Burnt out

<< 2008-07-19 21:10 >>

Self-portrait in elevator, Salzburg, Austria

I never thought it would happen to me, but I guess they all say that. I knew I was pushing my luck, but I thought I always stayed on the right side of the line and that I'd be able to stop in time. What I didn't realize is that long-term stress wears you down gradually, and that if the effects don't get you while you're going at full speed they'll strike when you slow down.

Then, after it struck, I thought for a long time that I wouldn't write about it. There didn't seem to be any point, really. Talking to people about it, however, I've found that most seem to know very little about it, and at the same time want to know more. Another reason to write this is that there are some blog postings I want to write that may seem a little strange without this background being explained first.

The first time I can remember being so tired that I felt sick and nauseous and had to just stop what I was doing was in Tokyo in 2002, while sightseeing after two weeks of work in Japan and South Korea. Since then it's happened a few times, but I always responded by slowing down and taking it a little easier for a while, and this seemed to be enough for me to get by. Over the last few years this started happening more and more often, and it became usual for me to feel tired and out of whack. It got to the point where I stopped enjoying meeting new people and lost much of my interest in social activities. This happened so gradually that I didn't really sit up and take note.

Then, in December 2007, normal work started getting harder and harder and suddenly I found I could just barely get through a normal working day. Over Christmas I started getting ill in different ways. Normally I'm never ill, so this was a real wake-up call. My doctor found nothing wrong, however, which made us think this was a case of burnout. None of the people who know me well or have worked closely with me were surprised by this. My former manager said she thought I'd really burned out a couple of years ago, and that it only showed up now because I've been taking it easier after we were acquired by Bouvet. And I think she is right.

Anyway, the reaction of the managers at Bouvet was quick. I was told to start handing over everything I was working on, and to go see a specialist they use for burnouts. I sort of resisted and moved slowly on the handing over, but eventually realized that they were right, and that there was nothing else to do. As a result I've only worked one full week in 2008 so far.

So what is it like?

From talking to other people who have had this it's clear that this takes different forms, but common symptoms seem to be lethargy, nausea, headaches, pains in various parts of the body, and susceptibility to infections of various sorts. Personally, I contracted an ear infection, which was no fun, as I got a fever and the infection eventually made my ear drum burst. A month or so later I got an infection in my gums, which my dentist eventually had to cut up and clean with salt water. A friend of mine had none of this, but came down with a three-week headache instead.

One thing that was odd about the course this took for me was that once I stopped working and just took it easy I didn't start feeling better. Instead, I gradually got worse over the course of about a month, before I very slowly started climbing back.

I expected the quick transition from working 120% to doing nothing to be a real shock, and to be difficult to adjust to, since I'm just not used to taking it easy. Much to my surprise I found that it was not even remotely difficult. This was partly because I was too worn out to be able to do anything anyway, and partly because I really longed for some rest and found lazing around doing nothing to be exactly what I wanted and needed. Or at least I found it to be that way for one or two months. After that it started getting seriously boring, and in the last few months I've now and then found myself pushing myself further than I should simply because I haven't been able to bear continuing to do nothing.


Fence, Beitostølen, Norway

For some weeks I actually fell so low that I'd literally sit on the couch all day and do nothing except some reading. I'd force myself out for a 15-minute walk each day, and found this so tiring that I had to take the bus back home. After that I'd do literally nothing before the next day's walk.

Slowly I got better, and was able to expand the walks a bit, read more, and so on. I've also found that even if I feel totally whacked I am able to exert myself. We went away for a weekend of skiing, but because the last 100 km of roads were covered in ice, I wound up driving, which turned out to be tiring. So the day after I felt awful, and could barely get out of my chair.

Still, we'd come there to go skiing, and go skiing I did. We went at a quite leisurely pace for a couple of hours, mostly gently uphill. My girlfriend took it easy, while I'd cross out of the tracks into fields etc to take photos. I really enjoyed this and felt fine. Then we stopped for lunch, and when we were ready to get going again I felt completely knocked out. Even though it was all downhill back to the hotel I felt like I was only just able to make it. Once back at the hotel I did not get out of bed for the next 20 hours.

In other words, while down with burnout you can certainly exert yourself and be active. It's just that you have to pay for it afterwards. What I've also noticed is now that I've improved a bit in many cases I won't feel anything unless I stop what I'm doing and spend a few quiet minutes concentrating on how I really feel.

Is it just psychological?

Some people have asked me this, and it's clear from talking to the specialist that many people suffering from burnout wonder the same thing. The answer is that it's both physical and psychological. It's psychological in the sense that people who inflict this on themselves have certain bad habits and work values that cause them to push themselves too hard.

However, the effect of that is physical, in that some of the biochemical networks in the body which regulate energy use gradually wear down. So the tiredness is entirely real, and if you go through a complicated and expensive procedure with repeated blood tests over the course of some weeks you can actually get this to show up in medical tests. People usually don't do this, however, both because it's expensive and because usually the symptoms are clear enough that there's really no need to test for anything.

But the root cause of the "disease" is generally psychological. For example, I've always found it difficult to sit still, and will generally be doing something all the time, whether at work or in my spare time. So on holiday I'll always be trying to squeeze as many experiences into each day as I possibly can, and push myself to see another castle, check another pub, or whatever. At work it's pretty similar, in that I demand a lot from myself, and push myself to deliver as much as I possibly can. Of course, this can be taken too far, and it's pretty clear that over the past ten years that's exactly what I've done.


Several people who know I've been ill have on seeing me reacted with a "You look surprisingly good" comment, as though they expected to see a real wreck. This is part of what's strange about this "disease". I look entirely like normal, except more tanned, since I can spend more time outdoors, and behave very close to normal. There are, however, some differences. The main one, of course, is that I get tired quickly.

This experience has made me question quite a few things about how I live my life, because I've found that most of what I like to do, apart from being social and indulging my beer hobby, is very like work. That's part of what has caused me to come down with burnout, and it also means that for much of 2008 the only thing I've really been able to do is read. To illustrate what that really means, here's a photo of the books I've read this year.


Another effect is that when I'm really worn out I find that any serious thinking gets to be too much for me. For example, if I have a different point of view on something from my girlfriend explaining what I mean is just too much effort. For the first couple of months of the year I didn't read popular science books, because they were just too much mental effort for me. Similarly, non-trivial programming was also too much.

I've also found that it's very easy to misjudge how well I am. We went on a two-week interrail in Germany in April/May, and this actually turned out to be too much for me, even though we didn't do anything much and took things very easy. The last couple of days of the holiday I had to spend partly in bed, and it took several weeks after we came home for me to recover the energy I'd had before the holiday.


Well, that's a little misleading, actually, because there isn't really any treatment in the usual sense for burnout, except for resting, of course. I have been to my doctor (general practitioner) and he after asking some questions basically said I should take it easy and do things I enjoy. I remember looking at him and wondering whether he might possibly be deaf. Not fully five minutes earlier I'd told him a 15-minute walk each day was literally all I was capable of doing. So clearly it didn't much matter what I enjoyed doing; I wasn't up to it, anyway.

The specialist I was sent to by Bouvet is a psychologist, and he was much more helpful. For one thing he had time to talk to me and really get some grasp of how I was doing and what my problems were. He's given me a lot of useful advice and helped me change some of my attitudes, and also been able to help me see that I'm actually making progress at times when I've been depressed at my seeming lack of progress.


I'd say mine is pretty good. I haven't been hit anything like as hard as some people get this, and it doesn't seem that I have the chronic fatigue version of this. By now, I'm definitely on the road to recovery, but unfortunately this is a pretty slow road. I go jogging three times a week, and work 2-3 hours every day these days. That takes up a lot of time which I have to spend relaxing to recover from jogging and work, but it's worth it, as I notice that I'm getting better. However, the pace of recovery is very slow, and it seems like it could easily take me the rest of the year to get well.

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jamie - 2008-07-20 20:02:29

lucky you -- no fear of losing your apartment if you take a break, or your parents failing, or your sister's 2 kids she had w/hout a husband that u are now some how responsible. must be nice getting to claim "burn out" ... the rest of us i guess will just work till we drop dead, and then generously let our families collect the insurance payout.

get real, whinny

Alex - 2008-07-21 13:40:41

Thanks for sharing. I fear I'm down a similar path as you. I feel I chew over too much out of pure want, and then I crash and burn afterward. These days I'm finding it harder and harder to recover, and maybe it's time to take it a bit more seriously.

Get well soon, though.

Michael Sperberg-McQueen - 2008-07-21 14:47:13

Thank you for the post. Like many of those you have spoken to, I find I have more fear than knowledge of burnout; it's helpful to hear more from someone with experience. (It seems inescapable that it will also fill some with jealousy of the Norwegian healthcare system, and that some will give vent to their jealousy in rude ways, but I suppose you already know about that.) I wish you a good recovery and look forward to seeing a rekindled Lars Marius at some future time.

Arnar Lundesgaard - 2008-07-21 19:00:23

@jamie: Why the anger towards Lars Marius? I hope, for your own sake, your are trolling because you come across as an an absolutely disgusting person.

I had a long reply typed up on why we do health care and housing differently in Norway and the benefits to society as a whole, but it's late and I've started thinking that you're noe worth it.

Perhaps I am projecting, but your name, language and complaints makes me suspect you are from the United States. And given the media culture in your country I can certainly understand why you would be ignorant of other systems.

That does not excuse *you* from knowing better. Certainly not given the copious amounts of information available on the web.

Get educated, stupid.

--- @Lars Marius:

I'm glad to hear that you are doing better. Take the time you need. Someone with your resume and prolific past deserves no less.

And don't let Cro-magnon brains like Jamie get to you. Those of us that actually have worked with you have no problem understanding why your workload could burn you out.

Trond Pettersen - 2008-07-22 14:17:12

Interesting read -- I'm sure it can be of help to others that find themselves in the same situation, or that are dangerously close to it.

No wonder burnout can cause physiological sickness, as I imagine it is similar to, or a kind of serious stress (which can tamper with your health). And as Arnar mentioned, you are of course 100% entitled to recovery.

I'm sure there are a lot of customers that would disagree and that want you back to work, though :) Just be sure to take your time, so that you wont have to repeat everything in a year or so. Hope you'll be doing better soon!

schtief - 2008-07-23 08:21:53

Thanks for your honest post,

i was always amazed, how much you were working in the field of topic map, ontopia, tmdm, tmql, tmapi..... and now bouvet, so it was just a matter of time.

i found out, that i was on the same road, but (un)fortunatly i had an example of workaholic/burnt out men in my family, so now i don't take my work as THE thing in my live. I bought a garden, planted a lot and i even more socialised with old and new friends. Now i'm free to shut down my computer at 6pm without any guilty conscience.

You ever thought of moving to another field of work? f*ck those whole computer/robotic/logic world, you are a clever guy that has read a lot of books, start a new live. Maybe gardener, artist, cook, beer brewer.....

Anyway i wish you all the best!

Knut Albert - 2008-07-25 03:46:12

Thank you for sharing this and for elaborating as much as you have done. I have, luckily, only been working excessivly for short periods of time. And I find that my children gives me a healthy perspective on what is really important.

Tormod Haugen - 2008-08-04 13:18:25

Thanks for sharing. Gives a fair bit of knowledge, and serves as a warning for the rest of us. Get better! :)

Alf Lervåg - 2008-08-07 06:38:39

Sad to hear that you've burned out, good to hear that you're recovering. Thanks for explaining what it's like, hopefully it will help me and others in recognizing symptoms early and stay healthy.

Take your time getting well, and I'm looking forward to seeing you again. If you're visiting Trondheim, let me know and I'll treat you to a couple of beers. :D

Svein - 2008-08-08 05:06:23

First of all I'm glad to hear that you are recovering - if slowly. I have luckily never experienced this myself, but have lived close to one that has been through this and all I can say is that it takes time - a lot of time - to recover completely.

Of course no two instances are similar but I think underestimating the time to get well is one thing persons that experience burning out have in common. I think it is very important that you share your experiences with other, even though this illness, sadly enough, is beginning to get quite common.

Finally I want to give you credits for not censoring obviously insulting comments like jamie's. Censorship and blogging is an important theme but we can discuss that later. I hope you continue your progress and look forward to see you back in business.

Ant S - 2008-09-08 09:18:50

It's good to see that you are still blogging, and keeping a healthy balance (in the right direction) between technical and beer-related issues... I found your honest and lucid account fascinating, and have referred it to a number of other people - so thanks for posting it, and best wishes for a continuing recovery.

Jus - 2008-09-10 17:08:15

The Bible recommends (not only recommends but commands) a day of rest after 6 days of work: the Shabat. And I find that it has worked out very good for me. I can "push hard" for 6 days, but on the 7th day, no pushing at all. (including when I'm on vacation)

Anyway, you write good blogs. Persevere, bro! You will get well... Best wishes!

Roy Lachica - 2008-09-17 15:55:29

Thanks for sharing Lars Marius. Hope you get well soon.

Your blog post was a helpful wake up call. I have for some years been wondering if I am on the verge to becoming burned out myself. I am now going to be very careful to follow up on precautionary measures.

Upon commenting your blog post I started to write up what I believe helps me from not going under. I found that the response was getting too long so I decided to post it on my own blog.

What is interesting here is that I am currently designing a Topic Maps based system for solving complex problems such as for example finding causes and treatments of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Best wishes from Roy (in search of the Memex)

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