The first thing I know about burnout is this: burnout happens when we become locked in a cycle of caring about the results of our actions but having no meaningful control over those outcomes. I first learned this while reading about social workers, but the problem is abdundant in tech. I’ve seen it play out in every company and volunteer organization I’ve been a part of. When responsibility, authority, and resources are not aligned, burnout is inevitable.
2013 was one of the absolute worst years of my adult life. I was depressed, burned out, at a job that seemed to have become stagnant, and struggling to decide how to move forward. Then one of my closest friends committed suicide, followed by another friend a month later. I spent the next few months in crisis mode, doing the next obvious step, whatever that was. As the dust settled I realized: if I keep doing things the way I have been, I am going to die.
With the help of a therapist, I started to piece together what was wrong. Not only was my job stagnant and demoralizing, the things I did for “fun” constituted an entire unpaid second job’s worth of work in open source and community organizing. My family relationships brought me all stress and no support. I didn’t have the resources to make any of these situations better on my own, and through trying to fix things anyhow, I had no energy left to care for myself.
I quit. First my job: I took a month off before starting at a larger company where I’d be working alongside a friend. Then I resigned from the board of the nonprofit I was on, even though it made me feel like a complete and utter failure. I declared myself to be on sabbatical from anything that didn’t feel fun. Not that I knew what fun would look like anymore. I was still depressed and anhedonic.
I focused on keeping a steady pace at work, and trying to rediscover self-care and fun by treating it as a series of experiments. Do I feel well cared for if I stop for fancy coffee every morning? Can I rediscover my creativity by doing the same crafts as a grade-schooler? It seemed ridiculous at times, and often I could only keep it going by treating it like a role-playing exercise and making up a persona. “I’m a person with posh tastes and an incredible sense of style. Everything I want, I have. My favorite daily habit is to walk along the waterfront at lunch.”
Finally, in early 2014, I felt I was starting to turn the corner. At last! This was recovery. Saying no to things felt like a super power. No, I can’t help you with that. No, I can’t come to a meeting. You want to start a group for allies of women in tech? I can’t help you, but that’s awesome! Have fun!
Work was finally going well, too, then suddenly it wasn’t. I discovered that despite the verbal emphasis on health and work/life balance, hitting the end of a release cycle meant panic and crunch time. It was such a dramatic shift from the previous six months, I was in shock. I started asking questions and pushing back, which resulted in a round of negative feedback from my manager.
Oh, burnout, I recognize you. Here we go again. Since talking to management wasn’t working, I kept my rabble-rousing to conversations with peers. Morale in our department was so low. Everyone seemed to know what was wrong, but no one with the power or authority to change it was listening. That started to be the thing I looked for: who in our company had to speak up before anything we needed would happen?
I went through a terrible dark month where I thought I was about to be fired. I didn’t feel effective at all, I couldn’t focus, and not being able to talk openly about what I was thinking was draining all my energy. On top of that, I started to felt marginalized in other ways. The company was growing, but the level of diversity was not. Increasingly I felt, as one of only a few women developers in the department, that I stuck out like a sore thumb, and doubly so because I had been told my communication style was too negative and overbearing.
Tech feminists, followed by news outlets, started talking about the problem of mid-career dropout rates for women. I read all the research I could find, and nodded along. Lack of mentoring and support, no career advancement past a certain point, tone policing, it all fit. Suddenly, my work experiences seemed like they were part of an even bigger pattern. This was good and bad: even if I didn’t get fired, how long could I last?
They didn’t fire me, and we started to see small improvements, but nothing that could restore my trust. I started to feel like I could escape the burnout of cycle again, if nothing else, by caring less. At the end of the year, when the teammate I’d joined the company to work with left for another job, I reevaluated my options.
A friend asked me, if you’re looking for work, send me some requirements and I’ll keep an eye out for anything that matches. I thought about it for weeks, completely stumped. It was like my earlier phase of burnout recovery: how could I know what would sound rewarding or fun? What am I even qualified to work on next? Finally, one evening on the bus home from work, I typed out an email.
I said, I don’t know how this is going to be a job, but I want to get back to the root of why I became involved in technology in the first place. It’s because I discovered the Internet, which ended my teenage isolation and allowed me to connect with other people. I care deeply about the tools and infrastructure this is built on, and how they affect our ability to communicate.
A few weeks later, a timely suggestion gave me the idea for a business built from those desires. I made a plan, and tried to balance the things inside my comfort zone with the things I would need to learn. It’s still early days, but going to work for myself was the best decision I could have made, and it’s only been possible because of last year’s sabbatical from unpaid work, a really amazing therapist, and endless love and support from friends.
This next phase, I think, is rebuilding. Running a business is exciting, and complicated, and hard. I have to learn something completely new every few weeks. I also don’t have the level of funding that I really need to feel comfortable yet. A week or two in, though, I thought: the hardest day of working for myself is never going to be as bad as trying to survive in a company where I didn’t fit. So far, that seems to be right.
My story isn’t a prescription for anyone but me. I pulled off a pretty great trick: creating space to recover from burnout in one area of my life, while coasting in others, then rotating until I finally had the mental and emotional space to plan my full escape. But it has changed how I think about burnout, and how I want to help other people if I can. Burnout is a structural issue, built into the dysfunctions of our industry. Burnout is made out of individualism, and meritocracy, and doing too much with too little. Burnout is built on the idea that if we skip a meal and work more hours, we might finally get ahead.
Structural problems require structural solutions. Healthy organizations, healthy people. Someone I know who’s in alcohol recovery told me, at the root of our problems is the belief that individuals can bear responsibility for personal failures caused by societal oppression. I want to see burnout recovery support, and burnout recovery funds. At its worst, people die while trying to earn enough money to escape this environment. How can any of us get better if we can’t afford to extract ourselves from the environment that caused the harm?
If you hear yourself in my story, remember that you’re not alone. Getting better will take time, distance, and support. Burnout closes off our options, makes us feel like everything we do will fail. When you’re finally in recovery, you’ll start to be able to see what an environment that doesn’t do that to you looks like. Then we can build it together.