In August 2017, I quit.
After four years at SageSure, I backed up from a job that I loved because I fell victim to burnout and left the very company where my career in software began.
SageSure gave me what I felt was my first big break into the software world. It was the kind of job that I had been reaching for since I graduated college: remote work, a handsome salary, incredibly talented coworkers, and doing exciting work. It was a dream come true. The first few years were fast-paced and exciting and I genuinely loved the work that I was getting to do. A year after coming on board I had assumed the role of Operations Lead with a small team of talented engineers overseeing our Cloud infrastructure, CI/CD systems, and being responsible for monitoring our production stack. As a company, we were accelerating at an amazing pace and smashing records for new business nearly every month. As a result, the frequency of changes and deployments flowing into production was ever-increasing. On one hand, I was watching my career take flight all while learning new tech and automating everything else. On the other hand, the number of backlog tickets, production incidents, outages, and postmortems that I was participating in was ever-increasing. At times I felt the crunch and hunkered down to get through tight deadlines, incidents, and an endless number of meetings. But still, I loved my job.
At this point, the quiet erosion of my career euphoria, my dream job, was hardly noticeable. There were times when I directly felt the stress of work but I always assumed that you sometimes felt exhausted from work and that was it. I figured if things got really bad I could take a few days off to reset. Another year went by and the story reads the same: more organizational success, more frequent delivery to production, and more fallout from outages, technical debt, and new features. Then, I finally hit a wall. The thing is I didn’t hate my job at this point, I still loved it, but I knew that it was going to crush me if I didn’t leave it behind. I felt powerless and ill-equipped to handle the way that I responded to stress. I was out of gas and had no more energy left in me to give to my job, so I resigned and slipped away with a bag of emotion dragging behind me.
How did this happen? Why didn’t I see this coming? These were the questions that swirled in my head when I finally had a chance to reflect on the most shocking turn of my young career.
What exactly is burnout?
Stress manifests in everyone differently and can make identifying and treating job-related stress and burnout a real challenge. Herbert Freudenberger, a German-born American psychologist and psychotherapist, first coined the term “burn out” in 1974 describing it as “a consequence of excessive stress leading to chronic fatigue and lack of enthusiasm”. His work defined a 12-stage model for the development of burnout symptoms:
- The Compulsion to Prove Oneself - Demonstrating worth obsessively, probably something that’s especially prevalent in tech/software where imposter syndrome can be a factor
- Working Harder - An inability to switch off, working late, working early, working on your days off
- Neglecting Needs - Neglecting your own needs. Poor sleeping habits, disruptive dietary changes, reduced social interaction
- Displacement of Conflicts - Displace the acknowledging that you’re pushing yourself too much and instead you blame your manager, the demands of your job, or coworkers for your stress
- No Time for Non-Work - Revision of Values; where work can become your only focus and your personal life is de-prioritized
- Denial - Impatience with others begins to mount and instead of taking responsibility for your feelings you start to form intolerance and cynical attitudes towards coworkers, clients, and your manager
- Withdrawal - Complete withdrawal from family and friends and your social life
- Behavioral Changes - Obvious behavior changes, things that your friends and family may take notice of. Those that are on the road to burnout may become aggressive or snap at friends and family for no reason
- Depersonalization - A reduced or lack of sense for personal accomplishment, detaching yourself from your work, and feeling like you’re no longer valuable
- Inner Emptiness - Feeling empty and anxious
- Depression - Exhaustion, and feel like the future is dark and bleak
- Burnout Syndrome - Which he describes as a total collapse
Many of these are clear sensations that may be easy to spot yet others you may never realize until you’re in the middle of it. In my case burnout first began building early on in my career at SageSure but not in ways that I ever expected or even noticed.
What I learned
We often talk about burnout when it’s too late It feels a bit edgy to open up about all of this which I think points to one of the inherent issues with burnout in the modern workplace: it’s unnecessarily regarded as taboo. No one really wants to talk about stress and burnout. The thing is, no one is immune to the symptoms of burnout either, and everyone endures stress in the workplace whether they know it or not.
Burnout is as slippery as it is silent I never noticed that my burnout was as bad as it was until it was too late. It creeps up on you, ever so slightly, so you don’t come to notice that you’re suffering more and more each day. You generally won’t notice the signs of burnout in yourself because it’s a gradual thing, affecting you little by little over a period of time.
I didn’t know how to step away I pressured myself into working long hours, working late, and through my lunchtime regularly. In addition, I didn’t take advantage of some of the resources that SageSure provided me, like paid time off. I remember looking on my last day of work I still had 84 vacation hours of unused time. Because I spent so much time focusing on my work, I didn’t spend enough time paying attention to myself and as a cause, I didn’t recognize my burnout until it was way too late. Instead of stopping to defuse the ticking time bomb I kept pushing forward and let it grow bigger and bigger.
There’s a razor-thin edge between loving your job and feeling destroyed by it I loved my work, and as such, was more prone to burnout. It’s one of those ironies of having a career. It’s like a complicated love affair: some days it’s exciting and passionate while other days it’s exhausting and emotionally draining. It’s easy to work longer and harder when you’re passionate and invested in your work but, as most things go, it requires careful balance with time away from the job. Without balance, you will most certainly be crushed.
SageSure, round two
After I burned out I spent the following year and a half freelancing and working on personal projects which gave me the opportunity to reflect on what happened and why it happened. I stayed in touch with SageSure and my friends there and was lucky enough to get the chance to join the organization for a second time with a new perspective on my job and priorities. Better understanding burnout and how job stress affects me has made a significant improvement on my quality of life and the quality of my work.
If there’s any takeaway you get from this post it should be this: talk about burnout. It’s the most important first step anyone and any organization can do. I’m a testament to the reality of work stress and burnout and wanted to share what I know about it, what I went through, and to hopefully get us started on thinking about these things more often.