UX Engineer Chris Gibbons

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770.6 miles, that was what was on the car’s milometer when I pulled up on the driveway after a week away.

The family had been to Devon, we left the previous Friday to visit the “English Riviera”. My only previous encounter with the South Coast had been a visit to the New Forest before a week on the Isle of Wight. We loved that trip and it’s safe to say we enjoyed this.

But, when you’ve spent the last 10 hours of a long journey stuck in traffic, it seems that seven days aren’t enough to recharge the batteries.

Anyways, I digress.

Geek Mental Health awareness

Picture the scene, you break your arm and end up having a cast. The next day you go to work and everyone will ask you the same question - “how did you do that?”. But, if you have a bad day, or week, or longer, how many people will actually take the time to ask you if everything is OK? I’m guessing not that many?

So why is it that we’re willing to ask about a physical injury, yet are either too scared or just don’t know how to talk about mental health issues?

Now, I’m no expert on these issues, far from it in fact, nor have I been diagnosed with any mental health issues.

The point of this post is more of a retrospective look at issues that have affected me. And if by sharing they can help just one person then I’ll know it’s been worth it.

Recognising burnout

Burnout. This is a funny one. You’ve no doubt heard it, or at the least know someone who say’s that they’ve had it.

Both 2013 and 2014, for various reasons, were tough years for me, both personally and professionally. It got to the point where I’d hit an all time low with the web industry as a whole. I was ready for a career change.

I don’t know when exactly, or what triggered these feelings, but the “eureka” moment which opened my eyes to things came when I attended DDD North.

It was one of the sessions Burnout Is Real And it’s Coming To Get You which struck a chord with me.

When Richard began to list some of the chief causes of his own burnout:

They all resonated with my own issues. In one form or another I’d experienced all of them in some way. This was the moment that made me sit up and take notice.

I remember being sat next to a few developers on the day, and to say they were cynical of this was an understatement. It’s easy to judge when you’re not in that situation, yet the lack of empathy shown by these seasoned developers shocked me. Sadly this cynical attitude seems to be endemic within the industry — at least it was at the time of the conference.

On the train back home I started to think about what Richard talked about. For the first time in what seemed like an age, I got my notepad out and started to write things down. My notes contained words like relax, hobby, side project, talk about it. Each one of them helped me start off on the long road out of the dip I was in.

Looking back at the years I mentioned, I understand now that I’d allowed the pressure to pile on, both from myself and colleagues.

I felt guilty at leaving on time. I felt guilty for saying no. I felt guilty for not working when I was at home trying to relax.

Why?

Honestly, I don’t know. Maybe it was the eagerness to impress during my “junior” years in the job and over time it just became a habit?

Obviously, hindsight is a wonderful thought and one I could have no-doubt used back then, but had I have known what path I was setting off down then you’d be right in thinking that I’d have stopped right there.

Importance of personal reflection

2014 whips by and before we know it 2015 rolls around. By summer I’d missed a few 1 to 1s, so when one finally happened, little did I know of what was to come.

Needless to say, it didn’t go well and this shocked me, deeply.

“You’re coasting, you’re too comfortable and not pushing yourself”. “You need to step outside of your comfort zone”. “You’re not delegating enough”. “You’re a senior, you need to step things up”.

I felt like a failure, but I didn’t let it get me down — well, not too much — instead, afterwards I got my notepad out and again started to make notes.

I analysed what everyone said, whether I felt it fair or not — and let’s just be clear, not all of what was said was either fair or justified — I looked at reasons why these things may have been raised, I looked at what I could do to stop things, to improve things.

In the end, I spent more time reflecting and going over my notes from the meeting than I did in the actual meeting. This time was perhaps some of the most valuable thinking time I’ve had, and it led me to the conclusion that I needed to shake things up.

The shock of the meeting, coupled with the invaluable reflection led me to make the hard decision to leave the job I was in at the time and seek new adventures, well maybe nothing as grand as that, but it did lead me to take a new job.

Now every time things get tough or if I feel a little on edge, I’ll take myself off somewhere quiet and reflect on things. It’s such a small change to make, but one that can give you massive rewards.

Having someone to talk to other than yourself

A mentor, a friend, anyone.

I was fortunate to get talking, albeit rather drunk, to a close work colleague. As you do when you’re drunk you start to lose those defensive walls and forget what you’re actually saying — until the next day that is.

My friend was worried. Some of what I’d said the night concerned him, not in a way that I was a danger to myself, more in my happiness.

The week after this chat I received an email from him telling me that we had a meeting. Not in the office, but in a coffee shop away from prying eyes and ears.

We spent the next two hours talking at great length, and rather frankly, about what I’d said to try and get to the bottom of things. Nothing was off the table — and I mean nothing — obviously this helps when you know, trust and respect the other person.

He asked me all kinds of questions. We talked about home life — finances, relationships, worries, arguments, how we (my wife and I) relax, how we talk to each other. We talked about work — what I enjoyed, what I didn’t, what got me down, what got me excited. He asked me why I said I was wanting to leave the company, he asked me why now. As I say, nothing was off the table.

He then gave me “homework” and we left.

When I say homework it was more a list of open ended questions and mini tasks, all designed to help improve things in the short term and also get me to look at the bigger picture.

I was to challenge and push back on things at work when I didn’t feel they were either right. At home I had to talk more and try to open up with my wife. Personally he said I needed to think hard about whether me wanting to leave the company was, at that time, the right thing to do or if it was just a reaction to how things had been at the time.

By the time I’d got back to my desk I had a recurring meeting in my calendar. The homework was multifaceted, some tasks to think about, some to act upon from what was said. But it was to try and get me out of my rut.

The meetings we had, at the time, sometimes felt awkward and confused, but it was such a relief to have someone to talk to.

I think it’s testament to us both that nearly three years and two jobs later that we still have our meetings. We still talk as openly as we first did, still covering the same, or similar topics as we first did.

The opening question is almost always - “So, how are things at home? How are things between you and the wife” and that sets the tone for the next hour.

As for me, I still find them as valuable now as I did back then. You may be asking yourself why? Well aside from the fact we always go to a decent coffee shop, I think it’s down to the fact that I can talk about things which my friend and mentor has already been through and experienced. The answers and advice he gives me sometimes blows my mind and almost always give me the kick up the arse I need.

The patience and ability to listen shown during these meetings are a skill like none other I’ve seen. As is the skill of recognising when someone needs to talk. I was fortunate to get talking to the right person at the right time and at the right level of drunkenness. Had I not have been, then who knows where I might be now.

Ultimately they are skills I hope to hone and be able to pass on, should I ever find myself in a position where I can help someone. As for the looking out for people, that is something that no matter how my day is going, is one thing I always try to do.

If someone looks down, or looks like they’re struggling with things, or is unusually quiet, what harm can a quick chat/message/slack do? They’ll either tell you to do one or in most cases welcome the fact that someone has asked about them.

If you don’t get asked, then seek someone out. I guarantee you won’t have to look far to find someone who you can confide in, and if you’re in the lucky position of being asked how you’re feeling then for your own sake, be honest.

Go offline

Now the reason for me beginning this post about returning from my holidays was deliberate. We’d booked a great holiday cottage in Devon, little did we know that both the signals for both mobile phones, as well as the Wifi, was awful.

We had zero phone signal pretty much across the site we stayed at and it was a good 20min drive to the local town before we managed to get 3g.

As for the Wifi, well, if it managed to stay connected for longer than 5mins you’d struck gold.

Most of the family sighed; “but what about my Snapchat?” came the cries (mainly from the younger contingent). Me, I just sat a smiled as I knew that it meant one thing — peace. Okay, it meant that I’d have a backlog of emails/texts/messages but that was the furthest thing from my mind.

It meant that I could speak to people without fearing about them, or I, looking at our phones. It meant I could spend some quality time with my Wife without fear or us looking at our phones. It meant I could spend some time with my son without him wanting to play but finding me on my phone.

But most importantly it meant that I was “offline” and it felt bloody marvellous.

Time for you to take some action

It’s important that you look after yourself. We all worry about getting fat, or drinking too much, or wearing the right clothes, but how many of us stop and take stock of how we’re really feeling?

It’s actually OK to say no to things.

It’s OK to turn your phone onto Airplane mode — I’ve actually got mine set to it right now on my commute home.

It’s OK to ignore those annoying app notifications, better still try turning them off, you’ll be surprised at just how liberating it actually is.

It’s OK to leave the office at 5pm.

It’s OK to take some time every day to “check in” with yourself and your feelings.

It’s OK to ignore all this and do what works for you, just so long as you do. I didn’t and it nearly caused me to leave an industry that, as it turns out, I actually quite like.