There have been times in my career where I could barely function. I never made it to the gym, never had time for friends and practically lived like a zombie behind a computer screen. After a little while, I would find myself not wanting to leave my bed, superanxious and stressed out. I came to learn these were the beginning signs of burnout, creeping into my life and taking over.
It’s clear that work-life balance in America (and especially San Francisco) is a problem. It seems we all work hard, but not all of us take the necessary time to recharge. According to the Mayo Clinic, these are the major signs of burnout (or “occupational burnout” to be technical):
– Being cynical or critical
– Trouble getting to work and starting your day
– Being irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients
– Lack the energy to be consistently productive
– Lack satisfaction from your achievements
– Feeling disillusioned about your job
– Using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better or to simply not feel
– Change in sleep habits or appetite
– Troubled by unexplained headaches, backaches or other physical complaints
Let’s call out a few from this list. The most poignant is the use of food, drugs or alcohol to feel better — even if that means not having to feel. I think most of us can relate to this, as we definitely drink a lot in San Francisco and go to a plethora of nice restaurants. There are also times where we lack energy due to changes in our sleep habits.
Aren’t there days where you feel down and slow to move when the sun doesn’t come out? Annoyed and irritable when the 4 p.m. fog rolls in? It is entirely possible that our locale contributes to these symptoms. We deal with “seasonal depression” weather on a daily to weekly basis.
The worst part about burnout is that everyone seems to have a more productive solution to the problem. Some say to find a way to work smarter. Others manage work-life balance by allowing remote capabilities and taking the office on offsites or vacations.
What I am more curious about is the type of long-term effects of perpetual burnout. Last year, I burned out three times. Each time, it had to do with very tight deadlines, not enough time in the day and my inability to ask for help or time off. Frankly, once it happened, I had no idea what to do. I had to just keep going. After a while, these symptoms started to creep up until the point where I had to call it, my burnout was causing major personality changes and bouts with depression.
A study at Wright State University contended that burnout is common among A-type personalities. More often than not, alphas burn out due to lack of personal accomplishment. This could be within school or work, but in The City, it is usually associated with succeeding at your startup. When you are a founder or member of an early-stage team or pre-revenue startup, the stakes can be high to perform.
It is important to note that startups, by definition, are not sustainable in the long-term. Until you hit critical mass and things are going well, life can be really tough. Some get lucky and climb onto a rocketship and are able stay there. But when you are going through a cycle of unreasonable expectations to get to that place, burnout is imminent. Think about it, there is a reason why the UN considers sleep deprivation as a form of torture.
I see a lot of people chasing that hockey stick, and as I mentioned, getting there can be crazy. Frankly, how many times can you do that? For every failed or pre-growth startup that you are a part of, you will most likely lose one of your nine startup lives. The crazy part is that we keep asking people to do it again and again until you have stable revenue. Imagine being a doctor that has to go through residency multiple times. It is a surefire way to burn out.
Will there ever be regulations preventing crazy work hours or promote a sustainable work-life balance? Probably not. The only way to prevent it is by truly knowing yourself and your limits.