Burnout and Depression

I’ve been working steadily as a developer since I graduated college 8 years ago. Decent grades, got a job straight out of school; I’m thankful for at least that. Two years in—about 6 years ago—I was diagnosed with clinical depression. Been continuously dealing with it ever since. It has followed me across changes in both job and city. I’m barely coping. But I’m not here to talk about only depression.

Fast forward to recently. Within the past few months, I’m convinced that I’m suffering from burnout as well. My work as an infrastructure/devops engineer doesn’t feel fulfilling. Few of my colleagues have an understanding or appreciation for what I do, so I’m mostly working alone with little collaboration. I have trouble internalizing accomplishments; when I get something done, I don’t think “Woo! Another job well done! Celebrate!”, instead more like “welp, another task complete, where’s the next one in the never-ending list beep boop i am a task robot”. Working at a startup doesn’t help matters much, either; everything’s on fire and those fires needed to be put out yesterday, also can you tweak this little thing before you collapse under the weight of your work pleaseandthankyouverymuch!

Objectively speaking, the burnout has been getting steadily worse over the past few months. Six months ago, I was reliably working full-time. Four months ago, I drained my PTO balance trying to “rest up”. Two months ago, I switched to part-time work/contracting, so I would have more time to rest. Today, I can’t bring myself to go into the office, and I’m sleeping 12-14 hours a day, not all contiguous.

My colleagues have been understanding about my depressive condition, thankfully, but I fear that their collective patience may be wearing thin. Before the burnout, I would just take a few days off to rest, then bounce back & return to work. The difference this time: I’m no longer bouncing back.

Maybe I’m just overworked and need a change. But that’s the problem with burnout, isn’t it? I lack the willpower, energy, and motivation to do anything at all. Thinking about different work sounds just as tedious and meaningless as whatever I’m already doing.

On one hand, I know that I’m perfectly capable of being productive; on the other, I feel like my career is over since I can no longer muster up the desire to do things.

How does anyone deal with burnout?

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Hi @smoldered,
I was depressed and burned out for half of last year and the first few months of this year. I didn’t have a developer job, but I was in grad science for computer science and under pressure to publish research, so maybe my experiences can help you. Here’s what I did:

  1. Took time off from my program. I applied for a leave of absence from my program for the Spring and Summer semesters. I took a run-of-the-mill developer job at a local software shop where I had interned before. I made it clear to everyone that this was just a temporary gig. The first few months were pretty terrible, I ended up making fairly little progress and taking way too much time off, but I gradually got better at putting in a full-days work. Unlike my usual research job,I could come in, do an assigned task and leave at the end of the day.
  2. Took some time off. While working at that job, I applied for a research internship. In between, I took three weeks completely off. I didn’t do any programming. I hung out with friends, packed up my apartment, watched a lot of TV and enjoyed the beginning of the summer.
  3. Had a complete change of scenery. My research internship was in a completely different city. I didn’t know anyone there, lived in AirBNBs, and didn’t have a plan for anything besides going to work everyday. It helped that for the first three weeks I had a firm deadline and a solid idea of what I needed to do (which was in something that I was interested in). There were none of the usual triggers of my depression and I found enough new things to do that I didn’t keep thinking of how much my life sucked or all the things I’d done wrong.

The research internship is now at an end and I feel better than I have in months. I’m interested in research again, I have an idea of what I want to work on, and I’m making a plan for what to work once I’m back in my program in the Fall. I still keep a close eye on my mood and daily activities to watch for signs of depression or burnout, but I’ve been doing well for almost a month now.

I would recommend that you see a mental health care professional and that you try to take a complete break from your work. If you can, take a trip to another city or go travelling for a few weeks. I had a therapist who helped me gradually unravel some of my issues and face my problems. Getting away from my usual surroundings and being in a different environment for a few months was probably the single most important thing that I did. It let me completely disconnect from my old life and rediscover my motivation and excitement for research.

I also work at a startup and few of my colleagues understand my challenges, so I totally relate to this.

It’s hard being stuck in a negative feedback loop. Sometime I feel like it’s the only feedback I get…

Even my code sends me constant reminders about what’s broken…

  1. write some code
  2. run the code
  3. get an error message
  4. find the error and back to step 1

I get notifications about exceptions in the app…
I get emails about missing features or things to update…
Customers complain that they want this or that…
Nothing is shipped fast enough…
Feedback from production meetings is always about what’s missing, what is not done, when is this or that gonna be shipped…

Sometimes it’s nice to get a “atta boy” once in while.

I agree with @vibranium that you should seek help from a mental health care professional. It looks like you need a reboot of some kind.

The startup environment is probably not for you and there’s no shame in that. I’m currently looking for other jobs myself. I simply can no longer afford to spend so much time and energy making other people crazy dreams come true.

Thanks for your replies.

I’ve been seeing both a psychiatrist & a therapist for most of this year. I’d been on medication much longer, but it was previously prescribed by a physician :disappointed:. I hadn’t been seeing an actual MHP until very recently, and I suffered (more) as a consequence.

Lesson learned #1: if you’re getting meds from a physician for mental illness, STOP. Find a psychiatrist, they are better trained & equipped to diagnose & treat mental illness. Ask your physician for a referral if you need to. Don’t put it off, either; meds can only do so much, no one medication is a silver bullet, and it takes time to find which one(s) work.

I agree that I’m going to need some time off from working. I rarely take vacations, and aside from sick leave (which I’ve been taking a lot of lately) I’ve been working mostly nonstop since graduating in 2007. An extended break from work would be welcome. I have enough cash to live off of for at least 6 months, so it seems quite doable. Problem is, I haven’t a clue what to do in that time. Better start thinking.

As far as my career goes, I’m thinking I’ll have to steer clear of startups. The separation of roles & concerns among the team is too fuzzy for my tastes. And although I like taking on new responsibilities & trying new technologies, I feel that the startup version of this requires too steep of a curve.

As much as it pains me to say it, I think I need management to keep me focused & appropriately loaded. Somehow I’ve been failing to do that entirely on my own.

It’s good to hear that you can afford to take six months off. I don’t think it’s a problem that you don’t have a clue what to do in the time, that’s part of the resting process. I would suggest you just pick a place and go. Either somewhere that you have friends and family, or that has an active social scene, so that if you feel like being social, you can do that easily. It doesn’t have to be social in the sense of people partying every weekend, but in the sense of “there are people here whose interests and hobbies overlap with mine”. This is unsubstantiated, but I think that once your brain has had some time to decompress and get out of the rut of worrying about work, you’ll start coming up with ideas naturally.

Also, I think the startup and “go it your own” culture is very over-hyped. There may be great rewards, but also a lot of risk, and it’s definitely not for everyone. There’s no need to feel bad for wanting a life with structure and a safety net.

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