There are never enough days in a week. Tomorrow always brings with it more tasks, more options, and more places to make wrong decisions. Whether you’re a founder trying to find market fit or an Individual Contributor getting paged in the middle of the night, work keeps coming.
Early on in my career, I tried to work through this fact. I was a green agency developer with a big bad case of Imposter Syndrome. I thought that the constant funnel of work, the missed deadlines, the angry customers were solely my responsibility. It seemed that the onus of profitability rested squarely on my shoulders, so I put my head down and worked even harder.
Because that’s what I thought I had to do. In that moment, with all of these outside forces pushing in on me that I had no control over, all I could do was work harder, even if it was in vain. One year in, the 12+ hour days started to catch up to me. Every morning I would wake up more exhausted than the night before; every night I’d fear the next day more than I feared the previous.
I had lost sight of why I wanted to be in the industry and could only see the insurmountable hill of bugs and tasks ahead of me. Sound familiar?
Burnout is an epidemic in our industry and one that our profit-first zeitgeist seems to laud as “earning your stripes”. From the Paypal Mafia’s glorification of the “sleep under your desk” movement to the Tao of Programming’s description of an engineer as someone who toils at a never-ending feature list until he passes out, the idea that exhaustion is merely an obstacle to overcome is reverberated throughout our community, and it’s harmful.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Being in pain isn’t what we signed up for when we started our software journey. Suffering “for the team” doesn’t help our team succeed.
I was reminded of this during my team’s Small Hands - an in-person all-hands gathering for our functional team. Being a fully distributed team, this was our first chance to spend quality time together in the same time zone, let alone the same building. With the ability to communicate synchronously came the ability to be more open emotionally during our retrospective. Talking with the team brought to my attention the signs of burnout I was experiencing: sleeplessness, apathy, and this aching in my legs to just run.
Like many others, I at first ran from this feeling, opting to instead blame other sources on my emotional state or bury my head in my computer and hope that this time I could work through it. My team knew there was something deeper and we worked together to figure out what that was.
As we talked opened and candidly about the issues I faced, I was reminded how safe I was to fail on the team, wrapped in grace and empathy by all of them. Instead of trying to push the awkward conversation and emotions under the rug, the team offered solace, meeting me where I was, and raising me up. They rushed to my tasks and carried them across the finish line.
They treated me and my emotions with care and compassion, and operated as a cohesive unit bound together by more than duty but love and respect. For all of the hubbub around Cracking the Coding Interview-esque skills that seems to be the threshold guardians to our industry, these skills of empathy, overcommunication, and gratitude are the ones that can reach into the pits of burnout and offer a ladder to those that need it.
It isn’t how good you are at translating English product requirements into Clojure or React code but instead how open and gracious you are towards those in your team that need the most help that should be the gatekeepers.
Compassion, just like any other skill, is a learned trait. We must put in just as much if not more conscious effort into making it emanate from our actions as we do to write “good code”. We have to balance producing real value for our customers with ensuring that we ourselves feel value and worth. And that’s really hard.
There’s no algorithm to work through burnout, no heuristic that can help us feel better about the outside stresses we are put through at work. As engineers, that is a hard fact to accept. I’ve seen so many blog posts and courses promising to prevent burnout with a novel process or steps to follow. But in my experience, these only postpone the inevitable crash, because they don’t solve the problem at its root cause. It’s just not that simple.
The only thing that has helped me or those around me has been compassion and empathy; caring about the humans behind the desk instead of the 1s and 0s that we may produce. The journey to create a compassionate working environment is everyone’s responsibility, and it can be an uphill journey. But so is getting out of burnout. And I’ve learned I’d rather climb that mountain with my team than alone.