What Burning Out Feels Like

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Last week, I mentioned that I was currently on a sabbatical from work, and loving every minute. I thought it might be helpful to some of you out there to know how I knew I was burning out – and what it looked like. There are a bunch of articles about it, which I didn’t read until today, but they all say pretty much the same thing, and give you the same signs.

When I first got into Operations, I was in totally over my head, and I loved it. I knew nothing about Operations, and I was ready to learn and absorb everything I could.

You see, learning new things has always sort of been what I do. I’d previously worked in both Finance and Real Estate, and whenever I got bored, I would move on to a job where I could learn something else. Tech was the place where you could never run out of things to learn, and because of that I thought it was perfect.

I spent the next couple of years moving throughout some of the roles at Overstock. I had started in DevOps, but I wanted to learn how to do production support, so I moved over to the Site Reliability Team. On the SRE team, I was on-call for the first time.

I really enjoyed being on-call. Despite the constant alerts, (we received anywhere from 700-1500 during the week), staying at home in my pajamas for a week, and the thrill of figuring something new out.

I started to suspect I was getting burnt out back around March, but to be honest, pretty much all of Operations was burnt out around March of last year. It had been a long nine months. Starting in Q3, the company ramps up and prepares for the big sales during Q4. Then there was Q4 busy-ness. I worked the week between Christmas and New Years, which was unusually empty and devoid of all management. Then beginning in January, the entire Operations side became involved in very large data center move.

In March, my desire to learn simply evaporated. I had just moved over to the Cloud team, which aides and supports the SREs, and while I was initially excited about the move, I was having a very hard time caring about learning what I needed to. I did it, but I had a really hard time caring. For the first time in my tech career, I had just wanted to do something that I already knew, I didn’t want to learn anything else.

Working in Operations is tough, especially since Slack rose to popularity. There’s always something going on. And with Slack, you’re always just unlocking your phone away from getting involved. You feel obligated to stay involved too, because you care about your company. I was involved all the time. And if you missed something, you rarely got an explanation of what had occurred after the fact. So you felt obligated to stay involved all the time, or risk missing out on something important that could affect your on-call.

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I started having trouble sleeping, while at the same time being more exhausted than I ever had been. I would come home from work and just sit on the couch like a zombie – a zombie staring at Slack. I would go to bed and be unable to fall asleep, thinking about work, and dreading it.

Then, my internal voice started being pretty negative at work. I wanted to be a good employee and a good worker, but the entire time I was at work I just kept thinking – I don’t care about this x that I’m doing. What does it matter? If I finish this, there will just be something else, and ugh, I don’t even know what it is and I don’t want to do that.

I have to stress that this area in particular was difficult for me. I take pride in being a good worker, and I knew I wasn’t being the worker I could be. I didn’t want to be a bad worker.

I tried to take some time off. I went on a vacation and disabled my Slack. I even had about a month or so off when my husband and I were moving to Germany before I started a new job.

But the cycle kept on. I dreaded the first day of my new job. And every day after that going in. I was learning new things again – and I didn’t care. I tried to self-motivate, but my general thoughts were “Kubernetes? Who cares? This sucks.” So my husband and I decided that it might be in my best interest to take some time off. I hadn’t done any research on what “burning out” actually looked like, I just knew that I was stressed and exhausted all the time, coupled with a deep seated dread of work, and anger towards it.

This burning out is part of the reason I’ve spent so much time in the past twelve months talking about work/life balance and vacation. If you set boundaries early enough, you can prevent a full meltdown. You don’t need to become like me and this lady:

So here I am – almost exactly one month into my self-imposed sabbatical. I miss feeling like a productive member of society, but right now I don’t really miss tech. It’s still hard to pick up my computer. I want to stay up-to-date in tech, so I don’t get rusty, but I just can’t yet. I’m hoping that will change. But maybe it won’t. Maybe, like the tweet from last week, I won’t ever be able to go back. But I hope not.

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