Brian Gilham

Engineering leader, husband, and father

burnout

Recognizing Burnout

My wife, dog, and I are headed to a remote cabin in Algonquin Provincial Park for a week of rest and relaxation. No to-do lists, no distractions, and – most importantly – no cell reception. I’m looking forward to a much-needed break. Five years ago, I would have told you I hated taking vacation. I love what I do, challenges and all. Why would I want to sit on a beach somewhere, sipping cocktails?

My wife, dog, and I are headed to a remote cabin in Algonquin Provincial Park for a week of rest and relaxation. No to-do lists, no distractions, and – most importantly – no cell reception. I’m looking forward to a much-needed break.

Five years ago, I would have told you I hated taking vacation. I love what I do, challenges and all. Why would I want to sit on a beach somewhere, sipping cocktails? There was work to be done. Taking a break felt like weakness.

So, what changed my mind? Burnout.

It crept up on me, from time to time. I’d snap at coworkers. Small things would frustrate me to no end. One or twice, I said things I’d come to regret.

After years of trial and error, I started to recognize the symptoms of burnout. I still get it wrong, sometimes. Thankfully, I work with a team of people I love and trust. They’ve had my back through some rough patches. I hope they’d say the same of me. 

Here are some signs of burnout you should be on the lookout for, both in yourself and your teammates.

Sudden bouts of negativity

When my burnout is at its worst, I find it hard to see the positive in anything. My code is garbage, the project is off the rails, and my commute sucks. I feel like nothing I do will ever be enough – a finish line that always seems to move further and further away. We all have bad days, but too many in a row might mean something’s wrong.  

Unable to concentrate

I can’t get in the zone, no matter what I do. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites suddenly become much more interesting. My mind jumps from one daydream to the next. When you can’t even fake an interest in your work, it might be a sign of impending burnout.

Feeling stuck or stagnant

Do you feel like Every Day is Exactly the Same could be the theme song to your life? You might laugh, but that’s exactly what I thought during one of my worst periods of burnout. I felt like I needed to change careers, find a new hobby, and move to a new city – all at once. Some time off is usually all I need to put things back into perspective.

Short temper

If the smallest thing sets you off, particularly if you’re usually pretty pleasant, it’s one of the surest signs of burnout I’ve seen. Once, I got downright mean with a coworker who had simply forgotten to invite me to a meeting. It wasn’t even a particularly important meeting. Completely unacceptable.

The first thing I did was apologize. The second thing I did was book some time off.

Now that I better recognize the signs of burnout, I do my best to deal with it before it happens. I schedule regular breaks – whether it’s a week off with my wife, or just a long weekend. It’s done wonders for my mental health, and I’m certain I’m a more pleasant person to work with. If you’re starting to feel like you’re burning out, talk to your team. Let them know how you’re feeling. Chances are, they’ve already noticed. Then, figure out how to take the time you need.

Until next time,

-Brian


Burning Out

(I’ve received a fair number of lovely, concerned messages since publishing this piece. While I appreciate all of the love — a ton! — I feel like I need to add a bit of a footnote. I left the job I described in this post almost five years ago. My current gig, at TWG, couldn’t be better. I’m extremely happy and my work-life balance is much better now. In many ways, this post is a warning.

(I’ve received a fair number of lovely, concerned messages since publishing this piece. While I appreciate all of the love — a ton! — I feel like I need to add a bit of a footnote.

I left the job I described in this post almost five years ago. My current gig, at TWG, couldn’t be better. I’m extremely happy and my work-life balance is much better now.

In many ways, this post is a warning. If you are in a job that’s destroying your life, I hope it gives you the push you need to quit. If you’re a junior developer, looking for your first job, I hope it helps you avoid a similar situation.)

In 2009 I accepted a position as a Web Developer at a medium-sized marketing agency in Toronto. The pay sucked, but we had interesting clients and a really fun team. The perks were outrageous. The company-supplied beer flowed freely and we often retired to the local pub and partied well into the night. On the company dime, of course. One year, in lieu of a Christmas party, they sent us on a weeklong ski trip in Quebec.

I was blown away. I had never seen perks like that before.

Two weeks in, my team lead asked me to stay late. Our project was behind schedule and a new one was coming down the pipe. Sure, I said, cracking a beer. No problem.

We shipped.


The timeline for the new project seemed impossible. The biz dev team, eager to sell, had shoved it down the pipe in record time. Four weeks worth of work; due in two. Oh well, I thought, I’ll just have to work harder.

It took 18-hour days, countless energy drinks, and a ton of fast food, but we got it done.

We shipped.


Near the end of my probation I approached the team lead.

“Is it like this all the time?”

No, he said. This is the exception; not the rule. I took him at his word.

They gave me a raise. A year later, drunk at a Christmas party, he would admit they only gave it to me so I wouldn’t quit.


Another late night. It took everything I had, but I managed to clear my plate for the day.

11:30pm.

Fuck. I lived an hour’s drive from the office. At any rate, I was too tired to drive home safely.

The company put me up in a hotel room for the night. Paid for the cab ride and everything.

That was nice of them. I think.

We shipped.


Our project manager was crying. Again. Sobbing into the phone, she apologized to her boyfriend. No, she wouldn’t be home tonight.

Yes, she said. She should quit.

Someone paid for dinner. Again.

We shipped.


I’d been at the office for 48 hours with no sleep. I finally decided to drive home. To shower and change. I didn’t know it then, but I’d end up driving back and working for another 24 hours.

Driving home just to change my clothes started to feel like a real pain in the ass. I started keeping a change of clothes, toothpaste, a toothbrush, and deodorant in my desk drawer.

Perfect. Now I don’t even have to leave.

We shipped.


I’m in bed. Well, a mattress on the floor. I’d spent a few days preparing to move and started feeling ill. My stomach was a mess, my head was pounding. My throat felt like it was being stabbed with a knife. I could barely stand up. My fever was off the charts.

For the next two weeks, I barely stood up.

Lying on your back for two weeks gives you a lot of time to think. To think about your health. Being a team player. Free beer and ski trips.

I wish I could say that I decided then and there to quit. But I didn’t. I stuck it out for another year.

Another year of working all night.

Another year of missing moments with my loved ones.

Another year of eating shit food and brushing my teeth in the office bathroom.

Another year of “taking one for the team”.

Another year of: We shipped.

Those perks I loved in the beginning? By the end I saw them for what they were.

Chains on the door.