How to deal with professional burnout
December 6, 2010 7:49 AM   Subscribe

I have been suffering a chronic illness, including dizziness, indigestion, and severe depression resulting from overwork. I have been seeing a doctor for over 2 years now, but to no avail. Has anyone had a similar experience, and recovered? Any kind of advice will be appreciated!

I have worked at my current company very hard (up to 400hrs/month) and think that I have contributed pretty much.
(I received a MVP award that only 5% of the emplyees are awarded)
Though my work has been fulfilling, it has sucked all the energy out of me.
Currently, I can't get myself to go out for any kind of recreation.
(I used to love playing tennis, golf, skiing, etc.)

By the way, I am male, 32, single, and work as an programmer.
Thanks in advance!
posted by rawwell to Health & Fitness (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I have been suffering a chronic illness, including dizziness, indigestion, and severe depression resulting from overwork.

Not sure what the mystery is here. Isn't that both a diagnosis and a cure right there? You're working too much. Not by any kind of objective standard--what the hell does "too much" mean, anyway?--but too much for you. This is interfering with your physical and emotional well-being.

The solution is to stop working so much. If you can't do that and keep your current job, you need to decide what's more important to you.

A physician isn't really going to be much help here. If you're got cirrhosis because you drink too much, the solution is to stop drinking so much. If you aren't willing to do that, you're basically saying that you'd rather live with cirrhosis than stop drinking. If you aren't willing to modify your work situation, you're basically saying that you'd rather live with the consequences of your work situation than change it.
posted by valkyryn at 7:59 AM on December 6, 2010 [8 favorites]

It sounds like you could really benefit from a reevaluation of your priorities. You work extremely hard, but at what price? Do you want to define yourself by your work or do you want to find something else that is fulfilling?

I don't have any advice as the medical treatments, but I think you should seriously consider taking some type of vacation or sabbatical if possible for a few weeks at least to rediscover you and what you want to do. Nothing should be off the table. Just experience many different things and see if after that you are still interested in putting in 400 hours a month toward work.

I think once you address this issue, your physical ailments will get better.
posted by Leezie at 8:00 AM on December 6, 2010

Hmm, you sound a bit like me a few years ago, except I was not an overachiever (though I was very hard on myself).

I would have a look at this woman's work:

As well as read up on this guy:

Sleeping a lot, eating a lot, gentle exercise, and minimizing stress, repeat for months will do wonders for you. My indigestion and dizziness are gone (but you could be dealing with something different.) Whatever else is going on, you clearly need to make a lifestyle change.
posted by zeek321 at 8:01 AM on December 6, 2010 <-- warning, sound
posted by zeek321 at 8:03 AM on December 6, 2010

When was the last time you had a vacation?
posted by elsietheeel at 8:04 AM on December 6, 2010

up to 400hrs/month

That's over 13 hours a day, every day, for 30 days. Or even longer days if you are actually having days off.

Any kind of advice will be appreciated!

WORK LESS. What's the point in being such a valuable employee if you have no energy, health, or free time to enjoy the benefits (i.e. all the money they must be paying you to make working that much worthwhile).

If you're forced to work that much by your employer, I would seriously consider moving to a different job with a company that does not treat you like a robot who can work day-in-day-out without a break.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 8:13 AM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Do you expect your doctor to somehow make you able to handle your current workload with no ill effects? If that were possible, everyone would be taking whatever therapy or drug your doctor were prescribing, and we'd all enjoy the benefits of superhuman productivity.

Surely you've noticed that that isn't happening. The solution to problems caused by overwork is to work less, MVP awards be damned.
posted by jon1270 at 8:16 AM on December 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

-You eat shit. Stop eating so much high-fat crap, refined white flour, and corn sugar. Drink more water, snack on fruits & nuts, eat more vegetables. Quit drinking soda, especially that aspartame diet shit. Try making green smoothies and drinking green or red tea.

-You don't exercise enough. 100hrs/wk sitting in a chair and not moving is killing you because the human body needs a certain bare minimum of movement to be healthy. You are accustoming your body to sitting still and not exerting itself, and the result is weakness, slack musculature, pain, indigestion, stooped posture, depression, and a body unaccustomed to movement and exertion. Given your work schedule, bodyweight exercise might work out well because you take your gym with you wherever you go.

-100hrs/wk under artificial does your health no good. Get outside every day and go for a walk in the sun.

-You're not getting enough sleep. Americans in general are not getting enough sleep. Turn off the TV when you get home and go to sleep earlier.

What I hear you asking for is "How do I continue to work 100hrs/wk at a sedentary job under artificial light and not have negative health & personal wellbeing outcomes".

The answer is you don't, and I think deep down you know it. So the best you're gonna get is "How can I minimize/slow-down the damage I'm doing to myself with this unnatural, unhealthy lifestyle I choose, even though I know that in the long run it's gonna catch up with me."

Best of luck.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:21 AM on December 6, 2010 [6 favorites]

What about seeing some sort of personal coach or career trainer or even a therapist? You are working so hard that you probably need to talk to somebody who has helped many people like you before, and those types of people have.

If I tell my business consultant that I am working too hard and don't enjoy recreation anymore, he immediately puts that at the top of our list of things to discuss.

Anyway, good luck! I'm sure you'll find the help you need.
posted by circular at 8:29 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thank you all for your kind comments!
To follow up on some questions:
1. I am currently on a sabbatical, for recuperation.
2. I will definitely try to cut down on my workload, if I should return to my current job.

It's just that I am like in an endless tunnel, with no direction to pull myself out.
I'll try to keep myself together;
your comments are so heartwarming!
Mefi ftw!
posted by rawwell at 8:35 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have tests run for adrenal fatigue. If they come back indicating that you have, indeed, fucked up your adrenal system by your punishing and stressful schedule, you can get back on track much sooner by boosting your adrenal function with appropriate medication(s).
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:44 AM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

-You eat shit. Stop eating so much high-fat crap, refined white flour, and corn sugar. Drink more water, snack on fruits & nuts, eat more vegetables. Quit drinking soda, especially that aspartame diet shit.

Wait, where does this even come from? Was there some comment from the OP talking about his eating habits that was deleted?
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:53 AM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Aside from agreeing with the general opinion that you need to work less, I'd also suggest you try finding some relaxation techniques. Yoga and meditation could be used now to help you decompress and continued when/if you decide to return to work. If you're "task oriented" it might be difficult to make yourself slow down. Get a monthly pass to a yoga studio and pre-commit to the schedule so you're actively making time in the day to work on relaxing.

Relaxing (or learning to relax/de-stress) takes time.

I'd also suggest taking a break from technology. You don't need to facebook/twitter/metafilter or even check email. Avoid all things computer either for a set period of time (3 days, 1 week, 2 weeks) and go cold turkey. It's really easy to transfer the manic level of work hours to another activity (surfing the internet, reading the news, playing WoW) which really isn't going to accomplish the necessary break/relaxation.

Finally, try out some activities and find out what you like. Kayaking, running, skiing, cooking -- these are things that aren't exclusively designed to go "aha, I'm relaxed" but when you find an activity you enjoy, you will spend time *enjoying* it and not working (or thinking about work).

Memail me if you want to chat about strategies to work less. Been there, done that, still do that (sometimes), and it's a constant effort to keep work habits in check but is best accomplished with the support of good friends.
posted by countrymod at 9:00 AM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

Wait, where does this even come from? Was there some comment from the OP talking about his eating habits that was deleted?

Nope. but I bartend parties for the tech industry in the Bay Area. I know lots of people who work 100hr weeks sitting in front of a screen.

Most of them eat shit, eat too much of it in terms of absolute volume, pour highly caffeinated drinks down their throats chasing energy that their diet is unable to provide due to nutrient insuffieiency, and are slack and out of shape due to a sedentary lifestyle.

Not all of them. But the chronically ill, depressed ones with bad digestion and dizzy spells tend towards that end of the spectrum.

Favorite from the OP makes me think I'm not off the mark.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 9:18 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

You should see a therapist. I personally can find no way out of the work cycle unless I work on coping with what it is that drives me to consistently push myself past my breaking point. I experience stress at every job that drives me to physical illness, even when the imperative to work so many hours isn't really placed on me. I put it there. If my bosses ask me to go above and beyond, I say yes. If they don't ask me, I do it anyway.

For example, if I worked hard for an 8 hour day, but didn't get all of what I wanted to get done so that the next morning, every problem I could potentially see was solved, before I understood how to cope with my own human, personal limitations, I had two choices: Work very late, eat crap for food, overcaffeinate myself to keep my brain working, collapse into bed with numbers and work problems dancing in my head, and finally fall asleep right before I needed to get up for work the next day. It was the same thing next day, until I actually got sick and fell apart, then spent all that time feeling sick worrying about what I wasn't getting done... never recuperating or ever feeling better.

I personally suffer from a sort of twisted professional perfectionism. Conventional "modern day wisdom" says this is good - reality is that it's horrible. Too much of my self-worth is wrapped up in my sense of accomplishment. I think you have it too (hence your mention of the MVP award). You need to find a way to cope with the pressure you put on yourself. Something is not adding up here. I think you should talk to a therapist.
posted by pazazygeek at 9:39 AM on December 6, 2010

Sorry, I neglected to point out what my second choice is when the 8 hour day was up (can you tell I never really allowed myself to take that second choice?) Choice two was stay up all night berating myself for not working on the problem, real or unreal, feeling like a failure, until I finally fell asleep right before I had to get up for work the next day.

i.e. I had to work on the core problem -- figure out how to cope with my limitations. Relax the standards I put on myself. Reframe my thinking and allow myself room for being human and having limitations, so that I could reasonably push back when too much was asked of me.
posted by pazazygeek at 9:41 AM on December 6, 2010

Well, I've reached burnout before, but it didn't take me 2 years to get there. It took me a solid 2 weeks of doing absolutely nothing but sleeping, wearing pajamas all day and lazing (reading and listening to music. Very minimal TV, almost zero computer), and eating good meals (i ordered in most of the time) to get to the point where I could even entertain the idea of scheduling some leisure activity (like going on a day-hike with friends). If you are on sabatical now, you just mihgt need to wait longer and do some more nothing until you can start to feel "normal-ish". Your body will probably want to sleep about 12-14 hours a day too after the beating it's taken.

long walks and hiking were the first things i did after the nothing stage. I carried a camera around to take little pictures of cool shit I saw that I never saw before because I had been in the burnout blackhole.

When you do return to work, you need to shorten your hourly commitment. If you need to, take a night class online, join a book club, get a pet or something that will force you to leave work at a set time.
posted by WeekendJen at 11:00 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Have you been to the doctor and received a diagnosis? I ask because you're linking two things that could be connected (depression and indigestion) with a third that seems unrelated (dizziness). I have occasional dizziness from clogged sinuses, and the post-nasal drip often irritates my stomach as well. It might be worth you talking with a doctor to see if some of your problems have an "easy" fix; feeling better physically may help partially alleviate your depression.
posted by epj at 2:07 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

You sound totally stressed out. Assuming your doctor has checked all your hormones, blood sugar, etc, I'd second the therapist suggestion, as well as the vacation.
posted by thinkingwoman at 3:35 PM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks again, all.
I'll check out relaxation techniques, and trying out new activities.
posted by rawwell at 3:58 AM on December 7, 2010

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