Burnout and looking after your mental health
I've struggled with burnout for years now. Some of you who know me already know this, for others this might come as a surprise. Either way, ever since my mid twenties I've felt like a part of me got left behind and never returned. On top of that, ever since I can remember I've had to deal with the fallout of clinical depression with a close member of my family. Depression is a horrible thing when left unmanaged, it can swallow families whole.
Over the past 6 years I've dipped in and out of various stages of burnout. During those years I've found it increasingly hard to be able to keep focussed and motivated on anything for an extended period of time, both in work and my personal life. I've felt unable to make decisions, constantly distracting myself or talking myself out of doing something. I've been afraid to show my work to the world (very unlike me). I've felt like I don't live up to expectations. I've quit jobs because of it. I've permanently damaged friendships because of it. I'm pretty sure I've damaged my reputation and career because of it. And don't get me wrong, I still do what's required of me in my day job, but it's a struggle.
What sucks the most about the whole situation is that the damage is all self inflicted. The cause may not be my fault, and I never wanted any of it to happen, but it happened nonetheless. It took me a long time to come to terms with that.
The good news is that there are ways to manage it. Things can get better. Things do get better.
Fortunately, this post isn't about how bad I feel. Nor is it about seeking attention or praise. This post is instead about highlighting burnout and depression and trying to remove some of the stigma around mental health. When I set out with this new site I didn't envisage one of the first blog posts being about such a serious topic. However the more I thought about what I wanted to write about, the more I realised this was the right thing to do. Yes, it's deep. Yes, it's introspective. But no, those aren't good enough reasons not to talk about this. I need to write about it, and in doing so I'm hoping that it might help someone else going through a similar situation. Like me. Part of the reason for writing this is for future me to read when things get difficult again.
I throw around the terms burnout and depression in this post. I want to make it very clear that I am not a medical professional and anything that I say from this point onwards is my personal viewpoint garnered from my own experience and that of dealing with clinically diagnosed depression in people close to me.
If you feel that you might be affected by what I talk about in regards to burnout and depression then my single overriding piece of advice is to seek the advice of a medical professional. I did, and I wish I'd done it years back. Whatever you do, don't wind yourself up reading things on the Internet. Seek advice from the people that have the experience and know-how to help you long term. They want to help you, but you need to make the first step.
This isn't my first rodeo
The first time I remember experiencing proper burnout was when I was left Mozilla back in 2012. I was young, I loved the job and I loved the company and the people who worked there even more. Yet it wasn't enough. I was tired. Really tired. It wasn't just physical tiredness either, I was mentally exhausted. I had none of my usual energy and motivation and I'd felt like this for months. As I wrote back then, I was the guy who had the bottomless pit of ideas who thrived on learning new things. So why did I feel like the guy who didn't even have the energy to even get out of bed, let alone learn something new? I felt broken.
It really confused me as I couldn't work out why I felt like that. Everything in my life was going well; I'd graduated university with a First, I'd worked at Mozilla for the past 18 months travelling the world. Hell, I'd even written a fucking book! Still, all I knew was that I wasn't happy and I needed to do something, anything to get the old me back. I wanted my spark back.
Life since then
So what happened after I burnt out back in 2012? Well, you'd think that I got it all sorted out. Perhaps spoken with a professional. You know, something sensible like that. Unfortunately not. For whatever reason, and I'm sure he had many, 26-year-old Robin self-diagnosed himself and decided all I needed was some time off and nothing more. In fact, I didn't even take that much time off as I'd already fallen into a new personal project before I'd even left Mozilla (which later turned out to be ViziCities and defined the following 6 years of my life).
I regret that decision to this day. I often wonder what might have happened had I sought help at that point, whether professional or otherwise. In hindsight, I see it as a defining moment in my life where I could have sorted things out before they got worse (and they did). But alas, if we were able to act on hindsight then I wouldn't be writing this would I.
No, 26-year-old Robin did what any sane person would do and ignored it and hoped it would go away. And in a way it did go away, though only in the sense that I managed to distract myself from it enough to stop thinking about it so much. I genuinely thought I was over it for a while, though in reality this was far from the truth.
Over the 6 years since then I have dipped in and out of various stages of burnout. During those years I've found it increasingly hard to be able to keep focussed and motivated on anything for an extended period of time. I've quit jobs because of it. I've permanently damaged friendships because of it. I've struggled with relationships because of it. I feel like I've been treading water for the past 6 years, not going in any meaningful direction in my life.
It's confusing and scary and, quite frankly, it sucks.
What is burnout?
When you've worked in the tech industry for long enough you'll hear the word burnout thrown around a few times. If you're anything like me when I first heard it then you might have a vague idea what it means; something to do with losing motivation and 'burning out', right?
Well, sort of. Technically burnout covers a lot more than just a lack of motivation. I found this description from Helpguide.org a good overview:
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place.
Burnout reduces productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give.
The negative effects of burnout spill over into every area of life—including your home, work, and social life. Burnout can also cause long-term changes to your body that make you vulnerable to illnesses like colds and flu.
As you can see, it's a lot more than just a lack of motivation. And in any case, burnout for one person can be entirely different to burnout for another.
For some people burnout is temporary, perhaps triggered by stress at work, and they move past it relatively quickly. For others, burnout can feel permanent and feel like there's no way out. Neither person is more burnt out than the other, they're just experiencing it differently. The same can be said for most issues related to mental health.
Burnout or depression?
You may have read the description of burnout and thought that it sounds a lot like depression. You wouldn't be alone as I've often wondered what the difference is between burnout and depression.
It turns out that there isn't much difference, at least in terms of obvious symptoms. The U.S. National Library of Medicine has an informative article on burnout and its relationship with depression. Their section on burnout is quite clear:
Experts have not yet agreed on how to define burnout. And strictly speaking, there is no such diagnosis as “burnout.” This is unlike having “depression” diagnosed, for example, which is a widely accepted and well-studied condition. That is not the case with burnout. Some experts think that other conditions are behind being “burned out” – such as depression or an anxiety disorder. Physical illnesses may also cause burnout-like symptoms. Being diagnosed with “burnout” too soon might then mean that the real problems aren't identified and treated appropriately.
They later go into detail about the (mis-)diagnosis and treatment of both burnout and depression:
Because the symptoms are similar, some people may be diagnosed with burnout although they really have depression. So people should be very careful not to (self-) diagnose burnout too quickly. This could lead to unsuitable treatment. For instance, someone with depression might be advised to take a longer vacation or time off work. People who are “only” exhausted because of work can recover if they follow that advice. But if people with depression do so it might actually make things worse because the kind of help they need is very different, such as psychological treatment or medication.
In short, many of the symptoms normally associated with burnout can also be associated with depression, as well as some physical illnesses. I'm absolutely not pointing this out to cause alarm, rather making it clear that the world of mental health is fuzzy and there are often no clear boundaries between one thing and another. I also mention this to drive home how important it is to seek advice from a professional should you be experiencing something similar. Mental health is nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about and you'll be surprised how much help is out there once you tell people how you feel.
The absolute worst thing you can do is self-diagnose yourself and not seek help. You may do what I did and make things worse. Please don't be like 26-year-old Robin.
Taking it seriously
Last year everything got too much and I cracked. I was causing self-inflicted damage in all sorts of areas in my life and I couldn't work out why. I couldn't stand feeling so confused, lost and sorry for myself so I finally sought help. It certainly wasn't easy, but admitting to myself that this was serious was the start of finally coming to terms with what was going on in my head. I still couldn't explain it, but I know something wasn't right and that something needed to be done.
The first step I took was telling both my closest friend as well as my girlfriend just how bad I felt. I was terrified about how they were going to react but, of course, they were amazing and supported me. That alone was a huge moment in my life because it meant that I wasn't dealing with this on my own any longer. I didn't have to hide how I really felt.
After that I decided, with the help of my friends, that I should talk to my GP (a doctor). There was only so much help my friends could offer me and seeking professional help was the only way to try and work out what was really going on and how to get past it.
I have to admit, that first meeting with the GP was hard. I felt like a massive fraud. From the outside I looked like a healthy 31-year-old but on the inside I was barely staying afloat. How do I explain that to the doctor? Will he believe me? Why don't I just turn around and walk out?! Fortunately I persevered and my GP listened carefully to everything that I told him, which ended up being quite a lot. It felt good and he was amazing. He took me seriously and told me that he was going to refer me for some counselling and take things from there. It'll be on the NHS so it'll be free and take a few weeks to get an appointment, but it'll happen. Great! I thought...
Roll on the next few weeks and I'd heard nothing. No appointment for the counselling. Nothing. No worries, I'm sure it'll happen. But no, more weeks and still nothing. After a few months I gave up waiting and started looking privately. I wish I'd done it sooner as pretty much the following day I had my first appointment! What's funny is that the day I had my first private appointment was the same day that I received a letter from the NHS offering me free treatment. Three months after I first saw my doctor!
As an aside, I love the NHS, I really do, but holy fucking shit they suck for mental health. They're even worse for treatment of full on clinically diagnosed depression. You can rely on them to be there quickly if you break an arm but trying to get long-term help for mental illness is nearly impossible. I know it's not their fault (funding and resources for mental health is nearly non-existent), I just wish that things improved as it makes me sad to think how many people are falling through the cracks. And they absolutely are.
Anyway, going private was amazing. Sure, it wasn't free. But it also wasn't extortionate and at the end of the day I was getting the help I needed. If you have the means to do it then I suggest you at least try it.
I won't go into the blow-by-blow of what happened during my counselling but it's safe to say we dug deep into all sorts of things, from childhood to the present day. You'd be surprised at the amount of stuff you dig up that's in some way connected to what's happened. For me it's likely a combination of work stresses exacerbated by a lot of stuff left unresolved from my childhood. Some of it is still unresolved, but just being more aware of it has definitely been a help. I found that counselling has made me much more self aware than I used to be, which is a good thing.
After a lot of sessions I decided I wasn't getting anything from counselling any longer and stopped going. I wasn't cured, but I was better. I was acutely aware of what was going on in my own head. I had a better understanding of what my triggers were and how to manage them. I felt so much better.
I'd be lying if I said that you could go see a counsellor a couple of times and everything will be OK. I won't sugar-coat this. Dealing with mental health can be tricky and everyone will have a different type and speed of recovery. Some may require more long-term treatment. Some may require medicine. Most may never fully be 'cured' of what's happened and will instead focus on awareness and management. Whatever happens, I can assure you that you'll be fundamentally better off after seeking help. Suffering in silence is not the solution.
I'm You're not alone
Ever since I first experienced burnout I've become acutely aware of other people who are going through the same, even if they perhaps haven't realised themselves yet. Sometimes it's obvious, like tweets and blog posts; but often it's the little things, like the way someone talks about their job or a subtle change in their motivation or communication. If you know someone well enough then it's usually pretty obvious when something changes and they start doing things out of the ordinary.
That may sound like you. Or perhaps it sounds like someone that you know; maybe a partner or a close friend of yours. If it does, then just know that you, and they, are not alone. Loads of people are going through something similar, many suffering silently because they either haven't noticed yet or are afraid to acknowledge it and do something about it.
Do you know someone who might be going through a tough time? If you do then I implore you to carefully and genuinely ask them how they're doing. Perhaps let them know that you've noticed a change in them and you're concerned for them. Chances are they'll not want to burden you with their issues, or perhaps they haven't even fully realised what's going on themselves. However, just knowing that a good friend is looking out for them and there should they need it can be a huge help in itself. Whatever you do, make sure you don't try and force someone to tell you something that they aren't ready to divulge to you. Even if the motivation comes from the right place, this can often have the opposite effect to what you expected. Equally, doing nothing is not the right approach either.
Why am I telling you this? Well, partly to let you know that there are others out there experiencing the same thing (it helps to know that). But honestly? Because I want you to realise that it's completely normal and OK to feel like this. It's OK to not know exactly what's going on. It's OK to not know how you got into this position. It's OK to not know what to do about it. It's OK to be afraid.
The good news is that there are ways to manage it.
How to manage burnout
I'm no psychiatrist so take my advice with a pinch of salt. Everything I'm about to say here is purely anecdotal and based on my own experiences.
However, here are some of the things that work for me:
- Acknowledging the problem
- Spending time internalising it
- Accepting that it's OK to feel like this
- Writing about how you feel (this is useful for when you see a doctor)
- Talking with others about it (a problem shared is a problem halved)
- Likewise, opening up to your friends (they'll support you)
- Trying to work out what your triggers are (eg. stress, work, being stuck indoors)
- Actively seeking out regular escapes from your normal day-to-day (eg. go for a walk for no reason)
- Going for a run or joining the gym (I found it helped clear my head)
- Improving your diet
- Getting into a regular daily routine (eg. wake up and sleep at the same time each day)
I need to stress that none of the above will fix burnout, rather they may help you manage some of the symptoms. If you feel like you're burnt out or depressed then the next step is seeking help.
I can't stress enough how important it is to seek professional help if you find yourself suffering with a mental health issue. No matter how big or small, people are there to help you find a way out of it.
The first step is to see your GP (or equivalent first-port-of-call doctor). They will listen to you and will not judge you or think that you're a fraud. They are trained to look for symptoms and are armed with the necessary tools to start you down a path for treatment. Chances are there may be multiple paths and they will help you decide which one to take. If you're unsure how to explain how you feel then spend some time writing everything down in the days before your appointment, leaving nothing out. Take it with you and give it or read it to your doctor.
If your doctor suggests counselling then you can either go the route they suggest (eg. the NHS) or you can start looking privately. I live in the UK and used the Counselling Directory to find mine. I'm sure there are similar resources in whatever country you live it.
There are many places online that you can go to for help and advice on mental health, understanding it and how to deal with. In the UK we have a fantastic charity, called Mind, who provide advice and guidance on pretty much every aspect of mental health. It doesn't matter how small your issue, their website is a fantastic resource for both the people suffering with mental health and those are looking after them.
I also suggest you take a look at the national healthcare provider for your country (or equivalent). For example, in the UK the NHS provide resources for mental health on their website which can help (eg. depression). Whatever you do don't use this for self-diagnosis, rather use it to help understand what might be going on once you've spoken with a doctor.
Finally, if you feel that you can't wait and you need urgent help then there are people ready to help you. In the UK we have a variety of services available:
- Mind provides a tool to help point you in the right direction for urgent help
- The NHS provide a list of resources for urgent help regarding mental health
However you decide to approach things, you'll feel better for seeking help. Trust me.
Just remember that it's normal to feel this way and that there's a way out. You just need to take that first step.