Burnout - early detection & avoidance (before it's too late)

Burnout - early detection & avoidance (before it's too late)

Disclaimer: I'm not a psychotherapist. This whole post is based on my individual observations & experiences - these may apply to you, but also may not. Don't blame me, but if you find these scribblings relevant, toss me a +1.

I'm not going to cover the topic of burnout end-to-end here, there's no need as there are already very informative articles to be found on the web, e.g.: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/burnout-prevention-and-recovery.htm

My problem with these articles is that they focus on clear symptoms of burnout that's already taking place - which is IMHO a bit too late. I find it very important to build an internal awareness to detect burnout early & avoid it (almost) completely. So far it has worked for me & damn, I prefer it to stay this way.

When stress accumulates

Just to make sure we're aligned on definitions: burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress.

Trick is: stress is nearly always present in our lives - but it not always leads to burnout. The stress accumulates dangerously & inevitably (w/o dispersion) over the time when:

  • you're in permanent fire-fighting mode (either real or (self-)imposed by creating the atmosphere of endless urgency - I call it a "permanent diarrhea effect")
  • you're in purely re-active mode: it's the calendar / issues / topics to be addressed that determine your daily schedule; there's no place for pro-activity, creativity & "making a step back" to think things through
  • there's a consistent lack of balance (or significant deviance from comfortable balance) between things that are important for you: your job VS whatever else means a lot to you (family, friends, hobby, personal development, etc.)
  • you experience a constant workplace insecurity of any kind: "we-vs-them" syndrome, a permanent lack of trust and support, workplace toxicity, wasting energy on in-org fights & mutual accusations (in contrast to "we're all in it" team behavior)
  • you keep perceiving a lack of appreciation & hereby killed impression of progress (that should appear after summarizing each day's activities when the day is over)

If you detect any of these syndromes, your warning light should already be blinking. You're on a one-way road. And you won't like where it heads to.

Inability to reset

I've found one particular symptom that helps me detect the increased risk of burnout even better - the inability to reset (aka "inability to stop thinking about the job").

If my thoughts automatically (subconsciously) drift (in random situations) to work-related scenes and I can't force myself to stop this from happening (by effectively resetting my mind to different topics) then I know I'm in deep shit. And believe me, I have a lot of "reset-aiding" tools in my options' palette (mindfulness meditation, running, game immersion, etc.), so when I'm not able to do that, the situation is severe.

When you're not helping yourself

Ignoring such early warnings is a big mistake. None of these issues will fix by itself. Sadly, whether they can be fixed at all or not depends (in big part) on a particular environment. Some environments are dysfunctional by nature - it doesn't have to mean they are doomed & destined to collapse: high-turnover up-or-out brands do have a high turnover of talented people even in conditions like that. But each person individually has to answer her/himself whether it's an environment for you. Or in other words: what's the price you'd like to pay and how long you can afford paying it ...

This is especially crucial for people I tag as self-starters (the category I believe I belong to) - the ones with a growth-mindset, deep intrinsic motivations and full of grit. Such individuals usually set high thresholds of self-demand and to be frank ... don't need external stress-generating factors. Quite the opposite.


High performance cannot scale indefinitely - just like almost everything else it's a sort of balance or a mixture with a correct ratio of multiple ingredients: attitude, talent, wisdom, skill, dedication, structure & organization, motivation & many other ingredients - constant stress doesn't work as their multiplier, as some tend to think.

Sebastian Gebski

About Sebastian Gebski

Geek, agilista, blogger, codefella, serial reader. In the daylight - I lead software delivery. #lean #dotnet #webdev #elixir. I speak here for myself only.

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