NOTES ON DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION
Overcoming Burnout at Work
by Marianne Kay
I am easily excited and easily bored. I can achieve extraordinary results when working on something I’m passionate about. However, the intensity of effort that I put into it wears me out, so my success is inevitably followed by a period of feeling deflated, tired, and lost. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with having good days and bad days and for productivity to fluctuate. The problem is, in corporate jobs, this pattern is rather inconvenient, because companies have their own highs and lows—and they are not always in sync with mine. When work demands are high, I don’t want to be exhausted from a recent burst in creativity—I want to be on top of my game. For this reason, I’m generally aiming to use 80% of my energy most of the time, reserving my top performance only for those times when there is a critical need for it. I structure my workload in a way that provides a good mix of challenging tasks and business-as-usual tasks so that it’s not too overwhelming, and I also schedule time for reflection and professional growth.
I adopted this technique from tennis, where the world’s top players come onto the court steady and calm. They play at their “good enough” level and only up their game for the critical points in the match. It’s scoring the important points, not all points, that really wins the game. If you go all out, all of the time, you may be too tired to play well when it matters the most. Does this strategy help keep me from getting burnt out at work? Yes, I think it does, but not always. Burnout still creeps up on me when I’m most vulnerable. It can overtake my ability to perform when I least expect it—sometimes, even without me noticing.
SIGNS OF BURNOUT
Current rates of burnout in tech are worryingly high. In February 2023, U.S. think tank Future Forum released a study finding that more than 40% of workers worldwide reported burnout. Another study, by Yerbo in 2022, states that 42% of IT workers who have a high risk of burnout are considering quitting their company in the next 6 months. It can be hard to recognize burnout for what it is, because at the early stages, it feels so confusing. Simple tasks become complicated, important commitments get forgotten, and hard work doesn’t pay off. There’s this feeling of being stuck in a hamster wheel—being constantly busy and permanently exhausted, but not really getting anywhere.
My initial (rather unhelpful) response to feeling overwhelmed is to work harder, to question my own ability, and to prove to myself and others that I can handle it—that I’m a tough cookie. However, over time, symptoms become more troublesome. Longer working hours, restless sleep, and poor diet lead to exhaustion. At some point, my friends and family start noticing how irritable I am. Something needs to change, but by this moment, my self-doubt is so crippling that the prospect of making the first step toward recovery fills me with dread. Still, if I recognize it, I’m halfway there in terms of dealing with it. That’s a good thing. If you’d like to assess your own situation, take a look at the Burnout Index by Yerbo (see the sidebar on this page for the link).
CAUSES OF BURNOUT
In order to effectively deal with burnout, we need to understand why it’s happening. Is too much work the issue? When my calendar gets so full that I’m left with no breaks, I know I’m overcommitting. However, not enough work can cause burnout too, because of the uncertainty it brings. Some other possible reasons are a chaotic environment, a toxic colleague, a lack of clarity, or relentless change. Personal challenges can contribute to burnout as well; for example, the invasion of Ukraine, my home country, is at the back of my mind every day, working hours or not.
And still, this is not the full story. There’s more to burnout than external circumstances making our lives difficult. Some people go from one burnout to another in no time, and even switching jobs doesn’t break this pattern. Why? The reason, at least in part, comes from within. Burnout can and does take root in our own beliefs. Fear of failure, being afraid of letting others down, a desire to be agreeable, and perfectionism are all examples of unhelpful beliefs that can create impossibly high standards. In this sense, people are their own worst enemy. Rewiring beliefs is hard, because they stem from how we were raised and are backed by years of unhelpful patterns, but it can be done.
HOW TO RECHARGE
“If you are tired, learn to rest, not to quit.” This quote (often attributed to the artist Banksy) is an important reminder that rest is possible. We need to reclaim lunch breaks, quality time with friends, restful sleep, and anything else that burnout steals away from us.
If you think about your free time as something that you want to use at least as effectively as your working time, what goals would you set? What appointments would you make with yourself and others? What people, projects, and hobbies are the most important? Where do you want to be in 3, 5, and 10 years in your personal life? Prioritizing personal time is essential.
Reversing the effects of burnout may take time, so it’s helpful to think about recovery as a step-by-step process: Reflect on and review your workload, say no to long hours and other unreasonable demands, take breaks, get quality sleep, exercise, and eat well. Improvement in any one of these areas will start a snowball effect that will eventually make everything else easier too. Some companies have introduced recharge days and recharge weeks to prevent burnout. These are working days with reduced meetings and email traffic that allow employees to destress without having to come back to a mountain of messages afterward.
The risk of burnout for tech workers is high. To prevent it, it is important to have clear boundaries and learn how to say no. In addition, if you think you’re prone to repeatedly experiencing burnout, ask yourself, Are your beliefs as helpful as you think? Talk to a trusted friend or colleague or your HR department if you need support, and start on your way to a healthier working life today.