When I gave my talk about burnout, I did not share the ways I cope with burnout. I think I am ready to articulate these strategies now.
If you are looking for actionable advice, check out For you who are burned out… section of the talk’s transcript.
Strategy #1: Dial to Eleven
Genesis is one of my favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes. Its premise: crew of the Enterprise starts de-evolving, and it’s up to captain Picard and commander Data to figure out why and reverse the process. A fun episode, with some scary bits in it.
I remember recording the show and sharing the tape with my high school biology teacher, because the science behind the de-evolution happens to have bits of material we were covering in class (introns).
One of the transformations is lieutenant Barclay de-evolving into a spider. His changes begin with demeanor: he becomes hyperactive, hovers over people spider-like, and exudes unusual energy in performing his duties.
This strategy is amplifying the burn in burnout. When work environment start spiraling toward burnout conditions, I step up. Double-down. Dial things to eleven.
In terms of stages of grief, it is a combination of denial and bargaining. I tell myself, “If I can just take care of these tickets, then I can ease the load on my coworkers, then maybe they won’t burn out. Maybe things can go back to the way they once were.”
If I can learn how to do this…
If I can document this process…
If I can become better at…
If I can work harder…
It’s effective as a distraction. Throwing myself into some task means I spend less time spent thinking about the burnout situation as a whole. It can also boost my confidence somewhat, in the sense that I am doing “all the things!”. Of course, it is not remotely sustainable for more than a short period of time.
And, as far as turning the tide on the underlying burnout situation, it has not been successful.
Strategy #2: Star Trek
I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. I learned English from watching this show (also, Batman: The Animated Series). When the TV is on, there’s a 90% chance that a Star Trek series is playing, even when I am not actively watching. They are like chicken soup to me. Familiar. Comforting.
When I am burning out, I reach out for the familiar and comforting. This happens to manifest in me making a ton of Star Trek references to anyone within earshot.
For example, my time-tested reference for team members leaving, or being understaffed in general, is the TNG episode Remember me. The plot centers doctor Crusher, as people start disappearing from the ship, only she remembers them. There is this gem of monologue, as Crusher works on diagnosing her predicament:
If there is nothing wrong with me, then there is something wrong with the universe!
Ultimately, Crusher’s teammates help her break free of the warp-bubble universe she was trapped in, and life returns to normal. A happy ending. This strategy keeps hope alive that a happy ending is possible for me as well.
The great Star Trek universe is full of stories in which the crew overcomes adversities. My references, and metaphors, and jokes are a way to ease the depressing impact of burnout, and to hold on to something that is outside of the burnout bubble.
Strategy #3: Eye of the storm
Within the stages of grief, this would be analogous to acceptance, with an undercurrent of depression. As burnout-inducing chaos reigns around me, I enter a calm, almost lethargic state.
I remind myself of this famous Bruce Lee quote:
You must be shapeless, formless, like water. When you pour water in a cup, it becomes the cup. When you pour water in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. When you pour water in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can drip and it can crash. Become like water my friend.
It’s a strategy rooted in preserving the part of me that cares. Slow things down. Keep the light of empathy from going out.
I think of empathy as an active state, something that needs to be practiced. It requires reaching out, communicating with others, understanding. During burnout, empathy can be one of the first things we turn off.
It’s always important to remember that there are still other people around me, and that they may be as burnt out as I am, and hurting. First, I should do no harm. And, if there are cycles to spare, reduce harm in any way I can.
At the same time, this strategy involves detachment. The more absurd life becomes during burnout, the more distance I put between the burnout situation and myself. It’s not happening to me, it’s happening to her.
Sometimes disassociation is exactly what I need.
You see, I am quite proficient in tearing myself down. For being in this situation, for being inadequate, and paralyzed. Not deserving of better. But if it’s someone else - her, not me - then maybe I will be more likely to act, to extend support, to break down the locks that are keeping her immobilized in fear.