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Burnout, a cautionary tale (and a plea to take a break)

Sophie Koonin

It's Easter and I'm off work til the end of the month. It was originally just going to be for a few days as I'd used up most of my holiday already, but after I burst into tears at my manager on Wednesday during our 1:1 when he asked me how a project was going, he suggested I might need a bit longer (good manager).

I really love my job, I love what I do and I love my colleagues. Before the pandemic - and even during it - I threw myself at my work and learnt as much as I possibly could. And from my beginnings learning Java at university, I learnt JavaScript, then React, then Kotlin. Then I moved onto Monzo and picked up Go. I was Good At Things.

But for the last few months I've found that nothing goes in any more. I can't absorb new information. People have to explain things several times, and my head feels like it's full of cotton wool. It makes me feel like an idiot. I'd tell myself I was better than this and I needed to just focus and maybe I was just getting too distracted.

When I sit down to do web development, it's like autopilot and I can steam through it, but anything backend seems to be beyond my capability at the moment. Which is frustrating because there's a lot of backend development in my current role. I used to love it, what gives? I'm out of practice, sure, but it's like there's this barrier that stops me from learning anything new.

Weeeelllll, now I can put a name to that barrier: burnout. FFS.

Was it my job, I thought? Was I unhappy in my new role? Well, the thought of going back to my old job didn't make me feel any better. Nor would going anywhere else. Switching to a new job certainly came with the stress of starting from scratch, and working at a startup is a whole other vibe. But ultimately I do like it, and I knew that in any other circumstances I'd be thriving there.

So let's look at everything else.

The last two years have been among the worst of my life. I'm sure they have for many of you, too. I spent so long unable to do some of the things I love, in a lockdown that could have been a lot shorter if our government wasn't equal parts inept and corrupt. The world is permanently on fire. I had to take a hiatus from reading the news because it was all too much. Plus I've had my own depression to contend with and other family things that I won't go into, which have made everything that much more difficult.

Don't be like me, please take a break

I wrote a blog post in 2020 about giving yourself a break, but apparently I didn't take enough of my own advice.

For someone who goes on about work-life balance and mental health, I'm not actually very good at practising what I preach. (Surprise.)

I'd figured that because I never work late or out-of-hours, I'd avoid burnout. But that's just one contributing factor.

And when I take time off I usually feel like I need to fill it with Stuff. Projects, outings, day trips, holidays. Making the most of your time off. I've never been good at doing nothing.

A couple of weeks ago I was ill with a mystery virus that seemed an awful lot like covid but was negative on all the tests, and a few mornings that week I'd woken up feeling loads better and started working. By the afternoon I had to give up and down tools again because I felt so ill.

I thought I'd be making myself useful by working when I felt better, but instead I was being more disruptive than anything else. People didn't know if I was going to finish the thing I was working on, so they didn't pick it up, and stuff kind of stopped and started. If I'd just taken the rest of the week and shoved my laptop in a cupboard, I'd have actually got the rest I needed.

Heed my words, adventurer!

I am not writing this post to garner sympathy, I'm sharing because I want to be transparent about the fact that this doesn't "just happen to other people". I have been running on fumes for months, and it culminated in me crying in a coffee shop in front of my extremely kind and patient manager.

If you are feeling like things are harder these days, that's because they are. If you're not functioning at 100% and find you're pushing yourself even harder because of it, please stop. I want you to take a minute to check on yourself. Are you okay? Do you need to take some time off?

(Also, never be ashamed of crying at work. We've all been there. Normalise crying at work. It's a sign that something is wrong, but the crying itself isn't anything to be ashamed of.)

I believe in working hard, but I do not believe in working hard at the expense of your physical and mental health.

So now I'm on a break until May, and I'm going to go for walks, go birdwatching, do jigsaws, plant some vegetables in the allotment, play video games and make a big fuss of my father-in-law's dog Boris.

If you've got some holiday, please take it.

A brown and white Staffordshire bull terrier lies on the sofa with his limbs extended. He is greying round the muzzle, and has what looks like a smile. He's lying next to a PS5 controller.
My plans.


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