The Unscientific Causes and Cure to Burnout

Having recently burned myself out, it feels like it’s the unspoken condition plaguing those working in startups. It’s as debilitating to us as a torn ACL to a pro athlete, but is hard to recognize on the surface and not something you go to the doctor for. My hope is to help you and your team either avoid getting burnt out like I am, or if you are burnt out, help you understand the causes and how to bounce back.

Burnout != Tired

For starters, it’s important to understand this distinction. I’ve been plenty tired before. The kind of tired where you sleep all weekend or you skip an early morning class or meeting because sleep seems more important. In college, I would go with only 20 hours of sleep in a week during midterms or finals where I would be known to duck out of a classroom to do pushups to stay awake (yes, in retrospect, stupid). I continued similar behavior after college when working on my own startups or on the job, but after a good night or two’s sleep I was always ready for more.

Unlike those times, over the past couple of months I fell off the cliff into burnout. I managed to both physically and mentally exhaust myself in a way I never experienced before. So what was the difference? 

What causes burnout?

Simply put, it’s all about Passion.

When you do things you love and are passionate about, they actually renew you instead of taking energy. The problem emerges when that passion you feed on declines and work starts actually feeling like work. This quickly starts a death spiral as you need more and more energy to perform at the same level you’re accustomed. When you use up all of your reserves, you will find yourself burnt out.

As I was on the way down to burnout, this quote from Steve Jobs’s commencement speech really started to hit home:

“If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

It’s important to understand why you would wake up and feel that way. The things most likely to make you feel that way include: (See more on this MayoClinc article on burnout)

  • Your work not feeling important
  • Lack of recognition for your efforts
  • Not seeing the results of your efforts
  • Not working on things you’re excited about
  • Lack of real progress being made on your projects
  • Repeatedly clashing with a coworker, manager or leader
  • A shift in your company’s culture that is unappealing to you
  • Misalignment between your values and the ones exhibited by your employer
  • Feeling like you have no control over your work (i.e.- lack of independence/decision making ability)

If you’re an employer/founder, take a good look at that list. Anyone who you think would answer Yes to more than one of those items is at risk for burnout or leaving your company.

How do you overcome burnout?

After admitting that I was really burnt out, I started talking to a lot of people about it and found that a surprising number of people had experienced it. Thanks to their advice, I learned a lot about how to recover (an ongoing process for me now):

  • Travel: Getting out of your current environment and just enjoying a place you visit can do a lot to recharge you. One friend told me the founder he worked for spent a month on a secluded island in the Caribbean after a stressful acquisition process and “never felt more revitalized” when he returned. The location doesn’t matter as much as the removal of stress and normal day-to-day duties and triggers.
  • Turn off technology: All our apps, social media accounts and email draw energy from us one small bite at a time. Every person I talked to mentioned the importance of turning off push notifications and rationing exposure to these attention-demanding items to really rest the mind.
  • Write down things that really matter to you: It’s easy to never make time to think about big ideas that matter to you. When I spent a week in Santa Monica, I spent a day each on questions like, “What are my personal values?”, “What’s most important to me personally?” and “What do I want professionally?” These can often reveal mismatches in your life that may have led to your burnout and reveal what you should do next.
  • Be ok doing *nothing*: As a confessed workaholic, this was really hard. I love feeling productive and that I accomplished a lot every day. To recover though, you need to let your brain rest, which means doing things like going for a walk or sitting in nature with no purpose in mind. (Joel of Buffer’s nightly walk is a great example of a way to maintain your energy levels)
  • Be honest with yourself and others: For about a month at my job I was in denial of what was happening. I actually pushed myself harder at first and then thought if I eased up a little it would be ok. Both only made it worse. Having now had a few weeks to truly recover and been honest with people has helped tremendously; people are much more understanding of slow responses and postponed meetings when they know why (and can sometimes even help).
  • Confront the problem(s): Often, the trigger for all those feelings that send you on your way to burnout are related to a person or a part of your environment. You absolutely have to bring change to things that are causing the stress or no amount of travel and rest will matter. One of my friends who helped with this post was able to save a strained relationship by finally having a tough conversation on how he and one of his cofounders communicated.
  • Don’t be afraid to move on: If you are unable to confront and resolve the causes of your stressful environment that caused the burnout in the first place, it is best to move on. Lingering will only burn you out further, lengthening the necessary recovery time. It can be scary to consider doing anything but what you’re currently doing, but admitting it’s an option and thinking about what you’d do instead may very well be the push you need to make a choice that’s best for everyone.
  • Realize it’s a marathon: Unfortunately, you don’t wake up one morning and you’re no longer burnt out. Instead, you feel a little better or worse every day depending on how well you’ve taken care of yourself. Use the recovery process as a way to build healthier ongoing habits and watch for the triggers that got you there in the first place so you never return. Most people told me recovery is measured in months not days or weeks.

Why do people let themselves get burnt out?

If you’ve never burnt yourself out, consider yourself lucky. You may wonder why people didn’t do something about this before fully burning out. There are a lot of reasons, but the ones I heard most commonly were:

  • Pride: “I’ll be fine. I always come through.”
  • Money: “The money’s so good, how can I quit this job even if I don’t *love* it?”
  • Loyalty: “I can’t quit. I’d let down [investors, cofounder, manager, teammates].”
  • Denial: “This is nothing. It will pass and I’ll be fine. I just need a good night’s sleep.”
  • Fear: “What would I do if I left?”

This is where you, the manager, founder or friend comes in; sometimes people need help realizing (or admitting) what’s going on. Recognize this and help them resolve it whether they need a vacation, a different role in the company or it’s time for them to move on.

—-

Why did I write this?

There’s been a lot written on burnout, but I felt like no one really boiled it down to its common, core elements. Hopefully some aspect of this is helpful for you, a friend, a coworker or your team whether you’re avoiding burnout or dealing with it already.

There’s a lot more to be said about burnout, so I hope you can share your experiences and great links to more on the subject in the comments.

Further Reading:

In my process of researching burnout, I came across some helpful links that are worth reading if you have additional interest in the subject (I’ll add any others you share in the comments):

12 thoughts on “The Unscientific Causes and Cure to Burnout

    • Derek,

      Interesting. I’d love to hear what you’ve learned in dealing with your burnout…what helped, how long it took to un-burn out, etc.

      If you write anything, please send me a link or if you want to email me your thoughts I’d love to see them.

      Thanks,
      Jason

  1. “There’s been a lot written on burnout, but I felt like no one really boiled it down to its common, core elements.” Marissa Mayer beat you to the punch last year when she said burnout is about resentment. I don’t think it can get more boiled down than that. But still a pretty good post.

  2. Good work Jason, as being a web developer myself I often reach a stage where where thoughts just keep revolving in my head all sudden all together and I am not able to pick/focus on a single one of that and start getting depress of this inertia.

    And on there hand hand there are situations when I come out of it fully and doing a new start with a fresh set of career goals which I am going to focus while doing what I am into but then again after a while the condition a. (mentioned above) occurs, not sure if its my loose grip on bran/though process or its common in this community :).

  3. Thanks for sharing your insights here. It’s so hard to recognize when you burn out and such an excellent post helps to reflect.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Nik.

      It’s definitely better to maintain yourself over time. Once you get fully burned out like I’ve gotten, it’s a much more difficult process and something a founder wouldn’t be able to properly deal with without leaving the company or taking an extended sabbatical.

      Thanks,
      Jason

  4. Jason, as always, as well researched and well written piece. In particular, I liked the MayoClinc list of causes, and your advice to managers to think about this.

    Sorry to hear that you’ve moved on from your last gig. I’m sure some very lucky company will snatch you up very soon.

    Des Pieri

    • Des,

      Thanks for the note. I always try to think about how there may be multiple angles to a post.

      As for me, once I feel recovered, I plan to start my own thing. I feel ready to take another stab at it before I consider taking another product job.

      Thanks
      Jason

  5. Pingback: Week #1: Choosing an idea, validating a market need and bridging focus | melissa's blog

  6. Great write up! I can completely relate on multiple levels, too. This is written more towards the workplace, but can also be applied to hobbies and personal interests as well. Exercise routines, sports, etc. For me, I do Crossfit and have been for over a year and a half now. After some pretty serious changes in our workplace that have drastically adjusted our work schedules, I have just recently found myself feeling ‘burnt out’ from the workouts, even though I’ve cut way back on my frequency and I’ve tried to fill in the gaps with other things instead (Power Yoga). I’m hoping to bounce back here pretty soon, but lately, after an incredibly long and tiring day at work on my feet and bent over working (it’s our own business, so it takes first place!) the last thing I want to do is further exhaust myself on a rather intense Crossfit workout. I’m trying to find a happy medium, and I definitely don’t want this amazing thing that has changed my life so monumentally to seem more like a chore. [/ramble] Thanks for sharing this. :)

  7. Very good article Jason, thanks. I would however say I disagree with your comment that it’s something you don’t go to the doctor about. It absolutely should be!

    I suffered from what the doctor said in layman’s terms was Burnout. In medical terms though, it was fairly severe depression and anxiety caused by exhaustion/burnout and falling off that cliff you talk about, after working ridiculous hours. If I had not gone to the doctor and received very good and professional treatment, I would not be as well now as I am. I told everyone at home, friends and work about it, and 95% of the reactions I had were supportive – in fact by my speaking out, many others also talked about their experiences with mental health.

    I would seriously urge anyone who is feeling burnout to yes, go to your doctor. If it is already at the stage of illness, you will get help and support. And if you are at the point of wobbling on the top of the cliff, it can save you from falling off and becoming ill. But please don’t delay, it surprised me how short that period is when you can pull back before falling. I am now much better and have a very different attitude to work/life balance!

Comments are closed.