The Stack Overflow Podcast

Feeling burned out? You’re not the only one.

Episode Summary

Friend of the show Jon Chan, Stack Overflow’s Director of Engineering, Public Platform, joins the home team to talk about burnout: what it is, how to prevent it, and how to recover. They also cover how managers can prevent burnout among their teams, the importance of building a support system for yourself, and the restorative power of going outside and taking a walk.

Episode Notes

Check out a manager’s toolkit for preventing burnout put together by Gitlab 

Cassidy once asked Stephen Colbert for his favorite website. His answer may surprise you.

Today in tech recs: Pokémon GO (for extra motivation to get outside) and the Apple Watch activity tracker (to track activity and remind you to move around). Jon recommends that you not get a treadmill desk. 

Today’s Lifeboat badge goes to user JLRishe for their answer to Error "TypeError: $(...).children is not a function".

Follow Jon on LinkedIn or Twitter.

Episode Transcription

Ceora Ford Going for walks helps so much. It's very, very helpful. It's hard to get out the door, but once you do, it's so worth it. 

Jon Chan I bet that there are some engineers out there that are just like, "You know what? I maybe don't need to go outside because I have a treadmill under my desk and I could just do my walks right here and that'll be just fine." I will say, as one of the guys that has actually tried that– it is not the same. You should definitely go outside and go for a walk, run around. There's no edge casing around this. It really does help quite a bit.

[intro music plays]

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Matt Kiernander Hello everyone, and welcome to another episode of the Stack Overflow Podcast. We have a full house today with myself, Ceora, Cassidy, and Jon. Hello, everyone! 

All Hi!

MK We have quite an exciting episode today. It's exciting, but it's also a slightly depressing topic, but it's something that's very relevant in today's world and something we all need to be very mindful of. Today, we're talking about burnout. Ceora and Cassidy, you are the two ones kind of championing this topic, so why don't you go ahead and introduce burnout to us all? 

CF Yeah. I'll say first of all, I think I've seen over the past week just scrolling through Twitter, I've seen a lot of people in the tech industry express that they feel like they're experiencing burnout. I think it's a very common thing just in general, but also with our industry in particular. I've talked to a lot of people who admit that they're not the best at work-life balance, and I think it's important to discuss what burnout is, what leads to it, how to prevent it, and how to take care of yourself after you pass the point of no return. I liked this article that Cassidy shared because it's entitled, “Preventing Burnout: A Manager's Toolkit,” and it's speaking to managers and how they can help their team members to prevent burnout. I've never thought about it as a responsibility that managers carry as well, instead of just all being on the individuals. So I've never been a manager before, obviously, but I do think that framing it in that way takes some of the blame off of you as an individual. I think sometimes people blame themselves like, "Oh, I should say no," but it really is a team effort in helping everyone make sure they have a healthy work-life balance and healthy mental state of mind and stuff like that too. Previously, we've discussed one of my favorite articles, which I think is called “Doing the Glue Work” or something like that. Basically it's an article about people on your team who do a lot of the extra work when they don't get the recognition for it, they don't get the proper promotion for it, and how we can help each other stop ourselves from doing that extra work and share the burden. And I think that builds into preventing burnout being a team effort. So those are my thoughts. The article gives a lot of different tips. I think a couple people here have been managers before. Maybe you guys would feel more comfortable speaking to that part of it too. 

Cassidy Williams Perhaps. I've both managed and I've burnt out. So how about that? Double whammy. There was a time where I reported to someone named Sarah Drasner, and for those who don't know her, she's like the director for like all of web for Google now. She's incredibly legit. And there was a point where in a team meeting she had mentioned that she defines the cause of burnout as a lot of repeated work that doesn't necessarily align with your values. Whether it's working on something that doesn't align with your values, or the style of work, or the time dedicated to it. All of that, where in some way or another, you're not getting what you want out of it, that is what really causes it to fester and grow. And something that we did on teams that I've worked with in the past and that I try to do as often as possible, is kind of get aligned on what those values are. It might be just like, "Oh, I don't mind working really long hours if it's something I care about," or, "I like to close my laptop at the end of the day at 5:00 PM because this matters to me." Or, for example, some people are just like, "My faith is very important to me and so I try to set aside a lot of dedicated time on weekends for those kinds of activities and so I'm not going to travel on weekends for X conference," or something like that. There's so many different ways that this could look like that and I think that that is particularly helpful and this GitLab article that we shared I think addresses a lot of that too, where managers can encourage time off, figure out how to take pressure off of people so that way they don't feel like the entire burden of the team is on them. And honestly, just in general, figure out how you can let people pursue their values in their work the way that they want to.

CF So I have a question for Jon and Cassidy, because I think both of you have managed teams, like you said. What do you do when a team member comes to you and either, you can tell from what they're saying that they're experiencing burnout or they tell you outright that they're experiencing burnout, how do you handle that as a manager? 

JC Yeah. I can actually start off with this. This is something that has come up quite a bit, as you can imagine, over the last few years or so with so many things that are going on outside of work in addition to things that are happening inside of work, too, that can create a lot of the conditions for burnout. And the very first thing that I think is just really important to highlight here is that you want to offer the support to somebody. There's a lot of folks that are very hesitant about saying, "I'm feeling burnt out," or that "I don't have the energy to be doing the kind of work that we're doing or under the kind of conditions that I'm in." And the first thing to get somebody out of that state is to make sure that they feel like they're supported, right? If somebody needs to go and take the time to make sure that they're going to feel a hundred percent, just like if they're going to be sick with a cough or a fever or anything else like that, taking care of your mental health is just as important as making sure that your body is functioning so that you can come to work in the same way. So I think that's the first thing that comes to mind here. And the other thing that really comes to mind and something that I think that you alluded to Cassidy, is that burnout isn't just about how much stuff is being put on you, but how much you're getting out of it too. And it's also not just something that is an individual's fault. Again, if we think about it in the same way that we do where somebody gets a cold or something else is going on there, do you blame that person for getting a cold? That doesn't seem to be something that we should be doing here. And it's also not just their fault that something is happening, or it isn't their fault in the first place. There's so many different factors that come into this. And a manager has a lot of tools in their toolbox to make sure that they're going to feel like they can get through a recovery phase when they're dealing with burnout in a way that's really successful. One of the things that I'll tell my team a lot is that I think a lot of engineers have this notion that, "Oh, if I'm going to be someone who's high-performing, I need to turn out as much code as possible and turn out as many hours as I possibly can and fix as many bugs and turn out all of these stories." And one of the things that I think has helped me a lot when I've dealt with situations like this on my team is to emphasize to them that it's not about what the output of your work is going to be here in terms of just the sheer volume of stuff that you're doing here. If anything, the thing that I care much more about is how predictable we are. When we say that we're going to do things, are we going to meet those expectations? And if we can't do that, are we doing the right work to adjust those expectations and make sure that people understand what that's going to be? And that seems to relieve a lot of that pressure where the value that I'm delivering to my team isn't just the number of lines of code that I'm changing or the number of stories and the velocity number that I'm putting out there. But if I'm making commitments to other people, especially the people who are the stakeholders in whatever project that I'm on, do they understand the expectations there? Do they have the same values around managing burnout? Are they supportive in this too, and it's not all just lying with the individual who was feeling that burnout there. It's too much for them to be handling in the first place. 

CW And also, if people are burning out, they're going to leave. It's so much more valuable to help someone lower expectations in some way and take some less work off of their plate than have them push themselves to the limit and then leave and then you have to hire a new person. It's valuable for everyone to avoid burnout in some way just to keep the company going, keep the functions going. And I think being able to alleviate that pressure, like you say, and say, "It's okay if this doesn't get done on time. We just need to reset expectations and that's not the end of the world." I think that's really important. And I think a lot of engineers in general tend to think, "If I don't do this then everything will go wrong." Chances are it'll be fine in most cases.

JC Yeah, definitely.

CF Yeah. One thing for me at a past job that led to burnout, and I used to feel like this was so silly, but Cassidy, when I heard you talk about thinking about if the way you're working, if the work that you're doing aligns with your values, it kind of brought this to mind. One of the things that led to burnout for me was that I worked at a company where the majority of the team was based out of Europe. So most of our meetings were very early in the morning and we had a standup every day that for me was at like 7:30, and I kid you not, it killed me. I could not deal with having to be up that early in the morning. And I used to feel like it was so silly that it was that big of a deal for me, but it was. And every person has their thing. Some people are okay with working long hours if they can wake up later. Some people are okay with doing work on the weekends every now and then, things like that. I know for me, I could not handle waking up that early so it's important to know what those things are for you as well and communicate that with your manager and see if you can negotiate those things if possible. And if you can't, then maybe that role is not the one for you, which is just something to think about if you're in a position like me where you're job searching. But yeah, that was something I just thought about. 

MK Yeah, you brought up a really good point. One of the topics we're going to be discussing on next week's episode is whether or not Silicon Valley is worth traveling to and worth spending your either early, middle, or late stages of your career there. And one of the things that has come out from that really, and it seems to be prevalent amongst more seasoned developers I guess, is that they view a job opportunity and everything around that as not just being a career goal. You have to keep in mind what kind of life you want to build and what kind of life you want to lead, because a career is just one part of that. That is not your sole identity or your sole thing. A career and the work that you do is a portion of what makes you a person, what makes you whole, and if you structure your entire life around that career and it doesn't fit in with your values, like you're not a morning person, you're not okay with getting up at 7, 6 o'clock in the morning to get on a call to Europe, or traveling two hours every day to get to an office, or working on a product that doesn't align with your values. A lot of that stuff can have a flow on effect onto other areas of your life. So it's interesting to see this conversation pop up more and more often where people are not just evaluating the paycheck anymore. They're evaluating everything that comes wrapped around that and what life they're able to lead because of it.

CF So I have a question for you all, too, because like I said, I've heard so many people talk about burnout. I'm experiencing it and it seems like a few of you here have experienced it as well. So like, you've passed the point of no return. The burnout is there, you can't get rid of it. How do you recover thereafter? This is something I've thought about for a long time. I think a lot of people just live with burnout until they completely shut down and there's nothing else they can do but rest or whatever the case may be. So how do you deal with it after the burnout is here and it's not leaving and it has to be dealt with?

CW I think that very much depends on the person. But I know for myself personally, I kind of cut a lot of things off or I just start saying no to a lot more things. I start saying, "I know I said yes to this project, I can't do this anymore." Even recently, I kind of felt like I was close to burning out and like a few things just won't get done, so I canceled some conferences that I was going to speak at because I know that I'm trying to hold back from that so it's not terrible. And some people do it by traveling, some people play a lot of video games, some people just sleep more, but you need to figure out what is the thing that will help you be less stressed and then just go all-in on that thing. And there was one time where I burnt out really, really badly a few years ago, and I just straight up left town, canceled everything for the next two weeks and hung out with my grandpa in Florida for awhile. I think it's important to know what relaxes you and puts you at ease, and once again, kind of aligns with your values where you can just be yourself as a person without these obligations that are putting strain on you. 

JC Yeah, sure thing. Plus in terms of whatever your particular situation is when it comes to dealing with burnout, it’s definitely something of an individual journey that you're going to have to take. And very much along the same lines where it's not just about how much stress you are taking on when you're dealing with burnout, but also how much value are you getting out of the work that you are doing here, but also feeling like you have agency once you're coming out of that is really important as well. So absolutely, if you can manage to take the time, reduce the commitment that you have overall, but another thing to explore there too is figuring out what energizes you again. It's not just enough to be like, "Oh, there aren't enough stressors again," but how do I get to a place where I can feel excited about things all over again? When I was feeling a lot of this myself, I'd say in the last three or four years or so, one of the things that helped me a lot was just being around more people and actually feeling like I actually had the support around other folks that were dealing with this as well. Just getting to a place where I was playing video games and making sure that I was spending time with my friends was great, but the other thing that I always felt like I was missing was, "Well, what's going to get me passionate again and excited so that when I really do want to find a project that I can get excited about again, then I'm there with both of my feet in there too." So I'm not just thinking about reducing the stress, but maybe finding something that will excite you again is a really big part of my own recovery journey too. 

MK I can speak to this as well. I did burn out a couple of years ago. And I think often it's not something you realize until you do hit that point of no return, at least for the first time you do it. The first time you do it, you just kind of blindly trudge along, and then all of a sudden you're like, "Oh, I'm not okay."

CW "Why do I hate everything?"

CF “This isn’t normal.”

MK Yeah. It's a really crappy realization to come to. And it's quite panic-inducing as well, because you realize the position that you've put yourself in. Then you need to have these conversations with your manager or whoever else, and try and figure out how to fix it, and it's a very isolating and troubling thing to go through by yourself if you don't have a support network. And as Cassidy said, everyone's different. Everyone's going to have their different things that will help them get through it. In my personal experience, getting therapy or reaching out to someone to actually kind of communicate and talk through things, that helped a lot. Having a manager that you can trust, that if you do have that psychological safety there, that is really, really important. So as Jon mentioned, there's a couple of things there that managers can do to help create that environment and move forward. I actually did a YouTube video, not documenting the process of the burnout because that would have been bad, but I spoke around the personal things to me that actually led to that burnout. And for me it was a combination of not getting any value out of the work that I was doing, even though we were working on a product, it just wasn't for me. The culture that I was in as well was, I wouldn't say toxic, but there was definitely some quite toxic elements built in as part of that culture that were very hard to escape. And it was a terribly awkward thing when I did this video and then I was interviewing for other jobs and they were like, "Hey, so the video on burnout– how are you doing?" So it was a bit of a double-edged sword being very public with that but also being able to move through it. My advice to anyone else who's either going through the same thing or thinking they're on the track to burning out, your environment is very important. Creating a psychologically safe space where you can talk to either coworkers or colleagues or friends or even professional help, that is amazing. Just getting that off your chest and creating a good space internally for you to be is really, really, really important. And then, for me as well, I didn't feel like doing anything. I didn't really get enjoyment out of doing anything anymore. And I think, as Jon's point, trying to find things, even if you don't feel like doing it at the time. Going for a walk for your stupid mental health. Like that, unfortunately is just something–

CW Stupid mental health!

JC I hate that this works for me so well! 

MK It's so frustrating! 

CF I think that's a good point too. Matt, you mentioned earlier, your career shouldn't be your life. It shouldn't define who you are as a person. And it's so, so important to have hobbies and things you do outside of tech, outside of your career, that bring you joy and happiness. Because for me, I feel like that's helped a lot with preventing burnout. When I was first getting into the tech industry I had to hustle so hard to put myself out there. My whole life was consumed by doing stuff that tied back to the tech industry somehow. And at one point in time once I had that first job on my resume, I was fairly secure in my career, I was like, "Okay, it's time for me to step back and find things that I actually enjoy and remember the stuff that I used to do before I got into tech that I actually found enjoyable," because having that balance to me has been very important in preventing burnout and managing that healthy balance. And I don't always succeed, but I do think if I could contribute to some of the tips, having hobbies that you enjoy that have nothing to do with the tech industry. Sometimes we feel like we have to code and we have to make videos and we have to write articles and we have to do all this stuff, and if you find that fun, that's totally fine. But I think it's good to like watch anime, play video games, draw, read, go for walks.

CW Listen to K-pop, Ceora.

CF Listen to K-pop. Do anything you want that's going to bring you joy and help you to have a fuller life outside of the tech industry, I think is really important.

MK And even if you don't feel like doing it because you're feeling a little low, try to do it anyway because you might be surprised. The first time you do it and you realize you actually feel better for it, but you're angry that you have to go and force yourself to do that thing in the first place– game changer! Very frustrating, but it's part of the process, I think. 

CF Yeah. And I would say now with remote culture being such a big deal, try to get out of the house at least once a day. Even if that means just standing on your porch or just walking around your block, that helps a ton. And it's one of those things that I get mad at too like, are you kidding me? I love my bed so much and I finally got out of bed and went for a walk and now I feel better. It's crazy. But it helps. 

MK I've lost five kilos since coming to Vancouver just by simply walking and going to a WeWork. That's how low my daily activity was. So if you're remote working and your daily commute is from your bedroom to your kitchen to work, yeah it makes a big difference. 

CF Go for a walk! Look at nature.

JC Yeah, do your stupid mental health walk. It's going to help! 

CW I'm one of the like dozen people who still plays Pokémon Go. It gets me out of the house. It works. Because you've got to go spin a PokéStop every single day. And it's only a block away and I hate it, but at least it gets me out of the house. 

CF Yeah. My thing is I got an Apple Watch, which for the longest I was like, "I'm never getting an Apple Watch. I'm not going that far into the Apple ecosystem." And I finally got it. And because it pings you to like, "Stand up. You should walk around right now," and even getting the whole 10,000 step rule. When you work from home, that's nearly impossible unless you get out of the house and go for a walk. So it forces me to get up, walk around the block. And I also live in a really nice neighborhood, especially in the springtime. All my neighbors have trees and pretty plants and stuff like that, and I'm like, "I never noticed this before because I've been stuck in the house." So going for walks helps so much. It's very, very helpful. It's hard to get out the door, but once you do, it's so worth it.

JC I bet that there are some engineers out there that are just like, "You know what? I maybe don't need to go outside because I have a treadmill under my desk and I can just do my walks right here and that'll be just fine." I will say, as one of the guys that has actually tried that– it is not the same. You should definitely go outside and go for a walk, run around. There's no edge casing around this. It really does help quite a bit. 

CW That's actually very good to know because I admit, I was thinking that during this. I was like, "I should get a treadmill desk or one of those little bike pedal things." 

CF I mean, I'm sure that could help with like the whole being sedentary and everything, but it's something about the fresh air, even if it's cold outside or if it's kind of snowy or whatever, just literally standing on your porch or opening your window even sometimes if you really can't get out, helps. I don't even know what it is, but it's something about like nature and I'm not even a nature girl. Something about it just is like, "Wow, everything is okay." That, and seeing your friends, like getting out of the house and spending time with your friends. Every time I do that I'm like, "Wait, maybe things aren't as bad as I thought they were. Maybe the world isn't ending." It helps a ton. 

CW Yeah. I think that's why the pandemic has really spotlighted all the burnout that people are feeling because it's been harder to see your friends, go for walks, work from different places and stuff. And it's important to force yourself to do it now that it's not as natural as it might've been before. 

MK I have another weird recommendation. I'm just going to say it because it works. A lot of people, especially with the pandemic, as you said, not being able to go out and have these distractions and like mental resets. Everyone's lives kind of get focused onto their emails and their screens and the work that they're doing. Go outside at night and look at some stars and get some perspective around where we are. It will help you calm down and realize, "Oh, maybe my problems aren't as big as they are, because there's stars out there and we're on a giant ball orbiting around stars." For anyone watching, I'm waving my arms around a lot. That would be my recommendation. Go outside, look at some stars. I think that's a solid recommendation for everyone today. 

CF And if you live in a big city, you just have to look really hard to find them. 

CW Just squint, you'll find one. When I lived in New York, I got tickets at one point to go see whatever show that Colbert does. And before the show, when everybody's in the audience and stuff, there comes a point where you can ask him questions. And I had some really awesome question set up about like Lord of the Rings or something. One where I was just like, "He's going to remember me!" And then when he called on me when I had my hand raised and my mind went blank and I was just like, "Whoa, Colbert is talking to me." Totally just everything went empty in my little noggin. So all I could say was, “What's your favorite website?” First of all, it was embarrassing and all the friends around me were just like, "You suck!" But he had a really delightful answer where he said that his favorite website is actually for the International Space Station, the ISS. Because what he does is, they have this view where you can see the view from the ISS and all the skies and the star and stuff. And he said whenever he's very stressed about things he likes to look at that website and be just like, "We're very small. Look how big the Earth is." And it's good for giving him perspective. So Colbert probably backs you up in some way, and my embarrassing story has evidence of that.

MK If there's a live chat there, I'll just type in "Stephen?" just occasionally just to see if he'll respond.

[music plays]

MK Tech recs for today then, we can surmise Pokémon Go. Make a resurgence, go outside and catch some Snorlax, battle some gyms. We have an Apple Watch to help remind you to move around a little bit. Jon, did you have a tech rec before we move onto our lifeboat of the day? 

JC Treadmill desks are not all that great, unless you really, really really, really love them.

CW That's an anti-rec.

MK Amazing. Okay, well let's head onto the lifeboat and close up today's episode. Today's lifeboat goes to JLRishe for answering the question, "Error "TypeError: $(...).children is not a function." I tried to select a certain DOM element with jQuery," they had an issue, they answered it. That wraps up today's episode. Thank you very much everyone for tuning in. My name is Matt Kiernander. I'm a Technical Advocate here at Stack Overflow. You can find me online @MattKander. Ceora, would you like to introduce yourself for the outro? 

CF My name is Ceora Ford. I'm a Developer Advocate who belongs nowhere as of right now. You can find me on Twitter, I spend the most time there online. My username there is @Ceeoreo_. 

CW My name is Cassidy Williams. You can find me @Cassidoo on most things. 

JC And I'm Jon Chan. I'm Director of Engineering here at Stack Overflow. You can find me on all socials @JonHMChan. 

MK Thank you very much, everyone. We hope you enjoyed today's episode. I hope you all feel well, go outside, look at some stars and we will see you in the next episode.

CW Touch grass.

All Bye!

[outro music plays]