Burnout is code for...

How I learned to manage my mental health

I gave an interview recently (in Estonian) and it made me think about burnout and how I coped with it in my life, so I decided to expand on the topic.

I had burnout 2 times in my life.

Or, rather, I never had burnout, but I had mental health issues that disrupted my personal and professional life 2 times, and I think that’s what burnout is code for.

The first time it happened I was 25 years old. I started a company 2 years prior and we were not doing well at the time. At the same time I got sick with something, and couldn’t shake it for over a month. My wife was away on a lengthy trip, and I was getting by alone.

I have always been obsessive and now with huge pressure from work and no distractions at home I started obsessing with my health. I painted the blackest scenarios in my mind. My sleep got worse until I had insomnia. Eventually I spiralled into a full blown anxiety disorder, with panic attacks and inability to handle my professional life (Toomas had to take over fundraising as I was in such a bad state).

Spiralling is a very familiar word for those who have experienced mood disorders. It’s not just the external world that causes your state, you obsess, worry and ruminate over past, future or your own thoughts and push yourself further and further into the dark. And you can only get out of it by breaking the spiral.

Second time is easier

The second time was 7 years later, when I was 32. This time again the company I’ve built was in dire straits, it’s very survival under question after a lawsuit over unpaid overtime to sales people (one of the many reasons I never want to do business in the US ever again). This broke acquisition plans which took us 6 months to put together in a process that was in itself extremely stressful. I could see my state worsening again and insomnia has again reared its ugly head.

But this time I was better prepared. I knew now that I was prone to over-worry and obsessive behaviour, so in the past 7 years I started actively managing myself:

  • Sport: I was a very typical computer-obsessed nerd in my childhood, but by this age I’ve taken up running as well as strength- and resilience workouts in the gym. During high stress period I would up the ante, and in the preceding 4 months I’ve been running 1-2 hours every day.

  • Meditation: I spent 2 years learning mindfulness meditation and the basics of vipassana. Meditation is an amazing tool for learning your mind, in particular you learn two critical skills: 1) observing the state of your mind separating and objectifying thoughts and emotions 2) ability to direct attention away from the thoughts and emotions that you want to avoid thus “letting them go”.

  • Connections: Keeping social is both very hard and very important when you are having mental health issues. Everything that connects you to the real world and directs you away from the issues at hand is helpful. Friends, family and hobbies are often and mistakenly abandoned when the going gets tough.

My wife and two kids were also there to ground and support me, and I recruited professional help.

Objectively shitty situation

Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) generally focuses on breaking the spiral and stopping yourself from obsessive thoughts and behaviours. I remember telling my therapist that I feel like shit, and him replying “Well, you are in an objectively shitty situation — how do you expect to feel?”. Since then I always refer to such circumstances as OSS — objectively shitty situation. There is something very liberating in allowing yourself to feel genuinely bad and not expect quick recovery.

So the goal is not to feel good, but to stop yourself from spiralling, by doing positive activities, like sport, hobbies, family time and social engagements, but also by noticing unproductive thoughts and behaviours, and not feeding them with your attention.

Without attention thoughts and emotions fade naturally, but the knack of not paying attention to them is about as easy as not thinking about the pink elephant while reading this.

I highly recommend doing mindfulness meditation or similar for a while as it’s an incredible tool for developing introspection and detachment, which are both critical for stress management.

Note that it’s best to develop these skills when you are not that stressed, as meditating when the stress is high is very hard. But the skills you learn while meditating will help you manage the stress, and meditation during stressful time helps bring the pressure down as well.

What do I do today?

Look for early signs of burnout:

  • Sleeplessness: Length of sleep is the canary in the mine for me. My usual is 7-9 hours, when I’m overly stressed it falls down to 5-6. I either can’t get to sleep or wake up early, or both.

  • Irritability: When I get stressed I get grumpy. Therefore, if I’m irritable with my family and colleagues for more than a few days, I will start questioning my judgement and managing my behaviour.

  • Indecision: One interesting sign (at least for me) is when I notice that I am reluctant to make decisions. Decision-making is quite an expensive activity and brain will start avoiding it. Funnily enough, it applies to even simplest things where I don’t want to shop for clothes or choose the lunch destination.

  • Procrastination: A very good indicator of tiredness overall is when you start postponing complex tasks that require deep thought and instead focus on operational ones which are easy. When stress gets deeper productivity drops overall and standards drop.

  • Seclusion: Like many people, when tired I start avoiding others, including my family. A day or two of that is fine, but when it lasts too long I again get very suspicious on my judgement, as long term breaking social contacts is one of the components of spiralling behaviour.

Keep myself healthy:

  • Limit work hours: It may come as a surprise to many, but I try not to work more than 8 hours a day. This is both to manage stress, but also because I believe that I am more productive when I don’t overwork. Generally there is still a lot of bias in tech industry to optimise number of hours worked instead of optimising output, even though the intellectual work doesn’t just hit diminishing returns from overwork, it hits negative returns as the quality of all of your work gets hit.

  • Manage sleep: I have found that getting a few nights of good sleep can turn around stress quite quickly. I will use drugs to help me sleep and it’s much easier to do other stress management activities when you are well rested. A few days can help you turn a spiral around quickly. I don’t use any sleeping aids long term as they are addictive and ineffective.

  • Do sports: I will try to ramp up training if I feel more stressed. It has to be done quite purposefully, because stress makes you tired and lazy, so you do need to force yourself to take more exercise, but it tremendously helps to stabilise the mood.

  • Take regular vacation: I will take at least a week off every 3-4 months. For my vacation I will delete work accounts from my devices and will only reply to emergency calls and messages from my cell. I will also ask my colleagues not to contact me unless it’s something really important and change my status to “If you want to contact me, please don’t :)”. I believe that taking true time off not only helps you rest and makes you more productive, but also allows time to think slow thoughts and form different perspectives.

I also continue to make time for friends, family and hobbies even when I’m stressed. I no longer mediate regularly, because I consider it more of a skill to be learned than an activity that needs to be practiced continuously. Once in a while when I feel I’m getting rusty, I will do it for 2-3 weeks.

Crisis plan if I’m near a burnout:

  • Talk to my manager and colleagues: Transparency is incredibly important and people are a lot more understanding and respectful of vulnerability than most of us assume. I would set expectations with at least my manager that I expect lower productivity and need time to recover.

  • Seek professional help: I’m quite comfortable reaching out to a therapist, to help me through a tough time. Even a few sessions with a good therapist can be very helpful, to understand the level of external vs internal causes for my issues, to refresh the coping tools and get situation-specific advice.

  • Take longer time off: If I don’t believe myself to be able to recover with usual tools, I will ask for 2-3 months off to focus on the issue full-time, remove external stress factors and allow myself to make a proper recovery. I have not reached this point since the first time I burned out, but I have allowed such rest multiple time for my employees, and have seen it have great results with people coming back in a much better state.

Third time is never?

The reason I tell this story is to help lift both the stigma and the confusion around “burnout”. Personally I have found the tools that help me stay on track, and in the last 5 years had no major issues even in the most stressful situations. I hope sharing my experience will help others to understand and overcome it as well.