8 tips for coping with burnout in IT

Oleg Obidin

 · 05/16/2022  · 05/16/2022

“How are you?”, I asked my coworker during one of the latest functional reporting (previously known as mentoring) meetings - let’s call him Jack.

“Not good”, he answered.

“It’s too much work. I haven’t been productive. I think if we hadn’t had my teammate John, we would’ve done nothing. He’s very productive, I’m not.”

Most of us have been there. You’re trying to do something, really pushing yourself but it feels like too much effort to even get started. You can’t concentrate. Can barely remember how to do the basics of your job. You’re anxious about letting your team and company down. You keep pushing, but it’s not working. You feel like a fraud, guilty about your salary, completely and utterly numb.

There are words for this: burnout and imposter syndrome. Sadly, these are often the price we pay for doing something interesting and impactful in IT.

I’ve worked in the industry for 10+ years and reckon roughly 60-80% of all my colleagues have experienced this too.

So I want to share with you some of my personal tips that I discovered during the talk with Jack and shared with him. Some tips from my time in IT.

If some of them seem obvious that’s because they are. But when your mental health is in a bad way, something called a “cognitive distortion” can make you forget those obvious things and replace them with some pretty negative things.

So sometimes it’s important to remember those obvious yet right things.

  1. Watch yourself

The harsh truth is no-one cares about you more than you. You’re the most important and helpful person for you. So, when it feels like you’re pushing yourself to breaking point, pull back.

Look, pushing and challenging yourself is important to grow. But if you’ve tried and it hasn’t worked, take a step back.

2.  Take big breaks and little breaks

The first question I asked Jack was when he was going on holiday.

I’d felt the same several weeks ago so packed my bags and headed to Mexico to wind down in an all inclusive resort for the first time in my life. It did the trick. It’s fascinating how much a last-minute getaway can help your mental state.

If a long haul holiday isn’t currently on the cards, try visiting a nearby city or go walking in the countryside.

Taking breaks in the day is just as important. If you’re in IT, chances are you’re on your computer a lot. Sitting for 8-10 hours straight is not good for you. The BBC recommends taking micro breaks and having a light workout regularly. I’m lucky to live near the River Thames and sometimes on my lunch break, I just go and see the river.

I’m not saying go for a 3-hour walk every working day but a 3-5 minute break, to switch focus might help you get some energy back.

3. Stay active and healthy

We’ve all seen the meme: “If you are sad, go to the gym. Congratulations, now you’re fit and sad.”

Funny, yes. But not completely true. Exercise is actually one of the easiest ways to get dopamine. The happiness chemical.

Even more important than exercise is sleeping and eating well. And often these are all linked.

Too much alcohol, nicotine or caffeine can make you sleep badly and contribute to your anxiety and stress. I recently quit coffee for some time and my anxiety reduced by like 20%. Obviously, this is just me but think about it: you change one tiny thing and your mood changes significantly. Fascinating, isn’t it?

4. Focus on a hobby (try something new or do what you love)

I’ve always been a person with hobbies. The main one being music. But after certain events in my life, the emotions I was getting from music became quite negative.

So I started 2 new hobbies: video making and wakeboarding! I’ve had a lot of fun doing both. They made me feel so much better I’ve even got back into music again.

The only downside is I had to spend a lot of money on both. You can’t put a price on happiness but obviously there’s a lot of hobbies out there that won’t cost you a fortune!

5. Focus on your achievements not your failures

Impostor syndrome is the idea that everyone is better than you. This is where we’re getting back to the cognitive distortion thingy.

But always try and remember you were hired for a reason. You deserve your salary.

Some psychologists suggest using a thing called A Success Jar. The idea is simple: get a physical jar and every time you accomplish anything, even if it’s not very big, write it on a note and put it in. Then every year, month, week – you decide, open it, read the notes and celebrate your achievements!

6. Set Boundaries

Your relationships with your coworkers are just like any other relationships in that you need to set boundaries.

It’s very easy to become a yes-person, especially in IT, where late night releases and fixes are sometimes part of the job.

But at the end of the day, your team should be a team, not a group of random people. That means respect for each other. So if you feel there’s an issue, say something sooner rather than later.

Here’s some practical advice from Forbes that’s super useful.

7. Try organising the chaos.

When I feel anxious, I organise. It’s that simple. This is my way to cope and focus my attention on the most important things at the moment.

It might include making lists for the task you’re stuck with, rethinking priorities for the quarter with your teammates (remember my last tip) or trying to change the processes in your team or even in the whole company.

If your workplace isn't flexible, this might not work. However, I’ve managed it several times when I felt my team was experiencing too much pressure. In these instances, I suggested switching to some Scrum-like methodology and it helped. I’m not saying that Scrum or whatever else Agile framework is the best in the world. But Agile activities like properly done daily meetings, proper estimation sessions and planning meetings can help your team to focus on feasible, meaningful pieces of work. It can help you truly organise the chaos.

8. Get support

The main thing that distinguishes humans from other animals is our ability to communicate, especially about complex topics like emotions. So, please make sure you have people to talk with. It might be your family, your partner, your friends, your colleagues. At Revolut, we even have mental health first aiders ready to support you.

If you feel it’s not enough, you might look for professional help. There are several ways to see a counsellor. These include free options on the NHS or it may be included in your private insurance. Also, you can talk to your GP and if required, get a prescription for some medication.

Just remember one thing: seeking help doesn’t make you weak! It will make you stronger.

At the end of the meeting Jack told me he was feeling better already. I don’t think I did anything especially good for him. I just wanted to help, listen and share. Sometimes we just need to hear some obvious things from someone else. Let it be me this time for you.