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Get Ahead of Burnout Through Candid Conversations with Your Leader


In October of 2019, I was horribly burnt out.


Over the prior four years, I’d been working maniacally to execute a transition from a career in education to one as an employable, productive and proficient software developer.


In pursuit of this goal, I’d gotten into the habit of logging 50 to 60 hours a week at the computer in order to not only get my work done, but also to learn and grow and generally prove to myself and others that I could add value to a company through writing code.


And so, with this burnout plaguing my happiness and my motivation, I resigned from my software role that October in order to take a short break. My plan was to recover for two solid months, and then to start looking for a new role at the turn of the new year.


But then I accidentally got a job.


It's a long story, but before I had decided to take this short sabbatical, I had cold-applied for a job at a company with a product I was enamored with, positively certain that I wouldn't hear back. The job description warned not to apply without having had written "hundreds of thousands of line of production Python code," which very much did not describe me. I was an early-career full stack Javascript developer, and hadn't written hundreds of thousands of line of code in even that language. With Python, I had only dabbled on side projects.


Again, long story, but I accidentally got the job.


And so when I joined the company in December of that year, I was tired. But I was also so stinkin' grateful to have been hired against the odds. What I needed to do, I figured, was continue digging deep for a year or so as I learned how to be a Python developer and paid back the incredible gift that had been given to me through this job offer.


But I knew I couldn't do this. I couldn't keep doing this. I couldn’t sustain the pace that I’d established as a baseline at my former company, and so I decided to do something really, really scary.


I told my new leader about my burn out.


I shared with her that over the last few years, my work pattern had been:

  1. doubt that I was qualified for my role

  2. log tons of hours to prove my value to myself, my manager and my teammates

  3. get amped on the ensuing positive feedback around my work ethic and productivity

  4. gradually become exhausted and resentful and disillusioned

  5. stress quit


I told my leader that I wanted to break this pattern, and that I wanted to hold myself to working only the 40 hours a week I was being paid for.


And she was here for it.


We agreed that I shouldn't feel any pressure to work more than 40 hours a week. If the work couldn't get done in 40 hours or less, we needed to re-examine the work.


We also agreed that if I started to feel burnt out, I should and could be honest with her about it.


This was the first time I’d ever been honest with a leader about something like my propensity for burning myself out, and for me, it has made all the difference in helping me maintain a healthy balance between my work life and personal life. I didn't grow at an exponential pace, no, but I continued to grow as a software developer, and in my 40 hours a week, I added plenty of value to my team and the company.


In fact, in January of 2021, I was promoted to lead that team. For most of that year, I served as a Director of Engineering for the team that I had originally been hired onto. I did my best to do this job well in my hours 40 a week, but found that I couldn't, and so in November of that year, I asked my leader to step back down into an individual contributor role. For me, the title and the salary just weren't the burnout I could feel coming on.

Today, in early 2023, rather than feeling like I need to convince my leader that I’m working hard enough and growing quickly enough and adding enough value to my team, I actually feel like I owe it to my leader to find and maintain a sustainable pace at work so that I don’t become burnt out and eventually stress quit.


I no longer report to the woman who hired me into that original Python role, but I do report to another amazing leader with whom I’ve had this same honest, candid conversation about my propensity for over-working myself. Together, we watch for signs of my over-committing myself, and we’ve made an agreement that when I start to feel that over-burdened feeling, I’ll tell her so that we can nip it in the bud before it snowballs into full-blown burnout.


So, my advice for others is to be honest with your leader about your propensity for burning yourself out. Create agreements and commitments around what you will do when those feelings start to bubble, as well as what your leader will do.


Your mental health and well-being – and your job – are worth it!


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