Suddenly, after years of planning, managing, exceeding goals and conquering challenges, you realize that you no longer really care very much about your work. Formerly exciting activities, such as leading, influencing and innovating, don’t matter much anymore. These days, your biggest work-related thrill is playing the games you find on Slack.
There’s a word for this feeling. It’s called “burnout.”
Jack Bedell-Pearce, managing director of 4D Data Centres, a U.K. data center operator, is familiar with the causes and consequences of burnout. Having co-founded the company over a decade ago, he says he has burned out more than once and learned some important lessons each time.
“The causes are obvious to an outsider, but not so much when you’re living them,” he explains. Long hours, being on-call 24/7, responding to incidents on a weekend and the pressure of hitting sales targets are all features of a fast-growing technology company that will inevitably lead to a crash. “When you’re young, you feel invincible, but over time your body and mind can’t cope, and things start to go wrong,” Bedell-Pearce observes.
If your hard work has driven you to the point where you feel you may be risking a burnout, watch out for these seven tell-tale signs.
A common burnout symptom is diminishing interest in everyday work tasks and interests. For IT leaders, a lack of excitement about future technologies is a clear warning sign, notes Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of CompTIA, a nonprofit technology industry trade association. “When words like ‘blockchain’ and ‘IoT’ elicit deep sighs and slumped shoulders, you’re seeing burnout,” he claims.
When no amount of sleep or rest provides adequate refreshment, it’s time to take a step back and examine why. Once medical reasons have been excluded, the likeliest cause is overwork. “IT is a 24×7, big ticket, high stakes game; it is grueling,” observes Diane Dagefoerde, deputy CIO at The Ohio State University. “When an IT leader loses touch with the mission … all that’s left is the daily grind.”
IT leaders are routinely expected to provide fast, accurate solutions to complex problems. Yet many IT issues, such as hardware bugs and cloud service failures, can only be resolved by external providers, which often takes time. Dealing with such distractions can lead to concentration problems. “Never has so much of the infrastructure been out of the direct control of the IT team,” Thibodeaux states. “It’s like someone walked up on your treadmill and turned it to 11.”
Getting into arguments with colleagues, acquaintances and family members, or suddenly harboring a general feeling of frustration and/or seething anger, are warning signs that something is seriously wrong. “Individuals experiencing burnout are dealing with friction, both in the workplace and at home,” Dagefoerde observes. An IT leader’s burnout affects their entire team. “In the early stages, friction begins to form, making it harder to get things done within and across teams, ” she says. “In later stages, teams start missing performance targets.”
Under chronic stress, work that was once loved and energizing can begin feeling burdensome, creating a source of unhappiness, warns Jacinta M. Jiménez, a Stanford University-trained doctor of psychology and coaching head at BetterUp, a career leadership development firm. “This can turn into resentment, which shows up on the job and at home.”
More frequent colds, stomach upsets and other common complaints can be a sign of running out of steam. “Along with the psychological repercussions, putting one’s body into a chronic stress state can take a major toll on your immune system and you may find yourself coming down with ailments more often than usual,” Jiménez explains.
It’s okay to occasionally think about work matters on weekends or holidays, but when job-related thoughts become constant and overriding, burnout is a strong possibility. Thibodeaux notes that many IT leaders lack the ability to turn off their brains when away from the office. Such behavior, however, can be both counterproductive and stressful. “The to-do list never seems to get shorter, which creates anxiety and can lead to depression,” he says. “Performance slips because everything seems like a primary priority.”
Burnout sufferers often acquire what Sarah Deane describes as “escape behaviors.” “These could include eating unhealthy food, drinking or other behaviors to try and escape,” says Deane, founder of EffectUX, a firm that offers a data-driven, human behavior-based approach for cultivating positive, productive and resilient business cultures.
Jiménez adds that it’s important to remember that burnout doesn’t happen suddenly. “It is not an ‘on and off’ switch,” she notes. Burnout is actually far more insidious, gradually chipping away at good habits and other positive personal attributes, such as bathing and shaving. “Your body and mind will definitely give you warnings, but you have to be paying attention … to catch them early on,” she observes.
Reigniting a burned-out professional life requires periodically pulling back and entering a period of self-examination, Deane says. “It’s important to take a close look at your life.” She recommends journaling, recording both feelings and time use. “By logging daily, you can look back and identify patterns and causes to inform the changes you need to make,” she explains.
Deane also suggests building a healthy lifestyle foundation. “Hold yourself accountable for self-care,” she suggests. “It may seem daunting to put your needs first, but basic self-care is a ‘non-negotiable’ to bring your best self to what you do.” Elements of self-care include adequate exercise, nutrition and sleep. “However, it also includes self-compassion,” Deane adds.
Jiménez believes that IT leaders looking to avoid burnout might want to consider working with a career coach. “Having someone who solely is invested in your well-being as well as your professional and personal development can be the difference between burning out or sustaining oneself,” she notes. “When you are chronically stressed, your ability to keep a broader perspective in view can become compromised; this is when talking to an objective third-party is invaluable.” A coach can also hold an IT leader accountable for his or her actions, keep the individual’s thinking in check and help develop a plan to sustain a positive work outlook.
Dagefoerde says a coach can also help an IT leader suffering from burnout frame their current situation in real-world terms. “When I coach IT leaders through burnout, one thing we focus on is this desire for a mythical future state where everything runs smoothly, decisions get made on time [and] employees all carry their loads.” She then shocks the leaders back to reality. “I tell them, ‘Don’t want what you don’t want!'” After all, Dagefoerde explains, “Most IT folks love solving messy problems and would be bored to tears in a smooth environment.”
Nonetheless, when things get hairy on the job, taking a micro-break to re-energize is a proven way to avoid burning out. “When you feel yourself losing focus, take a quick break,” Deane suggests. “A couple of minutes to refresh your mind can help you increase concentration and productivity.” She notes that a micro-break can take many forms, and it’s important to experiment with what type of break works best. “This could be a quick walk, watching a video clip or a few minutes of silence,” Deane explains. “Re-energizing yourself throughout the day can keep you in a more positive and productive state.”
Thibodeaux believes that clearly prioritizing and distributing daily workloads is fundamental to long-term stress reduction. “As an IT leader, it’s your responsibility to force the organization to focus its resources on the highest value activities and not let senior leadership get distracted,” he says. Periods of heavy loads and potential burnout are also opportunities for greater staff empowerment. “Figure out who can take on expanded roles and give them the leeway to explore,” Thibodeaux suggests. “It’s also a time to reset your expectations about what’s possible,” he adds.
Bedell-Pearce recalls that a burnout episode showed him that exercise can play an important role in boosting the immune system while also providing more daily energy. “Healthy eating and cutting down on smoking and booze will also help,” he notes. Yet burnout avoidance and recovery should always be viewed as a marathon, Bedell-Pearce cautions. “Yo-yoing from ultra-good habits to bad ones can be just as destructive, so [keep] everything in moderation, including the occasional G&T (gin and tonic).”
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