Burnout

Published on 2021-08-08

This article is more personal than the usual technical stuff on this blog. I want to talk about my experience with stress and burnout over the last year. I don't know if this will help anyone since I'm not presenting any solutions; no solution would work for everyone anyway. Mostly, I just want to tell my story and let my friends know how I'm feeling.

Spring 2020: beginning

I didn't start out the pandemic in a good mental state. I'd been pretty overloaded at work for a while, being either partially or completely responsible for five projects. My stress level was lower than in 2019, but my attention was so divided that I wasn't making much progress on anything. I felt like I couldn't do everything that was being asked of me.

I worried about the coronavirus for a couple months before it got bad in New York City, where I lived at the time. I remember reading on Christmas day about a strange new illness in Wuhan, and I followed the steady drip of stories about cruise ships and worsening conditions in Japan, Korea, Iran, and Italy. At the beginning of March, there were rumors of a lot of cases in New York, but no one was able to get tested. I avoided the subway, stopped exercising indoors, and began washing my hands compulsively. Finally on March 10, the office closed. Schools stayed open for another week or two, apparently due to some pissing match between the governor and the mayor.

I was fortunate to have a decent remote work setup already, and I stocked up groceries a few days before lockdown, so I had relatively little exposure to the virus. Uncertainty was the worst part for me at the time. The office closure was supposed to last four weeks. No one believed that, but friends laughed when I suggested we might be out for three months. We hoped for a strong, competent response at every layer of government, but that is … not what happened. It got much worse in New York, and by the end of March, a field hospital was built in Central Park to handle overflow non-covid patients, and a Navy hospital ship docked in the Hudson.

It felt like the world was falling apart, and no one in leadership was doing anything to stop it. There was only denial and finger-pointing.

These months had a lasting effect on me. I don't think it got as bad outside the city, and I've had a difficult time explaining it to friends and family.

Summer 2020: fear and anxiety

By May, I'd settled into a routine. The pandemic was still bad in New York, but it seemed like we passed the peak. I buried myself in work to try and cope with what was happening outside. I got a lot done, but it wasn't something I could sustain for long.

George Floyd's murder and the police riots afterward felt like a disaster of the same magnitude as the pandemic. I regret not going to protests: I was afraid to take the subway and to be in crowds. A coworker got charged by a police SUV, and a state senator got teargassed. The police broke into businesses, kettled protestors, and drove up and down through Harlem with sirens on at 3am just to harass people. The mayor imposed a curfew with almost no notice.

After a few weeks, New York calmed down a bit, but things got much worse in Washington, and the feeling of anger, dread, and despair felt the same to me.

I stopped being able to sleep well around this time. I felt tense all over, and it took conscious effort to relax the muscles in my face and shoulders. I didn't feel safe going outside if there were people nearby, and in New York, there always are.

Autumn 2020: burnout

The accumulated stress really caught up with me. Stress feels like a toxin that needs to be metabolized: it takes time to process it no matter how well you're taking care of yourself, and if you're ingesting it faster than you can deal with it, you burn out, or worse.

At work, we were told to expect a normal performance review cycle. There were adjusted expectations for individual circumstances, like if you were taking care of small children in Zoom school, but those changes had to be justified. Personally, I felt like I needed to ship everything that had been delayed in May, and I was still burying myself in work to avoid thinking about how bad things were getting.

This did not go well for me. For several months, I averaged about four hours of sleep a night. Every day, I felt like I was living in a fog of anxiety, depression, and insomnia. I can't function with so little sleep, so I got more stressed, which caused me to sleep worse.

My physical health worsened, too. I lost a concerning amount of weight (I'm probably the only person who lost weight during covid). I had sinus headaches or back pain nearly every day, which prevented me from getting exercise. Normally, running keeps me emotionally balanced, so not being able to do that caused my mental health to worsen further.

At a picnic in Battery Park, a friend pointed me to an internal company slide deck titled "No Heroes". I wish I could share it externally. The key point was that if you're working alone on something you think is really important but you aren't getting any support, you should stop. Don't be a "hero", burning yourself out working on undervalued projects. If a project is actually important to the company, leadership will recognize that and add people; if the project is actually not important, then you're wasting your time.

This acutely described my work situation, and it prompted me to change course. I needed to shed load. I found new owners for three of my projects and stopped active development. I'm still connected to those projects as a reviewer and liaison, but they're much less of a burden than they were before.

Changing the way I work was, of course, not enough. I looked for other treatments, throwing everything at the wall to see what stuck. I started therapy and anti-anxiety medication. I started meditating every night before bed. I went outside every day (for a mid-afternoon walk or run). I took three weeks of vacation time in November and December. There was nowhere safe to go, so I just stayed home, but it was better than working. I also started learning watercolor painting, something I've always wanted to do.

All of these things helped a little, but none of them were simple or easy. It took months before I started to sleep and feel stable again.

Winter 2020: change

In December, I felt like I needed to make some big changes in my life. New York was at the peak of its second wave of covid. It seemed like the vaccine might be 6-9 months away from wide distribution in the US, and the end of the pandemic might be another year after that. (Fortunately, the vaccine was distributed much faster than I expected. Unfortunately, with anti-vaxxers and variants, the pandemic doesn't seem like it will ever end.)

My wife and I decided to move back to San Diego, as close to the beach as we could get. New York didn't feel safe anymore, and we didn't want to spend another covid winter in a small apartment. We had left San Diego for New York six years earlier to pursue our careers. We both enjoyed our time in New York, but it never felt like home, and we didn't want to spend the rest of our lives there. Her company started allowing people to work remote permanently, so I asked for the same. At the time, Google didn't allow permanent remote work, but I knew a handful of people who'd gotten exceptions, and I was willing to walk away if it didn't happen.

Spring 2021: move

My wife and I started scrolling through houses in January. We got pre-approved for a loan in March. We both got the vaccine as soon as it was available to us in April. We flew out to San Diego two weeks after our first shot (a calculated risk) and bought a house. We closed in May. This all went surprisingly smoothly considering the circumstances. The housing market was and still is absolutely bonkers. Prices went up 10% from the time we started looking to when we bought. There's almost nothing available in the area now. Lots of other people must have had the same idea.

May was a particularly beautiful time in New York. By the end of the month, all my friends were fully vaccinated, and the infection rate was low. I was able to see people in person and share a meal for the first time in more than a year. I felt quite sad on my last day there. I don't think I fully appreciated how much I missed seeing people I care about. I hope I can stay connected to them. I've never been all that good at maintaining friendships over distance, and I want to be better at it.

We moved out of our apartment in early June. I took a couple weeks off work to go see my parents for the first time in nearly two years. It was such a joy to see them again. We went hiking all over western Colorado. This was also the first proper vacation I've had since before the pandemic.

Summer 2021: new routine

I've started settling into working remotely from California. It's a lot like working from New York, except for the time difference. The environment around me helps a lot; taking a short walk to the beach, or trimming roses in the yard helps me recharge. It's new to think of remote work as permanent though. I'm thinking of ways to more actively build online relationships with people I work with instead of just muddling through until we're all back in the office.

I still feel uncertain about everything though. Google approved my remote work application last week, but I haven't gotten a new offer letter yet, and I've been told to expect a pay cut of at least 10% because the market rate for software engineers is supposedly lower in southern California. This feels like a shitty thing to do. My work is not less valuable. It's a reminder that this is nothing more than a business relationship, and the company is not interested in loyalty to workers or support in a difficult time. I'm not sure what, if anything, I'm going to do yet, but it has me thinking harder about my career and future.

Outside of work, the pandemic has gotten back into full swing with the Delta variant. The infection rate went up by a factor of 10 in San Diego during July, and we got news last week that vaccinated people can spread it. Schools are opening in person in August, and young kids can't be vaccinated yet, so I expect this to spread a lot further. At this point, I don't see how the pandemic will ever end. We can't safely get back to our normal routine, so our choices are either stay inside indefinitely or ignore the problem and lower safety standards.

Conclusion, for now

Of course there can't really be a conclusion since the story's still happening. Burnout hit me hard last year. I've stabilized in the sense that I'm not spiraling downward anymore. I'm sleeping better, I'm running again, I'm not losing weight anymore, and I'm thinking more clearly. But I don't feel like I've "recovered", and a lot of the factors that led me to burnout are still around. I don't want to go back to the same routine, working at 100% and feeling completely burned down at the end of every day.

I don't know what's next. I daydream a lot about taking a few months off work, maybe a year. Or switching careers into something that more tangibly helps people. I don't know yet. I guess we'll all keep finding out.