Developer burnout is real, we need to talk about it

Disclaimer: I am not a mental health professional, nor have I ever claimed to be. This post is about my experiences with burnout, and steps I have taken that have worked for me. Your mileage may vary and if you are considering getting outside help, make sure it is with an accredited mental health professional in your local area.

Important note: This article was written over the most of 2016, through many drafts. As such in places it may seem disjointed. I have tried to correct this where possible.

Introduction

Mental health has (finally) started receiving more attention in the press. OK the UK media has mostly concentrated on the crisis in mental health funding, but at least it is a start. The open source community have also started talking about it more and more. This article is about my personal experiences with burnout, caused in part by depression; how I am beating it; and how I am wanting to help kickstart further conversations about burnout and mental health of developers in general.

This post is in part inspired by seeing others in the Drupal (And wider web development) community speak out about mental health and their experiences. One of particular note that struck a chord with me is Mike Bell’s Community keynote at DrupalCon Barcelona [youtube.com] in September 2015. In case the timestamp embedded in the video link above doesn’t work, the community keynote was split into 2 25 minute sessions, Mike’s was second and starts at 48:25 into the 73 minute presentation. At DrupalCon Europe 2016 [drupal.org], held in Dublin, Ireland back in September 2016, had a new “being human” [drupal.org] track, designed specifically to talk about “being human”, with a large number of talks being related mental health in the Drupal Community, including burnout, imposter syndrome etc. I’m in the process of looking at submitting a session to DrupalCon Europe 2017 on “on going health conditions”, the effects it has on me and my ability to work/code etc. Look out for developments of it at various camps over 2017.

Background

I admit it, in 2015 I burnt out and I have come pretty close to it in 2016 as well. For me burnout has meant I couldn’t code, and didn’t want to. Those who know me realise how unusual that is. This article concentrates on my 2015 burnout, which coincided with a very quiet period at my old job (I got made redundant in January 2016). There was no new work for my specialist skill (Drupal [drupal.org], a Content Management System, used to build this blog) was coming through. Although some work was available in another PHP framework (Laravel [laravel.com]), it was very quiet. I was on “internal projects” for 10 months (Give or take a few small content tweaking projects). It was mind numbing, despite my former colleagues being a great bunch of people, who did their best to keep my spirits up. I broke (again), diagnosed as depressed (again). Imposter Syndrome++; mental health–; (For those who don’t get that ‘joke’, ++ in a lot of programming languages means increase by 1, -- is decrease by 1)

In the late summer of 2015, I started to look more seriously for a new role, I’d been casually looking for a while, but nothing had taken my fancy, especially as I really enjoyed working with my colleagues, and the company were very understanding over my Cystic Fibrosis {cysticfibrosis.org.uk} (A rarity to the degree that they went to). I was encouraged and indeed helped by my boss to look around, as there was the threat of redundancy due to lack of Drupal work. But I had to try and reignite that spark, otherwise I was never going to find anything. What didn’t help is I’m worried that I have almost over specialised in Drupal, and as such will struggle to get roles outside of London. Whilst I do not want to leave the Drupal community, nor am I trying to, I do need a job and don’t wish to have to commute to London to achieve this. I was however painfully aware the “London thing” may in the short term at least, have to happen to get me back on my feet.

The Cambridge (UK) market is set more around small to medium agencies which don’t necessarily need a Drupal specialist, or have one and aren’t looking for a new or additional one. The same can be said for where my girlfriend lives and works. As I was looking for permanent work only, not contract, and outside of London; the choice of roles was a lot more limited. I should note to all those who wonder, Drupal contract work - especially in London - is in abundance; it is not difficult to find recruiters looking to fill a Drupal role. My personal health situation means London is not a good idea, and whilst contract work outside of London has worked for me in the past, my head was not in a place to cope with the nightmare that is freelancing and actually getting paid in a reasonable time frame, let alone the “work today, maybe not tomorrow” aspect of it. So permanent it is, freelancing/side projects could wait.

Adding to the problem was hearing “We’re sorry you got down to the last 2 candidates” or words to that effect so many times. When even opening anything other than Chrome to search for daft memes on Facebook or imgur is a struggle, trying to rapidly learn enough about Symfony [symfony.com], Drupal 8, or Laravel to actually get a job is mentally and physically exhausting. Particularly if you throw in a number of other health conditions I have, and the fact it was coming up to my worst time of year health wise (Late August through to mid March is never good).

Mental health is (thankfully) starting to take a more central stage both in the tech world and in the British media in general. As mentioned whilst the media concentrates on the awful state of funding for mental health within the NHS, the Twittersphere and other social media networks seem to have campaigns about stopping the mental health stigma, and things like burnout awareness almost every week. This can only be a good thing, the more people talk about burnout the sooner better coping strategies, or treatment as applicable, can be found for people suffering from burnout or other mental health issues. A healthier community, whether mental or physical health, is only going to produce better products/websites and lead to hopefully better quality of life for that person.

So you may ask, how did I manage to drag myself back to a good place? Well a number of ways, which seem (according to the internet at least) tried and tested.

  • Mindfulness
  • Journalling
  • Exercise
  • Self help books
  • Time away from computers shock horror
  • The Drupal Community

Mindfulness

I started Mindfulness (I use headspace [headspace.com] in case you’re interested - contact me if you want a referral code for money off, I can recommend you). I have found it has helped me to “quieten” my mind when stressed, however it took me the best part of 3 months to get into the habit of doing it daily. Even now (At nearly 1 year in) I still can’t do more than 10 minutes. Maybe I’m too highly strung and have too overactive a mind for me to be able to meditate much longer than this (I know I struggle to relax). Only time will tell if it helps.

Journaling

I have also started (When things get particularly bad) to journal. I’m just using an encrypted OneNote notebook for now, although I am thinking of trying a handwritten journal too. I did try journaling every day but with everything I am trying to do with work, my treatments etc finding the additional 15 - 20 minutes a day proved too much after a while. It is however still there for me if I feel the need. I found journaling quite useful when my head was “too full” but found it less useful when my head was “OK” or I wasn’t worrying too much about various things.

Exercise

I started trying to exercise again. My ability to do so is very limited due to my Cystic Fibrosis, but I figure if I can improve my general fitness, it can’t be a bad thing with regards my CF or even life in general. At present wondering round my parents back garden (I live in a first floor flat, no garden for me!) is all I can manage, but I am working on it. Quite how far I can take my fitness who knows, but if it gets endorphins flowing, who am I to argue?

Self help

I have recently been rereading a few self-help books I found useful in the past. Of particular use was The Slight Edge [slightedge.org]. (Purchase a physical/hard copy of The Slight Edge on Amazon [amazon.co.uk], if you prefer Kindle The Slight Edge, Kindle Edition [amazon.co.uk], or audiobook/paperback bundle The Slight Edge - Offer Pack - Book & Audio CD set [amazon.co.uk]. I haven’t always found self help books too useful, maybe because I feel a lot of them are trying to persuade you to adopt or adapt to something that I don’t necessarily feel is right for me. For some reason though “The Slight Edge” appealed in a way others didn’t, and I have my former business coach to thank for introducing it to me. The idea behind the Slight Edge is simple things repeated often (Daily in the case of the book, but often suffices here) produce powerful and sometimes unstoppable actions (Positive or negative). So as not to ruin the book and using one of its anecdotes, I’ll use the one my old business coach favoured. You have a choice for dinner, and ignoring the lack of a balanced diet, you have a the same choice every day; a cheese burger or a salad. It’s easy to eat the cheese burger, but if you are eating that for dinner every day, you would eventually gain all sorts of health issues, not to mention feeling quite rubbish from junk food. That short term buzz you get from eating badly won’t last forever! If you eat the salad, you end up a lot healthier, therefore able to do more, concentrate on growing your business etc. OK slight extremes but I feel it demonstrates a good example of the Slight Edge working to both your advantage and your disadvantage,

Time away from computers

Some time away from computers over Christmas 2015 also helped a lot (Along with good company with family and friends.) Whilst this is not something I would normally advocate, especially given programming and computers in general are the closest thing I have to a main hobby, it certainly helped. And if you are really suffering from burnout, maybe a week away from it all (And trying hard to not “catch up” on FB etc) is a good idea. I’m certainly going to try it again in May 2017 when my girlfriend and I next go on holiday. And those who know me can stop laughing now, I really am going to try this, I have to try to keep beating this burnout.

The Drupal Community

OK this has been more of a help over 2016 than dealing with my 2015 burnout, but it has been so useful it would be wrong of me not to mention it here. With my chosen community being the Drupal one, it is slightly niche, however that doesn’t limit its value. You can replace this one with any community you feel particularly close to that isn’t your family/loved ones. Although your family can be and may already be members of this community, especially if it is say a religious community. If your burnout/mental health issue is work related (As programmer related burnout is for me) I do feel any support community should be separate or an extension to your family/loved ones. You should of course talk to your family, they are much more likely to know the real you, but sometimes only someone who has been through or is going through what you have been can help. In my case this was the Drupal Community.

Our community (The Drupal Community) is a very diverse one by technology standards, and in my experience we are always welcoming to minorities of any description. As a community we have risen to the mental health in technology situation with relish. As mentioned there was a community keynote on mental health at DrupalCon Barcelona, and DrupalCon Dublin had a whole track dedicated to it. One of my Drupal Community acquaintance’s WigglyKoala did a fantastic talk on dealing with a life of crazy [Drupal.org], and whilst that dealt with different issues to burnout, it particularly struck a chord with me, as her coping mechanisms/ways of dealing with her issues were similar to mine. Whilst how she got to the point that required her to change things in her life was incredibly different to my own it helped. Another thing which helped at DrupalCon Dublin were comments in Dries Buytaert’s Driesnote (The Tuesday keynote by Drupal founder Dries Buytaert is known as the Driesnote). He mentioned and demonstrated how Drupal is changing the lives of people throughout the world, be that with apprenticeship schemes in the UK, to training people in Burkina Faso to be developers, as well as similar schemes in India, it completely reinspired me to get back into the community. A fire was lit underneath me that has helped in part burn a hole in the depressive/burnout related cloud that has sat over me for a while.

Conclusion

I have left the comments open here to allow for discussion on what has worked for you as well as what hasn’t. I am looking to add a section on mental health in tech to this site as part of my upcoming winter 2016-17 redesign and restructure. I do not feel that my site is necessarily the right place to have a full debate on mental health etc, there are forums and chatrooms run by professionals for that, but I do think that as somewhere to get things started, why not use my site? Who knows it may help turn someone’s life around, and should that happen, it is reward enough for me to keep comments open and to deal with the “Get over it”/“Snap out of it” trolls out there.

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