I always thought “burnout” was a misnomer. “Burnout” invokes imagery like a match or campfire running out of fuel, there’s no recovery from that. ”Burn-in” sounds more apt to me1. If you leave a TV on one channel for a long time, you will notice the logo etched into your screen, even after changing the channel. It’s burned in! With burnout, a sense of futility is burned into your work life.
That sounds like depression!
The effects of burnout are very similar to depression. Psychologists suspect that depression may cause burnout, or burnout may cause depression. The WHO recognizes burnout as an official medical condition, but unlike depression, it’s specific to work.
Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
- reduced professional efficacy.
Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.
The Mayo Clinic has a much more thorough description, but there is one cause of burnout that it left out: meaningless work. This is particularly insidious because it can take different forms and is subjective.
- Work seemingly has no impact for a meaningful cause.
- Work has impact for a meaningless cause.
- Ambiguity of expectations.
Work ethic is not a defense
I’ve burned out quite a few times in my life, but I was often in denial2.
Burnout? I don’t get burnout, my work ethic won’t let me. I took one vacation in five years and felt fine. I had a three hour commute by bike, train, light rail, then bike again, for two years. I can handle anything!
A high pain threshold is not a defense against burnout. I didn’t recognize the signs until I was burnt to a crisp. At that point, taking two weeks off is like squirting a water gun at a 5-alarm fire.
I always powered through whenever I burned out. In other words, I burned myself by putting my hand in a fire, but instead of recoiling, I “powered through” as my hand turned to ash. I only just realized the magnitude of my stupidity after writing this.
Burnout-imposed impostor syndrome
Maybe I can’t do this anymore. Have I ever been able to?
I have imposter syndrome at the start of every new job, it fades over time. A second wave of imposter syndrome hits after burnout. My battery is always low, my mind is foggy, and all my spoons are missing. It’s nearly impossible to do good work in this state. I start doubting if I’ve ever done good work, or ever will.
When I am not burnt out, I look at my past work and think, “wow, that’s garbage.” When I am burnt out, I think, “wow, I used to be a badass, I could never do that now.”
Continuous feelings of incompetence induces depression3. The key word is “feelings,” you don’t actually need to be incompetent to feel incompetent. Feelings of incompetence causes burnout, and burnout causes feelings of incompetence. A negative feedback loop! Behold, the wonder of recursion!
Do nothing if you can. Do less if you can’t.
This is the most consistent advice I’ve found, and I don’t doubt it’s efficacy. There may be a few other things you can try before quitting or just doing less at work.
Take control of your work
If what you’re doing isn’t working, do something else. Propose, push, and champion work that you want to do. This can lead to more impactful work and give you at least an illusion of control.
This may be counter intuitive, but if you can’t find meaningful work at work, you can try finding it on your own. When I am burnt out, sometimes I don’t want to touch code. Other times, all I want to do is code. Building things that I want to see in the world has helped me remember why I enjoy it.
Helping people is meaningful and just makes you feel good. Often, we are too far removed from the people we ostensibly help at work. Helping others comes in all forms and sizes. Find a way that you enjoy, and it may help you pull your hand out of the fire.