Burning Out

Brian GilhamEssays

In 2009 I accepted a position as a Web Developer at a medium-sized marketing agency in Toronto. The pay sucked, but we had interesting clients and a really fun team. The perks were outrageous. The company-supplied beer flowed freely and we often retired to the local pub and partied well into the night. On the company dime, of course. One year, in lieu of a Christmas party, they sent us on a weeklong ski trip in Quebec.

I was blown away. I had never seen perks like that before.

Two weeks in, my team lead asked me to stay late. Our project was behind schedule and a new one was coming down the pipe. Sure, I said, cracking a beer. No problem.

We shipped.

The timeline for the new project seemed impossible. The biz dev team, eager to sell, had shoved it down the pipe in record time. Four weeks worth of work; due in two. Oh well, I thought, I’ll just have to work harder.

It took 18-hour days, countless energy drinks, and a ton of fast food, but we got it done.

We shipped.

Near the end of my probation I approached the team lead.

“Is it like this all the time?”

No, he said. This is the exception; not the rule. I took him at his word.

They gave me a raise. A year later, drunk at a Christmas party, he would admit they only gave it to me so I wouldn’t quit.

Another late night. It took everything I had, but I managed to clear my plate for the day.


Fuck. I lived an hour’s drive from the office. At any rate, I was too tired to drive home safely.

The company put me up in a hotel room for the night. Paid for the cab ride and everything.

That was nice of them. I think.

We shipped.

Our project manager was crying. Again. Sobbing into the phone, she apologized to her boyfriend. No, she wouldn’t be home tonight.

Yes, she said. She should quit.

Someone paid for dinner. Again.

We shipped.

I’d been at the office for 48 hours with no sleep. I finally decided to drive home. To shower and change. I didn’t know it then, but I’d end up driving back and working for another 24 hours.

Driving home just to change my clothes started to feel like a real pain in the ass. I started keeping a change of clothes, toothpaste, a toothbrush, and deodorant in my desk drawer.

Perfect. Now I don’t even have to leave.

We shipped.

I’m in bed. Well, a mattress on the floor. I’d spent a few days preparing to move and started feeling ill. My stomach was a mess, my head was pounding. My throat felt like it was being stabbed with a knife. I could barely stand up. My fever was off the charts.

For the next two weeks, I barely stood up.

Lying on your back for two weeks gives you a lot of time to think. To think about your health. Being a team player. Free beer and ski trips.

I wish I could say that I decided then and there to quit. But I didn’t. I stuck it out for another year.

Another year of working all night.

Another year of missing moments with my loved ones.

Another year of eating shit food and brushing my teeth in the office bathroom.

Another year of “taking one for the team”.

Another year of: We shipped.

Those perks I loved in the beginning? By the end I saw them for what they were.

Chains on the door.

(I’ve received a fair number of lovely, concerned messages since publishing this piece. While I appreciate all of the love — a ton! — I feel like I need to add a bit of a footnote.

I left the job I described in this post almost five years ago. My current gig, at TWG, couldn’t be better. I’m extremely happy and my work-life balance is much better now.

In many ways, this post is a warning. If you are in a job that’s destroying your life, I hope it gives you the push you need to quit. If you’re a junior developer, looking for your first job, I hope it helps you avoid a similar situation.)