Burnout and Recovery at a Tech Internship
In Fall 2015, I interned at a large, highly sought-after tech employer in the Bay Area. I worked long hours, surrounded by incredible people and interesting work. And I burned out.
I should preface this by saying that I don’t fault the company for any of this. I believe that my burnout was very much self-induced, and it could have happened anywhere. To this day, I think the company is one of the best places a software engineer could work.
Before starting my internship, I had heard many rumours about work culture at this company. I got the impression that it was a work hard, play hard environment, where most of the employees were in their early-to-mid-twenties and had few obligations outside of work.
I took the rumours to heart, and thought that I had to put in the same hours — no, more — as the full time employees, to be remotely as good or as productive as them. Insecurity played a lot into this. I felt like I wasn’t nearly talented enough to belong there, and to make up for that lack of talent, I had to work harder than most.
Simultaneously, as I struggled to ramp up to the codebase at my new internship, I was plagued by this idea that I had to secure another internship for Summer 2016 as soon as possible. I was intent on being at a small, well-funded startup for my next internship, but I was insecure about my ability to get a position at any of them. So I cast my net wide, and set up interviews with at least a dozen companies. All of the interview times coincided with my work hours. I felt an immense amount of guilt for skipping work to interview at other places, and I resolved to make up those missed hours during evenings and weekends.
Finally, a group of other interns made things all the more stressful. They spoke about how difficult it would be to convert from being an intern to a full-time employee. They made sport of measuring how many lines of code they had written, how many code reviews they had submitted, and how late they had been up writing code (5am, anyone?).
Before long, I was staying eleven hours a day at work. I would take as little time as possible to eat, have coffee, and socialize with coworkers. I was usually the first person on my team to get to work, and the last to leave. I skipped all the company-organized intern events that would require me to miss work, telling myself that the time would be better spent coding or interviewing. Over the weekends, instead of visiting scenic places in California or catching up with friends, I holed myself up in a cafe and studied or worked.
This wasn’t the internship experience I’d been hoping for.
I didn’t realize the symptoms of burnout until long after they had started. In hindsight, it’s pretty obvious something was wrong when the following was happening to me:
- Lack of motivation to do simple things I had always enjoyed, like reading, working out, and hanging out with friends. My days were filled with work, technical interviews, and preparing for more interviews.
- Constant exhaustion despite sleeping eight hours a day, being well fed, and being physically stagnant all day. When I attended the 2015 Grace Hopper Celebration in the middle of my internship, I was so physically tired that I slept for twelve hours a day in my hotel room.
- Constant dread and anxiety at the thought of returning to work every day. Especially so on Sunday evenings, when I had to face another week at work. This was in spite of the the fact that my team was extremely supportive and relaxed.
- Feelings of alienation with regards to my team at work and the other interns.
- Feelings of inadequacy with regards to the work that I was getting done, even though my manager constantly assured me that I was doing well and was extremely productive.
- Breakdowns into tears at least once a week.
Once I realized that I was not in an okay place, things didn’t magically become better. I was still exhausted when I woke every day. I still dreaded every interview. I was still anxious about my performance at work.
But realizing I was not okay helped a lot, because it let me start to reach out for help. The biggest thing that helped in my recovery process was talking about my burnout.
I spoke to my manager about my concerns with the hours I worked and my productivity. He assured me that it really wasn’t accurate to use hours worked, lines of code written, or code reviews submitted as a measure of productivity — something I am really grateful for. He also mentioned that our team’s engineering manager had noticed my long hours, and that she thought I would burn out if I continued this pace. This shocked me. It is a testament to how supportive my team was, that our manager would acknowledge that long hours may lead to poor mental health down the line.
I took this as a clear sign that I should dial back how long I spent at the office each day. From this point forward, my manager was also very active in encouraging me not to work: telling me to go home when it got late, and to relax over weekends.
I chilled out with interviewing, realizing that I was more than capable of getting a job — and, even if I didn’t find exactly what I was looking for, I could return to one of the larger companies I had interned at in the past. I cancelled and put off the remainder of my interviews until after the term. Weekends were now mine, and I got to explore!
Paradoxically, being less studious and more relaxed about work and interviewing helped me perform better in both situations. I also grew closer with my team, now that I actually grabbed lunch and hung out with them at work. This helped me get more comfortable working alongside them.
Among my closest friends, many of whom are in tech themselves, I found that most of them had struggled with work life balance at some point. They were all too familiar with the long hours and the glamorization of work. Simply discussing this was helpful in itself. It was a reminder that others were going through the same thing, and we shared tips on consciously stepping away from work.
Dustin Moskovitz wrote about the unnecessary dedication to work expected from tech employees, and how working longer hours actually fosters less productivity from employees. I had read about this prior to my internship, but now I can fully understand its merits.
We are not only the work that we do. We are also the company we keep, the hobbies and projects that we cultivate, and the activities that we enjoy. Make time for these things, and your work self will reflect the benefits.
Please take care of yourself, the way I will be moving forward. Burnout can happen to anyone, so constantly evaluate how you are — whether you’re in school or in industry.
Feel free to share your story of burnout and recovery in the comments, or, alternatively, your strategies on achieving balance between work and life.