This feature first appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
While an IT career can be stimulating and lucrative, it is also very demanding. Excessive work pressure is common in the IT industry, potentially leading to high stress levels. If left to build up over a long period of time, this accumulation of stress can result in burnout.
Stress, by definition, is any uncomfortable "emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological and behavioral changes." We all experience stress from time to time — and a certain amount of stress can be beneficial, giving us a boost that provides drive and energy to accomplish things.
Chronic stress, however, which occurs when we are exposed to extreme amounts of stress on a continual basis, can drain any person of physical and emotional vitality, leaving one feeling utterly exhausted all the time. Chronic stress sufferers lose interest in things, and often become cynical and disillusioned, overcome by feelings of hopelessness.
Chronic stress can affect one's health and morale, jeopardizing both professional and personal ambitions. This level of stress is often a major contributing factor to career or job burnout — defined as "an extended period of time where someone experiences exhaustion and a lack of interest in things, resulting in a decline in job performance."
What is Burnout?
Burnout doesn't necessarily ensue from workplace factors alone. Colleagues often experience the same circumstances at work but do not respond in the same manner. Individual personality, life approaches, and lifestyle all influence how individuals respond. A stressful situation may be easy to brush off for one employee, yet deeply disturbing to another.
Over time, burnout can build up stealthily. Some of the signs of burnout include exhaustion, lack of motivation, difficulty focusing, declining job performance, interpersonal problems at home and work, and engaging in unhealthy coping strategies like eating too much junk food, being too sedentary, or drinking too much alcohol.
Preventing burnout is easier than recovering from it. One needs to recognize the early signs of increasing stress and act fast to prevent them from accumulating. Since stress can also result from internal factors, you need to first determine what is stressing you out, and then reduce the demands on yourself and develop the resources you have.
There are potential triggers of job burnout and being able to recognize these warning signs is the first step to controlling your situation. These factors include:
Long hours — Long workdays are the norm in the IT industry. The reasons could be both internal and external. Excessive job pressure, the nature of job, and your approach to work are the main reasons why IT professionals put in long hours day after day. Industry-wide downsizing has also led to heavier workloads, with fewer workers having to shoulder greater responsibility.
Lack of clarity — When you know precisely what's expected of you, then you're able to plan your work and perform effectively. On the other hand, a vague job description and uncertain expectations can adversely affect performance.
Chaotic work conditions — IT professionals don't work in a vacuum. They continuously collaborate with others in an environment that's influenced by multiple external factors. When these factors are not in sync, work can suffer.
Responsibility creep — Frequently having to do work that's not part of your job description can be taxing, which increases stress.
Lack of recognition and respect — Many IT professionals, particularly support and network staff, don't always get the appreciation and respect that their work deserves.
Politics — Unfortunately, merit and hard work aren't always rewarded. Some work less, but get a fat raise or a promotion. That's because they aggressively market themselves, something which many techies who are engrossed in their work aren't inclined to do.
Drudgery — Doing the same thing, the same way, day after day, can be draining. Eventually, unchallenging work can rob you of enthusiasm and energy, sometimes making you want to quit.
Lack of sleep — Not everybody needs the same amount of sleep. Lack of sufficient sleep night after night, however, is considered to adversely affect physical and mental well-being, leading to poor work performance.
Lack of relaxation and entertainment — Everyone needs time away from work to help them recharge their batteries. Working excessive hours leaves you with little time to unwind or socialize.
Outside pressures and personality — Away from the office, having more responsibilities than one can cope with and a lack of support can also create stress. Additionally, perfectionists and high-achievers are often more vulnerable to stress, as are those who are wary of delegating. Pessimists also tend to worry more because they're inclined to look at the dark side of things.
Strategies to Help Avoid Burnout
As bad as job burnout can be, there are a number of relatively simple things you can do to avoid it. Now that we know what to watch for, let's look at ways of lessening the impact of some of these dangerous symptoms.
Relax — Find some time each day, ideally in the morning, to unwind. Meditation, an early morning walk, light exercise, reading something uplifting, or listening to soothing music can help you start the day in a positive frame of mind. Meditating for at least 30 minutes every day will not only help clear and calm your mind, it will gradually make you more aware of yourself.
Cut back on work — One of the best things you can do is to say "No" to extra work that extends beyond your realm of responsibility. Focusing on what's important will help improve your performance.
Rediscover the thrill — If work doesn't excite you anymore, then it may be time to ask for a new assignment. A different function might rekindle your interest.
Attend to your health — A healthy diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep can strengthen your well-being and make you more resistant to the negative effects of stress.
Develop outside interests — Engaging in non-work activities, whether a hobby, a creative pursuit, fitness program, or volunteer work not only takes your mind off of work and gives you a sense of satisfaction, it can also enrich your life and instill positive feelings.
Find some device-free time — Just because you are in IT doesn't mean you have to be connected all day long. Switch off your devices and disconnect totally for a few minutes every day.
Recovering from Burnout
If you have reached the burnout stage, then you need to work on correcting the problem immediately. The good thing is that burnout is reversible if you act soon and with intention. To reverse burnout consider the following:
Step on the brakes — Continuing to push yourself can result in a total breakdown. The first thing you need to do is decelerate. Take some time off if you can, or slow up; you need to rest and recuperate.
Turn to loved ones for support — Trying to cope in isolation can sometimes make you feel worse. Share your predicament with someone you trust. A good listener can make you feel better. Confiding in a friend or relative can also help put your problems in perspective.
Seek professional help — If you are experiencing physical symptoms like persistent headaches, heart palpitations or chest pains, dizziness, and stomach upsets, then you might need medical attention. Don't let any of these physical warning signs persist without consulting a physician.
Consider changing jobs or reskilling — If burnout is largely work-related, then a job change may be in order. Specializing in a new technology or function could also help revive your interest.
Pause and take stock of your life — Going on vacation or sabbatical is one of the best ways to recover from burnout. You need to reflect and ask yourself what is most important. Revisit your goals and prioritize accordingly. You might find yourself wanting to change direction.
Job burnout is a real problem for IT professionals. Facing the problem is crucial, and the sooner you act, the better. Learn to identify and address the causes of job burnout. This might require not just work-related changes, but changes in life as well.
Remember that we are more than drones attached to our jobs. As Swami Bhaskarananda said, "A spiritually illumined soul lives in the world, yet is never contaminated by it."