In this blog post, I’m going to discuss how you can best tackle burnout as both an employee and employer. I will touch upon how Novoda approaches these challenges, my own personal experiences, as well as advice from members of the developer community. I hope these thoughts can help you if you are struggling; feel free to reach out to me on Twitter if you need any advice.
Last November, Novoda hosted their first annual ‘un-conference’ in Lisbon, Portugal. The idea of an un-conference is that potential speakers can submit a topic and attendees vote on what they want to hear about on the day. The three formats available were talk, workshop, or discussion. One of the key themes of the day that emerged was mental health in the workplace.
Burnout: physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.
Before attending the unconference, I had been taking on more and more “extra-curricular” activities at work, and with deadlines approaching on my project, I was really struggling with stress. The resulting discussions that took place regarding mental health were fascinating, and really humbling to hear how many other people struggle with this in their day to day lives. It was also incredibly relieving to know that I wasn’t the only one having stress related issues, which aided me in finding a resolution.
Mental health is still a somewhat taboo subject and conversations like the ones we had at the unconference should happen more often. With this blogpost I hope to kick-start a discussion on workplace stress with the hope that it becomes a topic we can begin to approach with ease, both within and outside of Novoda.
Following the unconference, I made a particular effort to try and understand the steps I take to battle burnout, and I found there are three points to consider when approaching your own mental health. Get these right and you’re in a much stronger position to be able to jump any hurdles that come your way.
If you can feel yourself getting burnt out or stressed my first piece of advice would be to talk to your employer. Initiating that first point of contact is a crucial first step and in my case, I was completely supported and only received offers of help.
This is only possible in certain companies however, so it depends on your circumstance. Having a healthy support network of friends and family that you trust to be able to talk to about any struggles you are having can be really beneficial and can help if talking at work is problematic. I often found just chatting about my day to day stresses very therapeutic, and ensured I didn’t overthink, or lose sleep, over potentially menial problems. Trying to get involved in more extra curricular activities outside of work can also help, as this gives fresh perspectives, and a broader friendship circle.
Switching off and allowing yourself proper resting time is vital to maintaining a healthy work-life balance. I find one of the key techniques for allowing yourself to disconnect from work is to set a strict time after which you don’t touch your laptop. This is especially important if you work remotely, as it is far too easy to continue working into the night.
One technique I employ is to have separate work profiles on my machine which prevents any unwanted notifications after work time. Enabling ‘alarms only’ mode on my phone after work and before I start (6pm - 8am for me) every day has also been particularly helpful.
Furthermore, taking up a creative hobby such as painting has been incredibly beneficial to my personal mental health. I would advocate this to anyone struggling with burn-out.
In the past, I have also known a few people to take an extended break from the day-to-day grind of work. It doesn’t even need to be a holiday abroad, just a change of focus can really help “cleanse” your mind. The opportunity to do this is of course incredibly fortunate, and many don’t have this chance.
Prioritise your sleep
According to the Mental Health Foundation, a good amount of sleep is vital to maintaining a healthy mind. This is difficult if you have a large commute or other commitments so it is a case of balancing this carefully.
One key purchase can be a seasonal affective disorder lamp. This is a light you can set to gradually turn off in the evenings and turn on in the mornings. My personal experience is that this results in you waking up much more naturally and also aids in falling asleep if this is something you struggle with.
As part of this blogpost, I put out a call to other developers in the community for their experiences and advice on mental health and burn out. The response was fantastic. Thanks to all those who did
One of the key points of advice I found was to have a healthy life outside of work. Ensuring you exercise and eat well gives you a great foundation to work on your mental health. Taking value in your weekends is also imperative - getting away from home every now and then can do wonders for feeling cabin feverish and can help stop the temptation to work outside of working hours.
Within your working environment, reminding yourself that at the end of the day, your job is indeed just a job can help you put everything into perspective. Your mental wellbeing is your priority. If the culture is toxic or you’re feeling undue pressure don’t be afraid to start looking at other options if you are able to.
Additionally, a common snagging point is when developers start moving to more of a senior role. Finding the balance between being more of a mentor / manager and writing code is really difficult, so it is really important to have clear communication with your manager as to what the expectations are. Don’t feel afraid to discuss possible improvements with more senior figures if you’re struggling with the work load or are unsure of the next step to take.
It takes time, but being able to separate issues at work so you aren’t staying up all night thinking about them is a really vital skill. There are always going to be difficulties, but it is more how you approach them and deal with them mentally that is important.
Getting a grasp on good time management can be really helpful too. By time boxing your work, you can give yourself more discipline and give realistic expectations to your colleagues. This of course needn’t apply to work only. Other issues that could be troubling you, like personal finances, can be addressed by setting aside some dedicated time for them. You will often find out that a brief but focused session can resolve concerns that have been looming over you for months.
In addition to this, creating a list each morning of everything you would like to achieve by the end of the day, and then being able to pick this up the next day can help you to visualise the scale of your work, which is often smaller than you might think. This also benefits your evenings, as less of your mental capacity is spent worrying about what you need to do tomorrow.
For employers, having a friendly and open HR department works wonders. Advocating for a culture of openness and support can ensure employees feel comfortable opening up when they’re struggling. At Novoda, we are planning on meeting fortnightly to discuss techniques on the best ways for the company to tackle any problems people may be facing.
In all of our offices, we have break-out areas with more relaxed seating, games consoles and an arcade machine. This helps to foster an environment that encourages people to take breaks from their work and relax.
By making it clear that mental health is as important as physical health, and that taking days off when everything’s a bit overwhelming really helps. When employees are encouraged to work late and there is little tolerance for taking time off, burn-out is the result, as well as deeply unhappy workers. This also can lead to a toxic culture that is far more competitive than healthy.
Take these steps, and you’ll be well on your way to creating a company culture that is inclusive and open and attracts a fantastic group of people.
Personally, I only recognised I was struggling after I heard of other's experiences at the un-conference. This gave me the confidence to talk to those at work who could help, and it’s been great to have that line of communication open for whenever I need it.
My main point of advice if you are struggling with any mental health issue, would be to talk to someone close to you. Talking to someone you trust makes it real and allows you to start making a plan to tackle it head-on. I hope this blog has given you some confidence to take this step or to make the moves to avoid any problems in the future.
Finally, the points I’ve raised in this blog talk to those seeking ways to help general day to day stresses, which can ease the root causes of mental illnesses. This doesn’t apply to all, and sometimes counselling and / or medication can be the best way to help. If you aren’t sure, be sure to go and speak to your doctor, or a healthcare professional and they will be able to point you in the right direction. This page from the NHS in the UK provides some really helpful phone lines, that can offer more professional advice. For those outside of the UK, there are many charities that provide help and advice, and also some fantastic online resources, such as BetterHelp for more relevant advice.
It is particularly important to note that more than one approach could apply to each person, especially if they are experiencing various different symptoms. For example you might benefit from medical treatment but could also need to improve your lifestyle, exercise more, sleep more, or just build better habits. Don’t treat this as a chore (“I already did one thing, therefore I can ignore the remaining difficulties I’m facing”). Use every possible means of improving your life quality and you’ll be on your way to thrive!