Banishing Basis Burnout
A couple of years ago I thought I might be having a heart attack.
Mind you, I didn’t think this at first, and the symptoms were very minor. Even when the thought did occur to me, I was doubtful. I had never had one before. No one I know had ever had one. I had read all the usual stuff to know what the warning signs are supposed to be, but I had no direct personal experience of what one would look or feel like. Plus, I was just too young for that, right? All I knew was that something felt a little funny.
So I ignored it. I wasn’t collapsing or in pain, after all, and I just didn’t have time for this kind of nonsense. I had a lot of work to do. If it was a real heart attack, it would be unmistakeable, right?
As time went on, these episodes, as I started to call them, where my heart seemed to pound and my pulse was erratic, began to occur more frequently and with greater intensity. Still, I wondered if it might just all be in my head, so I used a heart rate monitor (an app on my smartphone), and I could actually see graphical evidence of missed beats (if there’s one thing with ERP professionals, we’re all about graphing and measuring data and ferreting out unambiguous facts).
That was it. I wasn’t imagining this. Time to call my doctor and get this checked out.
There followed all kinds of tests: blood tests, echocardiogram, stress test, a 24-hour monitor (way more sophisticated than putting my finger over the smartphone camera), an x-ray, and a CT scan. Thank God for insurance, is all I have to say about that.
The result? Not a heart attack. Not heart disease. In the absence of other issues, palpitations and missed beats are a sign of… you guessed it.
Now I know a thing or two about work-related stress. Twenty-plus years ago I worked as a maintenance electrician. What’s that, you say? Not very stressful? Well, normally you would be right. However, I was something of a trained expert… well, trained, anyway… in heat trace systems, otherwise known as pipeline freeze protection. Where do pipelines need freeze protection? That’s right. Cold places.
Very cold places.
My job — well, part of my job — was to keep the pipelines that supplied fresh water and supported the fire sprinkler system for living spaces from freezing. In Antarctica. In winter. Mildly mission-critical, one could say. Now, most of the time the heat trace in these pipelines worked just fine, but periodically one would trigger a low-temperature alarm and I would have to go and check it out. Outside. In the dark and cold, because these alarms just didn’t occur in summer (when it was daylight all the time), nor did they occur on a calm winter day (even though it was dark all the time).
They occurred during winter storms.
Have you ever tried to tighten a set screw while fitting an 18-gauge wire into a terminal block inside a small box while wearing mittens, while it’s blowing 40 mph and the wind chill is about -60º F? Not to mention snow whipping around you, getting into every little crevice in your parka and generally coating everything you’re working on. How about when the wind chill approaches -100º F and the blowing snow reduces visibility to mere yards?
Now that’s some stress, baby.
But I was young and thrived on this stuff. Heck, I sought out even more stress. I volunteered as a firefighter. I actually volunteered to run into burning buildings, and to stand by on crash crew during airplane landings, all the time worrying about water freezing in our hoses before we could spray it on anything. Fortunately, nothing more than a work shack burned during my time as a firefighter, and no planes crashed, but we drilled for these things all the time. We’re going to talk more about firefighters in just a bit.
What About Stress in IT Careers?
Needless to say, most IT professionals do not find themselves working outdoors in subzero temperatures and snowstorms (but it could happen!). Yet, still some subsets of the IT field seem to experience a relatively high burnout rate, which can manifest as frequently changing jobs or choosing to leave the profession entirely. IT in general does not even make the top ten list for high-burnout professions; the list is dominated by the medical field, teachers, police officers, social workers, and retail. Oh, and public accountants. You know, tax season and all.
Yet still, IT does seem to have a reputation for stress and burnout, and the frequent job changes are legendary. At times, you are called upon to work hours that, frankly, the accountants in the firm just don’t. System administration is a profession of unsung heroes: if you do your job perfectly, no one else will ever know your name. The moment the system goes down, however, suddenly management is all over you. If you don’t work for a software development firm, your entire department is likely to be seen as overhead by the rest of the organization, no matter that the analysts on your team have probably had a more positive effect on the company’s bottom line through process efficiencies than an entire generation of sales and marketing pros, and the only reason they were able to do that is because you enabled them and everyone else with a highly-tuned, stable, well-working system which, if we’re being honest here, no one could do without these days (that statement a moment ago about systems going down? Yeah, that doesn’t happen to our systems, does it?).
All-nighters and even all-weekenders are famous in the Basis world. At some point you are going to be called upon (or, more likely, be the one to make the call) to apply a patch to a production system, and that’s not going to happen during business hours, is it? No, it’s going to happen in the middle of the night, on a weekend, as part of a planned release. If it’s just a simple patch, it may be a matter of only an hour or two, or perhaps even only a few minutes, but it’s still a disruption of the normal circadian rhythm of sleep.
But, perhaps it’s a huge stack of support packs, or a full upgrade, perhaps even an upgrade of multiple inter-connected systems. It’s going to take all night. In fact, it may take all weekend. Perhaps even a holiday weekend. How many times have you had to work over New Year’s Eve, or Independence Day, Christmas, or Thanksgiving? All part of the job.
When you’re 30 years old, working a normal day on Friday, chilling out a few hours Friday evening, then starting the big upgrade at Midnight and working straight through for another 24, 36, or more hours is not that hard. You slam a few Red Bulls (or back in the day some No-Doz and coffee), and keep going. You’re a bit strung out at the end of it, but no worries, and Monday morning you’re still fine to show up at the office and be present for the inevitable support calls. Perhaps you’re not doing much more than be present for those calls, but that’s ok. Easy-peasy.
Somewhere around 40 you realize that you don’t quite bounce back from those all-weekenders as quickly as you once did, that you’re really pretty wasted for a day or two afterwards, but it’s still ok. You can pull these off every few months, if need be, and keep going. You do start to think about coping strategies, though.
At 50, it really dawns on you thatyour body just doesn’t take this kind of abuse like it used to. You’re a pro, and you get the job done, but the next day is brutal. In fact, you don’t really feel rested and firing on all cylinders again until you’ve had several nights of full sleep after a weekend like this. At this stage, if you haven’t figured out a better way to manage these events, then your time is going to become limited. You’re going to burn out.
The Firefighter Myth
Remember we talked about firefighters earlier? What do you think of firefighters? They’re heroes, right? Of course they are. And in the IT world, it’s not uncommon to talk about solving urgent problems as fighting fires, and some days it feels like that’s all we do. We put out fires, but we don’t really advance the program much. There’s always another cinder smouldering beyond the steaming pile of ash we just doused, so we rush over there to put the hose on it, not really taking time to think about what is causing all these sparks to ignite.
Some IT pros thrive on firefighting. For a while they may have heaps of praise piled upon them for saving the day, until eventually it dawns on someone to wonder why the day keeps needing to be saved. That spotlight of glory when you’ve recovered the system from a crash is a bit of an adrenaline rush, though, and it feels good for a little bit. After all, no one knows your name if nothing ever happens, remember?
This cycle of putting out fires only to sprint to the next one, however, is a cycle of burnout, both personally and professionally. It usually results from a confusion of what is urgent with what is important (as Dwight D Eisenhower once said).
Do you know how I spent most of my time as a volunteer firefighter? Basically two activities: training, and sleeping (in a “ready-to-go” on-call state). This is the case for firefighters almost everywhere. It has been said that firefighting is 99% sheer boredom interspersed with brief moments of sheer terror (I think the same has been said for soldiers at war), but more accurately, firefighters spend most of their time on prevention activities to ensure fires don’t start in the first place, and then training for those occasions when they do.
The world of Basis and system administration is very much the same. If you are truly outstanding at your job, then you don’t have many fires to put out, because you spend your time ensuring there is no fuel to start them. When they do start, they don’t get very large, because you know right away (automated alerts) and have procedures in place to deal with them effectively. Once again, you’ll be an unsung hero, no one will know your name*, and this is how it should be.
* In a perfect world, your boss will recognize how your professionalism has kept emergencies from happening, and will go on to ensure that his/her boss knows too. So, most people won’t know your name, but the right people will. Unfortunately, we don’t always live in a perfect world.
Pre-Burnout Stress Symptoms
The Texas Medical Association recognizes three stages of burnout, with any combination of two or more symptoms indicating you’ve reached a certain stage:
- Stage 1: Stress Arousal
- Persistent irritability
- Persistent anxiety
- Periods of high blood pressure
- Grinding your teeth at night
- Heart palpitations
- Unusual heart rhythms (skipped beats)
- Inability to concentrate
- Stage 2: Energy Conservation
- Lateness for work
- Needed three-day weekends
- Decreased sexual desire
- Persistent tiredness in the mornings
- Turning work in late
- Social withdrawal
- Cynical attitudes
- Increased coffee/tea/cola consumption
- Increased alcohol consumption
- Stage 3: Exhaustion
- Chronic sadness or depression
- Chronic stomach or bowel problems
- Chronic mental fatigue
- Chronic physical fatigue
- Chronic headaches
- The desire to “drop out” of society
- The desire to move away from friends, work, and perhaps even family
- Perhaps the desire to commit suicide
Obviously, reaching stage 3 in this progression is very serious, even life-threatening, and stage 2, if left unchecked, can have lasting impacts upon your health and career. Even stage 1 isn’t a lot of fun, so what are some warning signs we can heed to let us know if we’re starting down this path?
If your diet consists primarily of pizza and energy drinks because you don’t have time or desire to prepare something healthier; if you’re skipping the gym and not getting any exercise because you don’t have time or you’re simply too tired; if you aren’t getting enough sleep, either lying awake at night, or because you’re consistently working late… if these things are persistently true for you, then you may be in “Stage 0: Pre-Burnout Stress.”
All of us go through periods where the demands of work seem to get in the way of what we know we should be doing for ourselves, but even the busiest uber-successful CEOs make time for personal health. They see it as a priority, without which they cannot be effective at their jobs. If, however, you chronically and persistently aren’t making time for your own health, then you may be on the sliding path toward the first stage of burnout, even if it takes a while to get there.
You Know What You Need To Do
Find Time For Health
There’s a famous cartoon by Randy Glasbergen in which a doctor addresses his patient and says “What fits your busy schedule better, exercising one hour a day or being dead 24 hours a day?”
Here’s the bottom line:
- You can afford a gym.
- But, you don’t need a gym.
- There’s the great outdoors: go for a run, a walk, a hike, or a bike ride.
- There’s the floor! Lots of exercises don’t need any special equipment at all.
- If you haven’t exercised in a year or more:
- See your doctor for a checkup.
- Schedule a session with your gym’s personal trainer to get started.
- If you have creaky joints like me, get a referral from your doctor and go see a physical therapist. With the right insurance copay plan, this might just be the least expensive form of personal trainer!
Eat Right For Health
When you need a pick-me-up snack, reach for an apple instead of a candy bar. Get over your aversion to green things and add some veges to your diet. Cut back on the sugary, caffeinated drinks (way back), and reach for a water, or tea, or juice instead. Drink more water. You know you aren’t drinking enough water.
Manage Your All-Nighters
As we said earlier, all-nighters are an inevitable part of the Basis life, but they don’t have to be grueling slogs. Here’s a strategy to make these events less stressful for your mind and body:
- Automation and alerts. You’re the SysAdmin pro; you should be all over this. Write scripts to automate as many of the tasks as you reasonably can, and set up alerts to ping you when your attention is needed. That way you can go take a nap and just wait for a text on your phone to wake you.
- Take catnaps instead of drinking more coffee. Feeling the fatigue set in and know that perhaps you aren’t making the best decisions? Take a break. Research by NASA has shown that a 20-40 minute nap can restore alertness to 100%, so instead of reaching for more caffeine, put things on hold for half an hour. You’ve got all weekend; if a half-hour is going to make that much difference, you have a bigger problem.
- Share the workload. Yes, you are the hero, the one who takes these things on and gets things done, but isn’t there someone on your team who really wants to learn and have a chance to show their chops? Document your process, show them the ropes, and then trust them to do it on their own. I know, I have a hard time with this one myself, and it’s not uncommon to feel that if we don’t do it, it won’t be done right. Maybe that’s true, but you don’t know until you give someone else a shot, and now guess what? You’ve just found you can take that holiday vacation after all.
- Negotiate flex-time. This depends on your workplace policies, of course, but talk to your boss about flexing some time the week after. You just put in 24 hours straight, after all — that’s three days of work. Surely you can get one of those back?
Back to the Firefighters
So, are you always fighting fires? Now you know that this isn’t the best way to run a system, nor is it the best way to run a career. So, take a step back and make sure you are fighting the right fires, ones that are both urgent AND important. Let some of the others go, or pass them to others to handle, so you can create some time to put in prevention, automation, and alerting measures and stabilize your system.
Emergencies are inevitable, though. Sometimes things are caused externally, you have little or no control over them, and you have to respond. Now is the time to get your boss to work for you and not against you. You need to focus, not provide constant status reports to the CIO. That’s what your manager is for. Tell him or her that you will advise of any significant change in status, but that you need to be free of distractions to solve this problem quickly and effectively, and you need everyone else to be out of the room (or cubicle, more likely). When things have stabilized again, you’ll provide a full report. A good manager understands this and will run interference for you, letting the executives and customer business units know what they need to know and keeping them out of your hair.
Afterwards, though, you are going to need to provide that report. It’s not just so the CIO/CEO/whoever can point fingers, but so you know why this happened and what you can do to prevent it from happening again. Recover quickly from a system crash once, and everyone will think you’re awesome. Recover from system crashes regularly, and everyone will wonder why there are so many crashes.
In for the Long Haul
All those tests, and the doctors never did find anything seriously wrong, but pretty clearly I was in at least Stage 1 of the burnout cycle, and maybe even Stage 2. I got back to the gym routine I had abandoned, I bought a juicer (you don’t have to go that far), and I got back out on the trails. After a while, the irregular heart rhythms went away and never came back. Not long ago I had my “age 50” physical, and my doctor said I was a rock star with my health stats, so there’s a happy ending to this story. Of course, perhaps he meant I had the health profile of an aging rock star, which might not be too good, but you know what they say about Keith Richards: he outlived Elvis, Michael Jackson, and Whitney Houston; bet you didn’t see that coming.
Still working on those creaky knees, though.