Iris Classon
Iris Classon - In Love with Code

Burning out, the what, why and who (Question 245-248)

I started replying on a blog post by my fellow podcast host John Sonmez, but it ended up being so long I’ve decided to post here instead. The post is: The Hacker News Generation

" Hi John! You have to stop pissing people of ;) Just kidding, it’s good that you do- but I would like to share with you my story of boredom and burnouts. Not the type you do with car tires, hell,- I don’t even have a drivers license, but the ones you do with your life….”

The invention of the (yet another) invisible condition ?


Burnouts got invented in 1970’s, before that we didn’t know you could be burned out…. ;) Even Shakespeare made referral to being a character being ‘burned out’ in some of his writing, but the term wasn’t medically accepted until the 70’s- [1] and less romantic than Shakespeare described it as [2]. Joke aside, we are learning more about the human mind and with that we are able to pin point conditions- We aren’t making things up, we are discovering them. I didn’t get burned out in the 70’s, but rather straight after the market crash, late 2010. Ironically the first studies on burnouts where made in healthcare, where they are every prominent, and that is where my story starts as well. Burnout research had its roots in care-giving and service occupations, and our jobs as developers can resemble service occupations, and burnouts are frequent in our occupation as well. [3]

[caption id="attachment_8082” align="aligncenter” width="631”] Me as a dietitian, image for an article Me as a dietitian, image for an article[/caption]

I was very passionate about dietetics when I worked as a dietitian- and I never worked so hard in my life just make ends meet. As I managed to get one end longer, the other one got shorter. It wasn’t for lack of trying, there just wasn’t enough jobs and the private market too small in left-winged Sweden (not saying that is bad thing, but people are less inclined to spend on private healthcare and public health care wasn’t hiring dietitians).

After two devastating meetings with potential partners, I remember coming home one day, climbing to bed. And not getting up for 6 months. I had pulled the curtains shut, and only got up when the stomach pains from not eating were too much, or when I on rare moments had to pee. I was dehydrated, cried non-stop, and lost a lot of weight. If it wasn’t for my family around me I wouldn’t have been where I am today. I don’t know what happened. Something inside me just snapped. I had studied for 6 years at universities around the world, had a double degree, had opened my own clinic and nutrition school with happy students, but I worked so hard for so little. The problem was that it wasn’t mentally challenging, and all the repetitive work (at some point all the clients/patents are the same) slowly killed the passion I had for the work. It started early, already at Uni, but it was only when I couldn’t make ends meet and I felt like I was bored to death that something inside snapped.

[caption id="attachment_8032” align="aligncenter” width="483”] I was worried and overworked already when I graduated I was worried and overworked already when I graduated[/caption]

The symptoms

Early on the symptoms of burnout were considered to be exhaustion or fatigue – mental as well as physical- combined with depersonalization, lack of (perceived) personal accomplishment and some more symptoms [1]. You also see cynicism, and inefficiency, and most of all a drastic change in how the person is and interacts. Ask anybody that were around me at the time, and they can confirm that.

How it felt

[caption id="attachment_8072” align="aligncenter” width="695”] Image from a video I made for a session on cognitive biases and faux pas Image from a video I made for a session on cognitive biases and faux pas[/caption]

Like you wanted to fall asleep and never wake up. Not suicidal- close- but no. Just not willing to accept a life under those conditions, and at the same time feeling like I had done everything I could to succeed. I literally couldn’t even dress myself, would not shower for days, and the apartment piled into what looked like a war disaster. I’ve never been more scared for my life than then, and I literally felt like I had no control whatsoever over my emotions and thoughts. Being a smart person, I knew it was idiotic, and I told myself to ‘just get it together’- but my mind failed to listen. I lost my job at the video rental of course, was fired (also called ‘letting me go’). And I had to cancel with all the students and the patients. My bills piled up, I either couldn’t pay, or just couldn’t make myself do it. I didn’t want to talk to anybody, had no interest in myself or others.

The burnout cycle - Stress Driven Development - stages

[caption id="attachment_8062” align="aligncenter” width="528”] Stages of burnout Stages of burnout[/caption]

There is a cycle, a burnout cycle, that professor Herbert J. Freudenberger has been quoted on several times [4]. Now why on earth am I lecturing you on this? Because some of the advice you gave goes against what medical practitioner would recommend people at risk of burnout. I’ll commented on some of them. The earlier in the process you do something about it, the faster the recovery time.

The stages are as following:
1. The Compulsion to Prove Oneself – at some point what you do should be good enough
2. Working Harder – working harder/smarter is not always the answer. It makes you obsess, rely less on others, creates conflict and as a developer you will probably have more to maintain the more work you take on.
3. Neglecting Their Needs – this also includes neglecting your passion.
4. Displacement of Conflicts – this is where it starts to get dangerous, on the verge of burnout. This is where you start accepting that ‘this is how your life is’
5. Revision of Values- you’ve changed your values. Work is prioritized
6. Denial of Emerging Problems – aggression and sarcasm, social skills decline start manifesting themselves.
7. Withdrawal
8. Obvious Behavioral Changes
9. Depersonalization
10. Inner Emptiness
11. Depression – not all develop depression
12. Burnout Syndrome

What caused it? Well, we usually divide between external and internal factors [1,2,3]

Factors- or as we can call them, optional parameters as an input to the ReturnBurnout function

Job demands – high demand
Low control
Job attitudes (commitment and satisfaction)
Monotonous work
Restricted work – feeling restricted
Lack of recognition
No room for ‘you’

Enthusiasm for the job
Personal attitudes
Personal skills
Perfectionistic tendencies

The baseclass - who gets this?

It’s more common among young wokrers (20-30) and in those with higher education, it’s also linked to the dimension of neuroticisms (traits such as anxiety, hostility, depression, self-consciousness, and vulnerability) [2]

The implications on a workplace are big, and therefore we see more and more workplaces activity working to avoid burning out their employees. If you suspect you are being burned out, it’s likely that your boss cares,- as the cost is big once it becomes a fact. In software engineering human resources make uo 70% of the costs. [6] But alright. Maybe we can’t always do something about the workload, and we might feel like we can’t cater for those that are more ‘fragile’- if we consider them to be that. What can we do?

Intrinsic motivation is something that is extremely important at a workplace, as it allows us to still function (in a positive way) under high job demand (because sometimes it’s hard to lessen the demand) [5], and lack of motivation has been identified as the number one reason for project failure in software development projects [6]. Providing motivation is something a workplace should and could do, and when it lacks I would argue it would increase the likelihood of a developer getting burned out under high workload.

[caption id="attachment_8112” align="aligncenter” width="695”] Go-kart with Dotnet Mentor Go-kart with Dotnet Mentor[/caption]

[caption id="attachment_8042” align="aligncenter” width="695”] My classmates from learning programming, high workload- but high intrinsic motivation, we all made it alive My classmates from learning programming, high workload- but high intrinsic motivation, we all made it alive[/caption]

So what happened to me? public class Iris: BurnoutSuperClass

One day I had to go to the store, there was nothing at home to eat and I was alone. I took the bike, and crying I managed to get lost, and ended up in a large graveyard- the oldest one in Sweden I believe. And I remember reading on the tombstones and they all said what people worked with. They were just a sum of what they did. And I realized that for me, I can never have a ‘job’. I can’t disconnect between work and personal life. It has to be a part of who I am, maybe because I have ADHD, maybe I’m just like that. In contrast to the tombstones, I didn’t want work to define who I am, but wanted instead make work be who I am,- and be able to pay my bills with that. And what dietetics lacked, that my mind was starving after, was progression and change. If I stand still, I die. My mind is happy when I solve new problems, learn new information. I was staving my brain as a dietitian. A wonderful job for the right person, but not for somebody that can’t stand still. So boredom and not being able to pay my bills was the two reasons I burned out, boredom was the main reason, but the financial problems highlighted my feelings.

It was the turning point, but the road from there was an uphill one, and I am still recovering. After years of therapy for my ADHD (that I’ve had since I was 10, on and off meds for years) I had learned to somewhat analyze and cope with feelings using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. As soon as I got home I started writing, I wrote and wrote, and wrote. At the end all my feelings lay out there, bare, naked, on what would be an awesome reality show for the easily entertained. What was evident, was that I had to make a drastic change. I enrolled to learn programming, the ultimate brain challenge for me.

public Change DrasticAction(string idea){return GetChange(idea)}

Call it on a whim, as you said we shouldn’t do. But I did regardless. From rock bottom I couldn’t sink lower, and from the lengthy Freud inspired but without the sex analysis I had come to the conclusion that I should work with something that forever will challenge my brain. Programming seemed perfect.

And so I started from zero, index -1. The only line of code I had written was a blink tag. I saw it a few times and hated it immediacy, like a painful epileptic seizure from a cheap discotheque light. I hate those lights. I got my first computer, enrolled into school, and two years later here I am. C# MVP, working at a fantastic company as a consultant, and having enjoyed a year at Telerik and Dotnet Mentor working with some of the brightest developers I’ve gotten to know.

Do I dare say it worked out rather well for me? I’ve never been more passionate about something, and it hasn’t died at all so far. And all the jobs I landed was because of my passion, every single one of them.

[caption id="attachment_8102” align="aligncenter” width="695”] At TechDays 2013, made many new friends and feel blessed to have so many wonderful and smart people around me At TechDays 2013, made many new friends and feel blessed to have so many wonderful and smart people around me[/caption]

But without my background in therapy, both as a patient and medical professional, I wouldn’t have made it out alive from the burnout- and found the dream I am leaving today. That I am 100% sure of. And my hat goes off to those that also dared to follow their heart and passion, even if failing miserable once or twice. I believe in choosing to make something a part of your life, without it being your whole life, and loving what you do and the people involved as much as you can allow yourself to do. For some people it’s what they do that is most important (in software development the task itself is considered the number one motivation, with social aspect being second) [7], for others it’s purely the human interaction. And some just want to work 8-17 and go home. The second group is at a significant higher risk of being burned out, when intrinsic and extrinsic factors are there [4].

The choice is theirs. Ours.

And we shouldn’t judge people on those choices, because:

1. We do not have all the facts (scientific, or personal facts about them)

2.One day you will be standing there (research shows everybody can get burned out in the ‘right’ context/under ‘right’ conditions**)**

3.Generally I don’t recommend giving people a push when they might be standing on the edge

Push people if you genuinely know where they stand and you are sure it is the right direction, don’ t push just to show how strong you are (compared to )


Below is just a summary of some of the research on the topic I’ve used for the post. I have a total of 100+ reviews and journals and will present a more in-depth overview at the Better Software conference session and Agile Development East keynote session in November. References will be better organized :)

[1] Work and health psychology 2nd edition Marc J. Schabraco et al. chapter 19
[2] Job Burnout Christina Maslach et al. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 2001. 52:397–422
[3] Stressor-burnout relationship in software development teams, Sabine Sonnentag et al. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology
Volume 67, Issue 4, pages 327–341, December 1994
[4] Burnout Cycle - Scientific American Mind 2006 June-July
[5] Speci®c determinants of intrinsic work motivation, burnout and turnover intentions: a study among nurses- Peter P.M. Janssen et al. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 1999, 29(6), 1360±1369
[6] Designing Motivation Strategies for Software Engineering Teams: an Empirical Study Proceedings of the 2010 ICSE Workshop on Cooperative and Human Aspects of Software Engineering p 84-91
[7] Motivation in Software Engineering: A systematic literature review Sarah Beecham et al. Information and Software Technology 50 (2008) 860–878


Leave a comment (via email)
10/8/2013 10:13:43 AM
That was an awesome post! :) 
10/26/2013 3:20:52 PM
Hello Iris,

that was an very interesting post about you and yout life. Very personal.
But I want to warn you, not only starving for progression/challenges can course burnout, 
also getting overchallenged/overstrained can course burnout. The highest burnout rate is the in computer science!
I not burned out until today, but sometimes I felt why this can overcome somebody.
I was very passionated about computer and electronics, but after about 20 years, my speed and interest gets lower 
and I wish some smaller challenges and longer timeframes, because sometimes my mind feels older and not so flexible and starved, like before. It  sometimes feels filled up.
I studied electronics (also hobby), I learned programming and programmed in different languages (Assembler, Pascal, C, Delpi, VB, C, Sql, PL/SQL, C#, Silverlight,....).
But always (about 3 years) after learning something and getting really good that I can use my skills and getting Senior Status and not 
feeling like a trainee the technologie/company technics,... changed and I lost my knowledge and started learning new, feeling like a trainee again.
That not very satisfying over time, and can kill the passion and let you also burnout.  
I not want to kill your passion, your doing very well, but do not overstrain, that the opposite of what you had happens with your mind.

Jujan Moisés
11/26/2013 4:19:27 PM
Very good article, I would like to share an article that I published with the title "Are you sensitive to suffer Burnout Syndrome?", where is comment a new science article that affirm to find specific characters of personality in Burnout Syndrome´s patients. 
Thomas L McGrath
12/19/2013 7:22:32 AM
Very good post, and one I can relate to.  My path to code was somewhat similar in that at the beginning of my tech career, I was emerging from a profound depression resulting from a failed marriage, and was in fairly dire financial straits.  I didn't have quite the meteoric rise that you seem to have had, but we all have our own paths to follow.  Thanks for posting 

Last modified on 2013-10-07