In my first 15 years of working in IT I heard the term a handful of times. IT Burnout was kicked around for a short time after someone in OUR IT community committed suicide, but was never talked about otherwise. It was so far gone from my thoughts that I had no idea I was going through it. After the second time it is now on my mind almost every day. BUT, we still don’t talk about it in the community as much as we should. We need to make each other aware of IT Burnout AND be there to help each other through it.
I grew up in a busy family with two brothers and a ton of cousins. I spent most of my time hanging out with family and friends. I played baseball, golf, and on a competitive soccer team that played all over the Midwest. I helped my brother and best friends with their race cars. When I moved to KC for college I was suddenly on my own physically, mentally and financially. Not only did I go to school full time, I played college soccer for two years, worked full time (including 11 W2’s in one year!!), and held an executive position in my fraternity. Being busy didn’t seem so busy because that’s all I knew.
Just being busy IS NOT IT Burnout.
After college, I spent 4 years on a global Active Directory implementation. I traveled about 80% of that time. Some weeks I easily worked 90 hours or more. I felt the stress of getting the job done that week but nothing that didn’t go away once that site was completed. I still enjoyed all the other activities I did in life, though I didn’t have as much time for them. I played softball with friends from college, volleyball with coworkers and hung out with other friends when I could.
Just working long hours is not IT Burnout.
During the last year of the project, and the two years following it, there was a noticeable personality change within our team. None of our internal customers where happy working with us, my projects where not getting fully funded like they needed to be, good teammates were leaving and moral was down. I was not happy. I was pissed off that the “manufacturing” department hired their own IT staff and implemented their own servers/switches/etc. It turns out the IT managers where primarily compensated on how much money they saved from the budget. To get anything done the production department had to do it on their own.
By this time, I had spent over 11 years of my career at the company. We implemented a ton of improvements that helped the company grow and become more efficient. I really cared about my work, enjoyed working with my peers in other countries, and cared about the company. I wanted to do even more for the company.
Not liking your job or company is not IT Burnout.
The stress of completing a project is hard enough by itself. It’s even more stressful when you deeply care about the project, the company, and the team members. I didn’t know how much until one day I was watching TV with my wife. She asked how I felt. “Why,” I asked? When she told me to look at my hands I couldn’t believe it. My left hand was shaking so bad I’m lucky I wasn’t holding the remote. My right hand was shaking as well but not as bad.
We started talking about how I felt, what I was thinking about. It became obvious that I couldn’t even watch TV without fixating on what I felt was wrong at work.
A combination of stress, work/life balance, long hours and work environment lead to IT Burnout.
We talked more over the next few days and other symptoms became obvious.
- I would vocally snap or make snide comments to my wife for anything that bothered me, even the littlest thing. Not large outbursts. Just snarky comments.
- I no longer wanted to do things that we used to. I didn’t care to go to the movies anymore. Mainly because I couldn’t focus on it anyways, so why go.
- I had a worse time than usual reading any books, and I normally have a hard time reading. I’d re-read short paragraphs over and over and still not know what it was about.
- I would find myself sifting through the internet with no real intention on what I was looking for. Worse yet I would have no idea what I just looked at.
- I could play solitaire or mine sweeper for hours on end, without taking a break, and having no idea I was doing it.
All this combined was definitely IT BURNOUT
I got so wrapped up into my work I and the company that I wasn’t looking out for my own mental and physical health. My wife saw some of the signs but we never talked about them. I didn’t want to be there but I didn’t want to leave because of all the work I put in over the years. Yes, I was burned out on the job.
Sooooo….. What did I do about it?
Well… Uhh…. Actually, not much, if anything. Or a lot, depending on who you are.
After spending some time reflecting on where I was in my career and potential movement within that company I decided it was time to make a job change. Luckily it didn’t take long to find a new job. Within a week at the new job the shaking completely went away.
You might be thinking, “but what did you change to help with IT Burnout in the future?” We’ll get to that because at this time, the answer is NOTHING.
The new job lasted 3-4 years of which I worked long hours at times, very stressful projects at time, and had some company issues with the recession while in an advertisement driven industry. Again, I had no symptoms of IT Burnout.
An opportunity came up to move to another company where I would manage the infrastructure for a software development shop. They were starting down the CI/CD journey and needed to automate and integrate all parts of the development processes. There were lots of meetings with multiple teams on how to streamline and automate everything. It was great. This was the best job I’ve ever had.
The most challenging part of the job was the yearly conference we put on. I oversaw the lab system and working with development, marketing and training teams for its content. It usually took 3-4 months to get it all together. One year we were having problems with the cloud based system just 6 days before the conference. I was stressing while packing backup gear to ship to Orlando in case the Cloud vendor couldn’t get the backend fixed. My coworker asked me to look at my hand. There it was again. The shaking was back.
I flashed back to the conversations with my wife 6 years earlier. None of the other symptoms where there so I chalked it up to stress. After we arrived in Orlando for the conference the vendor got their system working. My hand didn’t shake the rest of that week.
Shaking hand by itself is not IT Burnout
Towards the end of my tenure at the second job I started being recruited by a local VAR. I didn’t have any interest in it because I didn’t care for some people I met from there. By this time those people had moved on and a few ex-coworkers that I really liked working with were now there. They recruited me and I thought it was a great opportunity to work with more solutions and help customers achieve the automation gains that I had just achieved.
The first nine months were great. I fit in great with my teams and built some good relationships with customers. All seemed well and then some of the people I didn’t care for came back. Practices I didn’t care for were more visible, of-the-cuff decisions made, things I thought shouldn’t be were published to all sales staff, and I got blasted across company email for two things I had nothing to do with. I then lost half of my account managers but upper management refused to adjust my quota numbers making it almost impossible to get my bonuses, which makes up a good portion of income.
This by itself would have been a lot to deal with but all I could think of was what I left to get to where I was at. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Every time I needed to write a Statement of Work I’d catch myself repeatedly thinking about that last job. I couldn’t let it go. I was fading into a state of depression.
Depression from fixating on previous jobs is IT Burnout
All the other symptoms above came back. Even worse, I now had children and I could see how it was affecting them. The good news is that this time I was able to notice them. The bad news is that I had a non-compete that would make it hard to find another job. I looked in other states and had a couple of OK offers. I finally got to the point that I just had to leave. I took a different job with the previous company in an area. I wasn’t excited to go there because they had their own management issues but I didn’t care. I had to get out because I could feel that something bad was going to happen.
Changing jobs didn’t make me happy. I was still depressed that I left the best job I ever had. Every day I would see someone from my old organization and then find myself staring off into space, dreaming about how great that job was. It would take hours to get back into the project I was working on.
This happened over and over even though I was working on a couple high-profile project and getting praise from executives for my contributions.
I was still in IT Burnout.
Some people reading this are thinking “He hasn’t thought about suicide so it can’t be IT Burnout.” Let’s talk about that for a minute. Not everyone that has any type of burnout automatically goes to suicide. Yes, I was so depressed at times I thought about ways I might take my own life. They were short thoughts but no real planning. Just like when MOST people say “I’d like to go to <insert far away, exotic travel destination>.” They think about taking a flight/boat/vehicle to get there but never get on Travelocity or search blogs to see exactly how to do it.
So, how did I get out of this depressive state?
Luckily, I had some friends in the community that noticed. They asked me out to lunch and we talked about it. It was hard as my family NEVER talked about our feelings. Heck, by this time my dad told me he was proud of me only twice in my life. This was a new thing and it was hard. But talking to them was easier than talking to my wife. That was the hardest, and still is.
But talking didn’t automatically make me stop obsessing about the perfect job that I gave up. One day I was with one of my good friends from high school. After not answering one of his questions he asked what I was thinking about as I stared through the TV at the bar. I told him how I ruined my life by leaving that great job.
His answer: Bull Shit. That job is over and gone. Get over yourself. Make this job the best you can or find a better one.
You know what? He was right. Sometimes you need that friend to call it like it is.
That conversation helped me get over the fixation of leaving the best job I ever had. It wasn’t going to help me get through other triggers the next time they happen. I needed a strategy.
First, I had to setup my support system. This stared with the people I hang around. I had to make sure I surround myself with those that are:
- willing to look out for me like I wanted to for them
- willing to make time each month to spend with me (and maybe others) to talk
- I could trust to keep certain things secret
- I know would be there for me if I really needed anything.
I currently meet for lunch with one or more of them every month, and sometimes sooner if needed, to talk about work, family, and life. This also includes my WIFE!!!
This also included getting my boss on the same page. I had to let him know the things that trigger my depression, fixations, or potential to work overly long hours without asking for help. I needed him to have my back at work and in return it would make me more productive for the company. I also had to let him know what types of positive reinforcement I respond to the best. There’s nothing like expecting some kind of small recognition for completing a project and there’s nothing. I thought this was going to be hard but in this case it wasn’t. Both bosses I’ve done this with were very understanding.
Second, I had to get organized. I had to stop reviewing in my head all the random tasks and projects that I needed to get done both at work and at home. I now use Todoist to track tasks for both from anywhere. I can quickly complete short tasks and feel like I’ve accomplished something that day instead of mindlessly thinking about everything you THINK you need to get done and not doing a single task.
Also, we setup online calendars and add everything to it. This way my wife and I always know what we have going on each week.
Third, make time for yourself. Everyone is different but for me this means going to the dirt track races, working on my arcade or going for a bike ride. It also means to take a 20 minute walk every day at work, whether that is alone or with someone else. If it’s with someone else we do not talk about work.
Fourth, every week I reflect on where I came from, what I have accomplished, and where I am at now. The more I do this the more examples I come up with and in turn the better I feel. I look at things like:
- My family
- Parents got married pretty early and yet all 3 sons are successful
- My wife and kids are awesome and I love them so much
- Certifications I’ve earned – most are not distinguished compared to what others have done but looking at where I’ve come from and how hard I worked to get them they are huge accomplishments.
- Complicated projects I have led and/or worked on
- Global AD implementation
- Multiple infra integrations for acquisitions
- Virtualizing multiple data centers
- Friends I have both locally and in the community
- It may seem shallow but sometimes I look through my followers to see some of the smartest people in our community follow me AND interact with me. I must have done something special for this to happen since they don’t follow lots of others.
- I still play softball every week and hang out sometimes after games
- Spend multiple nights a year at dirt tracks watching races with friends
- I review special messages received from family and friends. An example is one day I was a little down. I happened to DM with a community member about being in a meeting with a few of his coworkers. He told me he heard the meeting happened and his coworkers spoke highly of me. He also said, “Hands down, I’d put you on my team anytime in the future either here or wherever I am down the road.” That made my day turn around and kept me in a happy mood for a long time. I refer to it at least once a month to remind me of how far I’ve come in my career.
- I call and/or text people on their birthday or holidays instead of posting on social media. The responses you get from some people will pick up your mood for weeks.
Fifth, I found a volunteer organization that looks out for me while I get to help others. I am a VMUG leader but also a member of Team Rubicon. Last year I spent a week in Rockport, TX doing disaster relief work after hurricane Harvey. Take a look at https://veric.me/2017/10/13/emotional-week-doing-disaster-relief/ to see how this helped me. I volunteer on other service projects and training exercises. We meet regularly with other local members to keep or mental health up as well.
The last thing I have tried to do is reach out to others that I think are having tough times. It is not easy but it is needed and gets easier the more you do it. How do I do it? Think about how you would want to be reached out to and start with that. Everyone is different but in the end, we all want to have someone that cares for us.
If you become more than just a little concerned you need to do more than just text or direct message them. You don’t know how they are doing until you can talk to them. Scratch that. You need to LISTEN to them to hear their tone and mannerisms. It’s easy to fake not being down via characters on digital devices. It’s way more difficult to do verbally.
Setup reoccurring meetings. Start out with the same time/day of the week or month. But after they are comfortable with this you’ll need to switch it up. I can tell you from my own experience I could easily fake it as I got used to the schedule. Change the location/date/time and even try a spontaneous meeting now and then.
When you see someone doing something special, or just doing what is right, don’t be afraid to give them a short little note/DM/Text/etc.. As stated above this helped me so much at a time I was getting down. It took very little time but meant so much to me and I still go back to look at it from time to time.
Life is a two-way street. We can’t just rely on others to help us but not offer to help to those that we can help. Pay it forward.
I am not good at writing non-technical pieces so this post may be all over the place. I really don’t care because if it helps at least one person it was well worth it.
If you need help and don’t want to talk to friends or family start with these resources:
IT Related Articles:
- Eric Shanks on Zeigarnik Effect – this is something most of us do but didn’t know what it was called.
- Cody De Arkland on Imposter Syndrome, which we ALL have at some point.
- Sonia Cuff has a large list of mental health blog posts and videos from other conferences
Burnout/Depression support services and information:
- Check with your insurance provider. The last 3 companies I’ve worked at had some benefits for mental health (might only be a few visits but it’ll get you started)
- The Lifeline – https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ 800-273-8255
- Find a Therapist, Psychologist, or Marriage Counselor
- Crisis Text Line – Text HOME to 741741
This article so resonates with me. A few years ago I was in a similar situation long hours for years on end, left a job and country I loved and my own need to help people and get some form of appreciation for it took its toll.
Although compared to some burnout I have seen I had it relatively mild I still twice in the period of a year ended up on sick leave and seeing a therapist.
Does that make me a weak person, not just an anxious one.
I tried and tried to keep people happy as much as possible, juggling every job imaginable for an IT person.
In the end my body said stop. I was physically sick to the point where my hea felt like it was going to explode and my I had severe flu like symptoms for over a week.
Yes I was cranky with my family for months beforehand. Snapping unnecessarily and losing all interest in things.
It is not always easy to recognize things in yourself and how it was effecting others.
The job that caused me the stress finally ended when my employer decided to cut costs and hire someone else at a reduced rate.
That of course increased my stress level as I now had to find work again.
I have been in a better place now for the last few years, less stress and only rare long hours.
Thanks for sharing your story Eric as more should open up on these things so they can recognize their own symptoms and make people aware that IT Burnout lis a thing.
Wishing you the best.
Thanks for sharing! Really great insight. It’s not always easy sharing our challenges we encounter throughout life. Please continue to encourage others that they are not alone and that there’s always help not too far away.
Thank you for being open about your life. More people need to understand the reality of burnout, that it is real and that it affects so many people. Many that don’t even know they suffer from it. I’ve been through it myself and you nailed it with this article. Thank you!