Avoiding Burnout, Taking Breaks

As managers faced with large (or numerous) projects, we might start to believe that it’s our responsibility to “be the heroes” in our companies, ensuring that everything gets done and performance metrics are always on the rise. This can lead us to some very unhealthy places.

An east coast Canadian city displayed in tilt-shift.
Fredericton, NB in tilt-shift. Photo ©2023 Robin Monks.
This is the second article in my series on how to maintain work-life balance as a software engineering manager. I'd recommend reading the series introduction as well as the previous article A Software Manager's Guide to Managing Effectively before digging in.

As managers faced with large (or numerous) projects, we might start to believe that it’s our responsibility to “be the heroes” in our companies, ensuring that everything gets done and performance metrics are always on the rise.  To some extent this is only a natural urge, and it can provide healthy motivation, but it can also be the first step on a path to overcommitment and exhaustion.  This can lead us to some very unhealthy places.

When I worked on my second startup, I regularly did 60+ hour weeks because I felt like if I didn’t I was letting my team down.  There were days I’d sit staring at my computer screen for half an hour. My on-the-job performance worsened, and my time away from work suffered too.  I was snappy with friends and not a pleasant person to be around. I lived under constant self-induced stress: I sought to be productive and would demean myself mentally for not getting enough done.

It took me close to a month after leaving that startup to get back to my old self. Ever since then I’ve been cautious to not fall back into that trap.  I had been laboring under a severe case of burnout, and I did not want to go down that road ever again.

There’s a lot to be said for giving yourself and your team room to be awesome, but that always needs to be paired with realistic expectations and carefully set boundaries between work and life, both for yourself and for your team members.  When you burn out, everything gets compressed so hard under expectations that there’s no room for the awesomeness to happen.

The next few articles will explore this issue, touching on the effects of overly long hours, inadequate breaks, and generally poor work-life balance.  In the end, we’ll discuss what it really means to set boundaries between work and life, and why boundaries and burnout are so closely related.

But, for starters, just how wrong was I to keep doing 60 hours over and over?

Overwork doesn’t work.  Period.

Nowadays, there’s a growing body of science around the issue of overwork, investigating how many hours the week can go on before performance starts to degrade.  The science confirms that my 60-hour forever-sprinting was not the way.

Studies have shown you can only “sprint” infrequently and have it be effective. Beyond that, you can actually become less productive with those 60 hours than you would have been with 40.

So, you could do a 60+ hour week every few months, but, in general, this is a really bad idea.  I was very likely getting less done than I could have done by working less.

Reading up on the science helps to give me perspective, and I would encourage any reader with an appetite for research articles to take a dive into the topic that goes beyond the scope of what we’ll be able to cover here.  Studies like the one above have supported my hard-learned lessons, and seeing others speak out about the hazards of overwork is encouraging as I contemplate how to deal with the broader issues of burnout-causing work cultures.

For now, let’s talk in broader terms about the underlying problem here: why we tend to do this to ourselves.  The answer lies in instincts, stress hormones, and our bodies not quite knowing what to do in a corporate world.

Train tunnel outside The Dalles, OR. ©2023 Robin Monks.

Stress responses

The urge to work harder and longer is rooted in survival instincts that help us respond to stress by going all-in with our physical and mental resources.  Even if you intend not to overwork, it can sneak up on you if your brain gets tricked into thinking your job is chronically more of a survival situation than it actually is (or worse, if your higher-ups actively encourage that way of thinking).

Those survival instincts that tell you it’s okay to overwork “for now” have evolved with the assumption that there will eventually be downtime, possibly a lot of it, in which you can recover.  While that was usually a given for pre-industrial humans, it isn’t guaranteed in modern corporate life, where long hours and less sleep can spiral out of control.

When that expected recovery time never comes, you end up in a state of physiological chronic stress, which (among other effects) has been noted to trigger “depression, anxiety, cognitive impairment, and heart disease.”  That is not the collection of “job perks” you want!

As such, if your job is continually stressing you out as much as you feel you can handle, then you are probably on a path toward burnout.  You can help yourself strike a better balance by creating downtime deliberately, both within workdays and in the larger scheme of your work-life balance.

The most basic unit of downtime is the “break,” so that’s where we’ll start.

View of Mount Baker from Baker Lake Dam, WA. ©2023 Robin Monks.

Downtime: take a break!

“Make sure to take enough breaks” has been said thousands of times as generic work advice.  Still, it’s worth saying again because it’s absolutely worth doing, and I’ll try to provide a little more color than the platitude usually gives.  Taking breaks should be as much a part of your work strategy as anything else, whether personally or when leading a team.

Intraday, this means taking regular and effective breaks.  What constitutes an effective break varies per person and job situation, but it might consist of a short walk, meditating, or simply stepping away from your computer for a few minutes.  The important bit is that you transition from active work into temporary relaxation.  If your job puts you at risk of repetitive stress injuries, breaks are an ideal time to perform relevant stretches and generally give your arms a rest.

To that end, take the time to explore what kinds of breaks can help you get through your workday with more energy (and better tendon health).  Write them into your schedule and do them until they become habitual.

This kind of structure helps, in much the same way that it helps to plan out rest stops on a long trip.  Knowing when your next break will be and what you will do for it can help you truly “take a break” without staying wrapped up in the tensions of work, which is critical.

As time goes on and your job evolves, periodically revisit these downtime habits and see if you need to adjust anything.  Write these into your schedule as well, just like you might list a quarterly performance review.

Think of your team, too

As managers, we may also have the privilege of facilitating effective breaks for our team members.  Building breaks into long meetings and group work sessions is crucial for giving attention spans time to recover before moving on to the next stage of an activity.  Such breaks are a good chance to exercise empathy, checking in with team members to see how they are faring.  This will pay dividends later when you find yourself assessing whether your team is burning out and (if so) what else you can do to alleviate it.

With that said, well-structured breaks within a workday will only take you and your team so far.  Breaks will alleviate the stresses of a full day, but they won’t stop the burnout of back-to-back 60-hour weeks like the ones in my example.  In that scenario, solely optimizing breaks is a bit like stomping aluminum cans in front of a steamroller: in the end, all that effort hardly matters, and you end up flattened.

However, we can fight back against this larger burnout steamroller.  We do this by taking the micro-level principle of “taking a break” and moving it to progressively larger levels of work scheduling.  We’ll talk about that in our next article.