Web professionals are often expected to be “always on”—always working, absorbing information, and honing new skills. Unless our work and personal lives are carefully balanced, however, the physical and mental effects of an “always on” life can be debilitating.
It’s taken me the better part of a year to finish writing this article, and the reasons it took that long are tied directly to the topic at hand. If anything, the last year has made it clear that we as an industry are facing increased levels of stress, illness, and exhaustion. Having learned a few things from my own battle with exhaustion and burnout, I hope they’ll benefit others who are now or may eventually be in the same situation.
Burnout: running on empty
Burnout is a psychological response to “long-term exhaustion and diminished interest,” and may take months or years to bubble to the surface. First defined by American psychoanalyst Herbert J. Freudenberger in 1972, burnout is “a demon born of the society and times we live in and our ongoing struggle to invest our lives with meaning.” 1 He goes on to say that burnout “is not a condition that gets better by being ignored. Nor is it any kind of disgrace. On the contrary, it’s a problem born of good intentions.” Another description in New York Magazine calls burnout “a problem that’s both physical and existential, an untidy conglomeration of external symptoms and personal frustrations.”
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
During his research, Freudenberger and his associate, Gail North, developed a simple outline to describe how otherwise healthy individuals can burn out, the key being that people may experience several or all phases, though not necessarily in a specific order.
The identified phases, several of which I bet sound familiar, are:
- A compulsion to prove oneself
- Working harder
- Neglecting one’s own needs
- Displacement of conflict (the person does not realize the root cause of the distress)
- Revision of values (friends, family, hobbies, etc., are dismissed)
- Denial of emerging problems (cynicism, aggression, and frustration become apparent)
- Withdrawal from social contexts, potential for alcohol or drug abuse
- Behavioral changes become more visible to others
- Inner emptiness
- Burnout syndrome (including suicidal thoughts and complete mental and physical collapse) 2
It’s important to note that burnout is not the same as depression, though there are shared characteristics that blur the distinction; burnout can be brought on by fits of depression or may lead to depression itself.
My own head-on collision with burnout came at the end of 2007. In the year since, my focus has changed and I’ve become extremely conscious—and protective—of the balance I need in my life. Here’s what I’ve learned.
How it happens
Burnout doesn’t happen without stress. Characterized as being “too much” of something, stress may come from too many meetings, projects, responsibilities, unrealistic deadlines, improperly set expectations, distractions, or any number of other things prevalent in our hyper-connected world. Stress is not crippling in and of itself, but we each have limits, and once those limits are reached, we can find ourselves teetering on the brink of burnout.
Although burnout is primarily a work-related illness caused by an imbalance in an individual’s personal goals, ideals, and needs as related to their job, stresses and factors outside the workplace can also contribute to the problem by wearing down emotional defenses.
You may be flirting with burnout if:
- Every day is a bad day
- You are no longer emotionally invested in your job or the work you’re doing
- You feel unappreciated or do not feel like you’re making a difference in your job
- There is a clear disconnect between your personal values and what is expected of you
- Self-defined goals or those imposed on you are unrealistic or unreasonable
- A significant amount of your day is focused on tasks that are not fulfilling on a personal or emotional level
Ultimately, burnout results from a lack of equilibrium. When you lose your balance, physically, you fall over. Burnout is very similar, except that once you’re down, it can be a real challenge to get back up.
How to recover from (or prevent) burnout
The first and most important step in preventing or recovering from burnout is to recognize the problem and objectively survey your situation.
- What are the stressors in your life?
- Are there aspects of your job that do not align with your personal goals and values?
- Are you not doing the type of work you enjoy? Are your own measures of success realistic?
- Are you really engaged in the work you’re doing, or are you just overloaded?
These same questions can help you restore your internal balance without going as far as changing jobs or careers, which is rarely a realistic option. Burnout doesn’t have to be a career killer, but it can be if left untreated.
Stop (or at least slow down)
If you’re working 50 or more hours a week, cut that number to the bare minimum. If possible, use up your sick days, work from home one day a week, and take a vacation or a leave of absence to give yourself the time needed to decompress, reflect, and reconnect. Sabbaticals are gaining acceptance in our industry, and even one day outside of your normal routine can help prevent burnout or get on the right track to push through it.
The point being: take yourself out of the problem for as long as you can realistically afford to.
When in doubt, talk.
Seek counsel and support from family, friends, and industry peers, or consider more formal coaching, possibly through a local business network or wellness center.
In my case, my wife recognized my burnout before I did, and helped me find a local business coach who understood client demands in the creative realm and the pressures of operating a small business. The time spent reflecting on how I got to where I was at the end of 2007 was invaluable, and has been the catalyst for the many changes I’ve made since.
Set boundaries and expectations
The days of the 9-to-5 job are gone and the boundaries between work and home are blurred to the point of non-existence. We’re expected to be available nearly all the time, and the problem is often exacerbated for freelancers or anyone who works primarily from a home office where the only divide between being “at home” and being “at work” is a single door or a flight of stairs.
It’s not a badge of honor to work 80 hours a week or to answer e-mail or to Twitter at all hours of the night. Ask yourself: Have you set sufficient boundaries between your job and your life outside of work? Are you guarding those boundaries?
Although clients may choose to leave you messages and send e-mail at all hours, it’s up to you to set expectations about your responsiveness. As soon as you leave yourself open to responding to e-mails at 10 o’clock at night, you set a precedent that can be hard to take back.
The world is a much smaller place now than it’s ever been. Information is at our fingertips whenever we want it and wherever we happen to be. Time zones blur, allowing us to work with clients in the same city as easily as those on the other side of the world. But we still need sleep, and we rarely get enough.
Sleep gives our brains a chance to work out problems and process the information we’ve absorbed throughout the day. Even if you can function on four or five hours of sleep, how much better would you function on seven or eight hours? Even though the 9-to-5 work day is history, there’s no reason work should extend into the wee hours of the morning.
Create a daily routine
It’s not unusual for creative types to do their best work at the same time every day. By this I mean that it’s important to follow our own circadian rhythms. Hemingway began writing every morning at dawn and explained his choice this way: “There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there.”
The same system often works well for designers or developers. Do your most important work (or the work requiring the greatest focus) during that time when you’re most energized and have the fewest distractions. Use the rest of your working hours to solve secondary problems or gather information that will fuel the next productive sprint.
Make time for numero uno
Whether you’re treading water or already below the surface, making time for yourself is critical. It’s easy to get caught up in the demands of bosses or clients and leave precious little time for your own needs.
Spending time with family, friends, or your personal interests may provide the fulfillment you don’t get at work. So get out. Go to a museum or an art gallery. Go to the library or a concert. Get some exercise. Play. Make time for what makes you happy, and guard that time fervently.
Examine your values, goals, and measures of success
Know thyself, but be gentle. What are you passionate about? How do you evaluate yourself against expectations placed on you by managers and clients, and the work you’re doing? Are those measures grounded in reality? Are your personal development goals being met by the type of work you are doing? Are you feeling too much pressure from unrealistic demands or those that go against your values? What frustrates you?
Simply connecting with things that matter to you can provide perspective. Although burnout is a miserable experience, it can also be a great opportunity for personal growth and discovery.
Good work requires focus.
Focus might mean restricting your access to e-mail, IM, Twitter, and Facebook, or turning off your cell phone. Modern communication conveniences provide a valuable social connection to the outside world, but they can also destroy concentration and clarity.
Change your situation
Although changing careers is usually not an option, there’s plenty you can do to make your job more engaging and fulfilling.
Change departments, learn a new skill, or simply focus more on the things you’re good at, and that make you happy.
Offload responsibilities that are not fulfilling or that are not part of your core job function. If you’re a designer, focus on design, not on day-to-day accounting. If you’re a developer, focus on building great applications, not on client hand-holding. If you’re a freelancer, shake up your routine—and whenever possible, bring in additional help on the parts of projects that you don’t enjoy or that someone else could do better.
Changing your situation could be as easy as changing desks: If you work at home, spend more time at a local coffee shop or bookstore that has free wifi. If you work in a more traditional office, change desks or spend time in another part of the office.
Rely on a good process
The reason we have processes is so that we can focus on getting things done, not on wondering what to do next.
If you don’t have a good work process, get one. Talk to your peers, read up on the topic, and see what processes others use. Experiment and find out what works for you. If you already have a process that you think works, scrutinize it, clarify it, and simplify it as much as possible.
Educate your clients on your processes, follow them yourself, and ensure that everyone you work with understands the consequences of failing to complete deliverables or meet deadlines.
Regaining your balance
When you’re burned out, you know it. You can feel it and taste it, but in order to get past, it you have to acknowledge it and fight to restore your internal equilibrium. Stop, decompress, communicate, and focus. That process often begins with a look inward to learn what gives your life balance, such as family, friends, personal interests, and hobbies—the things that counterbalance your life on the web.
Your life should be just that—a life; if your waking hours are entirely consumed by work, or if you’re unfocused and inattentive to your own needs, burnout will be waiting at every turn.