Becky has always been able to use exercise to unwind and clear her mind. Yet for a long time at the height of her burnout, the software engineer couldn’t relax at all.
Instead, she would spend her workouts preoccupied with thoughts about her career, project deadlines, and an overwhelming desire to quit her job.
A track and field athlete throughout high school and college, Becky even spent a few years training for the Olympics, although an ill-timed injury prevented her from reaching that goal.
Yet despite being no stranger to high-pressure environments, the impact of her workplace stress escalated beyond anything she had ever experienced.
“Exercise had always been the one time I could turn my brain off and focus on something else. And I wasn’t able to disconnect anymore. That was when I thought, ‘It’s time to do something different.’”
For years, Becky had struggled to find purpose while working in a large corporate setting. She invested time and effort into projects that were frequently shut down, without hesitation or explanation, by upper management.
Becky also experienced burnout while working for a smaller company, and was already considering going part-time when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Things only got worse during the uncertain market, as her company changed course on the product they were building.
She worked long hours for over a year, until she lost her motivation to keep up that exhausting pace. “It felt pretty unsustainable because, at some point, people are going to want to have lives outside of work again,” she says.
There are plenty of studies that show the harmful effects of incessant work, as G2i’s research into Developer Health has shown. When responding to extreme work situations, we are “filled with a sudden rush of energy or excitement,” as adrenaline fills our bloodstream, increasing our heart rate, perspiration, and breathing.
Such adrenaline may help us get through particularly stressful situations. However, it often leaves us tired, irritable, or nervous, and can lead to long term insomnia and heart damage. In the same way world-class athletes can’t sustain Olympian-like efforts for too long without injuring themselves, we can’t work incessantly without losing productivity and feeling the harmful after-effects.
“I stepped back and was like, ‘I don’t need to be making as much money as I am. Why am I even doing this? I could earn less money and be happier.’”
Fulfillment Comes From More Than Compensation
Becky was well-compensated, yet she was still unhappy. That’s not uncommon, even for highly capable people who are used to stressful situations. While financial stability does help increase our emotional well being, a study published in Nature Human Behavior found that the threshold for how much money you need to be happy is more tied to cost of living and personal circumstance rather than comparing against other people’s expectations.
In a 2015 Glassdoor survey, employees rated “culture and values” — including company morale, employee recognition and organizational transparency— as having the biggest impact on their job satisfaction. Compensation and benefits, on the other hand, had the second smallest effect on overall job satisfaction.
For Becky, her salary was no longer worth the cost of working such long hours, so she used her savings to take a few months off of work. She intentionally spent that time away from her computer, spending more time outside, exercising and reconnecting with old hobbies.
“I work only part-time now. At the most, I work maybe 30 hours a week, but generally, I work 15-20 hours per week,” Becky says.
She was able to reduce her work hours because of her low cost of living and the luxury of a high-paying career. Becky knows it was a privilege to have that option, but her knowledge that many others didn’t have those same opportunities actually prevented Becky from treating her burnout earlier.
“At the time, I felt too guilty about being unhappy to go to therapy. I was like, ‘You have this fancy tech job. This is such an enviable position. Why would you be unhappy?”.
Now working as a part-time contractor, Becky tries to reduce her screen time and turns off audible notifications on her phone and laptop, which helps her avoid feeling constantly bombarded as she did in past work situations.
“No one really needs to hear from you immediately about anything, unless something is actually on fire, and I’m not a firefighter.”
She has also learned to not get overly-invested in her work projects, so that she wasn’t discouraged if a project was shut down or otherwise didn’t work out. These small changes, in addition to working less hours, have helped Becky enjoy her life more.
“For a while I was thinking, ‘This is just what being an adult is, you’re miserable and you hate what you’re doing all day. You wake up the next morning and do it again,” Becky says, but now she knows “that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case.”
Breaking Free From Burnout
Coming to terms with workplace burnout is a difficult process. Many factors, including guilt, can prevent someone from changing their situation and prioritizing their health.
Those struggling with burnout should know that they are not alone, and that no matter how high their salary is or how prestigious their title is, they can still experience workplace stress or frustration due to poor working conditions.
For Becky, thinking back to the years she spent contending for the Olympics gave her the confidence she needed to break free.
“Wow, that person, in retrospect, seems fearless,’” she remembers thinking about her past self, and asking, “Why do you feel you’re nothing like that person anymore? You could just do something different. You don’t have to stay here if you hate it.”
G2i provides tools for creating healthy and ideal work experiences for both the developers on our platform and the clients they work with. To learn more about best practices for avoiding and addressing burnout, subscribe to our monthly newsletter, Developer Health Insights.