Personal story of seeking good work-life balance and avoiding burnout
Why is it so difficult to maintain a good work-life balance when working in the software industry? What makes the brain systematically drive itself to run out of juice?
I keep struggling to find the keys to a good and healthy work-life balance.
I want to think that I’ve made many changes and adjustments in my life to maintain a proper work-life balance, but I still keep finding myself close to what I would call a burnout state.
I’ve entirely quit alcohol for almost four years already. I do zero drugs or have any medication. I work out regularly, and I have a clean diet. I’ve fixed many aspects of my work ergonomics and mainly work in a standing position these days.
At work, I have tried to learn how not always to overachieve and sometimes even allow myself to fail to a certain extent. I’ve attempted not always to understand the latest and newest technologies or stay on top of the latest trends in software development.
I’ve tried to learn how to let things go and not always poke every beehive I encounter daily when working on a project.
Almost every day, I can close my workstation before 5 PM, and I have all the notifications turned off from my work devices when off-hours.
I try to finish my work every day to leave no tasks hanging overnight. This includes making sure my tickets are all up-to-date, I’ve committed all my code to the correct branches, and I’ve messaged all my colleagues about my statuses, etc.
Regardless of all these habits and adjustments I’ve made over the years, I keep encountering and, from time to time battling with not burning out.
How do I know I’m nearing a burnout state?
Getting some minor flu or cold symptoms could signify increased stress or overload in the workplace.
Identifying the first signs of possible burnout is tough when everything appears okay, and nothing bothers about work. After seriously clashing with burnout, you can reflect on past events and see that that one minor flu six months ago was already a sign of increased stress and overload.
Another sign of possible burnout is that I can’t let go of my work during off-hours. I have pretty strict routines, and it is straightforward to know when off-hours, work-related things are bothering me. I usually take my dogs on a long walk right after work, and I can quite easily identify if I’m still processing work-related things while enjoying my walk or if I am entirely present and simply living in the moment and watching birds, interacting with my dogs, hearing, smelling, seeing, etc.
Sometimes it’s okay to process some minor things while still off-hours, but if it continues for too long, it can take a toll on the mental state.
The next level sign of a possible burnout state is when work-related things creep into my aerobic workouts where I’m doing some challenging physical activities.
The ultimate level of clashing with potential burnout is sleep. If I wake up having solved a work-related issue or, even worse, having had nightmares about deadlines, we are swimming in deep waters.
In my first years of learning software development, I thought it was cool and awesome that I was subconsciously solving complex tasks while asleep. That is not the case anymore after realizing what consequences this has on my mental well-being. I’d rather dream of birds and butterflies than some critical production bug that makes everyone go crazy and stressed out.
That being said, I’m pretty positive that I will never want to become a so-called “rockstar developer” and will always seek to be just average at best.
What an excellent work-life balance looks like?
This is an insensitive question with probably many different kinds of answers. I’ve seen people propose the idea of work-life integration rather than balance, where the goal is to merge as much as possible of both worlds. To me, this sounds like a nightmare.
I like to think of work-life balance as such where there is a clear contrast and separation between work and life. This means that when I am working, I am working, and when I am not working, I’m… living?
Having worked at a warehouse for almost five years during my university studies before transitioning into the software industry, I know what it’s like to have a clear separation between work and life.
Working at a warehouse mainly was miserable with lousy pay, and I always felt like a worthless student without any future. Every time I would leave the warehouse after my shift, there was not a chance I would give a single second of thought to the warehouse work after I had left the site. It doesn’t come any closer than warehouse work, where there is a clear line between work and life.
Today, it’s not that simple when most of my work is done remotely from my home, and it’s 99% mental work, aka. knowledge work. I give 1% for typing on the keyboard, moving my thumb on my MX Ergo, and standing all day.
I wish there were a simple switch I could turn off at the end of the day that would promise me not to think about any work-related things until the next day when I open up the laptop again.
Thriving towards a healthy relationship with work
Having worked as a full-time software developer for just around six years and having already dealt with burnout makes me quite sad.
From day one of understanding my first compiled programs during my university studies and having my first “hello world” print out, I’ve enjoyed programming.
Before I got hooked on programming, I thought programmers were the real-life wizard that knew more than the rest of us. They had superpowers that nobody else had.
Today, having access to these superpowers seems like a curse from time to time, but I still am hopeful that I can enjoy these powers in the future while being able to be just a regular Joe watching the world blossom every day.
I appreciate many aspects of being a software developer, such as working remotely and, in the best-case scenario, being able to have a good work-life balance. Having a healthy relationship with software development work and a good work-life balance is necessary if I want to have a promising, long, and healthy career in the industry as an expert and a professional.
However, quite a few forces are driving the vehicle in a software development project that impacts the overall quality and health of everything involved, including the developers who are building the software.
As a single person, I can only control so much when maintaining a good work-life balance and good mental health state by myself. The rest is up to other driving forces, such as management, leadership, culture, finance, suppliers, architects, roadmaps, deadlines, plannings, retrospectives, pay, promotions, and technologies, to name a few.
We must not forget that real people are behind all the processes driving the software development industry.
Machines can work 24/7 without many downgrades, but people can’t.
Work-life balance is a two-way street, and mental health is an essential aspect of any modern knowledge work (of course, other work as well).
From my personal experience, I can always recommend seeking professional help with stress, mental health, or burnout-related issues without being ashamed of it.
Today, as more and more knowledge work is being done remotely, it is even more essential to take care of your colleagues and coworkers to make sure they are doing well and feel welcomed, happy, and acknowledged in their team and project.