Working in tech means working with your brain. Fixing a bug in your project can take so long that you don’t feel any severe progress by the end of your working day. When you try to call it a day, you feel mentally exhausted, and you can’t stop thinking about the problems you encountered during the day. The next day, you are still exhausted, don’t know where to start your work, lack focus and concentration.
Hopefully, this is not a description of your weekly routine. Everyone has a bad day or two every once in a while. But if you can relate to the above description for your life situation, and not just for a bad day, you might have an increased risk of burnout.
If you are reading this while feeling severely burnt out or depressed, you should talk to a professional. Of course, you’re free to read further and try to find something that might help you. However, you shouldn’t trust a random guy’s advice on the internet. If you don’t know who might help you, seek advise from your general practitioner, your municipal medical authorities, or a local hospital.
If you’re living in the UK or US, here is some guidance to get immediate help:
What is Burnout
Stress at work is somewhat common and nothing to worry about unless you feel stressed frequently. Experiencing stress at work can cause troubles, including feeling burnt out.
If you suffer from any of the following symptoms, you might be at risk of developing or having burnout. Seek help in that case from your General Practitioner if you feel unable to take action in order to change your situation.
- Feeling exhausted and tired most of the time
- Thinking that every day is bad
- Feeling “nothing”
- Working on tasks that feel overwhelming most of the time
- Isolating yourself from friends and family
- Losing motivation
Stress vs. Burnout
The difference in being stressed and burnt out can be characterized by emotions and reactions.
|Drive||Urgent, Hyperactive||helpless, hopeless|
|Mental health risks||Anxiety||Depression, Detachment|
How to Prevent and Recover
There is a lot of health advise out there, and often, it seems repetitive. The following list is no exception, though.
It’s like drinking water: Your body needs it, and not drinking enough will cause severe health issues. There is no shortcut; there is no secret magic to instruct your body to need less water.
The same is true for your mental health: There are certain things that your brain needs to avoid burnout or recover from challenging situations. Of course, there are individual differences in humans. What might help one person might not be a good fit for another person. Overall, however, there are some fundamental factors which you might want to improve.
Each item on the following list contains a list of actionable items, respectively ordered by increasing difficulty of motivation. Of course, the ordering is not meant to be a to-do list: You don’t have to proceed from the first item to the last one. Instead, you just pick an idea that not only appeals to you but that also seems like a reachable goal for today – not next week.
Open Your Senses
As a software developer or any other tech worker, your focus is primarily on rational problem-solving. You write code, design architectures, or translate a business challenge into a technical solution. All these areas of your work demand very little from all your senses: Hear, smell, taste, see, touch. Of course, you use your senses, but only as a utility. In order to train your senses, it is helpful when you start trying to explore the world around you a bit more. Challenge your senses so that they become receptible again for impressions other than work-related ones. This also trains your brain to become more sensitive for change and your mind to become more empathic to the signals of your own body.
Here are some ideas:
- Every 15 minutes, let your gaze wander around the room or out the window to relax your eyes.
- Instead of having everything at your desk, get up for snacks or a new glass of water to notice your surroundings
- During your lunch break or after work, try to go for a short walk. See what you notice: Smells, sounds, temperature on your skin, visual impressions.
- Take a long walk every weekend. Look at nature. What are the seasons like? What grows, what makes noise, how does wind feel on your skin?
- Find a new experience every once in a while: An activity that you can experience with all of your senses. Maybe you could try making music with drums? A day in the spa? Whatever appeals to you: Try it!
Eat and Drink Well
You are what you eat. Luckily we have a good and safe supply of food in large parts of the world. Over-eating snacks always relying on the convenience of fast food can, on the other hand, cause severe health problems, including mental health issues. Eating and drinking well is a challenging topic on its own, so you might want to improve step by step with these ideas:
- Drink enough water (2-3l or 90oz for most women; 3-4l or 125oz for most men) over the course of the day
- Reduce caffeine intake as coffee will boost your circulation only temporary
- Reduce sweetened drinks as much as possible
- Stay away from alcohol
- Eat at least one piece of fresh vegetable or fruit every day
- Prepare at least one meal every day from fresh ingredients
- Make plants an essential part for your meals
- Don’t eat mindlessly: Listen to your body and try to limit food intake to a time window of 6 or 8 hours per day
Moving clears your brain and makes you more healthy. Scientific studies explain various connections between exercise and (mental) health, including the release of serotonin. Serotonin is a body hormone that is responsible for general well-being. Some therefore also call it the “happiness hormone”.
So, among other effects, a lack of exercise will inevitably lead to a low mood. This is true even if you yourself have the impression that it is the thought of exercise itself that creates a bad mood. But: We are talking about exercise here, not competitive sports. Here, too, small steps like the following are often the key to success:
- Take the stairs, not the elevator
- Try buying groceries every day by foot, instead of a week in advance by car
- Try holding meetings outside or use your lunch break to get some daylight
- Commute to work by bicycle
- Do sporty activities with your friends or family
- Have a short workout at your gym or use your do it at home using your body weight or resistance bands every few days
- Find a team sport that you enjoy
- Do strength training
- Use a guided meditation app like Calm and try to practise for 10 minutes every other day
- Try to focus on nothing but your breath and your heartbeat for 5 minutes every day in a quiet place
- Dedicate a space in your home for meditation only and practise when you wake up and before you go to bed
- Try to get into a meditative state by using the guided meditations less and less.
Build Routines (Hobbies, Routines, Sleep)
Humans in general love routines. That doesn’t mean that each of your days should look like the other. You can and should be creative when shaping your life. However, there are some routines (or rituals) that you might find helpful. Again, don’t shape your life in a way that anything becomes a routine. Just try something and pick what fits best for you. When establishing a new habit, as a rule of thumb, it takes around 30 days until the new routine feels natural to you.
However, don’t feel pressured from building a habit. If you skip your newly acquired habit once or twice, don’t let that bring you down. Just continue with your progress.
- Step into and out of your bed at approximately the same time each day
- Before going to bed, dim the lights and stop looking on any screens for at least half an hour before you fall asleep
- Practise habit-building by easy habits like drinking a glass of water before each meal
- Find hobbies that you can do alone without much preparation, like knitting, painting, Legos, making music, …
- Find hobbies that you can do with your friends
- Reach out to friends and family more frequently
- Identify habits that you want to get rid of
Allow yourself a disconnect from technology from time to time.
- Turn your notifications off after work hours
- Allow yourself a distraction-free time and try to turn off notifications during work. If it works out well, try to increase these time spans
- Have a #digitaldetox day every once in a while and stay away from any screen
Anything Worth Doing Is Worth Doing Poorly
How should you motivate yourself to do some sports if you have trouble doing anything in the first place? How should you follow a guideline on a healthy diet if that increases the list of things you have to think about? How should you meditate if you feel you don’t have enough time for the important things?
Maybe the most important advise is to do not incur additional pressure. If you don’t feel like doing a marathon, set one step out of your front door instead. If you don’t feel like preparing a fresh and healthy meal, buy your usual sandwich and eat an apple as a snack.
Anything worth doing is worth doing poorly: Every small step counts. Try! Do! Even if it’s not perfect. Especially if it’s not perfect. What counts is that you did it! And always remember that your perfectionism might have caused you troubles in the first place.
Burnout is often caused by one’s own attitude: too little distance from one’s own work, too much perfectionism, too few breaks.
But some situations could lead to burnout extrinsically, i.e. through the behaviour of your coworkers or managers. If this is the case, you might feel like you are in a hopeless situation because you have already addressed the issues several times, but nothing has changed. That would be a toxic environment.
You might have a family to take care of, and you think you can’t afford to lose your job. Maybe you have debts or other obligations.
But if you risk your own health by working in a toxic environment, sooner or later, you will risk your job anyway.
If the toxicity really doesn’t change, you should try to change jobs. Especially as a tech worker, you have many options. Remote work is often typical nowadays, and tech workers are more and more in demand.
Find the courage to change your life and protect your health if necessary. No job is important enough to risk your (mental) health!