EDIT: @darkflib gave the talk which can be found at http://vimeo.com/79408326

Today at DevOps Days London there was an awesome ignite talk and open-space about Burnout.

One of the things that came out of the open-space was just how common burnout is in our industry and how isolated people feel when they are going through it.

I’ve been there, I’m out the other side and I don’t have the issues that I used to have however I realise from today that we need to talk about this more often so here’s my attempt to summarise what happened to me, the signs that it might be happening to you, and what I did to escape it (although they come with the fairly obvious caveat that I’m not a medical professional and what worked for me may not work for you!).

 Names have been changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty!).

I used to work for a company where I was responsible for the primary revenue-generating systems as well as a small team of engineers.  The job was great, it was at a scale that I hadn’t worked at before and I learnt a lot about how to deploy and configure complex highly-available clusters.

There was an individual within the organisation who appeared to have an issue with the way I did things.  If you spoke to other staff about him, they also felt that there was an issue with his attitude towards his co-workers.  If I proposed something to my managers that would save us time, money or both he would either veto it or dismiss it before resurrecting it months later as his own idea and claiming credit. I approached my manager and raised my concerns with him.  He told me that he would address them, however things didn’t change. That’s when I started to go out for lunch.

I would take ten minutes out of my lunch break to drive to the local supermarket car park before eating my lunch in the car and willing myself to drive those ten minutes back to the office to start work again.  First of all, it was easy “meh, I guess I’d better head back”, as if I was leaving friends to go home after a night out.  Then it moved to “I could really do with staying here a bit longer”, as if I were actually enjoying sitting in the car on my own.  Then came that fateful day where I realised that I couldn’t go back.  Something broke and it wasn’t going to be fixed easily.

I forced myself to go back to the office where, white as a sheet, I told one of the senior managers that I wasn’t feeling to well and needed to go home.  “I’ll be back in tomorrow”, I said and I genuinely believed that.  I didn’t go in the next day and it felt good taking the time off.  The day after that, I set out on the 50 mile trip to the office from my house.  I started to feel worse and worse as I approached.  Tense, nervous and close to tears I pulled in to a side-road less than half a mile from the office and rang the one of the few people that I felt I could talk to about, my Dad.  “I can’t do it Dad, I can’t go in.  Am I being stupid? What’s wrong with me?” (those weren’t my exact words but this was a few years ago and my memory isn’t that good!).  “So don’t do it”, he said and I turned the car around and drove back 50 miles to my house and my family.

The lunch breaks weren’t the only signs.  I was incredibly rude to my wife and children and I treated them appallingly.  I didn’t realise why I was doing it at the time (in fact, most of the time I didn’t even realise I was doing it!), however when I slammed on the brakes in the car in the middle of a busy road and screamed at my kids for playing a game in the back, I knew it was getting bad.

I went to see my GP and explained the situation.  She was brilliant and completely understood that this was an issue with the environment I worked in, not the job itself. She told me that it was obviously taking its toll and that I should take some time off, so she signed me off sick for a week. Then two weeks, then three, and then again and again – I was signed off for three months in total.

It became apparent that my employer at the time didn’t feel able to resolve the problems that I had so we came to an agreement that I would leave.  After long discussions with my wife, we agreed that it was better I was away from home during the week and happy than staying where I was and being miserable so I took a contract role in London.  All of a sudden I felt valued, I was earning enough money not to have to worry about the bills at the end of the month and I knew that if I didn’t like it, I just needed to hand in my notice and wait for five days – a winning combination!

The final step that I chose to take was to see a counsellor for the better part of a year.  She (along with changing environments) helped me to understand that the situation I found myself in was not of my own making and helped me to regain my self-confidence.

Two years on, I’ve gone back to PAYE again and I’m loving it.  The work is even more of a challenge and at a much larger scale, however the team around me are an amazing bunch of people (yes, I really mean that, all of you! :P) we work without any rock-star mind games.  I don’t get the anxiety attacks any more, and although I get bored of driving into work each day I know that there are going to be some fun challenges to solve.

Now, I’m not recommending that everyone who is unhappy with their job quits and goes contracting – it may be perfectly possible to work through the difficulties with your employer and some people in the open-space today suggested that they had done exactly that. I am recommending that you talk to someone about your job if you feel any of the above applies to you.

It was brilliant to see this being openly discussed in a such a frank and honest manner today – let’s keep the conversation going…