While that period of my life is a bit of a blur, I remember that moment distinctly. It was the moment I knew something was deeply wrong - that I had no motivation left for my work, and that things were out of control.
I felt like a failure, and I had no clue how to fix it.
It's taken me a year to recover from burnout and to be ready to write this article. I've learned a lot over the last year – about myself, my self worth and values, and building a balanced life – and I hope some of those lessons might benefit others in the same situation.
Strap in - this story's a long one.
Burnout is a cunning thief. It feeds on your passion, your energy, and your enthusiasm, taking these positive qualities and turning them into exhaustion, frustration, and self-doubt. It's way more than just having a bad day, or being tired and worn out. As an article in New York magazine described it, burnout is "a problem that’s both physical and existential, an untidy agglomeration of external symptoms and private frustrations".
The best definition of burnout I've come across is a chronic state of being out of sync with one or more aspects of your life.
Think of it like riding a bicycle. When everything's running smoothly, your work, life, and enthusiasm all balance, and you feel valued and fully engaged in your work.
But when these aspects get out of sync for too long, you lose your balance and fall down. Unlike riding a bike, though, with burnout, once you're down, it can be a real challenge to get back up.
The leading researchers on burnout in the workplace are Drs. Michael P. Leitner and Christina Maslach. In their book, The Truth About Burnout, they outline six major imbalances between employees and their work that often lead to burnout:
You don't need to have a severe mismatch in all six of these areas to be at risk. In fact, a mismatch in even one area can put you on the path to burnout.
I personally experienced at least four of these imbalances last year, but my road to burnout started long before that.
Four years ago, I was working as a software engineer here in Denver. I was part of a great team, I enjoyed the work, and it left plenty of room for working on side projects and some freelancing.
After a year working for that company, I was promoted to become the manager of my team. Suddenly, my day-to-day responsibilities were very different. I spent more and more time learning things like project management, and less and less time on my own projects.
Slowly – enough that I never noticed – I stopped creating. Because it wasn't helping me build my career, I felt it wasn't important. I stopped working on side projects, I stopped freelancing, and instead, I spent all my energy managing and building my team.
Fast forward to early last year, and I’d moved on to a different company and was working as a product manager. Now typically, as a product manager, your job is to work closely with customers and understand their needs, but the company structure kept me from doing this properly. We were flying blind, working on projects that provided little benefit to our customers.
Around the same time, my manager left the company. Suddenly without direction, I started feeling more and more disconnected. My work was no longer motivating, and it became harder and harder to stay focused. I felt like I was failing – like I should be able to make things work, but for some reason, I couldn't.
I tried to compensate the only way I knew how – by working harder – but that only made things worse. Over the course of a few months, I went from highly productive and motivated, to feeling exhausted and doubting every decision I made.
Things eventually became so bad that I couldn't make myself care about work, and struggled to motivate myself to do anything. I couldn't even face my colleagues, so I found the only place I could be alone – the emergency stairwell – and I cried.
I knew something was deeply wrong, but I had no idea what it was, or how to fix it.
It took a long time for me to realise what I was experiencing was burnout.
I did feel tired, but I wasn't overworked. I rarely arrived at the office before 8am, and I was home before 5pm nearly every day. I was working with a team of talented and motivated engineers and designers, solving what should have been fun and challenging problems. Weekends were spent relaxing with family.
I never had more work on my plate than I could handle. In fact, my workload and working conditions were what most people would consider ideal. The perfect job.
And therein lies the trap.
When you read about other people's experience of burnout, they almost always talk about it being caused by the workload. Long hours, weekends spent at the office, unrealistic deadlines, imposing bosses. Stress and overwork on a daily basis.
When I thought about burnout, this is what I imagined, but my situation couldn't be more different.
I wasn't overworked, but I was exhausted all the time. I couldn't concentrate on my work – even simple tasks like responding to emails felt monumental. I was only able to work at a mere fraction of what I knew I was capable of. Things that used to be easy were almost impossible. I was plagued with insomnia and found myself forgetting meals. My creativity had vanished - I could barely even respond to emails, let alone design a product.
Joyful activities, like playing with my infant daughter, suddenly felt like an obligation and a chore. I had a remarkably short temper - I would lash out at loved ones over the tiniest little problems. I felt incapable, overwhelmed, and trapped – and when people pointed out that something was wrong, it only dug the hole even deeper.
Most of all, I felt weak. And I felt ashamed of feeling weak. I felt like I should be able to power through and work things out on my own. And when I couldn't, I felt even worse.
For months I kept going, trying to work through the stress and frustration, but it only became worse. People started to notice something was wrong, but each question they asked, no matter how well-intentioned, just made me feel more ashamed. I tried bringing it up with my manager, even giving them a few options like temporarily dropping back to four days a week, but their only response was that they needed someone full-time.
And so it went, deeper and deeper, until that day in the stairwell. My wife convinced me to use all my vacation time to try and clear my head. I ended up taking two weeks off, but it didn't help. I spoke with my manager, said goodbye to a few trusted team members, and never went back. It was one of the hardest decisions I've ever had to make.
Burnout isn't something that goes away on its own - the recovery is just as slow and painful as what caused the burnout in the first place.
Regaining your balance will take longer than you expect, but you'll learn a ton about yourself and what you really want from your life in the process.
When I quit, we were lucky enough to have some savings stashed away, giving me the flexibility to take some time off to recharge. I thought it would take a month, maybe two before I'd feel ready to work again.
Ultimately, I didn't feel back to normal for six months.
Throughout that time, my wife and I talked about our future, and what we wanted out of our lives. We planned out what needed to change for us to get there.
And bit by bit, I started feeling like myself again. My creativity started to come back, I worked on some projects around the house, and I was once again enjoying the company of my daughter.
Now, coming up on two years since I hit bottom, I've embraced real change in my life and my work. My wife and I are both happily self-employed – she's running her own private couples counseling practice, and I'm helping creative entrepreneurs grow meaningful businesses. We both spend more time with each other, and with our daughter, and our stress levels are way down. I'm even creating a free email course in finding more meaning and happiness at work. I think I'm more balanced, and I understand more about what I truly care about than I ever did before.