Burnout
Issue № 284

Burnout

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.

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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#section1

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
  • Depression
  • 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#section2

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#section3

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)#section4

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.

Communicate#section5

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#section6

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.

Sleep. More.#section7

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#section8

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#section9

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#section10

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.

Focus#section11

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#section12

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#section13

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#section14

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.

Notes

  • 1. “Burn-Out: The High Cost of High Achievement.” Dr. Herbert J. Freudenberger with Geraldine Richelson, 0-385-15664-2, 1980
  • 2. “The Burnout Cycle.” Scientific American Mind, 15552284, 2006, Vol. 17, Issue 3

About the Author

Scott Boms

Scott Boms has been designing with pencils, pens, paint and pixels for over 15 years, most recently on the Communications Design team at Facebook in sunny California. He still occasionally finds time to draw letters, read books, write, speak, take pictures, release records, and do other things away from the internet with his wonderful wife and children.

66 Reader Comments

  1. I’d say this article was worth the better part of a year that it took to get done. Thank you so much for not only the help in identifying burnout, but more importantly, what to do to correct and prevent it. All to often you read articles that scratch the surface with things like “eat lunch out, or listen to music”. It’s encouraging that there’s honest input here with some excellent advice and insight.

  2. Scott,

    We’ve been going through similar issues, but on a business level. We’re such a small shop that each individuals emotional drive is closely connected to the each others. Do you know if research has been done on burn outs affecting the entire small businesses?

    We’re not specifically experiencing depression or doubt, the biggest issue we find is constantly battling to re-align ourselves with our goals, no one ever told us that that would be one of the hardest parts of starting up!

    I’d love to buy you a beer sometime! — you’re in Toronto? — thanks for the article!

  3. Cameron,

    I can’t say I’ve come across anything related to group burnout (for lack of a better term) since predominantly the specific causes and effects are personal on an individual level. Burnout really comes down to a misalignment of personal needs/expectations and essentially what each person receives as a result of their ongoing effort. If input does not equal the desired output, cracks will slowly start to appear.

    I can say from my own experience that that sort of constant re-alignment of goals can be a slippery slope. As challenging as it can be at times, I’ve found one of the best things you can do is define what you need or want to achieve, set standards and really work at sticking to them – be uncompromising. That probably means saying “no” a lot more than you might be doing now. It might feel painful in the short term, but there’s a greater opportunity for it to be great in the long term.

    And yes, I’m in Toronto and will certainly take you up on that beer 🙂

  4. Very good read and always timely. This topic is greatly pushed aside by younger developers (like myself) who are used to managing burnout from college days and just pushing through it.

    Hopefully this article can serve as a heads up for the younger generation so they can guard against this very common issue.

  5. I hit my “own burnout”:http://www.megatome.com/2006/09/14/burned-out/ back in 2006. Interestingly enough, it was right after I read the “Science of Burnout” article mentioned here.
    Taking a trip to the ER was a real eye-opener, but it was the second trip less than six months later that really put things into perspective.
    Not too long before the first ER trip, my management and duties changed significantly. I pretty much ran through the bullets in the “How It Happens” section.
    The change I made was to find a different job. It helped, but I have to make sure I’m doing things for me to keep my equilibrium.
    Excellent article, and a subject that is far too often ignored or belittled.

  6. bq. 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.

    This is so very true, and such a very important idea to keep in mind. Modern technology makes it so easy to be consistently connected and people today feel a need to constantly be busy.

    It’s important to remember that your work is just work. What you do should not be what defines you. If we keep that in mind, it can help to remind us to take time for ourselves. Quiet time with family and friends, or even just by ourselves, can be very rewarding and relaxing.

    When trying to find a balance between my work and my personal life, I always try to remember that no one lying on their death bed ever said, “I wish I spent more time working.”

  7. bq. When trying to find a balance between my work and my personal life, I always try to remember that no one lying on their death bed ever said, “I wish I spent more time working.”

    Bingo! We’re much more likely to regret the fact that we’ve ignored our real lives than our online/working ones no matter how passionate we might be about what we do.

    It definitely is possible to have the best of both worlds but it’s incredibly easy to get caught up in the modern online world and not notice other things (that might be equally important) passing us by.

  8. This is great advice for anyone who works online. I’m a “community manager” and sometimes it can be hard to “turn off” the firehose of information. Working on the web sometimes feels like sitting in front of about 100 TVs.

    Maybe this is why I’ve been having so many fantasies lately about living in the forest and building furniture for a living.

    🙂

  9. In my opinion, the emails we exchange every day with clients and colleagues are incredibly stressing.

    Emails are too fast. The sender usually expects you to answer in the 10 minutes after you receive the message. The emails you receive all day long are like small notes in your head telling you have something to do… That is incredibly stressing for me.

    To avoid that, I shut down my mail client when I have to focus on a task. Then, handling emails becomes a task that happens only once or twice in my day.

  10. In my opinion, the emails we exchange every day with clients and colleagues are incredibly stressing.
    Emails are too fast. The sender usually expects you to answer in the 10 minutes after you receive the message. The emails you receive all day long are like small notes in your head telling you have something to do… That is incredibly stressing for me.
    To avoid that, I shut down my mail client when I have to focus on a task. Then, handling emails becomes a task that happens only once or twice in my day.

  11. The problem with email, IM or other related communications technologies that we might use in keeping in contact with clients is simply that we too often don’t set expectations on those. As James mentioned, once the “fire hose” is turned on, it’s really hard to turn off.

    A perfect example of how to help yourself overcome to burden of information overload is really simple.

    bq. To avoid that, I shut down my mail client when I have to focus on a task. Then, handling emails becomes a task that happens only once or twice in my day.

    The key to this being that clients need to be informed so that they understand these boundaries and in particular why they are important for maintaining focus.

    Set rules. Discuss them with your clients and make sure that everyone who needs to adheres to them. Your ability to focus on solving problems instead of endlessly chasing fires will thank you!

  12. Thank you for this very well written article. It certainly was worth the years wait. As I’m suffering through my own burnout issues and working towards solutions, it’s comforting to know that others have been there.

  13. I think this article is valuable and presents a lot of great information. The one thing I’ll quibble with is the idea that “the 9 to 5 workday is dead.” While stated as a given a few times, I think that this attitude is also one of the frequent causes of burnout. In tough economic times, we are encouraged to work longer hours, often for no increased reward. So keep that in mind and push back on employers or clients: If you want me to work more than eight hours a day, you’ll have to pay me more for the privilege!

    (I’ll also note that many of those asking us to work longer hours balk at working those longer hours themselves!)

  14. Your article really spoke to me. I think the key point for me is “creating a daily routine.” It makes such a difference for me when I shut off the interruptions, even the ones that seem critically important, and set aside blocks of time to get work done. I think that’s one reason that working in the evening or on the weekend is so tempting. Fewer people are around, it’s nice and quiet and you can just go for it on a project. Meanwhile, your family sits in another part of the house, wondering if you’ll ever return….

  15. Wow! This is a great article. This is very helpful especially to my wife who had been working till the wee hours just to cope with her client. She had been into freelancing and works at home. It is really true that most of the time she forgets to set boundaries/limits with the number of hours she have to work. And lately i always hear her whining about being so stress out with her work. She even lacks time to play with our son which is very unlikely her. This article would really help her return to her “life”. Thanks a lot Scott!

  16. I went through burnout last year after some stressful events. Your article is so important for a number of reasons, but one is that is serves as a reminder to be vigilant. Think of it: we find a career/community/lifework/passion all wrapped up together. It’s wonderful. Then, not being vigilant about the things you discuss in your article, we risk losing all that we had or losing our love for it, at any rate. Thanks, too, for your honesty, Scott. Great article.

  17. I’ve read an interesting article (in a magazine on the left of the political spectrum) about the rise in reported ‘burnout’ cases. The article claimed that many of the burnout cases are not due to exhaustion from overwork, dedication and stress from involvement at the workplace, but due to incompetence and personal inequadecies related to work, the conflict between your self-image and reality, and other factors.

    Horrible auto translation: http://translate.google.com/translate?js=n&prev=_t&hl=de&ie=UTF-8&u=http://dasmagazin.ch/index.php/wo-brennts-denn/&sl=de&tl=en&history;_state0=&swap=1

    Half of the burnout patients I know are people stuck in a job they hate, where they idle on facebook (or reddit) all day…

    Instead of looking at the root problem, the inner causes, people blame the outside (work, your girlfriend etc.).

    I think it’s the imbalance between what you want to be, fuelled by society’s illusions, (you are yourself, you are famous, you are important, you can achieve whatever you want, drink a coke and sail towards the sun at the end of the horizon) and the reality of modern life, namely that the largest part of your own destiny is determined by outside influences and that you are indeed, pretty helpless about this thing called life.

  18. First of all, Scott, thanks for writing this article, I think it will resonate a lot with business owners and freelancers alike.

    Next, I just want to comment on kitsune’s final paragraph, which I think is patently untrue. According to “The Atlantic”:http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200906/happiness/3 , quoting The How of Happiness, they cite “that temperamental ‘set points’ for happiness—a predisposition to stay at a certain level of happiness—account for a large, but not overwhelming, percentage of our well-being. (Fifty percent, says Sonja Lyubomirsky in The How of Happiness. Circumstances account for 10 percent, and the other 40 percent is within our control.).”

    So only 10%, barring faulty genetics, of your happiness is based on circumstance you cannot control.

    Meanwhile, I do agree that self-awareness is a very important and healthy part of recognizing burnout and some of the internal causes. You need to be self aware to take advantage of that 40%.

    Now, a question for those who are trying to be proactive about burnout: how do you plan for a vacation as a freelancer? How far ahead do you plan and notify your clients, and how do you maneuver projects around the dates you want to take vacation?

  19. Your article is interesting.

    Probably you describe real experience in work. Others have written about what you describe but they didn’t use the term “Burnout”.

    The human behavior which your term describe was not invented by programmers and is not a dis-ease invented by computer cultures after Brainiac.

    In earlier days it was probably called “the disease of the noon-day sun”; it was or is about people stuck working in the middle of the day where there are no shadows, no energy, it is too hot to eat lunch or do anything else, there is no refreshment.

    In general, trying hard to work in the middle of the metaphorical day was put in the too hard, unrewarding pile. In short it was a human vice.

    In Cathlolic lingo it was a vice called “Acedia”

    I know it is not trendy to reference theological termonology or Catholic lingo; nevertheless it is an interesting point of reference that says people knew about this long ago and far away.

    My main point: programmers aren’t experiencing a new dis-ease, but they are a part of the larger human condition. If who you are is what you do, and you stop doing, you have a big deal on your hands. The mens group I belong to calls this simply: work addiction. Many people have tried it with a wide variety of outcomes.

    To my taste work addiction seems like a more functional description of what is going on than either “Burnout” or “Acedia”. It suggests not just the individual case but also a work culture that promotes or at least tolerates all the behaviors you describe. A solution might be created by the bosses too not just the afflicted worker bees.

    c.f wikipedia:
    (Latin, acedia) is apathetic listlessness; depression without joy. It is similar to melancholy, although acedia describes the behaviour, while melancholy suggests the emotion producing it. In early Christian thought, the lack of joy was regarded as a wilful refusal to enjoy the goodness of God and the world God created; by contrast, the apathy was regarded as a spiritual affliction that discouraged people from their religious work.

    When Thomas Aquinas described acedia in his interpretation of the list, he described it as an uneasiness of the mind, being a progenitor for lesser sins such as restlessness and instability. Dante refined this definition further, describing acedia as the failure to love God with all one’s heart, all one’s mind and all one’s soul; to him it was the middle sin, the only one characterised by an absence or insufficiency of love.

  20. bq. It makes such a difference for me when I shut off the interruptions, even the ones that seem critically important, and set aside blocks of time to get work done.

    Carolyn makes an excellent point about shutting off interruptions (hello Twitter!) but also alludes to the importance of items in your “to do” list. When you’re dealing with multiple responsibilities (eg. projects, clients) it’s not unusual to assume that each one considers itself to be the #1 priority, which doesn’t do you much good because obviously that’s not true. If everything is important then nothing is important.

    Again this comes back to setting boundaries and expectations. For example, don’t immediately jump on responding to an email to put our a burning issue on a project. Gauge the necessary immediacy of it first and put it in the queue. Just because someone wants something right away doesn’t mean they actually _need it_ or should get it. Trust yourself to know if it’s really important to act or set it aside for later.

    In regards to:

    bq. …the reality of modern life, namely that the largest part of your own destiny is determined by outside influences and that you are indeed, pretty helpless about this thing called life.

    While I agree that we shape our own self-images, maybe too often, based on outside factors, I believe we absolutely can control these things for ourselves. How much they affect us, if at all, is entirely in our hands – we’re certainly not helpless.

    Although it’s an existentialist point of view, what you are and what you want to be is up to you. If you want something badly enough, hard work and persistence can help you achieve it. But, and that’s a big “but”, there still need to be lines in the sand that you don’t cross and that others need to respect.

    To use Carolyn’s beautiful phrasing: “be vigilant”.

  21. Lea – some excellent feedback. Thank you!

    In regards to vacations, especially for freelancers who most often don’t have someone to “hold the fort” – my suggestion is to notify clients as far in advance as possible in order to give you both the time needed to schedule work so that it doesn’t run into your vacation or that you’re doing “work” when you should be “away” because of last minute surprises.

    Time away is critically important and while it’s easy to “stay in touch” while you’re away, vacations are intended to give you a chance to recharge your batteries, relax and enjoy life.

  22. I can’t say enough positive things about this article. I have begun sharing it with my family and friends and I hope with support I can begin a conversation that brings about a lot of overdue personal healing. Thank you.

  23. I just registered to say that this is one of the best pieces I have seen written here.
    Articles like this, more than the web, culture, are the reason I love ALA.
    Congrats.

  24. Great article Scott. I’m a freelance web designer that is burned out in Toronto. I should be saying to work but have a hard time doing so.

    I tried taking a week off last summer. I was headed up to Lake Superior for a week of photography when a client called with an emergency as I was heading out the door. Stupid me, answered the phone and spent the day, “saving the day”.

    You have to warn your clients weeks in advance when you are going to take a vacation and stick to your guns. Never answer your phone after 6 PM and if you are on vacation, don’t bring a laptop or anything that enables you to do work. If your clients call you, don’t answer. They need to be trained that when you are on a much needed vacation, that you are unavailable.

    Don’t feed the pigeons and they won’t bother you when you want a peaceful lunch in the park.

  25. Thanks for a beatifully written, honest account of burnout. I descended into the darkness from 2007 – 2008 and it affected every facet of life (I moved city, moved back, closed my business then started again). Whilst things are still stressful I have found that by integrating completely different activities into life (eg Acting classes on Wednesday night) you can rediscover your passion for life and work. As difficult as it may seem to find the time, you will be grateful for the moments where you emerge from what can be an oppressive world of code and pixels and feel a connection to new people and the refreshment of new experiences.

  26. bq. …if you are on vacation, don’t bring a laptop or anything that enables you to do work…

    Bingo or at the very least be extremely disciplined about it. It’s harder to avoid email when you’re wandering around with an iPhone or Blackberry since they’re often very useful when you’re on vacation, but if you’ve set the expectation with clients that you are _away_ then the expectation is just that and they need to respect it just as you would for them.

    I did just that this past March when going down to Austin for SXSW. I purposely did not bring a laptop with me which meant I really couldn’t do work without it being a lot of effort (and having to borrow a friend’s computer). It also meant I had one less thing to lug around. For me this was great and it helped me enjoy SXSW that much more. Also largely being cut off from Twitter when away from WiFi helped too due to roaming data rates.

    In regards to other outside interests – as Bradly (LucidSurf) wisely suggests – make time for them. Real world experiences help inform decisions and can bring new ideas and solutions that you might miss otherwise.

  27. You write, “the last year has made it clear that we as an industry are facing increased levels of stress, illness, and exhaustion.”

    Something about the human condition often makes us want to believe we are experiencing unprecedented things in unprecedented times. Sure, we have ever more technology thrown at us in society — but many of these technological advances are supposedly, and ironically, designed to give us more leisure time — not less. Furthermore, we no longer have to plow fields for 14-hours a day, including weekends.

    So for one to complain that burnout is ever-increasing and somehow unique to “these times” rings hollow. People have been saying this for time eternal… though perhaps strangely less so before the advent of child labor laws, two-day weekends, and customary paid vacation time.

    All of which suggests that you cannot place blame so much on external forces so much as internal ones. There, and only there, is a person able to address their failure to moderate themselves. Because failure of moderation might be the one thing we are experiencing at unprecedented levels: look at obesity rates and overeating, the proliferation of faux “addictions” (diet cola, coffee, shopping, sex…), consumerism and its effect on global warming, bloated mortgages, super-sized vehicles, people who negatively define themselves more by what they do not do (or consume) rather than by what they constructively do, going “cold turkey” on things out of desperation, etc.

    If you want to find the enemy, the enemy is us.

  28. Great article, Scott.

    In my job, I’ve tried (along with others) to move things ahead taking varied approaches, much to no avail. All that spent energy left me wondering why I should keep trying. As the situation remained after returning from a vacation (where I deliberatly avoided checking e-mail for once), the benefits of the time away seemed to quickly disappear.

    I realized I’d been going through the list of signs that you mention near the beginning of your article, and I’m still in the midst of figuring out how to deal with burnout.

    Since getting back from vacation, I’ve talked things out with a few people about my frustrations and challenges, and I’ve come across a few additional ideas that have helped me out. Maybe other will find them useful, too:

    * _Pick your battles, be patient_: don’t try to change everything. Trying to fight for it all before people are ready will only push them further away and waste your energy that could be put to good use elsewhere. Introduce something, maybe provide small nudges here and there, but waiting until people are ready for change may often be your best option, even if it takes much, much longer than you’d like
    * _Look at changing yourself_: in one discussion with my wife, she said to me, “You’ve tried changing how you’re doing things, but have you tried changing yourself?” This helped me see that changing my perspective internally is something I needed to do as well, not just look at other ways to make changes in the outside world. This one’s helped me a lot.
    * _Set goals and steps to accomplish them_: we hear this one a lot, but working towards something tangible sometimes falls to the wayside when caught up in all the effects of burnout. Afer re-examining your goals, pick one or two to pursue, whether in work or personal life. Let others know about them to help make sure you keep working on them. This can help get you energized and re-engaged.
    * _Look for evidence of your influence_: When not everything’s going the way you want, it’s hard to see where you _have_ made a difference. You’ve likely affected someone’s thinking or the direction of some project. Recognize the important “I did that” elements that are around you, no matter how small.
    * _Set limits and a timeline_: Instead of letting a situation drag out indefinitely, set a personal timeline for when you need a situation to change by, and what needs to be changed at each milestone/deadline. You can still try to influence a situation or make other changes in the meantime, but can help you prepare for larger change if it comes into play. As with a good process, it also provides focus, relieving you of needing to look at the “should I stay or go” decision on a constant basis.

    As work is an important part of my life, and not separate from it, I’ve tried to take the approach of “work-life integration” over “work-life balance”. Yet I’ve come to realize that, as you mentioned, there still needs to be boundaries I have between my life at work and life in other aspects. It’s hard to do, especially when you’re passionate and interested in your work as many of us are.

    As it’s 2:30 AM, I guess I should get to sleep now… still working on that part 🙂

  29. Thank you for this article. As I battle similar issues, it’s very comforting to know that there is a community of others like me.

  30. Referring back in particular to “Murray’s comments”:http://www.alistapart.com/comments/burnout/P20/#30 which are spot on along with the comments from “swag”:http://www.alistapart.com/comments/burnout/P20/#29, a lot of the reasons people burnout are entirely as a result of our own wants, needs and expectations being out of sync. External forces play upon those but as suggested are not the sole cause of burnout.

    It’s also never a bad idea to take an objective look at your own needs and re-evaluate whether they’re realistic or not. That alone can really make a big difference in avoiding burnout by helping you decide what battles are worth fighting and which aren’t.

    If the internal and external forces aren’t in sync (out of balance) then we’re likely to fall over. The extent to which they’re out of sync perhaps contributes to how long it takes us to get back up though.

  31. Thank you for the great information! I’d like to add that one major factor for those folks lucky enough not to absolutely NEED to work all hours to survive, is greed and often an employer.

    I’m shocked daily at the classic American work life. 10days vacation p.a. and 60hour work weeks??? And yet, most European companies who offer 4week vacation and 38hour work weeks, get the same amount of work done…

    Luckily, I found a workplace in the US that supports family schedules, remote working, 3/4-time w/benefits, participation in sport and the arts, maternal/paternal leave, sabbaticals, etc… But I suspect my situation is rare in the US and in this industry?

  32. I’m somewhere in the middle of this list at the moment. However, an issue I often have is swinging the other way too far – taking too much time off and not being able to get back into working. Please tell me I’m not alone!

    Thanks for the great article – I may print it out and plaster it to my wall…

  33. This is very spot-on.
    It seems very puzzling to me that the same clients that tend to instant message me at 10pm are the same ones that turn up missing the day before an invoice is due. Does anyone see this happening

  34. This was published at just the right time for me: I’m retraining, trying to leave the Web industry, because I don’t want to keep trying to meet the always-on expectations of co-workers and clients.

    I admire your courage in admitting your burnout. This business romanticizes overwork; I know I’ve been shunned or demoted when I questioned a project’s requirement for long hours versus productive ones.

  35. This is one of the best articles that I’ve read in a long time. I feel like I have started to go down this path, but not near complete burnout. I love my work and am so devoted to it and to bettering myself and my business in the design world I forget about me outside of that. I think your article will help me live outside of the design world a bit more. I wouldn’t be surprised if it actually helps my design in the long run.

    Thanks again.

  36. I think I could be experiencing burnout, or I am just too tired. I know that I have been piling work on, because of the fact that I have been laid off twice in the past year. Once in January, and just two weeks ago.

    It’s tough, because my wife is pregnant, and I have a ton of pressure on me. Especially since I am freelancing. I don’t know exactly what I am feeling, all I know is that I need to figure things out. Fast.

  37. I’m only 28 years old and already I feel like I am facing burnout!! Everyday seems to tire me out and I feel like I am going to colloapse sometimes.Somtimes I think whats the point of working so hard, if I’m going to be too ill to enjoy it. I really have to slow down because in 1 -2 years that will be it!!!

  38. Your article reminded me of workplaces when “every day was a bad day.” I said it from time to time. The people around me said it. It was everywhere. And we weren’t (all) bitter, selfish, resentful slackers. Burnout is contagious. But the good news is, it doesn’t have to be that way. Really. Find something you like to do. Focus on it, focus on the parts that you like the best, but also acknowledge that long hours, icky emails, controlling IM’s and cranky clients may occasionally be part of the big picture. And if the good/bad ratio gets messed up, take as much control as you can and shake it up again.

  39. thanks for the VERY timely article. I have had my ‘dream job’ for 18 months … and now the gloss is starting to wear off because I spend less and less of my day doing what I love and more and more time managing/hand-holding internal clients. Listing the signs of burnout is so helpful! Part of my problem is that I get all this ‘external praise’ for doing the things that lead to burnout! Lots of times people talk about my work ethic and how quickly I get things done – but inside I feel empty. This article reminds me that I need to pursue what satisfies ME, not always what satisfies OTHERS – I need to work on the balance aspect.

    Thanks again for the great article.

  40. Thanks for these important reminders that letting work consume your life can have serious consequences. My husband and I run a small business together, which we thought was a challenge on its own. Then we added a child to the mix a year and a half ago and found out was challenging really was. Suddenly, you place yourself even lower on your own priority list.

    We’ve faced some struggles with work-family balance, and we still work late at night, but we’ve made some changes too. We make sure now that we’re both home for dinner with our daughter and that we always have some fun weekend family time. Having a child certainly helps to put things in perspective.

    Here’s hoping we can unplug on our upcoming vacation – our first real vacation in several years.

  41. I really wish I’d read this about a year ago. Some of the bulleted items that indicate burnout really hit home (though none of the more sever ones).

    “Displacement of conflict (the person does not realize the root cause of the distress)” Check.
    “Behavioral changes become more visible to others.” Check.

    Fortunately, I got out of that job. Which I loved at first. Guess I got bored.

    Good stuff.

  42. Excellent article, spoken from the heart. I’ve felt that way before. I had a job that paid well with good benefits, and I wanted to cry every day while driving to work. Although I had the job for 7 years, one day I just told them I wasn’t coming back, and became a travelling photographer for the next few years. Eventually I became burned out on that as well, except I was a lot poorer.:)

  43. Boy do I know what you’re talking about here… Thanks so much for helping me identify the signs of burnout. I think I’m experiencing a lot of them right now, to be honest, and you have reminded me to take a step back and relax a bit.

    Thanks again!

    – Cherilyn Woodhouse

    “web design,web site design,web page design,copywriter,copy writer,business consultant,internet business consultant”:http://www.bcwebmedia.com

  44. Great article, i had my own burnout at the start of 2006 which is no wonder as I was running 4 different businesses and trying to do everything myself. I think people see the internet as being easier and automated but the truth is that you can suffer from overload online much easier than offline. Best advice you have given is to take a step back and relax take some time off.

    Automate what you can online and if you are needed do the task and take a minutes break the world wont end without you being online.

  45. The topic of burnout is not discussed very often and definitely not in such detail. I guess the younger generation od professionals simply brushes it under the carpet and pretends to move on when they should rather learn to deal with it.

  46. bq. Part of my problem is that I get all this “˜external praise’ for doing the things that lead to burnout! Lots of times people talk about my work ethic and how quickly I get things done — but inside I feel empty.

    *d4kc* brings up something that was a real trigger for me in my own experience with burnout. Getting things done is good. Getting things done in a timely matter is good. Getting things done _too quickly_, and consistently means that you’re probably not focused and jumping around from one thing to the next. It likely means that you’re being interrupted regularly by small fires that need to be put out and that break your train of thought in solving problems – in other words “context shifting”.

    You can think of “context shifting” like switching from one application on the computer to another – each time you have to load up a new set of rules and information before you can do anything. This means you lose focus, and once lost, can be really hard to get back.

    The question to always ask yourself is simply: “Does it need to be done right this second or can this wait until this afternoon or tomorrow?”

  47. Wonderful article. I am still in the midst of trying to get over burnout after getting my graduate degree and being unable to find steady work. I found it to be really inspiring, hopeful and I’m looking forward to emerging on the other side a stronger person.

    Thanks.

  48. For the past 6 months or so I have been noticing a real lack of disconnect. I wake in the morning and check email first thing before anyone wakes up. I put the kids to sleep and get back on after having worked all day. Burnout happened months ago but I pushed through it not recognizing what was going on.

    I really appreciated this article as it made me pause and take inventory. It is summertime and I am motivated to spend time with the kids at the pool and beach more than ever. Thank you for your insight.

  49. Marcus – I was more of less in the same situation – before I realized that I was burnt out I was checking email at crazy hours and working long into the night and brushed the symptoms aside which I really should have just stopped and took a long hard look at what was causing them. Hindsight is 20/20 but the article has done it’s job if it’s helped you even if only in a small way.

    Enjoy your summer and keep making time for yourself and your family so you can find the balance that works for you.

  50. I particularly appreciated the part “Rely on a good process.” For a person that often walks the line of burnout running a web agency it is refreshing to hear others speak up about this and push back. Thanks for the tip on the email usage Franckg. I changed my email to only send receive every 30 minutes and that was a huge help so I can only imagine that increasing this will help more.

  51. Although, it was written a bit late. haha

    About 3 months ago I quit my 6 year design/front end development career and started going back to school for something entirely unrelated to design, media, development, and the web in general. I cant take the industry anymore. Now it’s just a super-selective (almost hobbiest style) freelance gig for me.

  52. Thank you for the article. I am from Bratislava, Slovakia and have absoluely nothing to do with any kind of design.
    But I am burned out, just browsing the Internet to see what the hell is wrong with me as I am sooo tired, frustrated and have no interest in anything. We are having a great business month at work and I cannot care less, eventhough it is my team who brought the business in. I find it difficult to even talk, my husband does not understands what is going on and I do not feel like talking about it.
    But I obviously have to do something about it and I will take in your advice. I am glad I read the article.

    Thank you

    Michaela

  53. Heck, that’s a brilliant article. I’ve never seen something like this targetted at web guys before but by the same token I’ve read we’re amongst the most vulnerable to burnout, alongside doctors and the like. Now hitting my 30s I’m seeing these troubles first hand. My daily dose of Escitalopram keeps me engaged in my work where previously I had a spell where I just wasn’t interested and took time off with depression. Playing a game to give my life a meaning shouldn’t be an actual life and death situation. When burnout arrives it’s like a sense of self presevation kicking in, like your body understands that it’s just playing a game and wants to move you out of harms way in the name of genuine self-preservation. You finish up sort of intentionally behaving in conflict with your own values and aims which makes the whole situation pretty darn rubbish to stomach.

    ‘A little is dangerous’ and ‘planning fallacy’ are the twin banes of the web developer. Tasks come to you with an expectation, usually very much below the mark because an inexperienced technician will not see the full complexity of the task in hand, and won’t be ready to recognise their own inexperience. Couple this with the fact that an experienced techician will have a better idea but generally underestimates anyway ‘planning fallacy’ and you finish up hurtling into the abyss. The end result being unattainable goals and a sense of personal failure when deadlines are missed that drives a developer to do their absolute best and put matters straight. That absolute best is not something that somebody can keep doing for any length of time. If I was to offer advice, it would be to learn to let people know you care when things run over, try to sort it out without overexerting yourself, but never panic and imagine your career or reputation is on the line.

    This is the first article I’ve seen where there’s an understanding that a vocational techy can’t really change roles. If I was sweeping floors I’d go tend bar instead but I’ve put a real investment into my career and want to keep it moving. Thanks for some good reading.

  54. The creative industry is a tough business and it will always be a tough way to make a living. That said, I probably speak for most of us in saying that, “I wouldn’t have it any other way”. I love my job and a periodic creative meltdown is not something that frightens me … In fact, I’ve come to embrace it. There is no point in fighting the inevitable, especially when it gives me the best reason I can ask for to take a vacation.

    Just plan for it and if you are the type who likes to “recharge” on vacation, notify your clients well ahead of time and get an iPhone to track “fires”. I recently disappeared for two weeks and saved three jobs with a few emails. It’s that easy to enjoy time off.

  55. A very nice article. But do people realize that they are on their way to a burnout? Burnout is not a depression, but in some aspects comparable. If you are depressed you can´t just think: “Yes, I´m feeling down, but that´s only because I have a depression. So nothing to worry about. I just have to wait until the depression is over.” Depressive thoughts feel real. One beleves at that moment that this depressive reasoning reflects the truth.
    If I no longer enjoy my work and are fed up with it, it probably wouldn´t come into my mind that this is just because I´m getting a burnout. Being tired from too much work and knowing that ones has to take a good rest, is not a sign of a burnout. I think it´s a mental thing. And one cannot be 2 persons at the same time. One person that is living a burnout and another one that watches the first person like a doctor and tells him what to do and how to better his behavior.

  56. Thank you so much for this article. I’ve lost count of the number of occasions over the years, where I’ve felt like wanting to run away from everything. I wonder how many of us have been ignoring the signs? A lot of us are feeling pressured into getting work done, in order to retain clients. In a recession, the fear of being out of work raises the pressure even more. I’ve bookmarked this one for future reference.

  57. Oddly enough, I had a teacher who would take on huge contracts, work non-stop for a few months to the point of burnout, and then take a few weeks off.

    Having gone through a burnout myself back in 2001, it’s something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. The smallest tasks seem like a mountain. Never again. Exercise, take time off, learn to say no. I’ve started martial arts, and the extreme workouts have not just helped against burnout but give me more energy, less sicks day and a clearer mind. Eating well is also important. Your body is a machine and needs to be taken care of the same way you would car for your automobile or computer.

  58. Wow, this article is exactly what I needed a couple of years ago. I had massive burnout, it was literally killing me. I got out of the company I was in then thinking that would solve it. All it did was lead to burnout in another environment.

    Luckily I was able to get things under control, even though it’s a constant struggle to keep from falling into bad habits that can lead to burnout. The biggest help for me was to set very strict boundaries. When it’s me time or family time, client phone calls do not get answered, period. It’s amazing to me that today’s culture has become such that clients expect you to be there for them 24/7. I even went through a period without a cell phone and the world kept turning and I was happier.

    Today’s culture, especially in the U.S., seems to think that anything less than the type of intense work that leads to burnout is laziness. It’s absolutely ridiculous.

    Thanks for the article. It’s a very important subject matter and you handled it very well.

    “Shiba Inu”:http://www.shibainupup.com
    “Shiba Inu puppies”:http://www.shibainupup.com

  59. Neurofeedback or brain training is a great way to decrease stress and increase creativity. My friend told me about it who was addicted to her Blackberry. She was finally able to relax again in the evening and on weekends. I tried it and it helped tremendously with writer’s block and creativity.

  60. The article is well written for the most part; however, I disagree with the author’s comment regarding career change being rarely a realistic option. Sometimes career change is a solution for those who may have exhausted all other alternatives connected to relieving his/her symptoms of burn out. I am certain that most of us know people (if not ourselves) who have changed careers up to three or four times before finding the one that aligned with their personal values and goals.

    Though career change may seem tough in the beginning, there are plenty of support services out there to help with the transition. Also, in light of the current state of our economy, more Americans are using the effects of the recession as a means to pursue their passion or to find purpose, considering that job security is also a concept of the past.

    From experience, a good rule of thumb for anyone considering career change as a solution to burn out would be to measure his/her personal values and beliefs against the values and mission statement of the company to which he/she is applying. Sometimes a misalignment between employee and employer (company culture) may contribute to burnout down the road.

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