As an unfriendly reminder of the past, I've found myself once again in an unpleasant state as a result of my working hours and my work ethic, leaving me examining the failure of my ways while trying to understand how I have managed to fall into the same bad habits as before. For the benefit of those who may read this, and for my own sanity, it's time to step through it one unpleasant truth at a time.
Working in the IT industry is not without its challenges. From starting my placement year to present day its always been apparent to me that the hours aren't the most friendly, and when you add travel into the equation things get very complicated very fast. I recall being told in my early 20's that "IT isn't a real job, you just sit at a desk all day! Try doing some manual labour for once in your life", which was ironic given the years I spent prior working in different factories doing just that, and how despite the lack of manual labour I was still feeing both drained and exhausted.
With the nature of my current work, stress adds another dimension into the equation that is difficult for some to comprehend. In one of my former IT roles a mistake made during work hours would likely inconvenience a team by 1-2 hours while a system was reprovisioned, while in the security space a bad mistake can result in the security platform of a Fortune 500 company going offline (and in some cases very bad things happening while teams are blinded). While keeping the latter in mind helps us stay sharp it also makes it difficult to switch off when the work day ends, as second-guessing yourself and your actions becomes a way of life as you are always conscious you might have missed something critical and how bad the outcome could be.
The Long Hours
These last two weeks have taken me back to a time where working long hours was the norm for me, and not in a healthy way. I found myself working 14-hour days as of late, attempting to cover two different time-zones and a mix of different tasks while at the same time preparing to switch roles. As you might imagine, working 8am to 10pm doesn't leave you time to relax, let alone switch off at the end of a challenging day. When you do this every day it starts to take its toll, but as the job is the focus you push on as you don't want to let anyone down, you can't let anyone down, no matter what.
A former manager of mine once told me that "sometimes you have to let things break for them to get better". At the time I really didn't understand this as the view to me was frankly blasphemous... How could letting things break improve them, the logic just didn't compute in my mind. In hindsight, it would have been nice (and beneficial) to have more of an explanation to that statement, but some lessons you have to learn for yourself. Over the last two weeks I was told I only needed to do one set of hours (my normal, but shifted), but as in most situations the other day-to-day tasks are still there and there isn't anyone else to pick them up. Your mind becomes a place of guilt, believing you must do all of it otherwise you are letting everyone down, even if it impacts you negatively. All too often I have fallen into this trap, and even with the negative outcomes of the past I still find myself doing it again.
With long hours comes isolation both in and out of the home. Over the years I have lost track of not just how many social engagements I have missed due to working late (in the early days), but how many friends/acquaintances I have lost due to never being around and never being in contact. The phrase 'out of sight, out of mind' really does hold true in so many different ways, and most of my life is a testimony to that. Even now, finding time to speak to my neighbours has become difficult (a task which by its own nature should be both incredibly simplistic and require little arrangement).
Life inside the home also becomes more isolated as your evenings are consumed by 'just one more client call', when in reality the stream of calls never comes to an end unless you shut down the laptop and turn off the phone. I've found myself without time in the evenings that should be spent with my partner (be it face-to-face or over by phone), left hoping they can stay up to unreasonable times so we can still speak before it's another day. Even this leaves a sense of guilt, knowing their sleep is being impacted just to satisfy my own need (even if they say its no problem).
As the days pass the effects become worse as we all know that compounded sleep loss is bad for a multitude of reasons. Over the last 18 months and the changes in my life I've been lucky enough to get more than 4 hours of sleep per night (something that until recently was a very rare privilege), but managing 90 minutes at most for days on end has been a stark reminder of why sleep really is important. Nights blur into days blur into nights again, with the distinction between each lacking as the hours pass by. Concentration becomes more difficult, taking more energy to stay focused, which in turn drains you further until you are running on empty.
Physical drain was something I always felt was impossible when working in IT (at least the parts behind a keyboard/mouse all day), as realistically you aren't being physical in your actions and so your muscles are having an easy time. I've learnt many times over the years that physical drain is possible, albeit at the hands of tiredness and exhaustion. When your body doesn't repair itself because sleep doesn't happen, and you run yourself down to the empty mark, not a muscle in your body wants to move, yet alone head out and exercise for the evening.
Over the years I have worked in IT I have burned out twice... I'm not talking about taking a week of leave to recharge and jump back in the saddle, I'm talking about being so broken that you are in pain from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, and you can't remember the name of your own sister for 3 weeks. Working over 100 hours per week is not something anyone should do, and doing it for months on end, is an easy way to an early grave.
Drinking one evening in a bed-and-breakfast 4 years ago, I was asked by the owner (who had also worked performing a similar role as myself for many years) how long I had been performing my current role given it has a limited shelf-life, to which upon hearing the answer had him both shocked and concerned. At the time I found it almost an achievement in my own determination, but looking back he definitely had a valid point.
Since finishing my placement year I have had a work ethic of always doing what I can, to the best of my ability, until I cannot do any more. Over the years it has helped me be very successful in what I do and has held me in high regard by my peers, however it has also come at a large cost to myself and those around me. The failed relationships, the lost friendships, the health issues, the stress, the anguish, and the pain... Since COVID (and spending 8 days questioning if each day would be my last), I will admit I have revised my philosophy somewhat, with a view that while I will always try to be the best I can be, it won't come at my physical/mental expense. Looking after ourselves is a task that we should all do, yet in all my years is something I have neglected to my own detriment. These last two weeks have been a reminder as to why I changed my philosophy, and why slipping into old habits is something that shouldn't be tolerated.
To What End...
With a view of not giving 110% in everything (which for those reading is a pet-peeve of mine), there is always criticism about how you could give more (especially in the context of work). I find myself questioning the nature of our day-to-day, and what it is we (as a whole) are burning ourselves out for. What is the key objective of it all? What benefit are we adding to our current (and future) generations? With global warming, rising pollution, decreases in overall population health, rampant racism, hatred against those that are different, species going extinct, and the general chaos that has become the day-to-day of the world, what race are we trying to win with our current approach? There are times when I wish the world would slow down, take a step back, and truly see the bigger picture. Our current systems are flawed (they always were), and both people and the planet are suffering as a result.
Things need to change, things must change, otherwise our problems will be what end us all.