At the breaking point? Coping with extreme IT burnout

Work any job for long enough, and you will probably begin to feel burned out eventually. Besides making you feel miserable, burnout can also lead to apathy for your job, which can be a big problem in the world of IT. Although occasional feelings of exhaustion may be unavoidable, there are ways of coping with IT burnout and getting yourself back on track.

Get to the root of the problem

IT burnout

One of the first things that I recommend doing when you feel exasperated is to try to identify the root cause of the problem. What is it about your job that you find to be completely intolerable? Once you have positively identified the source of the problem, then you can start to do something about it. Let me give you a personal example.

Early in my career, I found myself suffering from extreme IT burnout. At the time, I was working a fulltime job as a network administrator (plus an insane amount of overtime), and I was carrying a full load of college classes. Eventually, the relentless schedule started to get the best of me, but reducing the number of hours that I was spending at work wasn’t an option, nor was changing my class schedule in the middle of the semester. After doing some serious soul-searching, I began to realize that even though the long hours were tough, what was really getting me down was the fact that I hardly ever saw the sun anymore, and I never got any fresh air aside from walking across the parking lot to get from my car to the building.

Once I realized what was really bringing me down, I made it a point to take a couple of breaks each shift, and to use my break time to go outside and go for a short walk. Those half-hour walks made a huge difference in my mental well-being. It wasn’t an immediate fix, but after a couple of weeks, I definitely noticed a difference.

Even though a lack of sunshine and fresh air ended up being the source of the problem for me, the underlying cause of IT burnout is different for everyone. Some people get burned out, for example, by having a schedule that is way too mundane and repetitive. In those cases, it may be the lack of any sort of challenge or mental stimulation that leads to burnout. On the other hand, there are people who thrive in that sort of environment. I have friends who have worked on the assembly line at an automotive factory for decades and seem to love the job in spite of the repetitiveness.

The point is that everyone is different, and the things that cause one person to feel burned out might be a nonissue for others. If you are feeling burned out, you need to figure out exactly why so that you can do something about it. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that the obvious answer is not necessarily the correct answer. In my case, for example, the obvious reason for me feeling burned out was that I was spending a ridiculous number of hours working and studying each day, but ultimately it wasn’t so much the schedule that proved problematic, as the lack of sunshine and fresh air.

Do something enjoyable

Another way of coping with IT burnout is to do something enjoyable during your downtime. Granted, that isn’t going to do anything to change your situation at work, but work might not seem quite so bad if you have something to look forward to after work or on the weekend. This might be anything from spending more time hanging out with friends to trying out a new hobby. Back when I had a corporate job, for example, my wife and I made it a point to take road trips on the weekends. We visited a lot of museums, historic sites, and zoos. It was a great way to spend time together and it gave us something to look forward to during the work week.

In more extreme situations, it might be helpful to do something that makes it absolutely impossible to think about work. There was a time, for instance, when I used to race speedboats on the weekends. Going fast on the water demands your complete attention because hitting a wave incorrectly can be disastrous. It is impossible to think about work while doing something that requires such focus.

Take some time off

IT burnout

At one time, taking a couple of weeks off each year was the norm. Over time, two weeks gave way to one week. Today, a lot of people are lucky to get so much as a long weekend, and at that, they might be expected to stay in contact with the office during their break.

In spite of what the IT workaholic culture might lead you to believe, taking time off once in a while is a healthy thing. Obviously, everyone is different, but I find vacationing to be more therapeutic than just about anything else.

When it comes to taking time off, everyone’s needs are different, and it is important to spend your downtime in a way that gives you the most benefit. Over the years, there are three things that I have discovered about myself with regard to taking time off. Even though these are personal, I will go ahead and put them out there.

First, I have found that I live my life at such a hectic pace that when I do get to take time off, I don’t even start to really wind down until about a week into my break. That’s the No. 1 reason why I try to take a two- to three-week break at least once a year. Again, I know that isn’t practical for everyone, but it is what works for me and I wanted to mention it in case it can help anyone else.

Second, I have found that it can be tremendously beneficial to do something really stimulating and way outside of the norm when I take time off. Let’s face it, IT is not the most exhilarating career choice. Since IT can be a bit dull at times, I like to do something exciting when I take time off. For instance, I have spent some of my vacations diving with sharks, dog sledding in Alaska, off-roading in the desert, and even climbing a live volcano.

OK, I will admit that not everyone finds the idea of swimming with sharks or playing with hot lava appealing. That’s OK. The adrenaline junkie thing isn’t for everyone. The point is that doing something outside the norm, and a little bit outside of your comfort zone (whatever that may be), can do wonders for breaking up the monotony.

Finally, as much fun as it can be to do something crazy, adventurous, and out of the ordinary, sometimes the need for rest has to come first. I once took a cruise for example, and “wasted” the first three days catching up on sleep. That didn’t make for the most exciting trip, but it was what I needed at the time. Don’t be afraid to get some rest when your body needs it. A little bit of extra rest now will pay dividends in the long run.

Look for the simple fix

In the quest to prevent or to relieve IT burnout, it is important to remember that sometimes the simplest fix can be the most effective. Let’s face it, taking time off isn’t always practical, and sometimes a seemingly intolerable situation can persist for years. In these types of situations, one of the more immediate and effective things that you might be able to do is to look for ways to add some variety to your workday. Maybe, for example, there is some sort of IT project that you can volunteer to head up, or perhaps there is an upcoming conference that you can attend (even if it is local). Whatever you happen to come up with, adding some variety can help your brain to perceive your situation differently, and may help you to overcome burnout.

Deal with IT burnout head-on

I have tried to use as many personal examples as I can. I have suffered from IT burnout a few times over the years, but have always managed to pull myself out of it. My hope is that by sharing what has worked for me, I might be able to help someone else.

Of course, sometimes the source of the problem is not something that you can easily change. For instance, if you are feeling burned out as a result of dealing with a particular co-worker day in and day out, then there might not be an easy solution short of looking for another job. If that is the case, then finding another job might be the best course of action. Regardless, it is important to take steps to deal with burnout head-on. If left unchecked, burnout can adversely affect your health, your career, and even your relationship with your loved ones.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

2 thoughts on “At the breaking point? Coping with extreme IT burnout”

  1. Hi Brein,

    Thank you for this article, I found it insightful. One thing I have been dealing with that is contributing to my burnout is my physical health due to having two car accidents in six months. I don’t recommend it! They weren’t my fault but still it doesn’t help the situation. But no matter the situation your article still offers practical steps and I appreciate it!

    Patrick

  2. Thank you so much for the kind words. I appreciate it. I wish you the best of luck in coping with the aftermath of the accidents. I can only imagine how difficult physical pain must make it to get through the work day.

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