responsibilities altogether. I went back to only doing engineering and management work. I let go of worrying or thinking about all the tasks in my “What Vaidehi Does” document that weren’t being picked up by me—or anyone else—anymore. By this point, I had lost any motivation and energy I had previously; the only thing I wanted was to feel good and productive about my work again.
Unfortunately, all of these changes came too late. Even after the shift in my role, I found it extremely hard to care about work at all. I was emotionally hardened to everything that had happened. Despite reducing the scope of my role and trying to be “just” an engineer and manager at the company, I didn’t feel proud of my work or positive about the impact I could make there. To some extent, I think that the burnout that I tried to push through irreversibly shaped my perspective of my role, and even after restructuring my position in the company, there was simply no undoing it.
I left the company in May.
I was very, very fortunate to be in a financial situation where I was able to take a long period of time off after quitting my job. I intended to take at least three months off to recuperate and interview for my next role, but I ended up giving myself four months between my previous job and my upcoming new one. I am very grateful to have been in this position; there are so many people who burn out far worse than I did who are never afforded this privilege.
I have been lucky to be able to rest and relax a decent amount during this in-between sabbatical, and have spent a large portion of that time reflecting. I took lots of long hikes, sat outside in the sun, went on long drives, and started to reinstate my abandoned meditation practice. Suffice to say, I had a lot of time to think about how and why I burned out.
Reflecting back on it now, I realize that no one ever asked me to work as hard as I did. No one ever explicitly told me that I wasn’t doing enough work. In fact, a few colleagues in the company actively reached out to me to tell me that they saw how hard I was working and how much I had on my plate.
To be honest, I am still not sure why, exactly, I pushed myself so hard.
Perhaps I subconsciously believed that if I could prove I could handle leading a new process while also managing other engineers, I would be promoted to a more empowering position that would actually give me autonomy. Perhaps, deep down, I believed that I had been entrusted with a lead role, and it was up to me to step up to the plate and prove that I could, well, lead. Perhaps I had one too many chips on my shoulder about proving that I belonged and deserved to be in the field to begin with. I almost certainly had some internalized white supremacy and capitalism at play here too, which subversively convinced me that I needed to just work a little bit harder to prove myself, and then I would be listened to and heard and valued. I suspect that it was a combination of all of these things, and likely some other deeply-held beliefs within my psyche that I haven’t quite dug up yet—I’m working on it though!
As I’ve thought about my own burnout and how I can learn and grow from it, I’ve realized how much of a part I played in it. Yes, there were certainly mistakes and shortcomings within my previous company and its management and yes, there were plenty of issues within the organization and structure that contributed to my burnout (not to mention a global pandemic that likely accelerated it). But if you’re wondering why I’ve left out names or identifying information from this piece, you should know that I did so consciously; I realize now that I could have just as easily burnt out at another company, with another manager, on a different team.
Every company has its problems. And although we can all work together to help push a company in the right direction, I’m not sure that any one individual can fix every single one of those problems on their own. But what we as individuals do have power over is our mindset, and how we approach and handle difficult situations. When I think about my own burnout, I see it much differently than I did when I was in the thick of it. I can see now that I was the one who chose to push myself so hard; I was the one who cared so deeply and felt the need to run myself ragged in order to prove myself to leadership. And now that I’m beginning to understand why I did that, I have deep compassion for the past version of myself who experienced the fallout of those choices.
Lessons and learnings
My burnout spanned the course of five months, and I have taken four months off to recover. While that time off has certainly helped me begin to pick up the pieces of my own burnout, I still don’t quite feel like the person I was before it. I’ve undergone a paradigm shift — one that has forced me to realign my philosophies on work, time, and self-worth.
I still, of course, want to do a good job and be a great coworker and leader on my soon-to-be new team. But I’m determined not to ever put myself in the position of burning the candle at both ends again. Even though I raised flags to my manager and leadership about my burnout at my previous job, I could have raised them louder and earlier; I realize now that I also could have taken less onto my plate, even if that meant that the company might have to suffer as a result.
I know now how crucial it is for me to say no when I know I need to say no, and in the future, I will draw boundaries early and often. Going forward, I plan to do a much better job of respecting my own time, body, mind, and soul, and I hope that future employers will see the immense value that this level of self-respect can bring to a team. I have learned that the onus is on me to protect and care for myself—I don’t believe that any company will ever really do that for me.
I’ve also realized how important it is to listen to your own body, and how harmful it can be to try and push through the suffering. I am still dealing with the ramifications of not listening to my body’s alarm bells earlier, and I am not sure how much time I will need to fully heal and recover—or if I ever can.
Burnout can be hard to quantify and talk about because it manifests so differently for everyone. For some folks, it stems from the organizational culture or workload. For others, it can be the nature or intensity of the work itself, or the team dynamics. Burnout appears in different shapes and sizes, and sometimes—if it’s caught early enough and addressed effectively—it can even be mitigated. But in more severe scenarios, the best (and maybe only) solution is to leave the workplace that was contributing to and causing your burnout. If you have the financial means to quit your job and take an extended period of time off, do it!
But even if you do leave your job, I strongly encourage you to take the time to investigate and introspect on what factors lead to your burnout, and which of those you might have had control over. Sometimes, quitting a job and moving to a different organization can be enough to fix your burnout; it’s also quite possible that there is something else lurking under the surface, and that thing will follow you from job to job unless you actively take the time to untangle yourself from it.
No matter what kind of burnout you’re dealing with, I hope you won’t leave it unchecked. Ultimately, a job is just that: a job. Your health and happiness, however, is much more precious. You can’t put a price on it. No job is worth sacrificing your health. No promotion, title, raise, project, or deadline is worth putting yourself through the wringer, particularly when you consider the long-term health impacts of prolonged, chronic burnout.
If you see someone you know suffering from burnout, I hope you’ll do for them what my coworker did for me by sending along that Mayo Clinic article; be kind, be compassionate, and try to hold up a mirror to show them what’s happening. We all need a little help sometimes.
As for me, I’m still working on untangling myself from the internalized beliefs and attitudes that got me here to begin with. I have accepted that I have been irrevocably changed by my burnout. And while I’m still trying to deconstruct it—brick by brick, one decision after another—I can see myself making steady progress at unlearning these beliefs. I’m a much different person that I was before my burnout. This person is much happier and grounded. She’s heading into this next chapter with a renewed sense of self-worth, self-respect, and of course, plenty of healthy boundaries.
If you or someone you know might be suffering from burnout, I recommend referencing this Mayo Clinic article and utilizing this burnout self-test to better understand if the symptoms you are experiencing match those of burnout. You can read more about my own thoughts on burnout in this article and on this podcast episode.