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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)

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):

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:

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.

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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):

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