When Your DBA Job Sucks: The Phases of Burnout

When your databases always look like this, eventually you feel the same way.

Even when you love being a DBA, working the job can turn into a grind. There’s many times when you’re up all night troubleshooting just to face another day at the office handling user complaints. You hear at the water cooler that you’ll need to improve performance with less hardware for the next year. You get an email that you need to be ready to virtualize everything in the next quarter, but nobody’s even sure which hypervisor you’ll use.

Your perfmon counters show that response times from storage are getting slower, but the SAN administrator says that everything looks better than ever. One of your servers starts blue-screening periodically. Your manager announces at the weekly team meeting that you need to stop being so reactive and start being more pro-active. Right after that, you get an alert for data corruption.

Oh, and by the way: we’re going to need you to come in on Saturday.

Before you know it, you’re on the road to burnout. Your tour looks like this:

Phase 1: Denial

It’s hard to admit when you lose that loving feeling with your job. You just keep plugging away at it.

When your problems have to do either with boredom or a very high volume of reactive work, this just makes the situation worse. You’re spending a lot of time, but you’re mostly spinning your wheels. You’re not learning or growing, you’re just doing what you need to basically keep things together.

Phase 2: Anger

After a while, you get cranky. It’s pretty inevitable when you’re overworked in a DBA job, because you’re surrounded by unhappy people. Users need data faster. Developers and vendors say the problem isn’t their code, it’s your servers and maintenance. Your manager isn’t sure why you can’t keep problems from happening in the first place. The SAN Admin gets a little tired of you stopping by with another stinky performance issue again and again.

Also, at this point people in your personal life start to get impacted as well. You’re starting to get less sleep and grumble more. You vent about politics at work and things you can’t change.

You get to the point where you say things that seem perfectly reasonable in your head, but come out sounding like you’re a real jerk. Sadly, you probably don’t notice it.

Phase 3: Bargaining

Eventually you get tired of being angry. You start to think that maybe the problem isn’t your job— the problem is that you’re stuck in your job! So you decide to go about some self improvement.

At this point you decide to become amazing. You’re going to learn every feature in SQL Server. You’re going to know all the internals and when there’s a bump in the night, you’ll be the one who whips out a debugger, walks the SQL Server stack, and sends a diagnosis to the SQL Server product team. You make a deal with yourself: I’m going to read these twenty books, and then I’m going to fix my job.

Sometimes you try to make the deal with your boss. “If you send me to this training then I’ll revolutionize our team.” Sometimes you get the training, sometimes you don’t.

The bigger problem is that it’s hard to revolutionize your job when you’ve been unhappy with your job for a good long time. You try to make big sweeping changes, but it’s really hard to revolutionize processes and tasks when you’ve already got a full load of work.

Phase 4: Depression

This really is depressing, isn’t it? Honestly, I’m just depressed writing this post after analyzing what I’ve seen in my career.

Once you get to the point where you’ve tried to make big changes and haven’t had an impact, you get tired. You get depressed. You get so that you don’t even want to finish your

Phase 5: Acceptance

Some people reach acceptance with a job they’ve come to dislike, but some people never get here— they quit first.

Acceptance isn’t a happy place. Don’t envy someone with acceptance. Acceptance means that you keep disliking your job, but you limit the negative impact on your life. The one good thing about acceptance is that you figure out some change to make it livable: you keep your hours as close to 40 a week as possible. You do just a bit over than the bare minimum at work. You focus on other things. You distance yourself a bit from it all so that it’s not so much of a disappointment.

In many ways, acceptance is even more depressing than depression.

Phase 6: Action

I’ve got some good news. When your job gets bad, you do go through something like the phases of grief. That’s no fun. But the good news is that nobody is actually dead. And you’re not dead yet, either. There are still SO MANY things you can do!

Even when you’ve been down a long road of trouble in a job, you can still make real changes and make a big difference at your company. You just need to get a fresh way of looking at it, and you need to make small, strategic changes. Your mistake earlier was in trying to make grand, sweeping changes. Most of the time you just can’t win the war that easily.

Here are four successful strategies that I have used, and which my clients use to make long-lasting changes in their workplace.

  • Add a 20 minute brain workout to your day. Block out 20 minutes for your personal learning in your calendar and stick to it. Make this your workout period for your brain, and don’t let anything come between you and your learning. Especially if you’re in the “acceptance” zone, this one regular dose of learning can radically change your mindset.
  • Smile at people. Seriously. Make your face smile— it will actually change your mood, and in turn change your working relationships. If you’re in a rut, trust us, you’re NOT the only one who feels it. This is harder than it sounds like, and you may need to set a daily task or reminder to get good at it.
  • Break passive-aggressive patterns. Some of the hardest burnout problems to solve are poisonous social situations. For hard social problems, find a neutral colleague and ask them for advice on how you can smooth over a bad relationship– but make sure you don’t gossip or blame the other person in the process.
  • Bring in a technical influencer. Sometimes clients bring us into short-term gigs to help confirm where the problem is in their system and provide independent validation of where long term investments should be placed. When an environment is full of finger-pointing, as a consultant we have an advantage: we can elegantly point toward a solution without getting embroiled in the political mess.

Your Job Doesn’t Have to Stink: And You Don’t Have to Leave It

It’s a great time to be a database administrator. Technology is growing fast and people are pushing the limits of what they can do with SQL Server all the time. There are lots of jobs out there, but although you’ve been struggling, you may already have a great job.

If your team is stuck in a rut and you can figure out what you can do to make that job better, you’ve just become the most valuable employee on the market: the one who can turn around a bad situation. The secret to getting there is to figuring out the small changes to make it all work.

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23 Comments. Leave new

  • Well thought out article!

  • What a great job of articulating the phases. It hit a nerve. Thanks for the tips.

  • Get out of my head!!! I’m between 4 and 5 right now.

  • Great article, I’m still languishing in the anger stage, but where is the option to just find a new job? I usually hit that in Phase 4!

  • Thank you Kendra for reminding that you can always leave (especially, when the job market is good) instead of paying a personal price by hanging on and hoping for the best!

    I mostly fit into the bored out of mind category and I am at Phase 5 right now although I was thankfully able to bypass Phases 4 & 5 since I knew from the beginning that this job will not be all that exciting. I took it anyway for several other good reasons.

    Given that, I’ve been hanging out in the Phase 6 territory every now and then mostly by reading good SQL blogs like yours, which by the way I really enjoy. Thank you so much for covering a variety of interesting topics such as this one on your quality blog! My recent favorite is your well laid out tips on resume making.

    Speaking of Phase 6 though, would you care to share some examples? Perhaps some that you’ve used or know to be effective.

    Thanks again!

    • Almost all of the things I’ve done to bring back that lovin’ feelin’ with a job are listed in the article. My problem historically was getting bogged down in the day-to-day and losing track of the big picture, and these are all steps that would help get me out of that rut.

  • I’ve worked with people that are at phase 5 continuously. The problem is, phase 5 affects EVERYONE else negatively at times. Especially when people get too comfortable, know how to delay or not do work, and have it end up on your plate or you get blamed for it. Been burned a lot by phase 5ers.

    Nice post. I’ll have to come back every once in a while to see what phase I’ve reached 🙂

  • Excellent. For those of us who haven’t lost that lovin’ feelin, the tips in 6 are polish! Thanks

  • Nice application of the ‘Stages of Grief’ with a bonus 6th stage.


  • Brilliant article Kendra…spot on for most of DBA.
    I see myself on Phase 1 where my job getting effected by politics and senior’s decisions. It is small company and IT Director is responsible of System, Network, Application and database teams. His back ground is Telephony and networking. Due to this, his decision & support impacting DB/Dev team’s daily work e.g.
    1. PCI implementation on DB server without discussion and consult DBA
    2. Stop access rights on DB/Apps Production Server without discussion with DBA/Dev teams
    3. Application and DB ports info missing before system migration to another data center by system/network team and blame DB/Dev team that they should have told us.
    4. any more…

    Pls advise what should I do?…start looking for another job?
    You see job is great as love to work with databases..

  • Been there, done that, partially recovered, went there again, recovered partially, went there again, etc.


  • I’ve been languishing somewhere between steps 4 and 5 for the past three months. I very nearly walked away at the end of August, the letter was signed and presented. With a little help from my manager, we’re trying to move to step 6.

  • I like the idea of smiling at people. Adding on to that, just SMILE – even when you’re not around people. Have you ever tried smiling while trying to figure out that TSQL code responsible for bloating up your tempdb or your transaction log file? Smiling changes our perspective when we do something. Even studies show that smiling increases the quality of customer service and increases revenue (think of increase in revenue as increase in salary.) I blogged about the effects of smiling on the job event when you think you’re very efficient http://wp.me/p1GJXV-u

  • wow… right on the spot. Thx for the suggestions

  • I found this when searching for ‘perfmon’, and discovered that I’m a textbook Phase 3-er. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, but I’ll try this ‘smiling’ thing.

  • This applies to any job in the technology field.

    After 4 years of annual layoffs, using the same technology for the previous six years and being responsible for a system that gives out money (and worrying every night that I configured the payouts correctly). Phase 6 for me was a change of scenery.

    I gave up almost 30 percent of my pay in return for newer technology, a better boss and a shorter commute. Best money I have never earned.

  • I understand the suggestion to smile, but it is apparently not a tactic that encourages careful thought, so use it judiciously! Refer to Kahneman’s ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ for more details….
    Otherwise I found it a good posting. I’m on the fence as to whether the hallmarks of stage 5 (keeping work hours to 40 +/-, keeping distance, focusing on other things) are problems, though. It is fine to have other things be more important than work, though tech, and the U.S. in general, don’t really support this approach. I guess a more nuanced approach would be ‘it depends’. If work is the most important thing to you, then by all means find a way to get out of stage 5. If it isn’t, then quietly find a way to appear to others that you aren’t in stage 5 — that way everybody wins.

  • Wow….this was me in 2014. The “Bring in a technical influencer” of Step 6 convinced the manager it’s cheaper to outsource the entire DBA department then hiring one more DBA. I ended up with a thank you and a handshake from the company that I’d worked for 10years. HelpDesk is the liason between the application user and the Outsourced DBA…..I wonder if that business model save the company the money in the long run?

    So the outcome may not always be what you would have hope for – be prepare.

    Thank you for a great post.

    • Oh wow! Getting laid off is rough. Even at the best of times, it might come as a huge shock. But if you’re burnt out, you’re much worse prepared to handle it — you don’t feel energetic or confident and that’s a hard place to bounce back from.

  • This article was just re-referenced. Thanks so much. I hit the wall a couple years ago, and spent a LOT of time in “Anger”. The thing is: I really love the work I do; I don’t want to leave it. I know that I NEED to try harder to smile… I know it impacts other people when I am grumpy. At long last, I finally have someone to help with the workload, and it’s slowly getting better. Thanks again for the words of encouragement.


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