Recently, John Willis (@botchagalupe) wrote an excellent article about Karōjisatsu, one who commits suicide due to mental stress, often work-related. It’s a very sad, emotional tale that is relevant in many industries, but one that speaks particularly to high-pressure, high-stress STEM jobs, including IT. If you have not read this article, please take a few moments to go read it now.
The core idea of nearly overwhelming burnout is probably one that you recognize. John’s article spoke very eloquently on the need to reach out if you feel overwhelmed, that you’re not alone, that there are many people who are willing to help you, and that suicide is not an option. I would like to add that if I can ever be of any assistance to anyone reading this, don’t hesitate to reach out. If you ever feel truly overwhelmed, reach out to the National Suicide Hotline at (800) 273-8255 as well. You do matter!
John describes some causes of Karōshi, including, “Stress accumulated due to frustration at not being able to achieve the goals set by the company.” There is always pressure to do more with less and in IT, we tend to feel this pressure very heavily. Systems and their associated problems always seem to come and rarely to go, giving even stable, growth-restricted companies an increasing IT burden. Every day, there is an increasing amount of systems knowledge – often of the tribal and oral history varieties – for each of us to remember and maintain. When things go wrong – and they always do – we have to drop what we are doing to put out the fires, delaying our schedule and often without the ability to adjust the delivery dates on the schedule. We often feel that we must work harder and longer to make up for these delays and maintain the schedule in order to hit the company’s goals. The mental and physical stress of something going wrong combined with the mental and physical stress of working harder and longer accumulates in a vicious cycle that must be broken before it leads to karōshi.
I know this feeling. I have found myself looking at the clock near midnight, telling myself that I’ll put the computer down in 10 minutes and go to bed, only to blink and the clock reads 3AM. I have gotten up early on a Sunday to fix something broken that I could not get to on Friday. I’ve even found myself getting up early to “fix” something that’s not broken! The pressure of needing to resolve an issue, ship a product, or address a customer’s question keeps my brain running at night when it should be resting and recuperating so that I can do good work the next day. Sometimes it’s not even a company goal that keeps me working on an issue, just my stubborn pride. Whatever the cause, I know the feeling of overwhelming pressure that affects all of us from time to time.
Burnout of any sort, whether it puts you on the edge of suicide or the edge of your career, is dangerous. We must all develop coping strategies to deal with these feelings. I have been fortunate to have some wonderful mentors in my career. I credit my first two bosses for giving me two great coping strategies to deal with this pressure, and I would like to share those strategies with you.
The first coping strategy is courtesy of Bob at Centerline, my first “real world” job. We were the IT Operations staff at an engineering firm. His advice was simple: “Sometimes, you let it burn.” It’s very easy to hear users scream and think that world really is ending. What the users are saying is important, but we must evaluate what we hear carefully and prioritize accordingly. Are we reacting because a single person is struggling with an issue or because the company is negatively affected by a problem more than they are positively affected by whatever you are currently doing? If you’re off shift when the issue occurs, must it really be taken care of immediately by you, or can it wait or be handled by someone else? Most of us have been taught repeatedly that the answer is always, “Fix it now!” but is that truly the case?
When issues have a low severity or affect a low number of users, particularly if you’re treating symptoms and not causes, let them “burn”. While things are burning, put your effort toward fixing the underlying causes in order to prevent future fires. You will often find that your environment is not as flammable as everyone thought and that a little fire and smoke won’t destroy the company. It’s still hot, and it still hurts, but it is a different kind of hurt. This is an especially great way to deal with chronic issues. Rather than dropping everything for, say, a single user who complains about a broken report that they need RIGHT NOW, fix the underlying bug in the reporting system. If you can pick just one “burn day” a month and spend that time on underlying causes, you will find yourself in a much better position in a few months. If you can do it more frequently, or cherry-pick some chronic issues to let burn, you may see results in just a few weeks.
Regardless of the frequency with which you have burn days, you’ll notice one thing very quickly: your stress levels will go down. When you do encounter a chronic issue that you cannot let burn, you know that someday soon you will be able to make that issue go away forever. Your time will be freed up to work on improvements and innovation rather than just outages, lowering the pressure put upon you and enabling you to meet the company’s goals.
The second coping strategy was taught to me by Scott from RBA Systems. This is a consulting firm where we provided both development and operations to our customers. I was a 21 year old kid who just dropped out of college and was out to prove myself in IT. In my first few weeks, Scott often had to tell me, “pace yourself.” I wish I could say I thought nothing of it, but as the young smartass I was, I thought it was something a jaded old guy would say. I’m tough and there’s no way I’ll let him slow me down! Instead, in just a few months, the blistering pace I had coming out the gate had to falter and Scott, who also had to manage a few other people at the same time, started lapping me.
There’s simply no way you can keep up a lightning pace forever. Going 110% seems great until your body and mind start to fall apart due to the constant pressure they are under. Even going 100% cannot be maintained. You might find yourself flagging at the end of the day or your typing rate going to shit or constantly typing the wrong commands in the wrong windows. This is especially dangerous with ‘reboot’, ‘write erase’, or ‘rm’ style commands! None of these actions help you, your company, or your customers. Find out what your 100% looks like, pull back a bit from it until you find your pace you can maintain that balances speed, efficiency, and accuracy. Keep adjusting that pace over time as your skills improve and your work/life demands shift to maintain the balance. You may be making adjustments every day, and that’s okay – no-one’s perfect.
I credit my ability to successfully maintain a high level of performance and avoid burnout in IT over the past fifteen years to the valuable lessons from my early mentors, burn days and pacing myself. I hope these tools can help others with this ongoing struggle.
Do these things because you have pride in your work, because you want to be able to continue contributing to IT for decades, because they’re the right things to do. Do it because you matter. Do it because you love life.