Serious Stuff – The Burnout Zone

I wrote this “popular” post on “burnout” way back in 1Q2007. I Forget What 8 Was For? – What the !@#$ Does Marketing Do? I was amazed how many people spoke to me about it back then.

Sadly … Still very relevant. Here is some “burnout slideware” on the topic.

Full Text of “I Forget What 8 Was For? – What the !@#$ Does Marketing Do?”

I’d like to forget that I’ve experienced the following “pre-cursors to burnout” events too many times in the competitive technology industry.

  • Getting dizzy spells during a meeting.
  • Watching a colleague fall asleep during the weekly update.
  • Watching a customer fall asleep during a meeting.
  • Forgetting a close colleagues name.
  • Forgetting a bosses name.
  • Forgetting how I got to this meeting room.
  • Getting dizzy spells on the drive home.
  • Not being able to get out of bed for 2-3 days after a big conference.

These events are a way of life, they happen all the time. The unwritten rule of thumb is “Just play thru the pain like pro athletes” do. But in my reality the tech industry is “burnout central”. I see it too often. We forget that Pro Athletes don’t play everyday and the ones who have long careers take care of themselves very well.

Anedotal Evidence ( tech is a high risk environment ) — I know a handful of burnout victims whose symptoms were so serious that they had to make significant career changes. Most of them were marketers, none were VP and above. Not a large number, but depending on how I count, this is anywhere from 20 to 50% of some job categories. Note that these percentages include only the ones who have confided in me. Few people like to advertise that they can’t cut it anymore.

It is interesting that most statistics that I’ve read talk about this executive (VP+) dividing line as well. The most common explanation is that executives spend a lot more time reviewing the the “pros & cons” of projects, they have a lot more information, they are usually the first to “buy in” to programs, they are on the hook to “sell the program” downstream, and generally have more control of their environment. This does make some sense, but I’m still not sure about this explanation.

Being a “poster child” for burn-out has also put me in a position to constantly hear anecdotal comments from friends and colleagues all over the industry. I hear the following phrase too often, “there is sooo much of what you have in the valley”. These numbers are the same everywhere. I’m guessing that every tech worker has had a few scares along the way.

It’s Not Gonna Happen to Me ( wrong ) — I’m not saying that everyone should go out an quit their job now. I’m saying that you’ve got to be aware that you work in a high risk environment. You’ve got look at the example of Pro Athletes — take care of yourself if you want a long career. If you start having symptoms act on them quickly. Don’t let them slide. Better yet — be proactive.

It’s good to know how you react to stress, so that you can act on it. This is difficult, not everyone reacts to stress in the same way. Some people develop more physical ailments like rashes, back pain, numbness, etc. Another indicator is how you make decisions. Most managers take a test to see how they make decisions under stress. I forget the name, but its the one where the results are plotted on “triangle graph” – blue in top left, red in top right, and green on the bottom. You mark the point where you are with little stress and the point where you are under lots of stress. The “vector” then describes you under stress.

If you have a “long vector” it is relatively simple for you, and others, to determine when you’re are under stress. Unfortunately for me I am one of those people whose dots sit on top of one another — The Hub guy — I’m an ice man — no difference between stress and no stress. The good news — I play great under pressure — the bad news — this group is the most susceptible to burnout.

It’s Ok … Burn Out doesn’t last forever ( wrong ) — Unlike a cut or a broken bone, burnout often doesn’t heal well. It usually leaves a permanent “scar”. In my case I have effects that are analogous to a person who has had multiple concussions. My “concussions” are brought on by a combination of stress and situations which require me to follow multiple “threads” of conversation/thinking. In computer lingo I don’t “task switch” well ( if at all ). If I get myself into a situation where “task switching” is key — like a meeting or party I’ll slowly begin having difficulty following the conversation. If I stick with it I’ll soon begin having “concussion” like symptoms — starts with ringing in the head & can get as severe as near blackout.

In daily life this is confusing for most people I interact with because I look normal. In fact most people note — you look great. This is likely to be true since I’m down to university level clothing sizes. But just like a “Lindros or Lafontaine”, whose pro hockey careers ended due to concussions, I look like I can play. I want to play. But if I do play, I’m putting my long term health in jeopardy every time that I step on the playing surface 😈 I have effects every meeting ( social or work ) that I attend. It never goes away.

Movin On – I put the Daedalus and Icarus picture above because it describes how I feel when I’m working with others these days. I have plenty of experience which can help people to fly. But this knowledge also allows them to fly too close to the sun. Just like I did 😦