Burnout

I’m still in between feeling ashamed and being OK about having crashed and burned at work. I’m recovering from a burnout that was long in coming and even the recovery is long in coming!

Manifestation

The few signs which undoubtedly called my attention to the fact that I was burning out were:

  • Scattered thoughts and inability to keep one thought in focus
  • Difficulty to comprehend what I was reading
  • General sudden sluggishness in even the most mundane habitual tasks
  • Loss of words
  • Loss of hair

In truth, the sudden and continued loss of hair is what worried me and got me to make an appointment at my doctor’s. I was quick to discard all of the rest as just a collateral of sustained work done in a period of rush, such as we all regularly have. I didn’t lose all of my hair but I was losing enough every time I touched it that after a few weeks (months, really) it really bothered me. My body gave me cause to worry and act on it, since I was ignoring all other signs.

Diagnostic

My doctor ordered blood sample analysis which returned that I was in perfect health, so having ruled out a physical disease focused on a disease of the mind. After a few questions I was offered to be off work on medical leave.

Break

The doctor gave me a two-week medical leave at first and then extended it by the week, or every few weeks, for a total of 8 weeks. I met with the doctor after each extension.

During what I thought was the last extension I got really anxious about going back to work. I felt I was not ready and worried a lot. I described to the doctor that I had been worried sick the whole time, that I felt I had just one go at this and that if I returned prematurely I feared it would have been all for nothing. The last extension of the medical leave he gave me was for three weeks.

All in all, I did a whole lot of nothing, except for exercising, and did it very slowly too. I wasn’t too sad, or too distressed. I didn’t miss work. I dreaded it as I wrote. The doctor gave me pills to try to sleep better and more efficiently but the two types I tried did not work. When I wasn’t on the bike, or running, or walking, I watched a TV show that my parents gave me as a birthday present. I didn’t have a lot of bandwidth and headspace for much else.

I would have liked to do more, be that reading, or drawing, or even thinking but it just didn’t happen and I was OK with it because I knew I just didn’t have it in me.

The break was good and beneficial. Every one around me, including at work,was so supportive I am very lucky and appreciate how blessed I am.

Return

After 8 weeks off, I returned to work. It was very overwhelming but everyone was very nice, and careful to NOT make me feel overwhelmed. There was a few thousands email in my various mail boxes. I still remembered how to work, my passwords, Zoom meeting room numbers and the likes.

For many weeks, I was still at loss for so many words. That was one of the most unexpected signs, to be frank. Especially in English where my vocabulary is rich and broad (not to brag!) Today even, to a lesser degree I continue to struggle, and words are at the tip of my tongue or fingers.

It took me 4 or 5 weeks to get back in most of the flow of work and another 1 or 2 to actually feel I was almost back.

“Almost”, because I feel that I’m not back to being myself (yet?) Things still take me much longer than before 🤷🏻‍♀️ It’s as though something in my brain restricts it from being fully functional. Maybe it’s a built-in security until such time that I can be back to my previous self, speed and abilities. 

Addendum: Origins

2022-12-21 update: I had meant to include a section last night as part of this entry to shed a bit of light on the origins of my burnout, but I realize just now that I forgot it.

I had lost faith. It’s as simple as that. I could sustain a certain level of stress, anxiety, workload and frustration as long as I was *driven*. But when that got removed, the entire balance (however unhealthy and wrong) broke.

I won’t go into details but I will say that I realised that my voice was not heard, my actions had no impact and the weight of that was too much for me.

Addendum: Hope

2022-12-22 update: I might have some faith still. And if not faith, at least hope.

Since I returned, I mostly focused on the parts of work that don’t require faith but execution.

The organisation is changing so there is hope I can try to make a difference. I really like our mission. I feel I still have what my former manager (our former CEO, who left almost a month ago) referred to as “unfinished business”

Day-to-day work at W3C

An author for IEEE asked me last week, for an article he’s writing, to write a high level introduction to the World Wide Web Consortium, and what its day-to-day work looks like.

Most of the time when we get asked, we pull from boilerplate descriptions, and/or from the website, and send a copy-paste and links. It takes less than a minute. But every now and then, I write something from scratch. It brings me right back to why I am in awe of what the web community does at the Consortium, and why I am so proud and grateful to be a small part of it.

Then that particular write-up becomes my favourite until the next time I’m in the mood to write another version. Here’s my current best high level introduction to the World Wide Web Consortium, and what its day-to-day work looks like, which I have adorned with home-made illustrations I showed during a conference talk a few years ago.

World Wide What Consortium?

The World Wide Web Consortium was created in 1994 by Tim Berners-Lee, a few years after he had invented the Word Wide Web. He did so in order for the interests of the Web to be in the hands of the community.

“If I had turned the Web into a product, it would have been in people’s interest to create an incompatible version of it.”

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web

So for almost 28 years, W3C has been developing standards and guidelines to help everyone build a web that is based on crucial and inclusive values: accessibility, internationalization, privacy and security, and the principle of interoperability. Pretty neat, huh? Pretty broad too!

From the start W3C has been an international community where member organizations, a full-time staff, and the public work together in the open.

Graphic with illustrations showing that the public and members contribute to 52 work groups, and that 56 people in the w3c staff help create web standards of which there were 400 at the time I made this drawing
W3C Overview

The sausage

In the web standards folklore, the product –web standards– are called “the sausage” with tongue in cheek. (That’s one of the reasons behind having made black aprons with a white embroidered W3C icon on the front, as a gift to our Members and group participants when a big meeting took place in Lyon, the capital of French cuisine.)

Since 1994, W3C Members have produced 454 standards. The most well-known are HTML and CSS because they have been so core to the web for so long, but in recent years, in particular since the Covid-19 pandemic, we’ve heard a lot about WebRTC which turns terminals and devices into communication tools by enabling real-time audio/video, and other well-known standards include XML which powers vast data systems on the web, or WebAuthn which significantly improves security while interacting with sites, or Web Content Authoring Guidelines which puts web accessibility to the fore and is critical to make the web available to people of all disabilities and all abilities.

The sausage factory

The day to day work we do is really of setting the stages to bring various groups together in parallel to progress on nearly 400 specifications (at the moment), developed in over 50 different groups.

There are 2,000 participants from W3C Members in those groups, and over 13,000 participants in the public groups that anyone can create and join and where typically specifications are socialized and incubated.

There are about 50 persons in the W3C staff, a fourth of which dedicate time as helpers to advise on the work, technologies, and to ensure easy “travel” on the Recommendation track, for groups which advance the web specifications following the W3C process (the steps through which specs must progress.)

Graphic showing a stick figure with 16 arms and smaller drawings of stick figure at a computer, stick figure talking to people, and stick figure next to documents. The graphic lists nine different roles: super interface, representation of w3c in groups, participation and contribution, technical expertise, mastering the process, creation of groups and their management, liaison with other technical groups, being consensual.
Role of the W3C staff in work groups

The rest of the staff operate at the level of strategy setting and tracking for technical work, soundness of technical integrity of the global work, meeting the particular needs of industries which rely on the web or leverage it, integrity of the work with regard to the values that drive us: accessibility, internationalization, privacy and security; and finally, recruiting members, doing marketing and communications (that’s where I fit!), running events for the work groups to meet, and general administrative support.

Graphic with stick figures representing Tim Berners-Lee, the CEO and the team, and four areas of help: support, strategy, architecture & technology, industry, project.
W3C team

Why does it work?

Several of the unique strengths of W3C are our proven process which is optimized to seek consensus and aim for quality work; and our ground-breaking Patent Policy whose royalty-free commitments boosts broad adoption: W3C standards may be used by any corporation, anyone, at no cost: if they were not free, developers would ignore them.

Graphic showing the steps from an idea to a web standard
From an idea to a standard

There are other strengths but in the interest of time, I’ll stop at the top two. There are countless stories and many other facets, but that would be for another time.

Sorry, it turned out to be a bit long because it’s hard to do a quick intro; there is so much work. If you’re still with me (hi!), did you learn anything from this post?

L’histoire de mon pseudo

Je n’ai pas choisi mon pseudo, mais quand on l’a trouvé pour moi, je l’ai adopté.

Retournons vingt-trois ans en arrière. En 1999, j’entame un nouveau job dans un endroit connu : l’INRIA Sophia Antipolis où j’ai effectué quelques mois auparavant un remplacement de six mois dans un projet cool qui fait de la simulation numérique des sciences de l’ingénieur, et où j’ai pris le temps d’apprendre des trucs neufs pour moi sur ma station Sun, tels que les bases d’unix et LaTeX (le langage, pas le matériau), et j’ai eu le temps de faire en plus le secrétariat du comité regroupant tous les projets de l’institut. J’ai fait bonne impression et lorsque le Consortium pour le web (qui à l’époque était hébergé à l’INRIA) recherchait une assistante, on a pensé à moi même si deux saisons avaient passé.

Alors je fais mon retour à l’INRIA où je suis partagée entre W3C principalement et un projet INRIA en partenariat avec Bull : Koala. Probablement nommé ainsi car le chef du projet se prénomme Colas.

On est tous dans le même bâtiment, au même étage, tous voisins, mais on ne se parle pas –on s’écrit. J’exagère à peine ! On s’écrit via IRC (Internet Relay Chat), soit individuellement, soit par groupes. Mon pseudo à l’époque est mon prénom, puis l’anagramme de mon prénom « calorie », jusqu’à l’arrivée d’un stagiaire dans l’équipe des Koalas, qui trouve rapidement que Coralie et Koala c’est assez proche, et suggère que je prenne « koalie » comme pseudo.

C’est malin, nan ?

Je l’ai adopté immédiatement et ne l’ai pas quitté (le pseudo, pas le stagiaire.)

Ça s’est bien goupillé pour la partie W3C où j’utilisais le même pseudo, parce que peu de mes nombreux collègues internationaux parvenaient à prononcer mon prénom de toutes façons. Les anglophones buttent sur le « r » et ne savent pas où mettre l’inflexion, et les japonais inversent le « r » et le « l ». Puis assez rapidement on a recruté une Caroline, puis une Carine, et là ils étaient tous bien contents que ça soit que dans la vraie vie (In Real Life) qu’ils confondent nos prénoms, car on ne se voyait tous en vrai que deux fois par an maximum.

Vingt-trois ans après, on utilise toujours IRC et je suis toujours « koalie », par contre ça fait des années que je travaille depuis chez moi (et faute à la pandémie de coronavirus, ça fait trois ans que je ne vois mes collègues presque que via Zoom !)

Le télétravail, c’est fou !

Je choisis volontairement un titre Ă  la fois ambigu et provocateur pour exprimer ma dĂ©ception face Ă  l’obstination de notre employeur et son entĂŞtement Ă  ignorer le progrès que reprĂ©sente le tĂ©lĂ©travail. Car j’en ai gros [sur le ❤️] Ă  ce sujet. C’est une situation que je pratique depuis une quinzaine d’annĂ©es ou plus, sur presque 23 –gasp ! Je ne suis pas seule Ă  ĂŞtre en tĂ©lĂ©travail, et pourtant, on nous refuse de l’Ă©largir Ă  tous.

Bonjour, je suis Coralie, Ă©lue dĂ©lĂ©guĂ©e du personnel titulaire depuis presque dix ans, et c’est source de moultes frustrations !


Le Monde publiait hier dans sa section Économie un article intitulé « Le télétravail améliorerait la productivité », alors que j’ai encore aujourd’hui dans la bouche le goût amer que m’ont laissé les deux tentatives récentes de négociations avec la direction des ressources humaines, visant à généraliser le télétravail potentiellement total à ceux de mes collègues qui peuvent le pratiquer, qui le souhaitent, et pour qui ce n’est pas encore autorisé.

Car chez nous, même si la majorité du personnel est en capacité d’effectuer l’activité professionnelle de n’importe où, seuls certains sont télé-travailleurs à temps plein.

Or, le grand fossé qui sépare les uns des autres n’est pas près de se combler, alors même que durant les dix-huit mois suivant le premier confinement Covid-19, l’intégralité du personnel a été en télétravail.


Pour la Direction il ne fait aucun doute que tous ceux pour qui c’était nouveau sont rapidement et efficacement passés en mode « travail à distance ». Belle preuve d’agilité et belle faculté d’adaptation ! Les collègues ont su mettre en place d’eux-mêmes les protocoles répondant au mieux à leurs besoins et utilisé des méthodes simples, logiques et optimisées.

Pourtant début octobre ce n’est pas ce que la Direction a choisi de mettre en exergue pour justifier son refus de généraliser le télétravail. Non, ce qui fut déclaré, c’est que personne en France ne fait du télétravail complet, et que les accords nationaux interprofessionnels recommandent un maximum de trois jours par semaine télé-travaillés, insistant sur un équilibre servant à éviter tous risques psycho-sociaux.


Mesurez s’il vous plaît l’ironie de la situation : L’organisation pour laquelle je travaille (en télétravail total, depuis des années) met en place de manière collective et collaborative les standards du web, mais la société qui m’emploie pour faire cela prétend qu’aucune boîte française ne fait du télétravail total (*), et ainsi n’admet pas la généralisation au reste de son personnel de ce statut auquel tous se sont parfaitement adaptés.

(*) hmmm, et donc quid de mon statut de télé-travailleuse ?

(L’organisation lĂ©gale est complexe mais pour simplifier, je suis employĂ©e par une sociĂ©tĂ© pour travailler dans une autre, telle un projet. Et pour continuer dans le complexe, notre ComitĂ© social et Ă©conomique (CSE) est constituĂ© de trois personnes affectĂ©es Ă  ce projet et d’une travaillant pour la sociĂ©tĂ© directement. Je suis l’une des deux titulaires au CSE et j’ai donc pris part aux nĂ©gociations en octobre et bis repetita en novembre.)

Mes collègues se contentent de ce qu’on leur accorde. Moi, de l’autre côté du fossé, je vois ça comme une punition à leur égard dont je ne comprends pas la justification.

Question bonus : Quid des risques psycho-sociaux pour ceux d’entre nous en télétravail total depuis des années ? Aucune idée. La question est posée mais restée sans réponse.