Jesse waited tables, taught high school, and served as an assistant manager at a fast food chain. He learned how to code, working for a university, and then a major company, and then a startup. But no matter where he was at, or what he achieved, his feelings of work stress and burnout wouldn’t go away.
It got so bad that simply walking down to his basement office, where he worked remotely as a programmer, was triggering. “I would get anxiety just coming down the stairs,” Jesse told G2i.
He sought out counseling and psychiatric services multiple times throughout this challenging time in life, yet frequent changes to his health insurance made it difficult to continue getting treatment. The financial pressure of providing for his wife and kids also weighed on Jesse, making him hesitant to get the help he needed.
His panic attacks became so severe he could no longer work, which is why he left the office for two weeks as he sought help from his friends, his family, and his fellow professionals. A normally laid-back person, he was dealing with a strange, new emotion: anger.
Anger at all the traumatic work experiences that had led to that moment. Anger at the mistreated colleagues and the ever-shifting expectations. Anger at jobs with long hours and little respite. And all of that anger finally bubbled up in the only way it could — with a massive stress cleaning session, as he rampaged through his house, sanitizing and fixing everything in sight.
“After that, I finally started to feel OK again,” Jesse says. “The anger started to fade.”
For the first time in over a decade, Jesse felt some significant relief from his depression. While employees are sometimes skeptical of mental health services offered by their employer, his benefits with American Express allowed him to get an affordable telemedicine appointment that same day.
In that meeting, he was able to truly start his road to recovery, including getting a prescription for the medication that he needed. Soon after, he set up time with a counselor who specializes in trauma, who was able to offer him practical ways to heal from the past.
“There is hope,” Jesse said in a YouTube video where he shared his story in the hope of helping others. “You could go from your worst to your best in one week— it happened to me.”
Spotting the Red Flags of Burnout
Looking back, Jesse sees a number of moments that began his career-long burnout. Despite finishing at the top of his business class, he graduated into the Great Recession in 2008, leading him to take jobs that were less personally fulfilling so he could support his young family.
Jesse was grateful when a friend gave him a freelance coding gig and the freedom to learn on the job.
He was able to translate these programming skills into a software engineer position for Dick’s Sporting Goods. There, Jesse worked with the open-source UI software framework React Native, which was an exciting new challenge for him.
Still, it too came with red flags, some of which could have been spotted immediately, and others which grew over time. The job was further away from his home in Steubenville, which meant Jesse was either commuting or at work from about 6:30 am to almost 6:30 pm each day.
Early on, he enjoyed attending conferences, but then a VP of the company stepped in and told him that he could no longer attend, even forcing him to cancel one event he had already agreed to. And Jesse became even more dissatisfied when, once the pandemic hit, the company shifted focus from an in-store product to altogether different projects and personnel.
“The whole team got shifted to different work,” Jesse says. “I don’t know that I really realized it was burnout at that point. I just thought ‘This feels different. This isn’t fun anymore.’”
Some best practices for addressing workplace burnout, according to G2i’s “Developer Health” research, include:
- Flexible Schedules: Workplaces should remove rigid work schedules to help team members do their best work at the times that work best for them.
- Async Communication: Reducing unnecessary meetings helps team members prioritize their mental health and set healthy boundaries between their personal life and work life.
- Restful work: By building purpose, meaning, and healthy expectations, companies can help make sure employees feel like their work has impact and like their input matters.
In his career and across numerous workplaces, Jesse has experienced many frustrating workplace situations, including some of the job conditions the CDC and other experts have defined as job conditions leading to stress.
The design of tasks, including heavy workloads, long work hours, and shift work, can cause burnout.
For instance, when Jesse joined a startup, he was initially excited to build a new social media app. But his enthusiasm quickly turned to exhaustion: He would wake up as early as 5 am to talk to colleagues in India before working late into the night to accommodate some of his engineers in Brazil.
Jesse felt like he could get a work message at any time, which added constant stress to his life. He wishes now that he had set better boundaries between his work and personal life: “I could have been very disciplined about not accepting messages at different times, but I wasn’t as disciplined as I should have been.”
Poor management styles can also cause burnout, especially when workers feel like they have little input in decision-making. That’s how Jesse felt when, working in his university job, the website he had been working on for months was shut down by the administration shortly after launching.
Finally, burnout can linger, so much so that workers can still feel its after-effects after they’ve transitioned into a healthier work environment. When Jesse left the startup for his current software engineer role at American Express, he was still stressed and anxious, and began doubting whether things could change.
“I was still in the mentality that my life is never gonna get better. I just need to accept this and live with lower expectations of myself and of my happiness.”
Retaking Control of Your Life
Jesse discovered that staying active could combat the depression that held him back before. He resolved himself to reconnect with friends, establish a better sleep schedule, and exercise on a daily basis. Those habits have helped Jesse keep his spirits high, even amidst the challenges of everyday life.
“There are definitely things you can do to improve your mental health, your mental fortitude, but you have to do them consistently if you want it to work.”
People with higher rates of physical activity report decreased depressive symptoms, regardless of age, country, or culture, research published in Current Sports Medicine Reports in 2019 suggests.
Regular exercise has also been shown to reduce depressive symptoms, according to a 2021 report from the academic journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, while improving overall fitness and cognitive function.
Jesse is grateful for the progress he’s made, but recognizes that many people around him were hurt by his anxiety and depression. Rather than discourage him, reflecting on the impact he has on others has helped Jesse stay committed to prioritizing his mental health.
“Anger is a useful tool at times,” Jesse says. “You think back on everything the depression took from you, and you get angry enough to try to do those things you know will help keep it away.”
Beyond staying active, Jesse has found taking cold showers to be a powerful way to take control of his mental health. “Depression just destroys your willpower. So I’m trying to do things that build up my willpower, which basically means doing things that are uncomfortable.”
Jesse has also found it helpful to think about depression as a separate entity from himself, which makes it easier to visualize and grapple with it.
“If I feel a little down, I can visualize that depression. I can visualize the fight, like a physical fight. And that can give me the motivation to do a workout when I don’t want to, to get out of my bed when my alarm goes off.”
Jesse’s experiences taught him that he doesn’t have to be perfect to be happy. As long as he continues to do uplifting things and remains connected to people who care about him, he’ll have a future he can look forward to.
“I don’t do my schedule perfectly all the time. I’m never going to, but as long as I’m consistent and I do it more often than not, I think I’ll be alright.”
The first step in Jesse’s recovery was taking some time off to address it head on. And when asked what advice he would give to someone struggling with their mental health, his advice was simple: “Your work can survive without you. If you need to take time for yourself, do it.”
G2i has established a Developer Health Fund, which aims to reduce the barriers preventing global tech workers like Jesse from accessing the mental health resources they need. Learn more about the fund, and how you can apply, here.