Jacques Mattheij

Technology, Coding and Business

Are you suffering from burn-out?

With some regularity people on HN are wondering if they are burnt-out or the suggestion is made that someone is burnt-out.

To make it a little easier to see if you may be suffering from burn-out or not you may need an outside reference. The reason why this matters is that burn-out is a serious condition, and ignoring it when you are suffering from it may cause longer term problems of an even more serious nature, including heart trouble and mental health issues.

Typically it’s the ‘can-do’ people that tend to burn out, if your life is centred around relaxation and having a good time you are probably not at much risk.

But if you work long hours, and if you judge yourself by how much you’ve produced and if you are disappointed when you think you are under-performing then burning out is a real risk.

The wikipedia article on burning out ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burnout_%28psychology%29 ) lists burnout as the antithesis of engagement, characterized by exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy, typically burning out involves stress at one or more levels and your ability to deal with that stress.

The wikipedia article also lists a number of phases that are involved in burning out, I’ll re-list them here:

* A compulsion to prove oneself

  Typically people at risk of burning out are the ones that go 'the extra mile', that can't stand it when their competence is in doubt and that are voluntarily working harder. Sometimes this is because of a deep seated insecurity about ones own competence, sometimes because of being hyper competitive. In general, it seems to apply more to people that feel the need to prove they are capable for some reason or other over those that are more laid back. The need to prove oneself can also be imposed from outside for instance trough a corporate culture.

* Working harder

  In order to prove oneself an individual at risk would respond by working harder, sometimes *much* harder, work weeks that have 60 or more hours in it, no 'off' days and no holidays. A person at risk of burn-out will do this voluntarily, even if there is no compensation for all the hard work (in a monetary sense), the only compensation may be that the subject feels better about themselves.

* Neglecting one's own needs

  As the time goes on the potential burn-out sufferer will start to ignore their own needs more and more. Life will center more and more around work and it's not un-typical to see people stay in the office until very late in the evening, only to be back early morning. Time off to rest decreases further until the body is affected directly by it. One burn-out prone company where I had the honour of working for a while actually had cots in some of the offices!

* Displacement of conflicts (the person does not realize the root cause of the distress)

  Fingers are pointed at all the wrong things as the cause of the problems, relationships suffer and friendships may get damaged. Especially if spouses and / or friends are critical of the long hours and the effect on the person burning out. 

* Revision of values (friends or hobbies are completely dismissed)

  After all, all these distractions didn't add any value anyway, and in order to better concentrate on that which matters, the work. At this point in time I think the generally accepted term to use is 'workaholic', someone who needs to work every waking hour in order to feel good about themselves.

* Denial of emerging problems (cynicism and aggression become apparent)

  More and more the stance becomes 'me' against 'the rest', where the rest includes just about anybody that the person interacts with, including co-workers (who are generally seen as not too bright or downright incompetent, at a minimum they're lazy), the burn-out sufferer turns more and more inward, aggressive behaviour towards others will accelerate this.

* Withdrawal (reducing social contacts to a minimum, becoming walled off; alcohol or other substance abuse may occur)

  This is the point where things are starting to become very hard to reverse, if you got this far then you are now on a multi-year path to recovery, there are no quick fixes. If you got in to substance abuse that would be the first thing to tackle. This is also why it is *very* bad advise to tell people that may be suffering from burn-out to try drugs or to drink, you may very well be pushing them from the frying pan in to the fire. Someone that can't pace themselves with work is at a very high risk of getting in to trouble when using drugs or alcohol as a means to alleviate a problem.

* Behavioral changes become obvious to others

  Which may lead to a further isolation, relationships may suffer to the point that spouses leave and friends will find lots of reasons to be elsewhere, if only because the burn-out sufferer is not the nicest person to be near.

* Inner emptiness

  This phase is typified by a reversal of productivity, from being extremely productive at this point the burn-out sufferer is becoming less and less productive, until productivity drops to a fat '0'. For a person whose self-value derives directly from their produced quantity of work this is a very bad thing to happen and it almost naturally leads to the next phase:

* Depression

  Physically, the person may still go trough the motions of going to their work and sitting at their desk, but nothing happens. Self-value is at an absolute low and there is an increased risk of the person hurting themselves. It is possible but not usual to get out of this by yourself. The problem with that is that by this time most if not all of the social network around the person that could help at this stage has been severely eroded. 

* Burnout syndrome

You're now officially part of the burned out club, congratulations, and recovery (if it will ever be complete) will take you at least a year, but possibly much longer.

Typical ways of dealing with burning out are a complete change of scene and career, making new friendships and repairing old ones, reconnecting with family (including children and spouses) and in general re-calibrating what is important in life and what is not. Finding different things to derive self-value from besides what you have produced professionally in the last couple of days.

Some professions are more burn-out prone than others, keep an eye on the ‘stress levels’ and if you feel that you are on the ‘path’ outlined above get off it while you can and realise that the burn-out route is a very expensive one to travel.