Michelle felt like a hamster on a wheel, constantly doing taxing tasks with no clear purpose while working for a large corporation. The software developer knew she was unhappy, but didn’t realize at the time that what she was experiencing was burnout.
Extreme work-related stress can be difficult to identify. It often presents itself differently in different people, with the Centers for Disease Control saying that it can lead to “a variety of ailments,” from mood and sleep disturbances to upset stomachs and headaches.
At the height of her tension, Michelle began having frequent cardiac episodes. While talking to colleagues, her heart palpitations often escalated until she couldn’t speak and had to spend several moments catching her breath.
Her coworkers — some of whom had experienced stomach pain, eye twitches, and lockjaw themselves — sometimes expressed concern when her heart issues came up. However, most downplayed the need for change.
“When I tried to talk to my colleagues about it, the response was like, “Well, you’re not supposed to enjoy work. This is just what we have to do. We’re all suffering.”
It wasn’t until she was sitting in a cardiologist office being diagnosed with a heart condition that Michelle was forced to recognize the extent of her years-long struggle with workplace stress.
“The cardiologist said there’s really no cure for this. You have to manage this on your own,” Michelle says.
She went home with a temporary prescription and the realization that she needed to remove herself from her toxic situation. Searching for purpose and a less-stressful environment, she joined a startup confident that she could start healing.
From the Frying Pan to the Fire
Her experience, from the frying pan into the fire, is unfortunately all too common. Roughly 77% of employees said they experienced burnout at their current job in a 2015 Deloitte survey, with nearly 70% believing their employer wasn’t doing enough to prevent or alleviate burnout.
It happens whether you love your work or you don’t: While 87% of professionals in that survey said they were passionate about their job, 64% still reported experiencing frequent stress.
One of the most critical ways to avoid burnout is to try to avoid getting into a difficult workplace to begin with. While it’s not always possible to do, spotting red flags early in the job search is easier when you know what you’re looking for.
According to the CDC, some job conditions that lead to stress include:
- Heavy workloads with infrequent rest breaks, long hours, and shift work.
- Hectic, routine, and “meaningless” tasks that offer workers little control.
- Conflicting or uncertain expectations, too much responsibility or too many “hats to wear.”
Interrogating Workplace Culture
Since her previous bad experiences, Michelle has made interrogating workplace culture an essential part of her interview process.
She doesn’t just ask what the workplace policies are, but also why they are that way. If workplace practices don’t have any real purpose but instead are performed “for the sake of checking boxes,” Michelle considers them to be red flags for burnout.
She also asks people in interviews what they like most about working for their company. One woman beamed while recounting a time her CEO asked for suggestions, selected hers, and implemented it in a thoughtful and timely manner.
That was a stark contrast to the person who, when asked the same question, was only able to mention the company’s benefits package.
Michelle eventually decided to join G2i as our Program Director for Developer Health, part of our commitment to prevent burnout and promote work-life balance. G2i has set a goal to help at least 1,000 developers increase their physical, mental, and emotional health in 2022.
Still, burnout doesn’t fade in a day. According to her therapist, Michelle developed complex post-traumatic stress disorder from the trauma she withstood in past work settings. Her body had responded to those experiences by forming automatic behaviors, like tensing up or being fearful or suspicious of others.
Science suggests this is a natural physiological response to traumatic experiences like workplace burnout. Psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk writes in his book “The Body Keeps The Score” that being traumatized “means continuing to organize your life as if the trauma were still going on—unchanged and immutable—as every new encounter or event is contaminated by the past."
Michelle believes she is now in a healthier setting, thanks to a high trust work environment, with a meaningful commitment to the health of employees. Past learned behaviors remain active though, at times interfering with Michelle’s ability to be at ease in the workplace.
Self reflection, and therapy, have been key to the healing process. “I don’t think you can recover from burnout without addressing everything about what happened and what brought you there,” Michelle says. “If you don’t work to fix all of those things, then you’re going to just go back into the cycle of burnout and recovery again.”
Michelle says she feels comfortable now asking for space and resources as she needs them, partly because Gabe Greenberg, G2i’s Founder and CEO who has battled workaholism and chronic illness himself, understands the impact workplaces have on sustaining recovery.
After a particularly intense work week during the React Miami conference, Greenberg gave Michelle the next week off without her asking or docking it from her PTO, as well as a stipend to help ensure the time off was restorative.
Such proactive action is key for managers seeking to help prevent burnout on their teams. Michelle says she feels deeply respected and trusted at work, and that her personal time is now honored, unlike at previous employers who asked her to be on-call outside of business hours.
That’s opened the door for Michelle to both enjoy her work more and pursue things that make her life meaningful outside of it too.
“Because of this good work environment that I’m in, I’ve been able to develop the habits that I’ve always wanted to develop,” Michelle says, from working out in the mornings to running 5Ks, like she did in high school. “All of these things that were so hard for me to do, before, now come easier because I have boundaries.”
G2i provides tools for creating healthy and ideal work experiences for both the developers that join our platform and the clients they work with. Learn more about best practices for avoiding and addressing burnout, or subscribe to Michelle’s monthly newsletter about Developer Health here.