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Ask HN: What is your burnout story?
67 points by navyad 52 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 29 comments
Have you ever experienced burnout in your career? If yes, two things I would like to know

1) How did you burnout? so that we can look for red flag situations in the workplace.

2) How did you get out of it ?

Thanks




Yep. I'm still in the post-burnout recovery period, but at this point I'm very much considering making this a permanent decision.

1) Working at a fast-paced startup as an early employee. When I was in my 20s this was awesome. But as I'm in my mid-30s now, I couldn't really hack the 10+ hour days with the expectation that I also work weekends. There was all the "talk" about work/life balance from leadership, but that was total bullshit.

2) My wife was pregnant (and now we have a kiddo), and I recognized that I did not want to be working this hard as a new dad - I quit with no plan several months before our child's due date. I'm sure I would have been fired soon-ish with how my attitude had been souring.

In less than a few weeks, I had people asking if I wanted some contract/consulting work. I said yes, and have since slowly grown my billables to about 25 hours of work a week to have a sustainable salary.


Just curious and feel free to ignore... but what is your rate?


I also quit to start a consulting company and mine is $150/hr.


Cheers, honesty always appreciated.


I'm definitely making less money than before because of the time spent finding clients and unbillable time. But the stress levels are far lower because the only commitments I need to keep are my own and not my project manager's.


Founded a startup, worked for 1 year 10-14 hours per day, incluing 5-6 hours saturdays and sundays. After 12 months, I started to wake up dizzy in the morning, and having spontaneous nausea during the day. General feeling of wanting to die all the time. We decided to shut down the start-up (unrelated to burnout), and the disappointment made me to develop an "allergy" to working. My brain would stop functioning in front of my computer (very weird). I had to stop for a while, wind down hours, and it took me A WHOLE YEAR to get back to feeling good again and being at full performance again. Had to go back to doing sports, some meditation and deep spiritual introspection. I must add: I believe burnout has more to do with stress and nervousness and being pessimistic about the outcome than the sheer amount of hours. If you are super excited and happy with what you are doing, it's less likely you'll burnout.


Threw myself at problems, incorrectly perceived them to be the most important goal of my life, failed to achieve results. Did this 3 times on repeat.

I guess I did not really know what "throwing myself" at something meant until after I realized I was burnt out. There's a sense of dehumanization in the process, where the goal/solution becomes bigger than you, becomes more important than anything else. The thrill and excitement of doing something challenging drives you for a while, and it seems logical to not spend time in your "personal life". You lose track of messages in your threads with friends, and once in a while respond with a "sorry I was busy" response that everyone around you has gotten used to from you. To answer more directly, one of the red flags I missed was how I let the problems take control of myself, instead of the other way around.

Got out of it by leaving the company I was working at and worked independently for about a year. Found my own pace, got back in close connection with my friends and family, focused on my relationship.


In my experience, burn out has been less about working 12+ hours a day so much as working even a standard 40 hr workweek on something that is counter to your principles/true self. I think this is more frequently the case today because the expectation that we derive meaning and identity from our work has increased.


I get your point and would second it, althought it's sometimes hard to see the real cause.

I was developing and bringing out good stuff and I wondered why I would be so down and feel so stressed althought I did what I liked.

It wasn't so much about developing/building stuff itself, but about the outer conditions. No support, more and more work and so on. That is what brought me down, not developing.


This, 100%. I was working as a software engineer at a small company with people I liked, and didn't mind working hard. But when I switched to a leadership role it was not a good fit and the resulting anxiety made every day a nightmare. I gave it two years but then I finally gave up and left (on good terms and with plenty of notice).

FWIW, finding and reading about my Enneagram type really helped. It has made me aware of when things are going against my "true self".


I think it’s good to spend most of the time with your kids / partner at the weekend (or friends, family, pets) and not code so much. This won’t make you Elon but I like that way of living.


I was a great example of the Peter Principle in action. I had climbed through the ranks of software development to become the director of software engineering at a mortgage firm, then after less than a year moved on to director of business applications at another mortgage firm. Besides the headiness of the role, I was of course attracted to the money. My parents were impressed - I was really going places. Fast forward a year, and I was dealing with entrenched employees that challenged me at every turn, a non-stop pace of enhancements to the software that left us little time to optimize the software (so it was running ever-slower with all the bloat of additional code), users that had a direct line to the CEO - who would run to me with every complaint, and favoritism shown to other managers that often meant we were serving several masters at once. For my part, I didn't have much experience with pushing back or protecting my people, so I don't believe they trusted me all that much. We committed to too much. I fell into a funk, and began feeling that whatever I did didn't matter. My work began to suffer and I was forgetting stuff and making mistakes.

My boss was sympathetic, as he was dealing with a lot of the same challenges with other department heads and the CEO. When I finally announced my resignation, he told me he didn't blame me, and that he had told the CEO he was leaving within the next couple of months himself!

I've since gone on to be a manager at another, much smaller company/start-up. The hours are longer sometimes, and I feel like I'm running in a lot of different directions. But the pressure has reduced quite a bit, and I'm liking the culture a lot more. I think I'll stay at this level for a while before I try and move up again. Sometimes it's good to take a step back and re-assess instead of blindly charging ahead and getting yourself in even deeper. For now I'm just focusing on upping my value and taking care of my people. And just putting in the work without worrying about if it's "perfect" or not. That's all I can do.


1- "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy". My working schedule left me without spare time. Nine or ten hours a day answering calls about tech support, 4 in the morning, 1 or 2 hours lunch break and another 4 hours in the afternoon. Weeks starting a Wed until the next week Fri. Rest Sat, Sun, Mon and Tue and another 10 days round again. After around 13 or 14 months this way I went postal at the office. I was already burnt.

2- I left the job at HellDesk (HelpDesk). That was the first and biggest step to recover myself. Talking to a doctor, family and friends about the situation. My doctor prescribed me antidepressants and anxiolytics. I took me a bit long, but I'm much better right now.


1: I started a company with friends. The business plan had severe flaws that meant a constant struggle with staying operational. Also, for the other founders, our business enabled them to do the work they wanted to do, but for me the synergies never materialized in the way I had hoped. The main thing that burned me out was that I saw the problems and had to deal with them but couldn't find a way to actually solve them. I had responsibility but did not have self-determination. I believe that will burn anyone out in short order.

2: I left.


1) How did you burnout? so that we can look for red flag situations in the workplace.

I would just sit there staring at my screen and doing nothing. I would get emails/calls and other queries and I would just push everything back to next week. I was tired all the time and just wanted to sleep. I called in sick several times and slept the whole day.

2) How did you get out of it ?

Resigned, then moved out of the country, found a new job and started a plan that included:

Fitness, social life, a good diet, travel, new hobbies.

Be aware though, some people think that just by moving away from a place/job/problem you will get all your problems resolved. When in fact I found that some of the issues I had were related to my personality and who I was rather than anything else. The sooner you recognize this the better for you.


Started a successful company but was young/inexperienced in running something of that size, so I delegated too little and wanted to keep track of everything myself. The company grew (too) quickly and I was stressed out all the time, working 14-16 hours on things I never should have (hindsight) been working on. I was already burnt out I think but one day my body halted this as I had mild stroke; I recovered physically quite fast but mentally the burn out took years working part time to fix. Luckily there were profits and dividends to be able to do that and take my time. I do business very differently now and never felt anything close to the stress I felt at that time again.


I don't know if this is an original thought, but I believe that burnout is a form of learned helplessness in humans: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learned_helplessness

If you exert yourself and feel that you are not appropriately rewarded or disproportionately punished, then over time, you will grow a natural aversion to exerting yourself. "Burnout"

Personally, I've pushed myself incredibly hard this last year and just today I had a very very unsuccessful launch. I'm not burnt out, but I'm on the verge of it. So I'm going to take it easy for a bit, buy some nice hiking shoes and see some trails while I've still got my mental fortitude and a small cushion in the bank.

As the saying goes... "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."


>don't know if this is an original thought, but I believe that burnout is a form of learned helplessness in humans

Depression, ennui, worthlessness all learned helplessness. It's like my mind is a good slave but a bad master.


1) I basically was a "One Man Army" solving everything around the online business of that company. I was an "always 110% full stack project managaging customer service devopsmanager". Delivered _really_ solid work in no time, but it was hard: No backup, nothing at all, although my boss told me it would get better, we would look for additional people etc. after the next project. There were lots of "next projects" but nobody followed. Workload took me down to the point where I had my heart racing, sleeping less and less and feeling not well overall after working straight on for about one and a half years. I would say I did work for 3.

2.1) I went to a doctor, he asked me what my problem was, I started crying in front of him, told him that I can't handle the pressure anymore. That there's nobody to help, no signs of improvement of my situation and that I'm not sure how much longer I can keep this up. He wrote me off sick on point and I was out. That's how it works in Germany. Company struggled big time because they had no replacement, not even near, and promised they would help me. Took me five months to come down, had sessions with a psychotherapist to talk about how all of that happened and also took anti-depressants. Slowly got better, tried to improve my behavior and started working again.

2.2) One more year into the future and nothing had really changed. I was still basically alone, work started piling up again, pressure rose with no sign of support from the company or my boss. So I quit without a backup plan. I only knew I had to get out.

2.3) I have quite good connections, called a friend of mine who is in consulting. He had a client who was looking for somebody with e-business expertise, I gave them a call, two weeks later the new job was safe. Got a 50% raise, officially working 40 hours/week but I'm good at what I'm doing so it's more like 25 hours work and 15 hours HN/thinking about my own stuff.

Feel free to ask if you have further questions.


I'm at the start of the "one man army" thing at the company I started working at last month, thanks for being so candid about your experience. I'm gonna really be forceful to make sure we can hire new people for backup. Last night I worked until 8PM. That was the first time, but I suspect it won't be the last unless I really take action on finding someone to help.


Please be very careful, this is how it started for me, too.

At first it's fine, you have the feeling that you're building something up from the ground and that you really make a change. While that might be true, it is very easy to get smashed by your construction later on.

Please don't let that happen and get yourself a colleague as soon as possible.


I was a tech lead for some interesting, innovative infrastructure at an engineering focused start-up when we were acquired. It was a very happy outcome, but after a few months my team and department were dissolved, and I found myself inside a very bureaucratic, very risk-averse company focused on product design and not technical innovation. It was hell for someone who likes to build stuff without having to get buy-in from at least 3 departments and 2 project managers. I stayed way too long though because the golden handcuffs were on real tight. After about 18 months of that I broke and quit suddenly.

I ended up not working again for almost a year. And even after that only on part-time contracts. I wouldn't say I ever "recovered" -- I now have a very different view on what work is and how it fits into my life.


2 jobs ago there was 2 senior techs and 4 junior techs for about ~7000 user/device MSP. The other senior tech quit and was never replaced. I worked 60-80 hour weeks from that point forward. The boss was a micromanager who publicly put me down on a regular basis saying I'm not working hard enough or my work was substandard.

How did I get out? There was a day that virtually everyone was out of the office. I was working on a project and the junior most guy was sinking on his phonecall so I dropped what I was doing, even though I would take shit for not getting it done, and helped the junior guy.

While I was helping him, we missed a phonecall and the IT manager cunt goes to the boss and tells him that I was looking out the window.

The boss brings me into his office and starts chewing me out bigtime. Tells me monday morning I have to come in and beg for my job and if even 1 person doesn't want me on the team. I'm fired.


Wow, that was some really toxic shit, there. Glad you got out.


1) I've had a long string of spectacular and demoralizing failures over a couple of years: being cheated out of $9M in cryptocurrency, being banned from competing in battlebots at the last minute, marriage issues, losing a legal battle with my city, business failures, money problems, depression, disilusionment with our justice system, people who wouldn't pay what they owe me...

It just didn't feel like anything I did made any difference so I just stopped doing almost everything for about 8 months.

2) I'm back on antidepressants and taking baby steps with family and business. Trying to take joy in small triumphs, and not trying to bite off so much at once. Saying "NO" anytime someone asks for help. Basically sticking to small simple things with guaranteed success upon completion.

I'm not sure I'm going to ever be as altruistic or optimistic as I was.


Not sure it qualifies as actual burn out but I had my share of tough work experiences, and some pushed me into depression. The following may not apply to everyone but in my case I tend to hope My takeaways: don't get to much attached or emotionally invested in your work, unless it's your own business, it usually stays a contract of work for money.

Also, I tend to keep hope that things might work out well in the end when most would have already moved on. Never ends well, still learning to see when a change is in order...


1) Realizing the hard content from graduate school was not making myself more employable. Trying to become more employable on the side. Eventually dreading a subject I was passionate for. Lack of guidance or direction, covering more than necessary for my own understanding rather than studying to the test... Withdrawing myself 'for focus'. Refusing to give up and move on, wasting a lot of effort and mental health.

2) I left. Not entirely empty-handed.


This is a topic I've been reading and writing about for awhile. I posted 4 very different stories of burnout here:

"Burnout is universal but the right kind of sleep, food, and exercise can help"

http://www.smashcompany.com/philosophy/burnout-is-universal-...

This story might be the most relevant to Hacker News and the folks who read about startups:

-----------------------------

There wasn’t much about Milburn online, but I looked over his LinkedIn profile, and I looked up the companies that he had been active with. Lying comes naturally to great salespeople, so I wasn’t surprised that he’d been successful in that field. But what did that really mean? A great salesperson has a repertoire of psychological tricks. They can make you their friend, or they can make you feel guilt; they know when to offer a compliment; they also know how to disguise a negative comment as a neutral observation and thus undercut the confidence of their prey.

Milburn’s career had apparently done especially well during the 1990s. I wondered if he was now feeling stuck. Stagnancy in middle age leads to all kinds of wild adventures — usually a romantic affair or an expensive car — but perhaps it was Milburn’s style to try to launch a business. Anything to revive that old feeling of success.

Apparently he was also somewhat technical. He’d learned Microsoft Excel in the 1990s, and he knew some VisualBasic. Perhaps he’d written some VBA code and connected some Excel spreadsheets to some databases. He knew more about computers than the average salesperson. From the sounds of it, he knew exactly enough to be a disaster.

And he started a business for all the wrong reasons, and it ended in disaster. His motivation wasn’t so much excitement about the project, as a hatred of what his life had become, and a desire to escape to some happier reality. Motivations are important. If he’d been excited about the project he would have dived into the details, and learned what was necessary to build his idea into a success. Instead, he started the company as a vehicle for an escapist fantasty, and at key moments, when he had to make strategic decisions, he made the wrong decision, because he hadn’t bothered to learn enough of the details to understand what was really needed. And I believe that in the end, after two years of effort, he was left even more depressed than when he started. If the whole project had been an attempt to revive the old feeling of success, how much more awful it must have been to face yet another defeat?


I had been a consultant for a long time, started my own business, built teams, etc., but mostly independent. I decided to move down towards Silicon Valley & to do that I took a full-time job, rather than consulting.

The problems for me were the chaos and ambiguity, coupled with pressure.

I took on responsibility because there was nobody else to do the work & the work had to be done, but also because that's been my work experience: part of being that Principal Developer or Architect is being the backstop, to catch all the crap that the team can't handle.

I was told to 1) design and execute an ETL migration from the ERP system that they've purchased (and we're already about 6 months late), and 2) do an upgrade on a fragile system that'd been a piece of shit for the past 20 years, and which they expected to get done cleanly in a couple weeks.

I tried.

I worked over a month without rest, fun, friends, blogging, fiction reading, sex, church, or music ... waking in the middle of the night to start again, nap, repeat.

Naturally, while I was doing that, I was feeling like shit. But, I wrote it off as maybe just something off with my diabetes meds (repressing the issues rather than dealing with them). I developed gastritis. I had an endoscopy, colonoscopy, ultrasound, hoping to find some physical reason for this rather than this being me working myself to death.

There were more than one of me, at one point, and I'm still feeling like someone got into my head with a blender and just stirred it all up. For weeks, I was trying to figure out (at home) why the fuck I was so weird at work, and at work I was trying to figure out how to access information that I'd apparently decided I shouldn't have because it would upset me. I had compartmentalized, and created a persona to endure the misery that was work (but, hey: because it was made of me, it had some sense & started wondering why it was a fucking idiot).

I've been out for a month, on medical leave, seeing a therapist. I have chills, night sweats, hot/cold, tingles. My memory wanders. There are huge chunks missing, or ... hiding (and I'm letting them be, in hopes they'll come back). I have random panic attacks and - bonus! - I get one with every single meal, because of course the vagus nerve is in there somewhere, as is gastritis still (healing), and the vagus can do that sort of thing to you.

I get distracted and have to tell myself that, no, I'm not looking for a new job right now, that I need to take the time to heal.

I wake up at 3 in the morning in a panic and have to tell myself that, no, I don't have any work that I should be doing.

To come back from this? Lots of therapy, I fear. And time. And to figure out how not to be a workaholic.

Oh: the projects failed, of course. That's part of it, as well, because naturally I'm a perfectionist and an overachiever and a people-pleaser. So, yeah.

Nobody could have broken me more thoroughly.

Oh. Because I use different mental states to code, and I've built those to be triggered by music, I've helpfully got a whole music collection full of pain and misery, on tap!




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