Recovering from Burnout

Previously when I thought of burnout I thought only of incredibly long work hours and lives out of balance, with little sleep, no exercise and so on. While on a visit to Japan earlier this year I was talking to a Big Issue seller while I waited for a friend at a train station near one of the more upmarket areas of Tokyo. He was telling me about the people who buy regularly from him and there emerged a disturbing pattern: a good many of them were working up to 40+ hours of overtime per week, suggesting 80+ hour work weeks. With the average work-week in the US and Europe being somewhere around 40 hours per week their workload seems incredible and perhaps offers some insight into why the Japanese have a word in their language for “death from overwork and mental stress” (karōshi 過労死). Indeed when I worked in Japan as a consultant, a 10 to 13 hour work day was considered quite normal, which made maintaining a healthy work-life balance difficult to say the least. My first taste of burnout however came several years before in the 2nd year of my PhD; I’d been working 7 days a week for 18 months, clocking in around 12 hours a day at my desk reading broadly,  coding experiment after experiment. That was 12 hours of solid work with no real breaks, meals snatched here and there and always the quickest but healthiest thing I could find in the nearby supermarket. After 18 months I hit a wall but the solution was thankfully clear: I had been working from my studio apartment each day as it was the most comfortable place to be and allowed me to get the most work done. The problem was that I was essentially both working in my home and living in my office all at the same time. I decided that from then on I would trek out to the desk that the university had supplied me with in an office that I would share with other PhD students. Despite taking working time away from me with the commute and it being a considerably less comfortable and productive place to work I immediately felt a weight had been lifted; there was now a line between home and work which provided much needed boundaries that allowed me to relax properly when not in the office rather than always feeling guilty about not working when it was so easy to flip open the laptop at any time. From that point on, thanks to sticking to a regular regimen of healthy eating, running, weights and kung fu training, I managed to get through the PhD in just over 3 years, about a year before my peers. Another thing that helped was that I was greatly looking forward to finishing so that I could go and live in Japan, and I did, while starting my first company. I worked on it for 6 months immediately after graduating and then headed off to Japan on a 1 year visa where I worked day and night on building the company. For a while I did work mostly nights and all the hours on offer as this fit the UK time zone rather nicely. After 18 months (a recurring duration!) of working flat out in this manner I hit another wall, and this time what had worked before, the exercise, the healthy eating, taking time off, none of it was helping. We had hit major issues with our fledgling company and I decided to take a consulting gig in Japan, which I did for 8 months. I noticed that this provided some respite, which was the first clue as to what was missing, but then this benefit was quickly drowned out by the demands of doing the expected 10 to 13 hour days in the office followed by 3 to 4 hours at home and most weekends working on my own business. After nearly a full year of this however, around Christmas time, I realised that there are (broadly) two kinds of burnout that I am aware of: there is the kind of exhaustion burnout where you are simply working so many hours with little or no recovery (work-life balance burnout), but there is also another kind of burnout that comes when you invest time and energy into something and repeatedly get results that are not commensurate with the magnitude of effort that you have put in. This I think can be a particularly nefarious kind of burnout that can be hard to spot when you’re busily living “in the thick of thin things”. Once I realised this I knew what I had to do, and that was to look at what I was doing, what the results were, and seeing what needed to change such that I would start to see more in the way of real results, real progress. This is easier said than done in some case perhaps, but I found the easiest way was just to start with quick wins. I built and released an app that received a lot of positive feedback from its users, I released another app, and then another, my team won Lean Startup Machine in Tokyo, with a friend I built a Japanese language learning platform which attracted significant interest. Before long I was back to tackling the more complex and thorny issues in my own business, now with a better perspective from which to frame them in terms of the desired end results. Looking back, I can now see that the answer was right in front of me during the PhD process too. At the time I thought it was just the need for a boundary between work and home that was needed but it was that and for the hours I was putting in to produce real results. The answer then, though I didn’t realise it as I was doing it, was to get papers published and have my work validated by other researchers. I again started with quick wins, with a workshop, but worked up to being published in one of the top conferences in my field with a nomination for best paper thrown in. I couldn’t articulate it at the time but this connection between my efforts and tangible results was key to me making the progress that I did. If you have experienced burnout yourself I would be very interested to hear your story, particularly what you did to recover from it. Also if you feel you are burnt out right now and you’re unsure what to do, feel free to get in touch and I promise to listen—the startup world (particularly in the US) makes it hard to discuss this kind of thing and founders are often left on their own, not letting on that they’re in trouble for fear that their (potential) investors are going to hear about it and withdraw their support. This topic has however been given significant time at conferences like Launch in San Francisco and Microconf in Europe and Las Vegas, which is an encouraging sign.