Letter 12: Burnout
On exhaustion, unhealthy predicaments, and finding balance
Imagine 60-80 hour work weeks for months on end, meetings day-in, day-out, unannounced job performance reviews, arriving early and staying late, work breaks you were told you couldn’t take, infighting from the staff, unpaid work you took home with you, and the constant feeling that you could be let go at any moment.
That was my previous job.
When I resigned, it was because I had developed multiple health issues while under their employ, including: a hernia sustained at the workplace, depression, and exhaustion from overwork and burnout. When I submitted my resignation, their final words to me were:
“We hope that moving on to your next opportunity will help make you a better person and improve your health condition.”
So what startup or web3 company did I leave? Well, none actually. All of that occurred at a private kindergarten I taught at in Japan. But little did I know in many ways it would prepare me for the work culture of web3, startups, and especially web3 startups.
Anyone reading this who has been part of a startup or involved in the web3 space is likely very familiar with burnout, which is not only incredibly common, it may even be the norm. But, there are ways to thrive in this environment, and little of it has to do with how much pain you’re able to withstand.
So let’s talk about it.
Stages of Work
“My only real motivation is not to be hassled. That, and the fear of losing my job. But you know, Bob, that will only make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.”
- Peter Gibbons, Office Space
In order to have a frank discussion about burn out, I needed a metric I could work with so readers could better identify their own work habits for comparison. So, I developed the simple, distinct, and super unscientific five stages of work:
Before we go any further, let’s start by breaking down what each of the stages mean so that we’re all on the same page.
Stage 1: Rest
As you might expect, rest is a period of limited to no exertion. The benefits of resting lie not in the output of your work produced, but in the opportunity to reset your battery, gather your thoughts, and recuperate from stress.
In theory, you can remain in this state as long as you like (although for most people, finances generally have something to say about that). Periods of rest are not only beneficial for personal and professional growth, they are necessary.
Conversely, rest can see diminishing returns over time. But how much is too much? Ideally, rest should be long enough to feel replenished and refreshed, but not long enough to become restless, stagnant, or fall behind on any pressing responsibilities.
Stage 2: Productivity
Given reasonable work hours and breaks, one can remain in a state of productivity for most of their professional life.
Being productive encompasses doing one’s work at a satisfactory to high level, and meeting job expectations. I’ve found that a lot of people willfully remain at this stage for three very different reasons:
They are content with where they are.
They don’t see sufficient enough benefits to increase their workload.
They don’t see any means of advancement.
Burnout can begin to surface in this stage, particularly if stuck in a job that offers no satisfaction.
Stage 3: Proactivity
Being in a stage of proactivity is when one goes beyond their required duties and responsibilities and looks for ways to optimize, benefit, or otherwise improve the business in some form or manner.
Being proactive requires substantially more effort than the previous stage (productivity). That effort can come from not only increased hours at work, but more importantly (and harder to quantify) the mental hours one spends in problem solving and abstract thinking.
It is possible to remain in a state of proactivity for long stretches of time: weeks, months, sometimes even years, so long as you find the work rewarding, you still have meaningful breaks, and/or you are well compensated for your efforts. Without that, burn-out can set in relatively quickly.
Most individuals in web3, startups, or web3 startups probably find this as their baseline or bare minimum in terms of work output.
Stage 4: Burn
A period of intense productivity, requiring another substantial increase in mental energy, time invested, and effort exerted. Burn is the first stage that is under no circumstances sustainable over long periods of time, due to the high level of exertion it places on your mind and body. It is best used in small, infrequent bursts with a specific short-term goal in mind, otherwise it is a virtual certainty that burnout will come on hard.
Negative effects can generally be felt within a few days of burn, and almost always within a week or two.
Stage 5: Crunch
The most profoundly unhealthy stage of work; a period of extended burnout.
Someone trapped in crunch is likely working from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to sleep. Speaking of sleep, there’s a good chance that the amount they get in crunch is also drastically reduced, in an effort to maximize the amount of working hours in a day. Being in a state of crunch means barely taking any time for meals or hygiene, yet alone having time for friends, family, or any non-work related activities.
Crunch is extremely unsustainable, and for most people it cannot last more than a few days before over exertion and massive health consequences begin to rear its ugly head.
Returning to my example that I shared about my previous employment in Japan, the Japanese famously have a specific term for this sort of thing: 過労死 (karoshi), or “death by overwork”.
This most frequently materializes in the form of strokes and heart attacks, brought on by unrelenting stress, malnourishment, and overwork. While it has long been associated with Japan and the work culture in much of Asia, it can certainly be found all over the world.
Signs of Burnout
“I have put my heart and soul into my work, and I have lost my mind in the process.”
- Falsely attributed to Vincent Van Gogh, but pretty damn quotable nonetheless
Burnout comes in many forms and can vary drastically from person to person. Some of the more common signs may include:
Feeling withdrawn or depressed
Noticeable changes in sleep schedule or appetite
Lack of sex drive
Substance abuse or self-medicating behaviors
Prolonged stress and anxiety
Clenching fists and/or grinding teeth
Self doubt or apathy about one’s work
Inability to concentrate or focus
[This is a good time to mention that I am not a doctor, and any health concerns you have are best left to the professionals and not a guy that you follow on Substack who has a purple octopus on their business card.]
How to Establish a Healthy Balance
Chances are, as you were reading the five stages of work you could recognize moments from your own life when you fell into most (if not all) of the categories. And it’s true—nothing remains constant: you will drift in and out of those stages for the rest of your life, shuffling between them according to your own particular circumstances, needs, and tolerance.
The key to establishing balance—be it at work or in life—is knowing yourself. And while most of us are told from a very young age that we shouldn’t compare our lot in life to that of our neighbor, in practice we often forget. There are simply too many factors which go into someone’s likelihood for finding success in life: genetics, sex, race, your family, early education, your family’s finances, the environment you were raised in as a child…they all play a critical role in your development and can stack the deck in or out of your favor—all of them are completely out of your control. That’s not even accounting for luck and happenstance.
Furthermore, people prioritize things differently. We all place differing levels of emphasis upon family, friends, work, finances, free time, and our hobbies, according to what we personally value on an individual level. Realizing that your neighbor or coworker may prioritize things differently than you can go a long way in reducing feelings of inferiority or imposter syndrome.
Finally, finding ways to decrease your daily level of stress and agitation is paramount to remaining healthy, happy, and productive. In other words, it’s vital to give yourself time to indulge in your recreational hobbies and interests and maintain your social life.
If you haven’t found that level of balance yet, try not to sweat it. Finding and maintaining a level of equilibrium can take years, and it will be a lifelong process. But being cognizant of that need for balance can help keep you focused on maintaining a healthy relationship with work.
Devil’s Advocate: the Benefits of Crunch
There are times—limited, I grant you—where willfully stepping into unsustainable periods of work can be beneficial.
There are caveats of course: this is not a long term solution, and can and will backfire if you push it too long or too often. But some people (especially in business and tech) have managed to use crunch effectively when they can get away with it.
But didn’t you just say say that crunch is profoundly unhealthy?
100%. Yes, absolutely. But there’s a difference, and that difference comes down to desire and control. It’s true that crunch is almost always a bad thing and the result of unrealistic work demands placed upon an employee, or a misguided and self-imposed assumption over how much work must be accomplished.
But to do it willingly in a targeted manner for a very brief period of time? Not only is it possible, but it can even be effective. I’ll give an example.
Around a year ago, when the team was getting ready to launch the Curious Addys collection, there was a 48 hour period pre and post launch where I was glued to the screen: I didn’t leave my computer, and I spent every minute looking for potential problems, fielding questions, onboarding new members, assigning roles, resolving last minute allowlist snafus, dealing with FUD, and so on. For the record, this was entirely my own doing—I’m lucky enough to work in a web3 startup where that behavior isn’t asked or expected of the team. In that moment however, I was just particularly fired up, and felt like I could accomplish a lot if I stuck around.
I did it of my own volition.
I did it with a clear understanding of when I’d stop.
I didn’t do anything that unhealthy again for a long time.
That’s the difference.
Once again, actions like these should be weighed against the negative effects it will undoubtedly play on your mind and body. In this case, it provided a very tangible benefit, as it made the rollout as smooth as possible for over 2000 new holders, and positioned us in the best possible light. A 10 hour sleep, a good meal, and a long walk, and I was more or less back to my usual self.
Should you ever choose to work in crunch, do it sparingly, do it with a specific goal in mind, and do it knowing exactly when you plan to stop.
Listen to Your Gut
Burnout is your body’s way of letting you know that you’ve pushed for too long, too hard, or both.
There will be times in life where there is some merit to sacrificing and pushing hard in order to achieve your goals, whether that be in a business context such as working towards a promotion, or it could be a personal endeavor, such as a skill or hobby that you vigorously pursue on your own time.
So long as you’ve identified what a healthy work/life balance looks like to you, and you have a good sense of what you’re capable of handling, you’ll be able to push further when appropriate, or dial things back when you sense that you’re nearing burnout.
Many people push themselves too hard at work (especially in startups or web3) because they want to be successful, and to achieve a certain level of financial and career stability.
The danger however, is when people continue to push, even at the expense of their health, their happiness, and their well-being. Remember what you’re ultimately working towards, and be sure to frequently check that what you’ve been putting in is actually worth the trade-off. A higher salary or promotion does not mean a better life if it comes at the expense of all other aspects of your life.
Weigh things carefully, and know when you should stop.
Written by: Brad Jaeger
Director of Content @ Curious Addys (say hi on Twitter!)
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