On burnout and recovery

I suspect for a fair number burnout is something that they believe happens to others. People with less fulfilling jobs, people who don’t love their work, people in poorly managed companies. Other people.

i certainly didn’t consider myself at risk for burnout. I loved my work, I had a great manager prior to moving to consulting and was pretty much my own manager afterwards. I had a hobby (or 5), practiced a sport, took time to play games and relax. At risk? Never!

At least that’s what I thought until sometime around May last year when I realised I had absolutely no enthusiasm for anything related to IT. Blogging was a chore, books held no interest and many a day I opened management studio intending to do some development or investigation and then several hours later I’d close it without a line of code having being written.

The biggest mistake (I think) was in how I handled it. Instead of taking a break (and work was quiet around that time so I could), I took on more commitments, thinking that it would help motivate. Exceptional DBA Awards. SSC Articles. Tech-Ed presentations. PASS Summit presentations. SQL Exams. Hell I even started discussing and planning to write a book.

Bad idea.

Far from acting as motivation, the long list of things to do just made things worse. Far worse. I now had hard deadlines, people chasing me and still no motivation or enthusiasm. Naturally everything came to a head at the worst possible time and place – the PASS summit in Seattle that year. It’s really hard to write and deliver speeches, prep and deliver presentations and generally act friendly and enthusiastic when the only thing that you want to do is get on the next flight and go home. Fortunately I think only a couple of people noticed.

It’s only in the last couple of months (October/November 2010) that the enthusiasm for writing, blogging, researching (and in fact anything other than sitting and watching the world go by) has partially returned. Is the burnout past? No, definitely not, I still have days (weeks) where I can’t summon the enthusiasm to care, but it is getting better.

But this isn’t just a post on history or a poor attempt at sympathy. The point is how I handled it (badly). Looking back, what I should have done was

  • Take a break (work was quiet at the time). Not a weekend crashed in front of the TV, but a proper break – out of town for a week or so.
  • Get some help from friends, rather than pushing them away and pretending everything was fine.
  • Try a new technology rather than piling on SQL stuff. WCF, Ruby, F#, anything as long as it was different.

I’m far from qualified to offer advice on this issue, but I would suggest to anyone feeling the same way, don’t ignore it, don’t try to work through it and don’t hide it. Few problems go away by themselves, burnout certainly doesn’t.


  1. Brent Ozar

    I’ve been right there with you at times. That’s why I’m constantly out on vacation these days – if I don’t get out and about at least one week a quarter, I just get completely wrapped up in things, and even the technology things I love start to lose their pleasure.

    Presenting has done this to me, too. Over the last several months, I took on way too many new presentations, and I found myself just banging stuff out with lots of bullet points to get ‘er done. I’m horrified by that stuff now as I watch it, and I’m taking a breather in December to spend more time watching inspirational stuff. I don’t wanna get caught up in producing things I’m not really proud of.

  2. Grant Fritchey

    Wow, do I know where you’re coming from. I’m sort of going through it now, having completely over-committed on a bunch of stuff. It’s very hard to make the time for yourself to clear out the mess so you can actually focus on what’s important. I wish I had a piece of advice, I don’t. Best of luck on digging out. You’ve got a support network if you need it (albeit a very extended latency-ridden network).

  3. David Benoit

    Thanks for your openness Gail. I definitely understand what you mean and agree with your assessment on taking a break. I actually stepped away for about 18 months, only working a few of those part time doing some consulting, and then came back full time. In between I traveled across the US in a camper and enjoyed my family. It was great, refreshing and motivating. I can honestly say that it was exactly what I needed.

    Did I suffer a bit coming back into the market? Yes it was a bit difficult getting back up to speed on things and I did lose a couple steps but I have gained them back and then some.

    I hope my experience can be helpful to others as well as yourself.

  4. Thomas LeBlanc

    We are all human and I bet more people go thru something like this than we think.

    I see people, including myself, in the SQL Community doing this in Blogs and twitter. It is like we are going to miss something if we do not get involved, or someone is going to get ahead of me. Every October (past 3 years) I go to Kanuga in North Carolina on a spiritual retreat for a week with limited access to the internet world. Wood carving, Bible study, hiking and visiting with people. I caught myself on the internet half way thru the week, and I started the thinking process again. Stopped, prayed and went about the rest of the week like I planned.

    God Bless,

  5. Geoff Hiten

    I think all of us community contributors feel this way at one time or another. I ran into this issue several years ago. I finally had to tell myself that the community did not own my time. I choose to give to the community. If I have to spend time on other things and my community contributions fall of for a week or even a month, that is reality. I had to learn to say “no” and not feel bad about it. Of course, slogging through existing promises and committments to get there can be a chore.

    Give what you can but always keep some of your time for yourself.

    Helping with stuff like this is what friends are for.

  6. Robert L Davis

    This is so true!! When you are burned out, you can’t force yourself to get back into the swing of things by forcing yourself to do MORE stuff. This happened to me when I did the MCM program. After 3 weeks of constant training, studying, and test taking, I was burned out. I didn’t want to blog or do anything. I should have taken 4 weeks off for it so I’d have a week to recover.

  7. Jack Corbett

    Great post Gail. I know we’ve discussed this a bit over the past month or so as I deal with the exact same thing. I think your advice is great, and, no, I didn’t notice anything odd at the 2009 Summit. I hope you continue to move out of it and that you and I both have learned from the experiences so that we don’t make the same mistakes again.

    From the comments here and on my blog it’s nice to hear I’m not alone and that others I respect deal with it as well and have learned ways to cope.

  8. ozzychuckles

    Gail, keep in mind you only live once. Live it. It could be over tomorrow…

  9. WayneS

    One thing that you didn’t mention is how long it can take to recover from burnout. It can easily take 18 months OR LONGER. And people (aka those expecting results from you) don’t understand this if they haven’t had to go through it themselves – some thing you should be over it in one or two weeks.

    A tip for all – once you have been cursed with burnout, you need to identify what behavior patterns you had that caused it, and then to be hyper vigilant in looking at yourself in order to prevent it again in the future. If (as Brent mentioned) it takes taking a week off every quarter, then do it – even if you only get two weeks paid vacation per year. You’ll just have to budget that unpaid time off into your budget. It’s cheaper than taking 18 months off to recover.

  10. Ruari

    Gail, it’s good to see you realised in time where you were heading, take is easy and guide your recovery, Burnout is a nasty situation that most people just don’t understand. You are at a critical place at the moment and seem to have managed to stop the downward spiral. But pls keep on top of it, if you hit the bottom (which after sees you ending up in a clinic) then it can take years to bounce back. It is indeed a nasty experience and I urge everyone that feels themselves going down this route to take the advice offered here.
    God luck and heal up girl, we behind you all the way.

  11. Gail (Post author)

    Finally I have some time to reply to some of these…

    Brent: Doing much the same thing. I’ve started taking a week completely off every 3-4 months. Not out of town, but doing little-no SQL-related work.

    Grant: Some advice for you, if you’re feeling that way – stop volunteering for new stuff until you get the current pile dealt with. As I found, it’s way too easy to keep saying ‘yes’ until you’re so deep there’s no way out.

    Geoff: Big, big thanks. You know for what.

    Robert: That’s something I’m worrying about. I really want that cert, but I’ll be studying while working and I do not want another 6+ months struggling out of the morass again. Tough one.

    Wayne: It took me over a year, and it’s better, not over. I think part of the behaviour patterns is allowing work and non-work to blend. Since I work from home a lot, there’s nothing stopping me working until 2am (which I often do)

  12. Ryan CrawCour

    I feel i am right there, right now … glad to hear that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

  13. Will S

    I have to be very careful with this personally, and have found these things to help:

    1) Recognizing that it’s often a natural survival reaction – the body has been overwhelmed by too much of the same thing or just too much of life period and is retreating in order to avoid chaos and seek safe shelter. It’s not a personal “fault”, “weakness”, or “inability to cope”. The body is doing it’s natural thing and is trying to tell you something.

    2) MORE SLEEP – sleep naturally replenishes dopamine which helps us deal with and enjoy life. In America we have a chronic lack of sleep problem b/c we’re all so obsessed with not missing anything. I also get better sleep by spending the last half hour before bedtime quietly doing something non-stimulating. Working on the computer right up til bedtime = going to bed with head still spinning = fitful sleep.

    Appreciate your honesty, this was helpful.

  14. Merrill Aldrich

    Thanks for this post – I arrived at the end of 2010 with some of the same signs of burnout, and I’m going to try to avoid it if I can. I really appreciate you sharing this.

  15. Spinner

    No more recorded burnouts since 2011….doubt it!

    – I feel near the bottom right now and glad I spotted this myself as the lack of motivation made me wonder why my work was actually suffering, causing more frustration and lack of motivation etc.

    I have been lucky enough to have been around an IT department for over 20years now where there has always been more than one IT guy pushing how things actually work and improve processes and as a result motivation has always been around me, until now.
    Now I work from home a lot and really miss the team spirit and involvement brainstorming a solution or even messing around with processes just to send joke emails etc from some obscure tool.

    I know working back in an office full time would help me, however some of my most productive work has been developed at home (2am usually) and I cannot do those kind of hours and get into the office every day on time, is just not possible anymore and splitting the week between home and work has not helped either.

    I don’t like the idea of stepping away from my role to clear my head, however I cannot see any other solution, maybe that’s because I just can’t think clearly at all anymore, simply unable to focus.
    Answer = focus
    How to = ???

  16. Gail (Post author)

    Wish I could offer you a magic solution, truth is I’m still (over 2 years later) still struggling.

    I asked my thesis adviser for advice, he suggested 6 months quad-biking in the Australian outback. 🙂


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