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IT burnout: Watch for these 9 warning signs

Last updated on 23/09/2020

If you’re experiencing burnout, these tips on how to combat or cope with it might help.

Burned matches in a row on a blue background.

Image: Alexmia, Getty Images/iStockphoto

You could be burned out from your IT job and not even know it.

Even if you don’t like your job or don’t get paid what you deserve, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will suffer from burnout. While those could be contributing reasons for feeling burned out on the job, there are usually other factors that reinforce the root cause leading to burnout. Some causes of job burnout include a lack of control, unclear job expectations, workplace stress, work-life imbalance, and more

Burning out occurs slowly. It’s similar to a lit candle that melts down over time: Once the wick is used up, the candle’s flame goes out.

SEE: 10 ways to prevent developer burnout (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Our minds internally feed on increasing stimuli from stressors, and we react externally in ways that are not good for our bodies. Often these adverse reactions affect those around us as well, which only exacerbates the stress, leading to greater problems in our personal and professional lives. We all have our own unique wiring and chemistry, and what one person might laugh off as trivial could be the proverbial last drop in the bucket to another.

Watch for these potential signs of burnout. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but rather a starting point for any IT pro who thinks they might be suffering from burnout. 

  1. Irritability

Some IT pros will read this first sign and scoff. You may support dozens or thousands of end users, all eager to get their problems resolved first; this sometimes comes with little regard for their coworkers, including the IT professional they came to for help.

It can be easy to “lose it” on someone, especially if they’re being rude or crass. While irritability is a perfectly natural reaction in customer service-oriented positions, it’s the degree of irritation that marks the distinction between someone who needs to take a five-minute break and someone who may be at their wits’ end.

2. Indifference

IT work tends to demand attention to detail. If you feel indifferent, whatever problem you’re expected to fix will likely snowball, and you will continue to lose interest in your job. Feelings of indifference create an endless loop that typically leads to administrative action by management if unchecked.

3. Low morale

Our level of morale has a direct effect on how well (or not) we perform our job functions. If even one team member has low morale, it can affect the entire team–possibly even leading other team members to burn out.

4. Disillusionment

We’ve all had the feeling of being let down when we believed something was going to be better or different from how it turned out. This is not exclusive to work; however, sometimes the repetitive nature of handling similar requests or performing the same tasks over and over can cause this feeling of disillusionment to take hold.

5. Emotional outbursts

Emotions affect our thoughts, speech, and actions. Similar to irritability, being emotional does not necessarily mean we are under duress–it depends on the degree with which we let emotions dictate our actions and words. For example, responding with anger or even threatening violence because your lunch break is accidentally interrupted is not an appropriate response to a request.

6. Depression or other mental health conditions

Depression and other mental health conditions must be diagnosed by a medical doctor or mental health professional, and I am not a doctor or a therapist. If you’re at an emotional low point that you can’t seem to shake, especially when you’re at work, consider seeking professional help. In the short term, it might be beneficial to vent to a friend or supervisor about work issues and air your grievances.

SEE: Photos: 10 apps to help manage work stress and mental health (TechRepublic)

7. Shortness of breath and other physical symptoms

Stress and anxiety have been proven to affect our bodies with physical symptoms. Issues range from tight joints, neck and back pain, and tenseness to shortness of breath or tightness in the chest, which could be symptoms of life-threatening ailments and warrant immediate medical attention. If you feel any of these symptoms, get checked by your doctor. For health-related concerns that stem from stress or anxiety, try taking a few minutes throughout the day to refocus through mindfulness exercises you can do at your desk, or step outside for fresh air, sunlight, or a stretch to help you decompress.

8. Exhaustion

We are at work for an average of eight hours a day, and that exacts a toll on us holistically. Feeling tired after work is common, but feeling drained an hour into your day could be an indicator that something is not quite right. By reflecting on your troubles or concerns, it might help you to zero in on the cause and develop a plan to resolve the internal conflict, bringing some relief and a sense of renewed energy.

9. Isolation

If you’re usually social at work and then you start isolating yourself, consider what has changed personally or professionally. You might benefit from speaking with someone at your company or a maybe a therapist.

How to prevent or minimize the effects of burnout

Prioritize your health

First and foremost is you. Make the necessary effort to put your needs before the job’s. I know it’s easier said than done, but it can be done. If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, then your body is crying out and needs help.

Take mini breaks

Depending on the level of IT work you perform, you could spend the entire day running around putting out fires or sit at your desk for hours on end fielding calls, typing, or any combination thereof. Neither situation bodes well for our bodies, so schedule breaks of about 5-10 minutes each hour or so to stretch. Perhaps take a brisk walk to disconnect and clear your mind.

Eat healthier foods

Skipping lunch is one of the worst things you can do to yourself when you’re feeling the burn. Take the time to “get away from it all” and enjoy a stress-free meal while also being mindful of what you’re ingesting. Processed foods high in fat, cholesterol, and sodium are not only bad for your health, but they mess with our bodies in ways that can haunt us later in life. Additionally, consuming foods with caffeine and sugar are scientifically proven to exacerbate the effects of stress by amplifying anxiety.

Work out regularly

One activity that helps me greatly when the pressure starts getting to me is going for a walk or a run. For years I ran several miles a day for exercise and to stave off the effects of stress. Exercising regularly offers many contributions to overall physical and mental health. If you’re short on time, a 10-minute walk several times throughout the day could do wonders; or, if you prefer a gym setting, take your lunch break to hit the gym.

Center yourself through meditation

I recently integrated meditation into my daily routine, and I can attest to the power of this easy-to-follow practice. I am not advocating anything more than just finding a quiet place to close your eyes and focus on breathing in and out deeply for 10 minutes. It’s perfectly natural for our minds to race and think up a storm, but try to focus on breathing steadilye. If it helps, there are a number of excellent YouTube videos or apps (like Calm and Headspace) that offer free, guided meditation to help clear your mind and steady yourself through whatever may come your way.

SEE: 11 meditation apps for better sleep and less stress (CNET)

Catch your breath

I’ve included this one separate from meditation because you’d be surprised how often we forget to breathe naturally as we go through our day. When we’re feeling stressed or anxious, our breathing tends to be more shallow than usual, failing to properly oxygenate our bodies. This leads to a loop where we’re not breathing because we’re stressed, and we stress more because we’re not breathing. Break the chain by setting aside one or two minutes every hour to stop everything you’re doing and just breathe in deeply through the nose and exhale fully through the mouth. It helps to better focus on what we’re doing.

Ask for help

It never fails to surprise me how many times I offer help to colleagues, and yet, seldom does anyone actually request assistance when they’re in a bind. At the end of the day, isn’t it better to ask for help before feeling overwhelmed? Ask a coworker or supervisor for assistance before the task spirals out of control. Your body and your colleagues will thank you for it!

Change job roles

IT departments can be very flexible and accommodating; after all, rotation of duties is a security best practice. If you’re not too comfortable doing what you’ve been assigned to do, requesting to be moved into another role or department might be an easy fix. There may even be someone in the same boat as you in another department to facilitate the change and resolve two issues in one fell swoop.

Get away

No, not run for the hills (though I did mention that running is good to minimize stress). But take time off from work to step away from the job and get closer to doing the things that make you happy. If nothing else, the time away could bring clarity on how to best move forward. Take a mental health day. Even taking a day or two off when you can will help. 

Change companies

If you love what you do but not the environment or culture in which you’re doing it, perhaps it’s time for a change.. Sometimes, a job just isn’t a good fit. And while that’s okay, you may find that going to work for another company might solve all of your concerns. 

Seek a new career path

I don’t mention this option lightly. To me, this is the nuclear approach–destroying what you’ve accomplished and rebuilding everything from scratch.

IT is not for everyone. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of enjoying IT work and viewing it simply as a job that pays the bills, finding a new career that meshes better with your lifestyle might be better than continuing down the same trodden path.

No matter how you deal with burnout, remember that your health is more important than any job.

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