Burnout is one of those terms that most of us have heard used in our professional lives, many of us have been subject to, and yet few of us really have a means of grasping the severity of the problem or when it goes too far.
Hopefully this post will give you some ideas no how to reason about burnout in both your professional and personal environments.
Okay, so I bet you didn't think that the first thing I'd be talking about in a post about burnout would be something from first year engineering; and yet here we go. Let's talk a little bit about ductility and Young's modulus.
Young's modulus is a measure of the stiffness of a material, and in particular the relationship between the amount that the material is stretched and the amount of force required to do so. In the material science world they talk about this in terms of stress and strain (where stress is the ratio of force to surface area/thickness and strain is the ratio of change in length).
Where things get interesting is that the Young's modulus of a material is not necessarily constant. For ductile materials in particular, there are some really interesting dynamics as you start to increase stress beyond certain key limits.
What is Burnout?
Burnout on the other hand has nothing to do with material science (unless you're a material scientist or civil engineer who is heavily overworked) and instead is a term used to describe a number of symptoms commonly associated with prolonged stress.
A lot of people assume that burnout is simply a matter of "working too hard" and this leads to many outright rejecting the idea that they might be burnt out (especially those who are highly driven and ambitious). The reality is that Burnout is far more complex and nuanced than that.
In practice, burnout is characterized on three different dimensions and someone suffering from burnout may find themselves subject to any one, or multiple, of these symptoms:
- A feeling of physical, mental, and/or emotional exhaustion.
- A feeling of detachment/withdrawal, increased cynicism, and/or reduced empathy.
- A feeling of being ineffective, under-performing, and/or low morale.
Crucially, it is important to recognize that all of the above are how the person experiencing burnout feels, and they may not have any bearing on their objective performance. Often, people who are burnt out will still continue to perform at a high level, however their feelings may not mirror this.
Now this is where we merge these two concepts. In most of the conversations I've had about burnout, there is a tendency to assume that it is primarily a matter of doing too much work, and that taking a holiday will allow the person enough time to recover.
My personal experience is that this is rarely, if ever, the case. In my quest to quantify my experience, I came across the idea of elastic and plastic deformation as a metaphor for how burnout impacts people and why what may work to alleviate it for some may not work for others.
Switching back to our material science metaphor, elastic deformation is defined over the range where applying increased stress results in a linear increase in strain (burnout). Within this range, any reduction in stress will result in a commensurate reduction in strain (recovery).
This is the ideal case for burnout. If you're starting to notice any symptoms of burnout, taking a break and reducing your stress levels should allow you to recover and return to your normal state. This is one of the reasons why it's so valuable to encourage your on-call engineers to take time off after a major incident (without it counting against their vacation allowance).
After periods of increased stress on your team, whether that be a major incident, or a large release, it's important to encourage your team to take a break and recover. That can be anything from taking them out for a meal together, or giving them a day off. Doing so will help ensure that they are able to return to their normal, healthy, state and will ensure that they are better equipped to handle any future stressors.
If managed well, keeping your people in this elastic range will allow you to quickly recover from any major sources of stress and ensure that your team is consistently performing at a high level. Unfortunately, it can be quite difficult to identify where the limits of this range are and they vary for each individual.
The yield stress of a material is the amount of stress required to cause a permanent deformation. It is characterized by a sharp drop-off in the amount of stress required to increase strain (burnout) and in the human context is often the point at which you'll first notice a person "snap".
In practice, this is usually something small - an ask for help from someone who never complains about their workload, a request for a change in process from someone who has never raised an issue before, or simply an emotional outburst from someone who has always been a model of calm.
This is often the point at which well intentioned and attentive leaders will start to pay attention, believing that this is the start of burnout - and they'll often encourage the person to take a break. Unfortunately, if you've truly exceeded the yield stress of the individual, you're already too late for a short break to be an effective recovery mechanism.
If you notice that someone is starting to show signs of burnout, recognize that there is a good chance that you are either about to, or have already passed, the point where taking a break or slightly reducing their workload is unlikely to help them recover.
The reason for this is that at this point you've almost certainly pushed the individual to the point where there is now a degree of latent association between the work they do and the stress that has built up, or their responsibilities have simply built up to the point where "normal workload" is beyond their safe capacity.
In practice, what we'll often to is offer to help out with something - reducing the amount of stress applied to the individual by a small degree, but you'll notice that beyond the yield point, the amount of stress required to cause an increase in strain (burnout) is reduced; so even this might not be enough to reduce the burnout experienced by the individual.
In my experience, the way to deal with burnout at this level is to make significant, material, changes to the workload of the individual (or the team). This can be anything from re-assigning a portion of their projects, to moving them to a different team, or working with them to identify specific changes that will give them confidence that the same scenario that led to this level of burnout will not happen again.
For most organizations, the impact that a motivated and engaged individual can have is proportional to their organizational context and the quality of their organizational network. People who have been working at your organization for a long time will almost universally be more valuable than an external replacement, even if you have to move them to a different team or re-assign some of their responsibilities.
Notably, doing either of these things doesn't require you to stop giving them challenging work (in fact, supporting them through this is likely to give them the confidence to tackle more challenging work in the future, knowing that they will be supported).
If you've pushed a material beyond its yield stress, you've entered the plastic deformation region. In this region, the material will deform permanently and will not return to its original shape when the stress is removed. Additionally, for ductile materials, the amount of stress required to increase strain (burnout) will no longer be linear and may in fact decrease while increasing strain (burnout).
When it comes to people, this is the point at which you'll almost certainly start to notice a change in their behavior. They may start to withdraw from the team, become more cynical, argumentative, and/or express displeasure at aspects of their environment that they previously accepted. You're also likely to notice them exhibiting signs of physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion, as well as being more sensitive to their performance. Paradoxically, this latter point may often lead to these individuals putting in additional effort to try and compensate for their perceived decline in performance.
If you have someone who is heavily burnt out, continuing to expose them to stress will have a permanent impact on their ability to recover and is far more likely to result in the person leaving your organization altogether.
If it becomes obvious that you've pushed someone to this point, you should take immediate steps to significantly reduce their workload and ensure that they have the support they need to recover. This recovery will often require active work from your part to help address the feelings of detachment/withdrawal, cynicism, exhaustion, and inefficacy that the person is likely to be feeling.
The primary challenge at this point is that simply reducing stress will not solve the problem. Asking the person to take some time off, even an extended vacation, will often have no effect on their recovery (with them often returning to the same state of burnout within days of returning to work). At this point, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that the issue is external (i.e. it's something the person is dealing with in their own life and that as a manager there isn't much you can/should do about it).
The reality is quite the opposite. This is the time where, as a manager, you are singularly positioned to support the recovery (and retention) of this person. The steps you'll need to take will vary on a case by case basis, but fundamentally you need to reset the person's context and experience of their environment (think of this as re-forging the spring that has been over-stretched).
Keep in mind that the person in question is likely to associate any of their prior stressors (whether that be late working hours, work on a specific project, working with a specific person or team, etc.) with the burnout they are experiencing and continued exposure is likely to make recovery impossible. As such, you'll likely need to work with the person to identify the source of these stressors and then support them in making changes to their role, responsibilities, or environment to remove or reduce them.
Permanent deformation is essentially the point at which a person starts to remember/recall prior stressors whenever they are exposed to a lesser stressor. For example, a team who knows that a particular partner team has previously been abusive will consistently experience a higher level of stress when working with that partner team, even if the partner team is being more reasonable than usual.
As you proceed to increase the stress applied to a material, you'll notice (even in the plastic deformation region) that the amount of stress required to increase strain does continue to increase. At some point, you'll reach the maximum amount of stress that the material can withstand before it begins to break. To use the analogy of a spring, this is the point at which you've stretched the spring to the point that it is a wire and if you begin to apply any additional force it will start to thin out (necking) and eventually snap.
In the case of people, many of our most driven and ambitious individuals will tend to mistake their ultimate strength for their yield stress, assuming that they can continue to push themselves just a little bit further without breaking. Unfortunately, beyond this point burnout continues to increase even as we lower the amount of stress applied. For these individuals, this leads to a rapid decline which will often result in them leaving the organization (and often with strong negative feelings towards the organization in the process).
Many of us mistake our ultimate strength for our yield stress. If you're pushing yourself beyond the signs of burnout and finding that taking a break doesn't leave you feeling recovered, you should seriously consider whether you are making the same mistake and take appropriate steps to reduce your stress levels before you impact your health.
As a manager, this is the point where you should probably be working to support the person in finding a new role or organization in an effort to completely reset their context as quickly as possible.
While this post is written with professional burnout in mind, the same metaphor applies to many other areas of life where one is exposed to stress. For example, if you're a student, you may notice that you're experiencing similar symptoms throughout your semester. If you're a parent, you may notice that you're experiencing similar patterns as your children go through different stages of development and their own challenges. And finally, if you're in a relationship, you may find that the same phases of burnout apply to your feelings in the relationship as well.
Regardless of the context, it's important to recognize that stress is a natural part of life and that managing strain (burnout) to ensure that you are able to recover after a period of stress is a critical part of maintaining your health and well-being. Pushing yourself beyond this elastic limit is far more likely to permanently impact your quality of life and if you have the ability to prevent yourself from doing so, or help others to do the same, you should really do so.
Site Reliability Engineer, Microsoft