Burnout: What is it and how to Treat it.

post by Elizabeth · 2018-11-07T17:00:44.986Z · score: 75 (47 votes) · EA · GW · 45 comments

Contents

  Introduction
  Tl;dr
  What is Burnout?
  What Can You do as an Individual?
    Seek Social Support
    Sleep
    Seek Clarity in Your Role and Goals
    Shorten Your Commute
    Buy Yourself Out of Work-Life Conflict
    Keep a Healthy Personal Runway
    Noticeable Absence: Vacations
  What Can Organizations do?
    Clear Roles and Norms
    Clear Feedback
    Achievable Goals
    Facilitate Social Support
    Facilitate Telecommuting and Flexible Work Hours
    Facilitate Sleep
    Private Offices, or at Least Cubicles
    Autonomy
    Find Ways to Measure Productivity that Aren’t Hours Worked
    Professionalize Management
  What’s Missing?
None
46 comments

Introduction

Lately there has been considerable concern among effective altruists about burnout. People are worried about themselves or others being less productive* or just plain miserable. The goal of this report is to bring people up to speed on the scientific research about burnout and, when possible, make recommendations about alleviation and prevention. Unfortunately, the scientific literature has few specific recommendations to make, so I would like to use this as an opportunity to foster discussion about what has worked and not worked for people personally. Look for those comments below. The goal is for this to be useful to individual workers in treating their own burnout, and to organizational decision makers in preventing burnout organization-wide.

[*Studies are actually mixed on if burnout reduces productivity, with some even showing burnout associated with higher productivity. My interpretation here is that high standards for yourself lead to both high performance and burnout.]

Tl;dr

  1. Social support == Good.
  2. Sleep == Good.
  3. Ambiguity == Bad.
  4. Vacations == Meh.

What is Burnout?

The official definition of burnout is “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress”. That kind of implies that a person can’t work when burnt out, but that’s not my experience- ceasing work when you’re burnt out is a privilege. But working when you’re burnt out is miserable, and makes burnout worse, so even if circumstances improve you’re in a hole.

Burnout was originally conceived of in the caring professions (e.g. nursing and social work), which are emotionally demanding in several different ways. This has by and large not been born out scientifically; other professions burn out just as hard, with perhaps slightly different patterns on the Maslach Burnout Inventory, the most popular measure of burnout. Based mostly on personal observation I strongly suspect there are multiple types of burnout, which can co-occur, and which current instruments are not sensitive enough to differentiate. Of particular interest to this crowd is the difference between burnout caused by hating your job or not having the resources it demands, vs. loving your job too much and being sucked into giving more than you should. I suspect that the latter is more heavily represented among effective altruists than in the literature.

The Maslach Burnout Inventory (used in >90% of studies) divides burnout into three parts: exhaustion, cynicism, and (perceived) personal efficacy. The MBI has been shown to be internally consistent and cross-culturally valid. On the other hand, it has mixed results in distinguishing burnout from traditional depression or anxiety, and I could find no studies demonstrating any predictive value of the inventory — the closest was two studies showing MBI predicted an increase in thoughts of suicide and dropping out of school among med students.

In contrast, the Copenhagen Burnout Inventory has one whole study showing a that a high score predicts future sickness absence, sleep problems, and use of painkillers. The CBI measures only exhaustion, and separately tracks personal burnout, work burnout, and client burnout. I would have liked to give preference to studies using the CBI because it has more empirical validation, but there simply weren’t enough to rely on, so most of the studies referred to in this post use the MBI.

By far the most popular model of burnout in the literature is “Job Demands - Resources”, or “JD-R”, which posits that high job demands lead to exhaustion, and low resources lead to cynicism and feelings of low personal efficacy. “Demands” and “Resources” are defined fairly broadly here. Demands includes things like “coping with conflicting goals” and resources includes things like chances for advancement.

There is a similar theory called Conservation of Resources. It has less empirical support and does not make noticeably different predictions, so I won’t pay it further attention.

What Can You do as an Individual?

An unfortunate fact is that the more privileged you are, the easier it is to create workplace that accommodates you. These suggestions will be easier to implement for people in higher demand professions, who earn more money, or have better bosses.

A second unfortunate fact is that the literature was not very helpful in recommending ways to prevent or relieve burnout. The following are either based on interpretations of literature (e.g. because social support is correlated with low burnout, I recommend social support) or my own beliefs based on what I’ve observed personally.

I’ll create threads for all of these seeking anecdotes about how you’ve achieved them for yourself in the comments.

Seek Social Support

The most consistent finding in all burnout literature is that social support (leadership and peer) reduces burnout. That is not even all the studies I found on this point.

Sleep

Unsurprisingly, sleep duration is negatively correlated with burnout. I think the causality here is up for debate — stress causes poor sleep in parallel to poor sleep causing depression — but to the extent you can improve your sleep, it’s likely to be helpful.

Seek Clarity in Your Role and Goals

Ambiguity (or worse, conflicting goals) leads to internal conflict, which leads to burnout.

Shorten Your Commute

Commuting is an absolutely miserable experience. It is one of few miseries humans can’t acclimate to. It cuts into sleep and personal time. Do whatever you can to shorten your commute.

Buy Yourself Out of Work-Life Conflict

This is a more general application of “don’t commute”.

Of course, this advice is only actionable if you have money. However there is a noticeable contingent within EA of people pushing themselves to live on much, much less than they earn, and it’s worth examining whether this is penny-wise-pound-foolish for you personally. Buying rest might reduce your donations in the short term, but if it increases your long term capacity, it is the right thing to do.

Keep a Healthy Personal Runway

80,000 hours goes into the multitude of reasons you should do this here, but I want to explicitly call out savings’ role in fighting burnout. Knowing you can leave can enable you to demand better treatment. Knowing you don’t need a particular job lets you hold out for a better fit.

Noticeable Absence: Vacations

Vacation is commonly considered the treatment for burnout, however one of the most consistent findings in my research is that the reduction in burnout following a vacation dissipates very quickly — in less than three weeks.

This is one of those times I feel a struggle between what I “know” anecdotally, what research demonstrates, and my personal experience. I’ve seen people in very demanding jobs go on vacation, clear their head, and come back thinking more strategically. But this has never worked for me personally: when a job is unpleasant, it’s unpleasant, and leaving for a week doesn’t make it more pleasant. I conjecture that there are really two forms of burnout — “this job is terrible” and “this great job is very demanding”, and there simply aren’t enough of the latter to show up in studies. This is unfortunate, given that I expect it to be overrepresented among people reading this. But at a minimum, you should not count on vacation to fix a bad work environment.

What Can Organizations do?

Ultimately burnout is prevented by individuals, not companies. The warmest, fuzziest company in the world can’t prevent people from working themselves into burnout if they’re truly determined. At the same time, organizations are setting the incentive structures that determine whether preventing burnout is an uphill fight or not, and I think this makes them the correct place for most interventions.

Clear Roles and Norms

Ambiguity as to goals or social norms leads to stress and thus burnout.

Clear Feedback

Unfortunately nothing I read went into what constituted good feedback or how to give it. However in general reducing ambiguity is good and reduces burnout.

Achievable Goals

It has become popular to set “stretch” goals. Google’s quarterly evaluation process says that if you regularly achieve more than 60-70% of your goals, you’re aiming too low. This has the advantage of never leaving someone under capacity, but also means they never get to feel like they’ve “won”, which leads to burnout.

As a bonus, keeping goals modest leaves people with enough reserves and capacity to sprint when you really need it.

Facilitate Social Support

Feeling socially supported is one of the few demonstrated protectors against burnout. The literature is mixed at describing specific interventions — some studied deliberate interventions like peer support groups, others merely counted the number of positive and negative interactions. I report the peer review supported interventions below, and leave the anecdotes to the comments.

A warning: workers often recognize attempts to facilitate group cohesion and feel obliged to fake feelings of connection when they can’t feel it authentically. My belief is that this demand for emotional labor can make burnout worse. You can mitigate this by providing a bonding budget for the employees themselves choose how to spend — although even then, not everyone will love the same things, and people may feel pressured to participate or left out if they don’t. You can also make explicit in the interview what kind of social expectations you have, and let people who aren’t compatible opt out.

Facilitate Telecommuting and Flexible Work Hours

In a result that is very gratifying to me personally, remote work and flex time generally reduce burnout. However it can’t be done blindly. My personal experience has been that if a company’s workflow is set up for on-site work (e.g. no one responds to IM and you have to physically track people down to get answers, information is generally not written down), remote work reduces personal efficacy to the point that it’s not worth it. But when it is supported (meaning, co-workers are responsive, a strong culture of writing things down), telecommuting removes commuting, reduces work-life conflict, and gives people more control over their environment.

As a bonus, remote work makes it impossible to know how many hours people are working, removing the incentive for productivity theater.

Two caveats to this:

Facilitate Sleep

I found no peer reviewed study on this, but firmly believe nap rooms to be helpful when properly implemented. A note to Google: in a busy hallway next to the noisy massage chair does not count as proper implementation.

Especially in international companies, people can be pressured to attend meetings both very early and very late. I don’t have a good solution to this as long as time zones are real.

Private Offices, or at Least Cubicles

At this point the evidence is overwhelming that most people hate, are less productive and more sick in open offices. Open offices don’t even increase in person interactions between co-workers. Plus you can nap in private offices.

Autonomy

Autonomy makes people happy, and lack of it leads to cynicism and feelings of low personal efficacy (it doesn’t appear to have much effect on exhaustion).

Autonomy can conflict somewhat with having a clearly defined role and goal, and the correct balance will vary across people.

Find Ways to Measure Productivity that Aren’t Hours Worked

If you measure hours visibly at work, people will Goodhart and put in more hours at the office. This may not make them more productive, and depending on who you ask may not be able to make them more productive- humans only have so many hours of thought-work in them per day. But it will eat up their time and prevent them from recovering.

Professionalize Management

Like a lot of young organizations, EA orgs tend to have managers who were hired for things other than management, have not received explicit management training, and have priorities other than management. This leads to a lot of predictable problems- they don’t delegate well, don’t give the right feedback at the right times, etc. “Learning to manage” would lead to more work accomplished and a better work environment for everyone. Unfortunately everyone else is making this mistake too, and good resources for learning to manage are thin on the ground. But a good start would be to simply recognize management as what you are doing and a skill that needs to be learned.

What’s Missing?

There were a number of topics I hoped to cover but couldn’t, due to a lack of data.

Thanks to CEA for commissioning and funding this research.

If you are exceptionally curious about my research, you can view my notes here.

45 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by laurenlee · 2018-11-07T20:02:00.401Z · score: 35 (20 votes) · EA · GW

My realizations about how to treat Burnout, while at CFAR:

1. Rest Days vs Recovery Days

Rest Days are important and can work to refresh you. Most people do not know how to take Rest Days. They instead use weekends and vacation days as Recovery Days or days where their mind is still in "working" mode.

A Recovery Day is where you're so tired or under-resourced that you can't do much of anything with yourself other than: stay in bed / sleep a lot, binge on Netflix or video games, stay in your room all day, don't talk to anyone, and feel unmotivated to do much except easy, stimulating, and/or mind-numbing things. This is a Recovery Day and does not count as a Rest Day, but it is fine to take the time for them. But you aren't going to be refreshed from them. In order to really refresh, you need to take another day that counts as a Rest Day.

Another way a person might take time off is to do things that are /like work/ but easier. Video games are a prime example. I play a lot of video games that involve optimizing systems, and I find these really motivating and fun. But I notice that this is a kind of "work"—my mind is trying to solve problems and implement solutions. The difference is that because it's easy and doable, I get addicted to them, and it's a way from me to escape the problems at work, which are harder and clunkier to solve. This also doesn't count as Resting.

Rest Days are days where I have enough energy and resources that I feel motivated and able to get out and about. (One way I can tell I have energy is that sometimes I spontaneously feel like cooking, a rare occurrence.) On a Rest Day, your prime directive is to attend to your stomach (or, the felt senses coming from your stomach), and just "follow your gut" for the entire day. And just do "what you feel like doing" in the moment.

There can be no obligations on a Rest Day. No scheduled calls or meetings. No promises to show up to a party. You can go to the party if you actually feel like going to the party, but you won't be able to know until last-minute. You cannot be "on-call" for anything. No one should depend on you unless it's someone you actively like being depended on for things, like a person you care about.

There can be exceptions to these, but I like to make Rest Days sacred in these ways. (This might resonate with Ben Hoffman's post on Sabbaths and Zvi's post on Slack.)

Things my stomach tends to want to do on Rest Days:

  • be in the present moment
  • eat tasty things
  • have a picnic in a park / take walks / enjoy nature
  • draw
  • read a book
  • cook
  • spend meaningful social time with friends
  • go dancing or do yoga or similar
  • useful errands or home-improvement stuff (I installed some curtains once)

My stomach rarely wants to:

  • spend a lot of time on Facebook or social media
  • binge TV
  • play video games

I think more people should try to implement Rest Days for themselves. It seems good to have them regularly, but I'm not sure how often. Once a week is the sort of 'traditional' thing to do.

comment by Maxdalton · 2018-11-08T11:12:03.534Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Link to Zvi's sequence on LessWrong, which includes the posts you mentioned: https://www.lesswrong.com/s/HXkpm9b8o964jbQ89 [LW · GW]

comment by tcheasdfjkl · 2018-11-19T02:48:37.616Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Yes! I have independently discovered this exact same thing for myself, though my terminology is almost the opposite of yours - I think I had always thought of "rest days" as days mostly spent in front of the TV or online (corresponding to your Recovery Days), whereas what I now realize I need to do regularly is "doing whatever I want" days, which I also sometimes call "desire days" - I end up doing a lot of things I don't really think of as rest but which are much more restorative than just resting.

(If I'm really tired or anhedonic on a designated "desire day", I end up just doing "rest day" stuff anyway; sometimes this is the right choice, other times it doesn't really help but it's better than doing "rest day" stuff on a day I had meant to get stuff done, so it's possibly still better than not setting that day aside.)

Some things I've ended up doing on desire days:

  • cooking, baking, making jam
  • putting on some music, opening the windows, and dancing around my living room
  • reading French poetry
  • learning new songs on guitar
  • having a somewhat useful emotional crisis
  • doing some self-therapy, like writing down my thoughts / working out what I care about
  • figuring out how much I owe in donations this year
  • reading and taking notes on Nate Soares' Replacing Guilt series
  • reading the 80K career guide
  • playing a typing game
  • doing things that I'm annoyed about having put off for a long time
  • fiddling with spreadsheets to make a useful graph of my mood-tracking data
  • proofreading things for people
  • laundry
comment by laurenlee · 2018-11-07T21:29:33.295Z · score: 18 (10 votes) · EA · GW

My realizations about how to treat Burnout, while at CFAR:

2. Learning to set and negotiate for your boundaries / keeping work and life separate

When I arrived at CFAR, I wanted to blur the lines between work and life a lot. I wanted to be "working" in a fluid way—such that I was integrating "rationality" and thoughts about rationality into my everyday life, into every action, into my identity. And this meant I showed up at the office on weekends (because I tried to treat weekdays and weekends as the same). I did lots of my "best work" late at night, either at the office or in late meetings. At workshops, I was "on" for most of the time, in the role of "mentor" or "ops" or "instructor" or whatever, and I just tried to hold "optimize the workshop experience for the participants" (as is the motto / flag of CFAR workshops).

CFAR affords its employees lots of freedom in a way—there's no one tracking hours, there's no specific time you're supposed to come in. So that's one of the things listed above as a plus, for Burnout. But... at the same time, this level of autonomy means individual employees can just choose to dissolve themselves into their work, such that their life basically blends into work. And they don't hold these domains separate anymore. (This seems more of a risk for the type of EA who cares a lot about their job.)

Eventually, I figured out this was a bad way to go. I started setting boundaries more. When I did ops at the last couple workshops, I chose to only be "on" for a certain number of hours a day (8-10), and I was "off" for the rest of the hours, letting other people "cover shifts." I told my bosses, "Hey, I don't want to do X or Y anymore. I want other people to handle those." And then I got that.

I eventually realized, at least for ops work, I needed to "optimize MY workshop experience" first, and participants' experience second. And that optimizing for MY experience would /lead/ to optimizing the workshop—it was a win-win.

I realized that I was running a marathon and not a sprint, even during workshops (which are often treated like 'sprints'). And I would need to pace myself during workshops, even though they're a time when lots of concentrated effort is called for. So when I ran operations for the last workshop, I tried to ensure my volunteers were not working more than 8-9 hours a day, and that their shifts were regular (so no one was having to get up at 7AM one day and then stay up late the next). And also, that if they found themselves starting to feel sick or tired, I'd encourage more breaks and naps. And in ways, I let parts of operations become a little worse or not as brilliant or awesome. But the participants didn't really notice, and the feedback on ops was positive.

As for regular work, I started setting more boundaries there too.

Basically, I started noticing some aspects of work felt ughy / aversive, and instead of trying to "debug myself" and then "find a solution," I was more willing to just be like, "actually, nah, fuck that. I don't want to."

Whereas before, I might have thought being a good rationalist was about solving all my bugs through internal work or changing the environment or some other radical thing... I eventually realized, "actually no, I'm just gonna say 'no' and 'give up' on some things instead of trying to make it work." And I think this is a healthier policy in the long run.

comment by aarongertler · 2018-11-07T22:12:43.257Z · score: 13 (9 votes) · EA · GW

I'd like to call attention to Elizabeth's use of bolded comments for opening up separate question threads. I'm not sure how novel that is, but I've never seen it before, and it's brilliant! Much better than ending a post with a string of questions and leaving people to fend for themselves as they sort out the answers.

If you plan on posting something and want to encourage discussion, I strongly recommend doing what Elizabeth did here. I'll try to find a way to incorporate her technique if the Forum team ever publishes a "guide to writing good posts".

comment by riceissa · 2018-11-12T03:20:57.078Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

I'm not sure how novel that is, but I've never seen it before

Ben Hoffman discussed this back in December 2016 (his recent posts don't do this though), and he seems to cite Arbital propositions as inspiration.

I'm not sure if Elizabeth got the idea from Ben or if Ben came up with the idea.

comment by Elizabeth · 2018-11-07T17:12:16.498Z · score: 12 (8 votes) · EA · GW

What has helped you sleep better?

Examples:

  • Blackout curtains
  • High end earplugs
  • Meletonin
  • Theanine
  • Cortisol Manager supplement
  • Sleep Reset supplement
  • Weighted blanket
comment by Maxdalton · 2018-11-08T11:14:31.018Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · EA · GW

I sleep a lot better when I'm cooler, and I've found this helpful: https://www.chilitechnology.com/. Others recommend https://bedjet.com/.

comment by Ben Pace · 2018-11-07T17:42:27.489Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · EA · GW

In general I moved from a model where the limiting factor was absolute number of hours worked to quality of peak hours in the day, where (I believe) the latter is much higher variance and also significantly affected by not having sufficient sleep. I moved from taking modafinil (which never helped me) to taking melatonin (which helps a lot), and always letting myself sleep in as much as I need. I think this has helped a lot.

comment by Khorton · 2018-11-07T17:47:50.774Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · EA · GW

A good quality pillow (and/or mattress or mattress topper, if you can afford it) is surprisingly helpful. I'm not sure how much it affects my sleep quality, although I think it does. It definitely makes sleeping more comfortable and decreases my back and neck pain.

comment by ozymandias · 2018-11-07T18:51:55.381Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Getting pregnant may cause insomnia both while you're pregnant and postpartum (even if someone else is taking care of the baby or you've sleep-trained the baby).

At all times, I have a set of topics to think about during downtime, such as showers and walks. (I try to include several different topics, including at least one piece of fiction I'm writing.) If I can't sleep, I lie still in bed and think about one of my topics. I find I get a lot of creative insight, I avoid anxious ruminating, and I often drift off back to sleep.

Don't drink caffeine late in the afternoon, and if you use stims or other insomnia-causing medication try to take them as early as possible.

comment by toonalfrink · 2018-11-07T17:36:01.478Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

I used to be out of balance all the time, but grokking the phase response curve seems to have given me full control of my circadian rhythm. Taking term release melatonin at 16:00 and again at 20:00 can make me go to sleep a good 3 hours earlier.

However there doesn't seem to be a thing in the world that cures sleeplessness that was caused by an overload of stress. If I'm sufficiently overwhelmed, I'm going to lie awake until 04:00 no matter what I do. There is no substitute for opening up to and fixing the underlying issues.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley3) · 2018-11-08T21:21:52.977Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

For over 10 years now I've managed getting enough sleep mostly by fixing my wakeup time and going to sleep whenever I get tired. The trick is you can't really take breaks, even on the weekend, or you fall back into patterns that may result in not enough sleep (nb I do in fact not wakeup at a fixed time on Sundays, so I'm less benefiting from this advice now than I have in the past). This has worked for me even though I have narcolepsy and sometimes take "naps" during the day due to sleep attacks.

The way this seems to work is that after a few days of being tired or waking up too early (if you wake up early doing this, stay in bed and try to keep sleeping but definitely don't get up) your body learns to get tired an appropriate time for you to get enough sleep. It creates a feedback loop that is self reinforcing, and it's easy in that all you have to do is go to sleep when you're tired.

There may be other caveats to making this work but worth trying since it's simple and doesn't even require you buy anything.

comment by Matej_Vrzala (MatejVrzala) · 2018-11-09T14:59:12.661Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Having regime and not breaking it. (Now after a year, I can break it by one or two hours, if I can sleep the next morning longer)

Always sleeping enough hours (luckily, I don't have to be at work on time)

Meditating (learning to step out of the anxious thoughts and rumminating)

Having blue light off on the phone and notebook. And ideally not using it.

Not looking at social media, emails and other stuff which can bring me anxious thoughts.

Trying to read in the evening

Use podcast / audiobook when I really feel weird about sleeping.

Open window

comment by misha · 2018-11-08T16:36:13.456Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

  • Compressionless socks (from Qatar airlines)
  • Strong norm for not using a computer after 2230
    • My self-control is much weaker after a workday. Even if I have good intentions I usually semi-automatically do something addictive and unproductive for a few hours.
    • Also, helps with melatonin.
comment by toonalfrink · 2018-11-07T18:11:07.782Z · score: 10 (8 votes) · EA · GW

I have a hypothesis about burnout that feels true, but I can't validate it because it's purely based on introspection and things other people said. Still it might inspire a fix that works:

Most fatigue is emotional fatigue, and most emotional fatigue (or all?) comes from what I call cognitive dissonance, or subagents that disagree. These subagents are relatively independent agents in you that represent and try to achieve needs that you have. For example the reason that it's hard to concentrate if you have to the toilet is because the subagent that wants you to go to the toilet is interfering with your otherwise aligned coalition of agents that are aiming at something else.

If you repeatedly do something that increases cognitive dissonance, by not meeting a specific need that you have, or acting against something you want, you build up a debt. Your subagents become increasingly "distrustful" of one another, until they just stop playing along at all and stage a "coup", so to speak. This is when parts of you become so much at odds with your usual motivations that they completely block you. We call that burnout.

Most of the time, we're barely aware that we're doing this. We put on tight clothes, sit in noisy places, deprive ourselves of sleep, tolerate scary people, skip lunch. We think that we get used to it, but we just forcefully ignore it. We take stimulants to dull the senses just so that we can keep our focus. That's how we unwittingly build up the dissonance. It's putting on emotional debt one escape at the time.

Suggestions for putting this model to use:

  • Identify the things you secretly need that you're hiding from yourself. For example I might find that I'm really not happy with my insecure financial situation.
  • Strive to be altruistic, but only under the condition that those needs are already mostly met. For example I might reduce my hours from 60 to 40 so that I have enough time for rejuvenation.
  • Routinely check in with yourself, to make sure you're not unknowingly damaging yourself. "Am I hungry/thirsty? Am I cold/warm? Can I handle what this person just said? Do I feel safe?"
  • Notice the failure mode of trying to please someone else just so that they will give you something you need. Be self-sufficient. See social anxiety as an indication that you're not. For example I might put some more attention on optimizing my self-care and housekeeping skills, and get a side job, so that failing in my EA efforts will not damage me
  • Recognize that stimulants are an excellent tool to ignore your needs. Coffee has wrecked me more than once.
  • Schedule downtime (like meditation or just staring at a wall) so that it becomes impossible to ignore your feelings, forcing you to deal with them

comment by reallyeli · 2019-04-19T02:19:00.370Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

This is how it feels to me to be mentally fatigued.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley3) · 2018-11-09T00:29:49.310Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

I feel like this misses out on the main way I get fatigued from work, which is exhausting how much I can do before something in my brain (the hippocampus?) demands I stop for memory consolidation. If I take a roughly 90 minute break of doing nothing directed, possible with sleep, I'll be able to continue on after hitting this point. The felt experience is like I can't commit anything addition to long-term memory.

Not really a source of burnout though since it happens over the course of hours rather than days and is recovered from with rest, but maybe people would mistake something like this for burnout if they just kept pushing through it all the time.

comment by Elizabeth · 2018-11-07T17:16:07.686Z · score: 10 (8 votes) · EA · GW

How have you bought your way out of work-life conflict?

Examples:

  • More expensive housing closer to work.
  • Uber/lyft
  • Takeout instead of cooking.
  • Housecleaning service.
comment by ozymandias · 2018-11-07T18:53:18.387Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Hiring someone to watch my kid instead of trying to work during naps and in the evenings.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley3) · 2018-11-09T00:39:28.358Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

My heuristic here is to check to see if I need to do the activity (maybe it's something I've just incorrectly thought I had to do because of some incorrect, unexamined assumption) and if I want to do the activity. If I'm not excited about doing it then I check to see how much it would cost me to get someone else to do it, and if it costs less than some number at which I value the time during which I would have to do the task, I pay for it instead, otherwise I become happy to do it because I generate value with the time over what I would have had otherwise.

comment by aarongertler · 2018-11-07T22:09:02.661Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Not so much "buying my way out of conflict", but still "using money to reduce feelings of burnout":

In my experience, people who are overworked tend to go to extremes. They'll eat too much or skip meals; they'll sleep until noon or stay up all night; they'll spend money impulsively or practice frugality to the point of deprivation.

I have a balance of self-indulgent and self-sacrificing tendencies, but I've substantially reduced the burden of the former by reframing my "indulgences" to "treating myself nicely".

In this new outlook, I'm not "wasting money on fast food"; I'm "buying myself a nice meal to pay myself back for a long night of work". I'm not "drinking too much caffeine to force myself awake", I'm "gifting myself a soda to help me face the work with good cheer".

I can imagine this being dangerous (it's a cliche that people addicted to alcohol find reasons to "deserve" another drink), but it's worked well for me; instead of feeling bad about two things (my work *and* my indulgence), I now feel bad about half of a thing (my work, tempered by self-care).

I also tried this strategy as a tutor and found that it worked well. Students who were used to being pressured by their parents were surprised when I told them to treat themselves well the night before and the day after an SAT: "Tell your parents that Aaron said you deserve a break" was an effective tool for stress reduction.

comment by Elizabeth · 2018-11-07T17:10:25.578Z · score: 8 (6 votes) · EA · GW

How have you created social support at work? What things were attempted but backfired?

Examples of things that worked:

  • "One thing was part of a training we got on diversity and inclusion. As a warm-up sort of opening-up thing, with the whole company in one room, the presenter did a "stand up if..." For a whole bunch of things. You were allowed to just sit the whole time if you didn't want to share, but it was a large group and all of the things were fairly common experiences, that got increasingly taboo. Started out light like, stand up if you have a pet, and got heavier, like, stand up if you've lost a loved one to suicide. And SUDDENLY everyone was a WHOLE PERSON who has loved ones and pain and has been through some shit, and lots of them have been through some of the same shit as you. That said, this workshop happened at a company that was already pretty great about social bonds, and I feel like a lot more people might opt out if my current company tried it...."
  • "I worked with there was a critical mass of musicians, and a coworker booked some time for us in a music studio to jam together. We had a wide range of musical abilities, but generally were able to play together and have a really good time. It really brought me closer to my coworkers, especially the one who organized it."
  • Massive drinking.
  • Letting a large but racist donor walk away.
  • Group lunches for identity or interest groups.
  • A liberal attitude towards employee usage of conference rooms in off hours, e.g. for D+D games.
  • Explicit channels for compliments towards peers.

Examples of things that backfired:

  • Branded clothing not available in your size or cut (most commonly, a lack of women's shirts at tech companies)
  • Scheduling parties outside of working hours.
  • Almost anything from the above list, if you experience it as invasive rather than supportive.
comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2018-11-13T00:41:32.436Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

(I originally posted this comment in a subthread that got deleted)

At the EA Hotel [EA · GW] we eat dinner together as a house every evening. Sometimes we play board games after. I think this has worked really well for providing social support/'regularly being together', and I highly recommend experimenting with shared meals if you live in a group house/work at the same organization and don't already do it. The key prerequisites are: a system for figuring out who's cooking, and a way to notify everyone when the food is ready (we ring a bell and put a message in the house Facebook chat).

Elizabeth responded with:

"The following is presented as an example of how organizing social support is hard, not that this is a bad idea: I find shared meals really stressful, and I know other people do as well. The fact that the default bonding activity is shared meals seems really bad to me. Between eating disorders, medical food restrictions, and simple preferences, just choosing a restaurant or menu can be really fraught."

comment by aarongertler · 2018-11-07T22:19:22.976Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

+1 for "liberal attitude towards employee usage of conference rooms"; Epic does this, and it's excellent.

Another good practice from Epic: They have a system for registering one's expertise -- "I'm really good at Visual Basic, call me if you have an issue" -- which they allow employees to use for non-work interests. That's how I found Epic's Magic: the Gathering club, and how I found enough people to start a corporate EA group there (the system gave me an easy way to contact people with a stated interest in psychology or philosophy).

--

Was the "massive drinking" example from resource you found, or from your own personal experience? I can imagine that practice creating social support, but it also seems to have an especially high risk of feeling "invasive" -- for people who don't drink at all, people who feel pressured to drink too much, people who are trying to cut down on their drinking, etc.

comment by Elizabeth · 2018-11-07T22:31:11.171Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

"Massive drinking" was reported by a friend on my FB wall. I agree with you that it's fraught, but not necessarily more so than the "stand up if this applies to you" game, which one person on FB objected to pretty strongly.

My experience at Wave was that there were things they did that felt supportive and welcoming, that at my previous job would have felt invasive and required an emotional performance. I'm not sure there is a substitute for a healthy workplace.

comment by lincolnq · 2018-11-08T10:34:54.891Z · score: 6 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks Elizabeth, this is really useful. I'm happy you said such nice things about Wave, but I don't know that they're fully deserved; I worry about burnout (both in myself and our employees) constantly. This is great though.

comment by elo · 2018-11-08T00:36:07.719Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · EA · GW

I previously investigated the cannon and claims around commute times and found that the research cited didn't support those claims. I never wrote that up (sorry).

I came to question the cannon when I talked to all my local rats about how they commute and their preferences.

I found that contrary to the claims in cannon - people liked their public transport commute and were using it to read, talk to friends and generally enjoy their time to unwind from work on the way home. The research talks about time of commute but generalises from car driving and traffic sitting commute time.

Of the people I talked to who walked or bicycled to work, they also enjoyed the commute and the excuse for incidental physical exercise. (the research in the cannon agrees with this)

On the topic of driving to work. The research proposes that driving with underlying health conditions like obesity that make sitting still for long periods of time (potentially in pain) is the cause of the lack of happiness. Back problems are bad for long driving as well.

Ammended claims: travel to work by exercising methods, or find a way to enjoy your commute (audio books, books, social etc.)

*cannon is the word I use to describe community cannon.

comment by erickb · 2018-11-08T17:43:57.202Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks for pointing this out. Research particularly seems to show that people who commute by bike are the most satisfied, followed by walking, then trains, then buses and carpools (which are almost as bad as driving):

http://web.pdx.edu/~jbroach/654/homework/Smith_2013.pdf

Personally, I normally commute by a combo of bike and train, and I find that on days when I have to drive instead it does add stress, especially if traffic is bad.

comment by Elizabeth · 2018-11-07T17:16:33.288Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Managers: what tools helped you become a better manager?

comment by Maxdalton · 2018-11-08T18:14:52.298Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · EA · GW

I found the Manager Tools basics podcasts, and the Effective Manager a great way to cover the basics. (But I know others have found them less helpful.)

A great piece on this from the Forum is: Ben West's post on Deliberate Performance in People Management [EA · GW].

comment by toonalfrink · 2018-11-07T17:39:14.280Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW
a good start would be to simply recognize management as what you are doing and a skill that needs to be learned.

I would like to second this, and add that it seems very hard to switch from management to direct work. As a result I would often do neither as I tried to focus on deep work but didn't quite get into it. Gotta schedule specific time for deep work, or just barely do it at all. I opted for the latter, which I find more efficient.

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2019-04-20T00:14:49.841Z · score: 5 (6 votes) · EA · GW

Could a Forum mod give more context about the deleted comment on this post?

(The one deleted by Max Dalton on 2018-11-8)

Seems like the comment was deleted by a mod, not by the comment author. If that's correct...

  • Was the comment author informed that their comment was being deleted?
  • Did the comment author consent to have their comment deleted?
  • What about the comment led to it being deleted by a mod?

This is surprising to me; I wasn't aware that EA Forum mods were deleting content from the Forum.

comment by Milan_Griffes · 2019-05-07T19:03:59.159Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Update: I corresponded with Aaron Gertler & Oliver Habryka about this. Some things I learned below.

Was the comment author informed that their comment was being deleted?

Comment authors receive an automatically generated notice when their comment is deleted by a moderator.

Did the comment author consent to have their comment deleted?

As we discussed this, I realized that "consent" is not very coherent in this context, as being a moderator means being empowered to take actions that sometimes cut against the desires of content authors.

There seems to be a pretty fundamental tension between a "freedom of expression" consideration & a "mods are empowered to take actions that maintain discourse norms" consideration.

It's not obvious where on that tradeoff curve is ideal for the EA Forum (I biased more towards "free expression", Oli biased more towards "empowered mods").

What about the comment led to it being deleted by a mod?

The deleted comment was by a former CFAR instructor about their experience working at CFAR. It included a lot of details specific to CFAR; my understanding is that it was deleted to avoid having the discussion of burnout be all about CFAR.

I still don't really understand the case for deleting a comment like this (probably because I weight the "free expression" consideration higher than the Forum mods seem to).

It seems like comments are being deleted by mods infrequently enough that this isn't particularly worrisome.

comment by Elizabeth · 2018-11-07T17:13:55.288Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · EA · GW

How have you created clarity in your role or norms?

Examples:

  • Insisting your boss give instructions to you and your co-worker at the same time so he stopped telling you mutually exclusive things.
comment by jimrandomh · 2018-11-07T19:36:46.376Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Nutrition! Skipping meals or eating substandard meals pushes people into burnout-like symptoms fast (no pun intended). For an organization, that means making sure lunch is built into peoples' daily schedule in such a way that it won't get skipped under pressure. An all-nighter or a day of physical activity requires an extra meal to make up for the energy expenditure, which most people don't realize, amplifying the detrimental effects.

comment by jimrandomh · 2018-11-07T19:45:53.776Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Nutrition problems tend to disguise themselves as other kinds of stress; being hungry makes people emotionally brittle, which creates a thousand red herrings when you're trying to figure out what's wrong.

comment by Ben Pace · 2018-11-07T22:59:22.103Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

It has never occurred to me that pulling an all-nighter should imply eating more, though it seems like such a natural conclusion in retrospect (though I strongly avoid taking all-nighters).

What's the actual reasoning? How does the body determine how much food it can intake and where does the energy expenditure come from precisely? Movement? Cognitive work?

comment by jimrandomh · 2018-11-08T00:25:47.113Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · EA · GW

I based this mainly on a combination of a model and personal experience/self-experimentation, but hadn't previously looked for data to quantify it. I've significantly downgraded my confidence in the correct quantity of extra food to eat being meal-sized, but am uncertain since none of the studies measure quite the thing I care about.

This study measured energy expenditure as a result of an all-nighter, in subjects whose food intake was controlled (ie not allowed to eat extra), and found that

Missing one night of sleep had a metabolic cost of ∼562 ± 8.6 kJ (∼134 ± 2.1 kcals) over 24 h, which equates to a ∼7% higher 24 h EE

This (134kcal) is smaller than I was expecting; on the other hand, not being able to eat extra calories puts a pretty sharp limit on ability to spend extra calories. From a different angle, this paper measured sleep and wake energy expenditure and found a ratio of 1.67:1 (in nonobese controls), which would imply that converting sleep hours to wake hours would increase TDEE by ~15%. A study which measured next-day intake rather than metabolic expenditure found a 22% increase; but it's possible subjects overcompensated by eating more extra than they consumed.

comment by Robert_Wiblin · 2018-12-07T03:08:44.397Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

I think the link here has been 'miscopied' and goes to a different unrelated article:

"80,000 hours goes into the multitude of reasons you should do this here"

I expect you meant to link to this one:

Why even our readers should save enough to live for 6-24 months by Ben Todd

comment by Elizabeth · 2018-12-13T04:30:01.832Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Fixed. Thank you.

comment by avturchin · 2018-11-09T11:44:08.547Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

One more way to treat burnout is to completely change the profession or main type of activity. I did it a few times. I find that after around 10 years I have enough interest to return to abounded field.

Such decisions are costly and may not help to have great success in life, as some most successful people were able to concentrate on one-two projects for much longer than others. But also some people are successful exactly because they are working in different projects (e.g. Musk).

comment by chris-marzullo · 2019-02-18T06:30:28.660Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

How to distinguish between burnout and similar looking problems, like depression and anxiety

I have at various points been considered by doctors and people who know me, and myself, as severely each of these. My opinion now though is that I actually "caught" an infection and medicine isn't very good at diagnosing these or differential diagnosis in general. I've since made a full functional recovery, if not a total one. I've jotted down some thoughts on this in selected answers > Health on my Quora profile. https://www.quora.com/profile/Chris-Martin-571/Posts/Selected-questions-answers-upvotes

Perusing on EAblogs.net about this general topic led me to your blog to this post.

comment by laurenlee · 2018-11-07T21:56:05.378Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · EA · GW

My realizations about Burnout, while at CFAR:

Note: I worked at CFAR for about two years and left in September of this year. My opinions are my own (obviously?).

3. CFAR is not a great place to work (at least as of 2018), if Burnout is a concern

Things CFAR does great on:

  • autonomy; employees are expected to be productive, but doesn't try to strongly dictate how they be productive; there are no required number of hours, and you can work from home if you let people know you're going to be doing that; you can take breaks (there is a good nap room); vacation days are flexible / they trust you to do what's sensible for you
  • short commutes; no one's commute is horribly long to the office, and mine was a 10-min walk; they also did an experiment (which might still be going) where they alleviate transportation costs to the office
  • I think it's easy to get enough sleep
  • it's not perfect for doing deep work, in terms of interruptions, but i think it's better than some other workplaces. and again, if you need to, you can work from home or some other location.

Things CFAR sorely lacks:

  • clear expectations on roles and requirements; my time at CFAR was mostly me trying to figure out what to do, like at all. no one told me what I should be doing. i had to create my job from scratch, and creating it was an ongoing project, not something that had a clear finished state. i kept having to find myself projects.
  • feedback from managers; i basically didn't have a manager. no one checked in with me or met with me on a regular basis. i technically did have a 'manager', but their role was mostly on paper. in effect, i was on my own. no one told me whether I was doing well or poorly. no one was tracking it either. my attempts to get more feedback mostly fell flat. i felt bad that it didn't seem like a priority for anyone, and this resulted in me feeling kind of unimportant to the organization and like maybe it was my fault. (this was true both during Pete's ED and Tim's ED.)
  • social support; everyone's kind of on their own in there; i mean, if you have friends who happen to be coworkers, that helps a lot. you can talk to them. but there's no social support built into the work environment. and because it's rare for the employees to be in the same place at the same time, you don't have that 'regularly being together' that seems necessary for building long-term trust and bonds as a team. this has been a complaint of cfar employees for a long time, from before i was there. I think they've tried to fix it in a variety of ways, but somehow... the problem seems intractable. there have been 'retreats' where employees get in a big house and do work on curriculum or operations and do circling, but ... i did not find Circling with my coworkers to build bonds or a sense of togetherness. I felt it drove me further away from them and created feelings of isolation.

In my personal view, lots of employees have burnt out after working at CFAR, and I think the above explains a little of why, but there is probably more to it.

I did not find CFAR to be a healthy work environment. I wouldn't recommend it to most people.

(You are warned going in that it's a 'hard place to work' and you do KNOW that you won't be supported in many ways you'd expect at other jobs, so I didn't go in not-consenting to it. I do not regret my time at CFAR. But, I think there's some internal "denial" / "dissonance" going on about the above, such that it's difficult for them to adopt the perspective that the issues are really all that bad. and there is reticence to admit that the work environment has led ppl to burnout in a systematic way, but I just strongly believe this has been happening.)

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2018-11-08T10:26:09.044Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

At the EA Hotel [EA · GW] we eat dinner together as a house every evening. Sometimes we play board games after. I think this has worked really well for providing social support/'regularly being together', and I highly recommend experimenting with shared meals if you live in a group house/work at the same organization and don't already do it. The key prerequisites are: a system for figuring out who's cooking, and a way to notify everyone when the food is ready (we ring a bell and put a message in the house Facebook chat).

comment by Elizabeth · 2018-11-08T18:06:55.238Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

The following is presented as an example of how organizing social support is hard, not that this is a bad idea: I find shared meals really stressful, and I know other people do as well. The fact that the default bonding activity is shared meals seems really bad to me. Between eating disorders, medical food restrictions, and simple preferences, just choosing a restaurant or menu can be really fraught.