Data science and data engineering are incredibly cognitively demanding professions. As data professionals, we are required to leverage both our analytical/engineering skills and our interpersonal skills to be effective contributors within our organisations. Based on my personal experience, the field seems to concentrate humans who are detail-oriented, curious, impact-driven and tenacious to a fault. This A-type personality profile, while magical when applied to technical work, could reasonably also count as an occupational hazard.
We also have a skills shortage in our field, so many data professionals are taking on more than what is reasonable for one human to endure. It is therefore no surprise that the sexiest profession of the 21st century is also one of the professions with the highest rates of burnout.
The thing is - this field is great to work in. Extracting a clear narrative from data is one of the most satisfying things ever (I might be biassed). The minds that give us these valuable insights are the same minds that need careful tending to. Anti-burnout strategies are not only about ensuring productivity in the workplace - they are fundamental to the improved quality of life we should be striving for as a society.
I think of those in our field as not unlike high-performance athletes. Boxers wear boxing gloves. Hockey players wear shin guards. Ballet dancers warm up for hours before performances. How are we proactively protecting the minds of our data professionals?
Data comes in all shapes and sizes. It can often be difficult to know where to start. Whatever your problem, Jumping Rivers can help.
Could you be burnt out?
Before we go on to discuss strategies for dealing with burnout, it’s important to consider whether you are experiencing some of the symptoms.
The NHS describes those who are burnt out as:
- feeling overwhelmed
- experiencing racing thoughts or difficulty concentrating
- feeling constantly worried, anxious or scared
- feeling a lack of self-confidence
- having trouble sleeping or feeling tired all the time
- avoiding things or people you are having problems with
- eating more or less than usual
- drinking or smoking more than usual
On a personal note, I have experienced many of these symptoms during my PhD and beyond. I had this overwhelming feeling that my to-do list was simultaneously too long and also not really worth doing at all. I felt disconnected from myself and everyone in my life. Therapy was the only thing that enabled me to get a handle on my life and career path. If you are experiencing most of these symptoms on a daily basis, I highly recommend starting a journey with a trained therapist. Dealing with burnout wasn’t a pleasant experience. I’m grateful that I had the support of my therapist, family and friends. If you are experiencing this, know that you deserve the care and attention. I encourage you to make the calls you need to make.
Here are some strategies I employ to prevent burnout:
- I remind myself that I deserve care, especially from myself. This is the most tough nut to crack, but half the battle won. A good tip my coach gave me was to write two positive affirmations for myself for every self-deprecating comment I made about myself. This was really weird at first, but eventually I started writing affirmations to myself like “I deserve rest” and “I am capable”. Pretty soon into this journey, I started to believe them.
- I tune into my body. When I notice that my sleep is disrupted, or I’m more snacky and snoozy than usual, a little red flag is raised in my mind. When my nervous system is feeling overwhelmed, I become aware that I need some self-care intervention. Something that really helps me is time in nature, a phone call with an old friend, a hot bath or an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
- I practice saying no. As a curious and tenacious human, I want to say yes to all of the cool projects and challenges that come my way, even if I have objectively no business taking them on. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you necessarily should be the person to do it. If you struggle to say “no” to your boss directly, try saying something like “let me have a look at what I can shuffle around on my plate to make space for this task”. This way you have time to strategise fitting the work into your schedule, while reminding your manager that your plate is already at capacity.
- I try my best to communicate my needs to the people who are affected by my actions. Managing expectations reduces my stress and the stress of those around me.
- I make time for things that bring me pure unadulterated joy. Reconnect with parts of yourself that you left in childhood, like reading an old favourite book or watching the Lion King. Refilling your cup is so important. It isn’t enough to rest, it’s also important to recharge.
In recovering from burnout, it was very important to me to be intentional about the next workplace I would invest my time and energy in. Eight months in, I am really enjoying the level of care that I am seeing within Jumping Rivers. There is a very strong culture of colleagues trying to make sure that their peers don’t overwork themselves. People here are very eager to help one another out where they can. We have a generous amount of leave and flexible working hours. It’s not uncommon to look at calendars and see “MOT”, “School run”, “Going for a paddle”. With this visibility, we remind one another that we work to live and don’t live to work. There is also trust from upper management that we are all trying our very best, and don’t need micromanaging. The value of this trust cannot be overstated.
I’ll finish by saying that no person is perfect.This human-level imperfection scales to organisation-level imperfection. No group of humans is going to perfectly navigate the challenges presented by modern life. What’s important to me is to try my best to bring patience, sensitivity and empathy to all areas, including the workplace. To my colleagues and employers, of course, but most importantly to myself.
If you are practising self-care for a few weeks and are still feeling overwhelmed, it might be time to go and see a mental health care professional. Unfortunately one cannot eat-pray-love oneself out of all issues.