Looking back on her experience with burnout, Mari-Megan wishes someone had shaken her and told her to snap out of it—yet she also recognizes that, like so much in life, we have to come to meaningful realizations on our own.
As a full-time-turned-freelance Senior Product and UX Consultant, Mari-Megan is happy now, having claimed ownership of her time, space, and schedule. As with most burnout stories, however, her happiness was hard-earned; she had to first rebound from a case of burnout that permeated her professional and personal lives and even affected her health.
Burnout Can Creep Up Slowly Over Time
Mari-Megan is a self-taught coder and stumbled into UX when it was a burgeoning field over a decade ago. She describes herself as always self-motivated, a hard worker with a lot of grit who never minded working overtime and pulling late nights and weekends.
That made it harder to identify burnout, particularly when a past working environment exploited all of Mari-Megan's personal vulnerabilities, including a tendency to people-please and a desire for validation. She found herself working around the clock to accommodate global clients and what she refers to as "a crushing workload."
So, how did she realize there was an issue? The first signs of burnout were that Mari-Megan was not as interested or motivated. "I lost that spark that made work enjoyable and fun—not that it's always fun, but you shouldn't dread going to bed because you have to wake up for work," she remembers. "There was this element of dread that started showing up in everything."
Mari-Megan stopped doing things she enjoyed; then, the pandemic arrived and curbed her ability to do so even more. She started to spend all weekend, every weekend, glued to the TV or reading books alone, withdrawing from not only her previous hobbies but the people she liked spending time with.
Burnout Can Also Physically Manifest Itself
Things reached a head when Mari-Megan began having fainting episodes. She also started to struggle with memory issues and worried that there was something very wrong. She found it hard to keep track of tasks or stay focused and felt like she was in a constant mental fog.
Her medical workups revealed nothing—but after buying an Apple watch, Mari-Megan made a shocking discovery.
"Towards the end, before I quit, I had a resting heart rate in the hundreds, even while I was sleeping," she explains. "I was dizzy and having fainting episodes. Then, as soon as I quit, my resting heart rate plummeted.
"Everything went back to normal. I started exercising again; everything was fine. You could see the stress's physical impact on me, which was really eye-opening. I even gave up a 5-figure bonus when I quit. I just couldn't get out of bed to do it anymore."
Therapy as a Burnout Antidote
Quitting her job was just the first step for Mari-Megan on her burnout recovery journey. While that obviously eliminated the most active stressors, she still had to discover the root cause of how she'd ended up in this situation and be intentional about preventing it from happening again.
First up: therapy. This was the most critical element of Mari-Megan's recovery, as it helped her realize that her personal habits and patterns were spilling over into her work life. "Figure out what the source of your burnout is," she recommends. "Is it a toxic boss? Boundary issues? Do you need to pivot your career somehow?"
Through the help of a therapist, Mari-Megan could connect the dots in her life, become more aware and mindful of her own reactions, and learn how to trust her gut instincts. She now recognizes that setting boundaries and people-pleasing will be lifelong lessons for her, areas she'll have to continually work on.
What Does a "Reasonable" Work Week Look Like To You?
Beyond therapy, Mari-Megan took a hard look at how much she'd been working. As a freelancer, she now limits her billable work hours to 30 a week, which feels healthy and sustainable to her.
Work hours are one of the least understood boundaries. Many of us accept the standard 40-hour workweek without knowing why—it originated in 1926, when Henry Ford proposed it as a blending of the eight-hour workday with the five-day work week.
However, in the ensuing 82 years, much has changed. Why shouldn't we look at whether the amount of hours we work should change accordingly?
Ultimately, assessing how much you want to—and are able to—work is an individual decision. Every person has their own limits and ideal working conditions. Once you learn what your limits, needs, and capabilities are, you can start to draw lines in the sand the same way Mari-Megan has.
Preventing Burnout: "Just Don't Have Toxic People Around"
As for preventing burnout? Mari-Megan recommends that you consider what type of behavior you're modeling to other employees. "If you're in any position of power or even just a coworker on a team, if you're doing weekend work or commenting at late hours, that creates unspoken expectations in the work culture. It leading to coworkers becoming competitive or thinking these habits are expected. You have to be really careful about that."
She's careful now to look for any red flags that there are toxic people on a team. "Get good at identifying toxic behaviors and patterns in coworkers, bosses, etc. and avoid them as best as you can. That might mean turning down a client, moving departments or even physically moving desks!" she emphasizes. "That is something I don't tolerate, now that I'm freelance. I interview my clients before we work together and if I sense any of that, or if I talk to designers who've worked with them and they tell me anything like that, I say no."
The days of burnout feel far behind Mari-Megan, and she plans to continue prioritizing her personal life and health. This was validated recently when a friend flew out to see her. "She was like, 'You're completely different. You're smiling. You're glowing. You look amazing. You're so happy!' And it was really nice to hear that. There's been a big transformation."
Looking for more stories like Mari-Megan's? G2i offers a platform and community for specialist developers, and we are committed to bolstering developer health. If you're looking for a space where you can openly ask questions, be yourself, and find opportunities and mentorship, learn more here.