6.24.2020

Tim burns out

What is burnout?

The high stress, culture shock, and expectations of humanitarian work make burnout unfortunately common. The archetypical case is a program manager, deep in the bush, implementing a Kafkaesque log-frame. Or the project development officer in a hardship posting, facing dwindling donor interest, who has not left the base for months and starts to refuse her vacation leave. The trouble about burnout is that while everyone knows about it, no one thinks it will happen to them. Until it does.[tl1]

Devex defined burnout best: “what is burnout? Let say what it is not: it’s not about having the odd day when you feel tired and overworked. Burnout is much more serious: experts define it as a syndrome of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who work with people in some capacity. In other words, burnout creeps up, leaving us physically, mentally and emotionally depleted, as well as frustrated, disillusioned, cynical, ineffective and emotionally distant from those around us, including the ones we are meant to serve. All this may be accompanied by disturbed sleep, crying, staring at the screen of your computer without getting much done, a sense of guilt, angry reactions, chain-smoking, too much drinking, and social withdrawal. Sound familiar?”

My road to burnout started not with a posting to the deep bush, but with unemployment. In September of 2019 REACH offered me a post in their Afghanistan mission, but I could not take it due to the intense conditions of the Kabul mission. Being ill-suited for Kabul compound life is not something to be ashamed of. But at the time unemployment felt like a crisis, and I struggled with shame and lost status. That September I found myself in the US with no job prospects or local connections outside my family. My romantic entanglements in Jordan were thoroughly concluded, my academic projects submitted, and my friends back home had moved on with their lives during my years abroad. Embarrassed at my unemployment and lacking community, I started working furiously.


Plans are laid

I broke up my rebuilding into three distinct actions. First, I applied to PhD programs. In theory, the applications are fairly short. A two page statement of purpose, a personal statement, GRE scores and a check. But short applications make great time sinks, because a two page SOP can be rewritten many, many times.

Second I applied to tens, if not hundreds, of jobs. The low-cost of sending an application means each position receives hundreds of applications, so competing means volume. Employers dealt with the volume either with sophisticated key word searches or the less-sophisticated “throw away 500 of them” method. So volume and quality are both necessary. Tragically, the online applications are a time-consuming and risk strategy.

Thirdly, I moved to Lebanon. For both private sector and NGO jobs, being in country is a great qualification, often letting you jump the entire online application. The networking opportunities were much stronger than my hometown. Besides from past research visits I knew the context and culture well and I already had valuable language and professional skills for Levantine NGOs.


Plans go awry

The rest of Fall 2019 was a blur of overworking myself. For three weeks I worked the harvest for extra cash while I wrote my PhD statement of purpose. I learned randomista econometrics to apply to IPA. I visited friends in Israel to rebuild my confidence after REACH, and wrote the statement of purpose on the plane ride in. My mind on my writing, I flubbed the Israeli boarder interrogation and spent two days in detention.

Lebanon was exhilarating and exhausting. I arrived two months into the current revolution (thawra). After Lebanon’s civil war elites of each sect built a consensus democracy. In exchange for consent, each elite received rents through coercive, speculative property sales, high interest rates. For decades critical state services like healthcare have been gatekept by sectarian parties. The collapse of Lebanon’s foreign exchange revealed the web of rents that bound the elites together. As a total politics nerd with a background in consociationalism the upheaval was fascinating. I had puzzles to solve in Lebanon’s kafkaesque political economy. The protests and dwindling stocks of foreign exchange allowed me to constantly interact with those puzzles. I would stand in the background of speeches at martyr square and witness the revolution wrestle with reforming consociation and reinventing the Lebanese economy.

Despite the direct access to my Favorite Thing, I continued overworking. After I arrived in Lebanon, I decided to retake the GRE to gain a few percentile in the math section. That same very week I advanced a round with IPA and was offered their Stata test. I could have accepted my GRE math scores would be a few points lower that year, or asked IPA to wait a week. Instead I pushed myself even further writing and coding. I delayed making friends and finding a permanent apartment to finish those tests. All the while, I was not just applying to jobs; I felt it was not enough[1].

To save money, I carried three backpacks onto my Ryanair flights. One day in Lebanon I went hiking, then played sports to make friends and network, then attended speeches in martyrs square. The next day I herniated a disc and I could barely walk.

By the end of December I was a mess. I would play videogames for 8 hours at a time. I struggled to follow up with new friends. I felt an intense need for security and community. I decided to fly home for Christmas, hoping to earn extra cash delivering packages. I had enough money to come back, but I needed the feeling of security that came with the holiday season.

My back gave out my first day on the job. I was too stubborn to admit beforehand that my back could not hack it. I stayed on the trucks hours after the searing pain in my legs began. The next day I couldn’t walk. I was devastated, I felt like I had failed again. The sequence left me much more risk averse for the next 6 months. I communicated less. I did more compulsive behaviors. I took more risk averse decisions (which I do not normally do). I became distant from my passions and identities (post forthcoming). My emotional state returned to normal that summer, after 4-5 months.

Many stressors were beyond my control, but I controlled my pace of work. I could not predict the Israeli detention or the back. But the pace of these challenges was within my control. Time after time I underestimated the stress I was under and overestimated what I could do. As I placed more pressure on myself, I lost the ability to assess my stress level. I justified those decisions by thinking that once I found a job or got into a PhD program I would relax, rather than understanding my immediate needs. Ultimately, that lack of instropection compromised my emotional being and prevented realizing most of my objectives. Had I monitored my emotional state and moderated my ambitions, I could achieved more with less pain.


What is to be done![2]

Humanitarians and altruists can reduce burnout by moderating the pressure we put on ourselves when in crisis. However, people’s expectation range from doing too little to squeezing themselves like an orange. While I suspect humanitarians and EA’s cluster on the squeezing side of the spectrum, the real trick is knowing your own limits. The problem is that noticing burnout is diffuclt. The symptoms build almost imperceptibly over weeks and months. The more stressed out you are the less you introspect. Stress-inducing crisis are unpredictable. And unlike noticing confusion you have few chances to practice.

Rather than give general advice, I will target my advice at Tim2019. Tim2020 is more concerned about burnout, naturally, than the typical reader. But Tim2019 had no experience with burnout was burying himself in his work (see above). Tim2019 would only have implemented effective and low-cost interventions, so if advice is helpful to Tim_2019, it should serve the reader well.

First, keep track of your stress by building a week-in-review habit. Every Saturday morning take an hour to write about the habits you are building, your greatest successes and your greatest failures from the week. Add a short section where you list your stress symptoms. The act of writing out your stress symptoms every week may prevent them from building up unseen. Once you detect impending burnout, build more relaxing activities into your day and drop a few projects.

Second, consider CBT for anxiety. If your anxiety is strong enough to interfere with your life, it is probably worth treating. Psychiatrists, psychologists, insurance executives, monks and talentless hacks have all written oceans about treating anxiety, but the strongest evidence-backed treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy. I recommend reading “When Panic Attacks” by David Burns. This solution is more time-consuming but also the most effective.

Third, train yourself to be less competitive or status-oriented. Unfortunately many determinants of status and success are beyond your control. For example, say you have low typical intellectual engagement. After your bachelors, you never pick up a non-fiction book again. You desire to become a successful academic, but foiled by your lack of curiosity. You feel embarrassed at abandoning your past ambition. You might chill out if you believe changing your TIE is as difficult changing your height[3]. That said, changing the actual thought pattern would be difficult. That is one knot I cannot untie, dear reader.

[1] Between passive candidates, resume spam and keyword filters, new entrants can expect to send hundreds of personalized applicants to find an entry job even in a good market https://hbr.org/2019/05/recruiting

[2] I have split the WIBD– the first part provides advice for humanitarians and effective altruists in general based on my experience. The second part are my conclusions, which I do not expect to generalize.

[3] Maybe people can change their TIE? I honestly have no idea.