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Signs of Tech Industry Burnout

3 danger signs that you may be losing yourself to your job.

Key points

  • The pandemic may be exacerbating tendencies that can lead to burnout, especially for those who work in technology.
  • Factors that can lead to burnout include exhaustion, unrealistic expectations, and losing one's sense of self.
  • Valuing all aspects of oneself, connecting with people outside of work, and therapy can benefit mental health.

By Genevieve Yang, MD

Bowie15/Getty Images via Canva
Tech Work Burnout: Remember, you're an actual person, not just your work-self shaped by tech industry folklore and mythology.
Source: Bowie15/Getty Images via Canva

"Unlimited Personal Time!" That’s what Austen’s employee handbook says. Unlimited!

In fact, Austen took exactly 7 days off in the past 19 months since starting a new job at a tech company. And even when Austen’s Slack status was “On Vacation,” the app buzzed and Austen checked it “to make sure I don’t miss anything.” Oh, and Austen worked on a project during vacation “to stay ahead.”

Does pandemic work-from-home make these tendencies worse? Yes, but even before the pandemic, on-site perks like catered meals and sleep pods made it possible to stay at work for nearly all waking hours.

Austen is always trying to stay ahead and get ahead. But what about the bigger picture? Austen is so proud of his “dream job,” but it’s taking a toll on Austen’s mental health. If you’re like Austen, here are three dangers to identify and address.

Danger #1: Exhaustion due to time crunch

Austen is immersed in productivity culture 24/7 and doesn’t value relaxation. Austen bought into the expectation that any hour is a “work” hour. There’s no such thing as “relaxing”—only “refueling” in order to be more productive at work.

“I don’t want to let my teammates down, so I work weekends and feel guilty if I spend Saturday afternoon ‘doing nothing.’”

What is the effect of time crunching long term?

As Americans, we’re taught that “working hard” is of utmost importance but as the expression goes, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Relaxation and down time are vital for creativity, nurturing relationships and learning more about oneself. Relaxation, enjoyment and play sustain you in times of stress and anxiety.

Danger #2: Overblown expectations lead to disappointment and low self-esteem

Austen thinks, “In the tech world, we believe if you work hard enough, you’ll be super successful and maybe even a billionaire one day.”

Austen expects good things will come from hard work. But yesterday, Austen’s manager delivered bad news: no promotion this quarter. “But there’s a chance next cycle.” Gutted after months of high expectations, fueled by the tech folklore, Austen feels the promotion didn’t happen “because I didn’t work hard enough.” Austen vows to “work more weekends, take no personal time off until I’m exactly where I want to be in my career.”

Danger #3: Losing your real self

Austen strives to be a high performer—but after 19 months at this high-performance job, Austen no longer knows who Austen is.

“I’m so used to 'being on' for my teammates and boss, I find myself performing for my friends, family and even people I meet in online dating.” Most of Austen’s social life is online—on the same computer as work, compounding the problem. Also, Austen moved to another city, far from old friends for this dream job, and has no real local social life.

What do these dangers add up to?

Austen is in a vicious cycle of high-performance, always “on” work culture. This slippery slope can lead to self-flagellation for not meeting high expectations in a culture that constantly amplifies stories of overnight millionaires who sprinted their way to success.

Unable to relax, with a minimal social life, Austen is alone and unhappy with a lost sense of self. At the same time, Austen believes those co-workers who have not succeeded are lazy. They simply are not trying hard enough. This masochistic worldview reduces resilience in situations where things unavoidably go wrong from time to time, especially in large companies with insufficient oversight.

What does the future hold?

Shifting work culture means lots of “flexibility” for employees, especially in tech jobs. But it’s a double edged-sword with incredible advantages and glaring disadvantages. Social isolation, especially, can bring you to a point where setting healthy work/life boundaries is a major challenge.

And there is a dark side to the idea that successes and failures are completely under one’s own control. Systemic racism is one powerful example. But no one gets everything they want all the time, no matter how hard they work. The myth of the glamorous tech mogul who constantly hustles and works 100-hour weeks, finally becoming a billionaire at 35 is just that—a myth.

Important things to keep in mind:

  • It can be difficult to value aspects of yourself for which you’re not paid if you’ve already fallen into a life where work is a constant backdrop to every waking moment.
  • One simple way to value your potential as a “real human” instead of a “work human” is to connect with people outside of your work world. These new people will see you and value you in a different way.
  • You may also discover your voice through talk therapies such as psychoanalysis or psychodynamic psychotherapy, which are deliberately designed to help uncover as yet unnoticed parts of ourselves.

It is important to remember that we are more than our work.

About the author: Dr. Genevieve Yang received her M.D. from Yale in 2018 and is currently a research track psychiatry resident at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Dr. Yang also completed a Ph.D. in Neuroscience at Yale, where she studied computational neuroscience and functional magnetic resonance neuroimaging biomarkers in schizophrenia patients. At Mount Sinai, she plans to engage in neuroimaging-based cognitive reappraisal and neurofeedback research.