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Avoiding Burnout: Tips for the Tech Worker

Programming is a well-paid profession, but the competitiveness of the industry can make it hard to handle workloads. Here are some basic methods to prevent burnout.
Andrea Tallarita
Andrea Tallarita

It is only in very recent times, as the Covid-19 pandemic forced the entire planet to come to terms with the implications of working from home, that the tech world has finally stopped treating mental health on the workplace as a taboo. Rather than disseminating the toxic myth that programmers should constantly be pushing themselves to their limit or face being left behind by a rapidly evolving world, there is now a greater willingness to acknowledge the human dimensions of work in coding.

It is precisely because we love coding and coders, that we’d like to take some time to discuss the most common mental health hazard confronted by tech workers. As importantly, we’d like to share some basic strategies that will help you prevent it.

The hazard in question is called ‘burnout’. You may have heard the word employed in more casual contexts (“I was totally burned out after that long party!”), but in the world of tech, it refers to something more specific. Burnout, as officially defined by the WHO, typically results from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. Its most common symptoms are constant exhaustion, a marked sense of cynicism or negativity about one’s job, and/or a sharp reduction in work efficiency.

If you are experiencing these symptoms, and they are already severe, then stop reading this article – immediately take a break from work, and see your doctor. If you are only mildly or relatively affected, or you just feel you are going in that direction due to overwork, then here are six steps which can help you reverse the trend.

Make peace with your sleeping patterns

Sleep deprivation inevitably leads to stress, which further inhibits sleep, thus causing more stress – and so on in a vicious cycle. Or perhaps you sleep enough, but at unmanageable, constantly varying hours of the night and of the day. Note that the risk of chaotic sleeping patterns is especially high if you are working from home.

If you have trouble falling asleep, start by making sure you get regular exercise, look into natural remedies (believe it or not, counting sheep does help some people!), and do not be shy about consulting your doctor: there are solutions. If you can sleep but your sleeping patterns are broken, then it’s time to set alarms: one to wake up at a regular hour, and another to tell you when to go to sleep. It takes at least three days to break an irregular sleeping pattern, so stick to these alarms and be diligent: they may be a bitter pill to swallow, but they’ll start getting you back on track.

Assess your workload

If you are getting abnormally tired from or at work, the most common reason is overwork. Alternatively, it could be the case that your workload is adequate, but organised in a way that results in unnecessary stress. So break it down, and identify the drains where your energy is being scuppered. Find the tasks which are eroding you, and reform or reorder them, or if necessary remove them altogether. You should not be afraid of speaking with your manager about lightening your workload – which segues nicely into the next point.

Take control of your time

Often the person who will not allow you to take a break is you. If you get anxious about stepping away from work, remember that your professional duty is to be productive with your time, and not to spend every last minute of it in front of a monitor. Schedule regular breaks (hours or whole days), and then allow yourself to take them, without feeling guilty. If you live with your family, then make sure you are spending enough time with them.

As well, be firm with your managers and clients about your need for time. Knowing when to say no is a hallmark of professionalism, and it’s not only completely sensible when faced with a request that jeopardises your mental health – it’s the only right thing to do.

Talk to others

Here’s another vicious cycle: stress erodes communication channels, and reduced communication leads to more stress. The stigma on burnout as a marker of weakness or unreliability doesn’t help people open up either.

Lean on your friends and family. Talk it out. By sharing the problem with others, you will be taking some of the weight off yourself – which also means that when you do work, your mind will be less cluttered.

Shut down the voices from the web

Switch off your social media accounts for a while. Reduce your use of emails and your exposure to news. Burnout symptoms include a sense of disconnect and disenchantment about your work, and both of these things are exacerbated when you have a thousand algorithms tugging at your attention from the outside – all the more so if they are feeding you a hollow simulacrum of social life, or telling you that the world is burning.

Be compassionate towards yourself

If you’re experiencing symptoms of burnout, and you’re practising some or all of the above steps in an effort to reduce them, then know that you will sometimes stumble. You will sleep through an alarm, you will work late into the night against your better judgment, you will be swept up in a debate on Facebook after telling yourself to stay away from the platform. When – not if – that happens, don’t berate yourself. Understand that you’re working your way through a rough patch and that you are only human, and be patient with the process.

As importantly, understand that it’s not your fault. Burnout tends to be stereotyped as a ‘person problem’, but far more often it’s a workplace problem. Poor mental health symptoms picked up at work come from a flawed environment, not from something that’s flawed within you.

Thus, identify and discuss the issues with your colleagues, and look for ways to fix them. Then, if you try all these methods and find you still can’t change things, that’s probably your cue to move on somewhere else. Or, even better, take a break from work altogether. The chemicals in your brain can’t be calmed down with a paycheck, and keeping them balanced is worth more than any job out there.

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