On Burnout: Lessons Learned
Early in 2022, I left my job after almost four years. I told my manager about my concerns early in 2021, but it took a few more months to recognize them as burnout. I was happy to earn a late promotion to Staff Engineer, but that recognition didn't solve the problems I had.
This post is about burnout, and this post is mostly for me. I've started to regain the joy of coding and learning, but I'm not ready to get back to OKRs, KPIs, performance reviews, and so many other aspects of professional development work.
This post will share four lessons I learned about burnout from this experience. The lessons will link to resources I found while working to understand my burnout, and they're all connected to personal examples. Your experiences with burnout and work stress will vary, but burnout is way too common in tech. Even if my lessons aren't directly relevant to you, I hope that they help you reflect on your own work.
- On Burnout: Lessons Learned
Lesson 1: Burnout is not individual
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.
Individual responsibility is a wonderful thing, but it's critical to recognize situations that are outside of one person's control. The above story isn't mine, but the details definitely resonate. And individual action cannot solve the central issues in a situation like this. If one team member starts setting better boundaries, what happens to the emergency calls they were handling before?
That isn't to say that individual accommodations don't help! When I first called it burnout, my manager helped me step back from my recruiting responsibilities for a few months. I stepped back from mentorship and I scheduled multiple vacations. Those changes gave me mental energy to see my concerns more clearly, and to focus on the most critical work. But the bigger problems remained unsolved.
Despite rising awareness and concern about burnout as a workplace issue (1), it is still extremely easy to find resources that stress individual solutions, even from trusted institutions. Maybe yoga or meditation (2) will give you the strength to keep showing up, but they won't solve issues with how your team organizes work and manages emergencies.
Lesson 2: Overwork is not the only concern
Our actual workload accounts for only a portion of the burden we experience at work. More than half of respondents in one survey said that their primary source of work-related stress didn’t have to do with their workload; rather, they cited stressors such as people issues, juggling work and personal lives, and lack of job security.
Overwork obviously is a problem. The quote leading into the first lesson is from an employee working long hours and taking additional, out-of-band responsibilities on top. It's easy to find sources that still treat burnout and overwork as equivalent (3).
But that wasn't one of the factors leading to my burnout. I had clear boundaries about my work time, and enough seniority—or enough "not my problem" energy—to stick to them. People even appreciated the clarity of "I don't work weekends without prior planning, but I can be flexible if you give me advanced notice."
The Mayo Clinic recognizes five other causes of burnout (2) and other sources identify more (4), including a lack of control and any number of indicators of a dysfunctional workplace. I don't have great research on how common each factor is, but it seems telling that many sources list other causes first (2) (5) (6).
For me, a lot of the initial stress came from irrelevant or underappreciated work. My team operated with a very split focus. It was very common for my work to be blocked because the people who could unblock it had other priorities. That friction added stress. And trying to solve the underlying problem without the right influence or authority added even more stress.
Lesson 3: Do the work that matters
Chris has played a tremendous role in elevating our web engineers over the past year. Since immediately after starting he's been leading our internal web meetups, helping guide how we hire web engineers, and been a tremendous mentor to many on the team and across the org. Leading by example with integrity and empathy, he gets the job done.
- Personal correspondence, on my 1 year anniversary at the company
There are probably as many ways to understand this lesson as there are people working in your company. Google's People Operations team identified meaning and impact of work as two of the key factors of successful teams (7). Other sources highlight strong motivation as a mitigation for stress or mental fatigue (8) (9).
This was always very clear to me on the job. Tasks like mentorship, community building, and feedback on code reviews were easy to do. Times when I went above and beyond, or happily accepted additional responsibility, were always for work that benefited the whole web community.
The contrast with other work was obvious. I worked on a number of projects where nobody was invested in the outcome. I'm still not sure how those projects were picked as critical priorities, but it took much more discipline for me to make any progress. And that discipline takes a toll if that kind of work is common.
Coming at this from another angle, the reactions from other employees when I announced I was quitting are telling. Multiple teammates told me that they wished we'd had more chances to work together, because the projects I did were isolated from them. Employees on other teams, my friends and my mentees, shared a ton of gratitude for the more communal work I did. My team wasn't tracking it, but it was obvious what work mattered the most. The disconnect from my team's priorities was a problem.
Lesson 4: You can't change what you can't change
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
I'll admit, I'm always a little disappointed when old Catholic school prayers are relevant to my life. The reality of work is that there will always be situations outside of your control. Maybe a project has a strict legal deadline that can't be shifted. Maybe a coworker isn't open to feedback, even when their approach is causing problems for the team.
I spent a lot of time on a variation of that second one. What do you do if your team agrees with you about a problem, likes your suggestion for solving it, but doesn't follow through?
To be more concrete, my team had a bad tendency to start more projects than we had team members, and to lean on single contributors for efficiency. Those projects took longer than expected and often needed to cut scope to avoid even more delays. The cost of supporting our work was high, because only a few team members had the right knowledge to help users. The solution seemed obvious: work together and commit to fewer projects. But even when the team agreed to more collaboration, our ultimate plan still called for me to split focus between multiple solo projects.
This is why this post is lessons I learned about burnout, not solutions. I didn't have the tools or the influence to change the way my team worked. With limited options, I made the only change that seemed possible. I quit.
tl;dr; What you can take away from this
These are obviously my experiences, and they're tied to the work I did and the struggles I had. But burnout is a bigger issue than just me and my former team. So what can you take away from this?
If you're a manager or a leader, learn the many causes of burnout and check in with your people. The effects of burnout are individual, but the causes and solutions are likely tied to a larger structure. Even with the best intentions, individual changes won't solve structural problems.
If you're an employee, you should know the symptoms of burnout and be comfortable discussing them with your manager. If you feel burned out and the problems are outside of your control, you should conserve your mental energy and think about what options are truly available to you.
As for me, hindsight is a boon. Clear goals, invested stakeholders, and meaningful collaboration: these aren't nice-to-haves. These are key pieces of teams and projects that allow me to do my best work. Understanding these needs—and the consequences of not having them met—means I have better tools to advocate for myself. Even if I'm not ready to get back to the grind yet, these tools will help.
- Burnout Is About Your Workplace, Not Your People
- Job burnout: How to spot it and take action
- The Difference Between Hard Work and Overworked
- Major Causes of Burnout (And How To Manage It at Work)
- The 6 Leading Causes of Employee Burnout
- Employee Burnout, Part 1: The 5 Main Causes
- The five keys to a successful Google team
- Special Report: Spurring Motivation, Not Stress
- The effects of intrinsic motivation on mental fatigue
- Why Burnout is Hard to Detect