Are You Flirting With Burnout And Disaster?

With the US population celebrating Labor Day today, I figured I would talk about one of the dangers of work, entrepreneurship and social media. The danger I speak of is “burnout” and the potential disaster it can cause. Burnout has always been a danger for people working in high stress environments, or those people working long hours. Stress is a harder topic to deal with, but long hours are something that a lot of people have dealt with. There is a ton of work being done in software development to avoid long hours for the developers. This is due to the fact that software development has a history of projects that require long hours. You may be asking what I mean by long hours, and generally I mean anything above 50 hours. If you search the internet, there are plenty of papers talking about the decline of productivity and health when people work long hours, but I will point to a great article by the IGDA. They quote 60 hours per week as a major point of decline even in the short term:

Productivity drops when working 60-hour weeks compared with 40-hour weeks. Initially, the extra 20 hours a week makes up for the lost productivity and total output increases. But the Business Roundtable study states that construction productivity starts to drop very quickly upon the transition to 60-hour weeks. The fall-off can be seen within days, is obvious within a week…and just keeps sliding from there. In about two months, the cumulative productivity loss has declined to the point where the project would actually be farther ahead if you’d just stuck to 40-hour weeks all along.

At the beginning of the year, I personally experienced one of these scenarios. I was on a project that went into “crunch mode” for various reasons. We worked about 75 hours per week for 3 months. Obviously the quality of the code suffered, but we actually made our deadline or something near it. There were several production defects that we fixed after launch as well. We were fixing various things for about 2 months after the initial launch. Obviously, crunch mode did not entirely help, and the team was thoroughly exhausted. In the workplace, it is fairly easy to see when burnout may occur, because you can see these projects occurring. But what about all of this new social media stuff?

As I have stated before, I have a full time job, and obviously I am a blogger. I am also trying to start a company with YackTrack. That means that even after my “day job”, I am working during the evenings on YackTrack and other social media. Many people involved in social media, spend several hours on sites like Twitter, FriendFeed or Facebook. Social media may be play time for some people, but for much of the early adopter set or those people using social media for business, social media is very much part of their work. So, you may be working a normal 40-hour work week, but spending 5 hours a night on social media means your “work week” now extends to about 65 hours. If you are looking at these sites, you will also see a few people who never seem to sleep and are likely “working” over 80 hours per week. The question is where do you draw the line?

As an early adopter, you may feel it is your job to find the newest, shiniest toy and spread the word about its awesomeness. Technically, that may be true, but do you need to find everything? You may feel like you need to keep pace with people like Robert Scoble or Louis Gray. Avoid that type of thinking as they have likely trained themselves to work this kind of schedule. Personally, I have scaled back my social media involvement a bit as I could not keep up that pace. I tend to be categorized as a hard worker, but I was logging too many hours in front of the PC. For better or worse, due to my existing conditions I am very aware when my health changes in the slightest and I noticed differences. Yes, I was flirting with burnout, but was able to avoid the consequences. For those of us with a salary from a job outside of social media, that becomes fairly important. Burnout from social media activity is still burnout, and everything will suffer from it. Your productivity from work can go down, and possibly cause dire consequences in terms of your employment.

So, in the spirit of Labor Day, take some time off from anything remotely work related and do something to recharge. For some people, that may be a round of golf, or some play time with their kids. Most importantly, make sure you avoid burnout as it can affect everything you do. What do you do to recharge and avoid burnout?

12 thoughts on “Are You Flirting With Burnout And Disaster?

  1. The title of your post is very apt. “Are You Flirting With Burnout And Disaster? ”

    For a few months it’s been a constant stream of time utilized to work, pending product launches of professional service based businesses, and social media. As the article you alluded to as well as what you indicated about productivity going down. It definitely goes down over time. Thankfully after this I’m headed to a family picnic and heeding your advice for the day! 🙂

    Protect yourselves, your productivity, quality of work, and heed the advice about burnout. For me personally things have gone from loving them to needing to get them done. Isn’t that what most people complain about their jobs. Don’t make your life outside of work more of a pressure cooker than your occupation. Listen to what Rob said and relax take the day to recharge!


  2. Hi Rob,

    This is an interesting post (I was discussing this very issue with my MD this afternoon). It’s very tempting to just consume as much as possible when you get caught up in social media, however making money from it doesn’t require that level of immersion or personal illness!


  3. James,

    I understand what you mean. When what you love becomes what you need to do, it definitely becomes a “job”. Thankfully, the passion is not normally completely gone, just a little lost and you need to find it again. Sometimes a short break is perfect for that.


  4. Stuart,

    The MD and illness problems are always a concern for people. Hopefully, everything is OK with you. I know I have started to use doctor’s almost as prevention instead of only when I get sick. When you are under a lot of stress, focusing on prevention can help.


  5. As a working parent, I find that there are very few optional activities in my life. Or at least nothing I want to skip. Not time with my wife and two young children, not the social media time, and nor my career. With so much going on, as well as the need to have time during weekdays to tend to sick children or cover days off, work duties easily slide into nights, early mornings and weekends, and plans of scalling back and streamlining workflows are sent flying out the window. It helps me to see it all together as one whole, set priorities and stay focused on the moment instead of the crazy days ahead and behind me. Lastly, I’ve found that I have capacity to work well on these scattered conditions and that it is important, very important to listen to my body. When I crash, I crash. I don’t fight it.


  6. Justin

    I totally understand as a parent to two beautiful daughters. Managing the balance between life and work is continuously difficult especially when there are sick children involved. To avoid crazy conditions I try to plan things as much as possible (within reason of course). This helps with some of it, but children have a habit of changing everything.


  7. Good post Rob. As someone who has suffered through burn out I can tell you that it is something you want to avoid at all costs.

    I was working a job as a manager where I went into working in the morning and had a minimum 6 hours of meetings per day. Then I’d have to get my “real work” done late in the day. This would get me home for a cold supper and a few minutes with my young daughter before she went to bed. Then it was back on the computer trying to catch up on everything. If I stayed up to late my team in India would want to have real time chats with me. If that went on too long I’d end up working with our customer in the UK.

    This was going on day in and day out for close to 2 years. You can imagine this type of behaviour was negatively impacting my relationships with my wife and daughter and my physical health. It finally got to the point where I quit my job as it was literally killing me.

    I’ve since moved to a large multi-national corporation where life is not perfect but at least I feel like I have control over my life again.

    So to anyone who’s suffering from burn out I can tell you from experience that there is something better out there for you.

    If you are not sure if you are truly burnt out, try reading “The Dip” by Seth Godin as it really helped clarify my thinking.


  8. Simon,

    I understand what you went through as I have worked with distributed teams and had schedule problems like you. Thankfully, I left that job before I was truly burned out, but it definitely took its toll on my family life.


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