In the tech industry, known for high stress and long hours, burnout is a significant problem that often goes unnoticed, making it difficult to address. With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, many developers, especially those with children, have seen increased levels of burnout, which is disastrous for their health and productivity. Overall, burnout is difficult to detect because it's hard to distinguish from merely being tired, and people with a strong work ethic often ignore it while putting their team’s needs first. Fortunately, burnout can be alleviated by better communication, rest, establishing better work-life boundaries, and utilizing available company resources.
This past year I had to deal with my own bout with burnout. If I had known more about it and taken advantage of available resources sooner, it might not have become such a severe situation. This article will discuss how to detect burnout and what to do about it. These ideas are based on my personal experience diagnosing burnout and overcoming it.
What is burnout and why is it hard to detect
Burnout is defined as an extreme state of exhaustion. The World Health Organization (WHO) offers this description:
“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.
Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
Burnout is extremely hard to detect because it feels like a lot of familiar things, namely fatigue and stress. Additionally, highly motivated people who get burnt out often fail to recognize it because they have a strong work ethic, making it hard to acknowledge the problem.
Why the pandemic has increased burnout
Before we jump into the topic, it's important to mention that, while burnout has always been an issue, the COVID-19 pandemic and its necessary restrictions accelerated it for many. Most tech companies switched from going to the office to working remotely, and for parents, this shift was especially difficult, because it meant balancing new hours and childcare responsibilities at the same time.
What are the main causes of burnout
Burnout can often arise from three main factors: not realizing you are experiencing burnout, prioritizing the team, and lack of team awareness. Let's go through each issue and discuss any underlying psychological components.
Denial is often the biggest challenge
For many people who are suffering from burnout the biggest challenge is actually realizing it. Burnout often just feels like normal tiredness, not an unfamiliar feeling at all. Many people may have trouble drawing the line when trying to decide if they are doing too much and need to take a break. This kind of burnout denial is fairly problematic since it allows what starts as a minor problem to get much worse. Psychology tells us that when presented with a challenge like burnout, many people will be inclined to deny they even have a problem rather than start working to overcome it. Because the ability to work at peak productivity can be central to a successful career, many people are unwilling to recognize how it might be affecting their health.
Subscribe for weekly updates
When a strong work ethic gets in the way
The second issue that often arises is that stoicism or a strong work ethic can often lead to burnout. Many people are committed to doing a great job and may become overwhelmed in the process. Because they are driven to succeed they may not let anyone know that they are struggling and in the process get burnt out. Many people are primed to not ask for help or show weakness publicly. Often people will be concerned about the latent effects of an actor observer bias, where people are likely to attribute their own actions to short term environmental factors and others actions to long term dispositional factors. It's reasonable that people will worry that not pulling their weight on the team will make them look bad in front of their peers, when in reality the team would likely empathize with their situation and acknowledge they are working too hard. Because of people’s reluctance to ask for help or publicly admit they need a break, they will choose stoicism instead, which can prevent them from taking the measures that would avert the effects of burnout.
The issue of the lack of communication
Lastly, while it may seem clear to the person who is getting burnt out, without proper communication it's likely that their manager or peers will not respond unless the issue has been raised directly. Many people are inclined to take people at their word and proceed accordingly. Adding the element of remote work makes this even more difficult because managers and colleagues can only interact with you over the phone or on Zoom, where it's easier to keep up appearances. According to psychology, people have two things working against them here. First is a general bias towards the truth, meaning people generally trust what others are saying to them. When someone says something like, “yes, everything is fine, I'm just a little tired,” we instinctively believe them, even if we have doubts that that's actually the case. Additionally, people often fall victim to the idea of transparency. We would assume that our emotions are written on our faces and people close to us should be able to read our facial expressions and body language to know when we are struggling, even if we say otherwise. The reality is that we are not transparent at all, and observing people’s expressions and behaviors is just not a reliable way to learn how they truly feel. Therefore, there is just no easy way to know that intervention is needed without it being asked for.
Tackling burnout with communication, rest, and better boundaries
Like many parents during the pandemic, I suffered from burnout. Here is my story and how I was able to overcome it. All of this started for me when the shelter-in-place orders were put into place. Previously I maintained a good work-life balance where I went to work, dropped off my kid at daycare during the day, and spent plenty of quality time with my family, friends, and improved my fitness at the gym.
That all changed with the shelter-in-place order. My three year old daughter could not attend daycare anymore, forcing me to take on unusual work hours to care for her and help out my pregnant wife as she approached her due date. This situation created all the elements that bring on burnout. Initially I did not notice that I was suffering. I was tired from working long hours and taking care of my household. Working unusual hours, from 7am-12pm and then from 7pm-11pm, meant that I was working all the time, since I also had childcare, household chores and to respond to emergencies or questions during the day. This work schedule meant that even after the workday was finished I would still dream about coding. While I was clearly not giving myself enough time to rest I thought I was just tired from working hard and nothing more.
When things started to intensify I suffered from the other cause of burnout, stoicism. While I was already working a lot, I would still do on-call shifts and take emergency calls outside of my scheduled working hours because I wanted the team to be successful. While I was helping the team there was a high personal cost to constantly taking emergency calls and never really taking a break from work.
The last issue was that, until I told my team, they were unaware of my predicament and thought I was handling all my responsibilities. As the consumer Android app tech lead, I led the team to the successful completion of a full app rewrite, which is a huge endeavour on top of our responsibility to maintain the original app for millions of consumers. While we were focused on delivering this project, entirely remotely, it would not have been easy for my team to realize I was struggling. The team pinging me for emergencies was making my burnout worse, since I never got a real break, but the team did not know I was not in a state to handle these requests because I never brought it up.
How to tackle burnout
Once you realize that you are experiencing burnout, it can be tackled by communicating about it, taking time off, establishing work boundaries, and utilizing all available resources. Let’s dive into each one of these, which I utilized to get over my bout of burnout.
Why communication is key
For anyone dealing with burnout, the first step to overcoming this issue is to be able to talk about it openly, including acknowledging to yourself that you are burning out. In my experience, things only started to get better once I actually acknowledged the problem and talked to my manager and team about it. The fact that I was so stoic and focused on being a team player actually let me down in the end. If I had simply explained to my coworkers not to reach out to me outside of my working hours, or told my manager I was burning out and needed a break, then the team would help me take on some of the tasks I was handling.
Although DoorDash is always keen on executing quickly, our teams practice a lot of empathy and would have understood my situation and been able to help. The missing piece was just that they were not aware of how bad my stress and burnout really were. For example, the moment I had my breaking point the team was totally willing to let me stop doing on-call shifts even if that meant that each of them would need to pick up my slack. The team and my manager realized that I had been pushing too hard for too long and were understanding, not judgemental.
Taking time off is the best way to heal
Another key aspect to getting over burnout is to take the time off you need to recover. When I told my manager that I was suffering from burnout, he did not hesitate to have me follow my doctor's suggestion and take two weeks off. Having two weeks to not think about work and refresh my batteries really helped me through this whole ordeal. Because DoorDash has unlimited PTO, my manager recommended that I prioritize my health, take the time to recover, and not worry about my work goals. The team was happy to accommodate my situation, and when I returned, I was energized and ready to hop back in and make more of an impact.
The importance of establishing a work-life balance
A key element to preventing additional burnout was ensuring that I stuck to my own work schedule and that teammates respected it. Part of what made me suffer from burnout was not separating myself from work. By working long hours outside my typical pre-pandemic work schedule, and responding to pings constantly, I never gave myself the break I needed. It did not help that when working from home there is no physical separation from work, which made it even easier to never turn off and rest.
After taking time off, I committed to maintaining a more manageable work schedule. Rather than just saying I was unavailable, I would turn off all non-emergency notifications, and only check work emails or notifications during working hours. I made sure to push back on items that were out of scope and set expectations with my team, to ensure project plans were realistic and not overwhelming. This enabled me to get all my work done, without taking work home or pushing myself to the limit.
Previously, I had thought that being available all the time was a big asset to the team. In reality, it was better to be more professional, set firm boundaries, and protect my mental health. I was pleasantly surprised that the team totally understood this and was happy to work within the boundaries I had set up.
Taking advantage of other resources
In addition to the strategies above, taking advantage of any available resources will help get through burnout. While I primarily leaned on DoorDash’s unlimited time off policy, I took advantage of other resources that many people don’t realize their company offers.
Utilizing employee resource groups
Considering that some of the biggest contributors to burnout are lack of communication and stoicism with the team, one of the best resources available was to talk to someone else who would understand my situation. Fortunately for me there were a bunch of employee resource groups (called ERGs at DoorDash). I joined the Parents@ ERG, which gave me a safe space to talk to other parents about the struggles I was dealing with. Not only did it help me open up about my burnout but it was also a safe space to discuss other issues where I was not worried about being judged or seeming like I wasn’t being a team player. Ultimately, working with the Parents@ ERG helped me realize I had burnout and ultimately talk to my team and manager about it.
Utilizing other resources
Another benefit I took advantage of was the expanded wellness reimbursement program. Before COVID-19 I had used the gym to unwind, but with all gyms closed losing this outlet made it harder to separate my work life and personal time. Luckily, I was able to take advantage of the expanded wellness program to buy a subscription to an online meditation app, which helped me calm down after stressful days at work.
There were also a number of other potentially helpful resources I did not utilize. For example, I could have taken advantage of DoorDash’s free decompression sessions, which are led remotely by mental health professionals. The lesson here is that while you are burning out, it may seem like you're alone but there are probably resources at your disposal that you can utilize to approach the problem in the best way for you.
The COVID-19 pandemic introduced new stresses into many of our lives, but it's important to note that even as vaccinations increase and reopening occurs, these additional stressors won’t necessarily go away entirely. With DoorDash and others moving to hybrid work models in the months ahead, we will still need to balance these new variables, and can take learnings to better shape the way we work going forward. All of us need to watch for burnout because it's hard for us as individuals, and our teams, to detect. Ultimately, the best way to mitigate burnout for yourself and others is to communicate actively and openly with our teams and managers. Leaning on your support system at work and enforcing your own boundaries will help you maintain a healthier work-life balance, and continue showing up as your best self.