Tinkerer

Adventures in code


Death Spirals and Working Too Damn Hard

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what I call Death Spirals. The name might be a bit much but I like the dramatic flair.

A Death Spiral is a special kind of positive feedback loop. A positive feedback loop is something that’s self-reinforcing. Examples of positive feedback loops:

The Death Spiral

A Death Spiral is special kind of positive feedback with some unique characteristics:

Death Spirals can happen for many reasons and hit both companies and individuals. Let’s take a look at two examples.

Jane And Her Diabetes

Jane has diabetes. She hasn’t responded well to any medicine1 and she’s feeling very sick. Her doctor tells her that exercise will help her.
Jane’s symptoms are so severe that after coming home from work she has no energy left to exercise.
Jane is in a Death Spiral. Her diabetes will continually get worse. As it gets worse, she gets and less energy for exercising. The longer she waits, the harder it becomes to break out.

JojaCo: The Burnout Factory

Death Spirals happen to companies too. One of my good friends used to work at a company JojaCo. JojaCo helped their customers manage technical infrastructure.

JojaCo employees were a little overworked. Then someone became long-term sick. Fewer people had to do the same work. To get all of the new work done on time, the employees had to cut some corners.

The company used to have documentation for each customer describing how to make changes in their systems. You usually updated this after interacting with a customer. This documentation slowly stopped being up-to-date as no one had time to update it anymore.
While not updating it saved time in the short run, helping the customer the next time took much longer. This meant that the employees got further behind, and had to cut even more corners.

In a stressful environment like this, people started falling ill due to stress. This left even more work for fewer people. At the end my friend was working 70+ hours a week. He was miserable. Everyone were sick or quitting, and new hires didn’t stick around for long.

Breaking Out of Death Spirals

So how do you break out of a Death Spiral? You somehow have to find energy and resources you don’t have. This can be extremely difficult, and if there is a step-by-step guide I haven’t found it.
These are my best bets:

Do Less

If you don’t have to do as much, you’ll have more resources to break free of the Death Spiral.

If you’re JojaCo you can call up some of your customers, and tell them that you can’t currently help them. They probably won’t be your customers in the future. But it might save you from losing other customers because your employees are burned out.

If you’re Jane, try to take some days off from your job and use them to start exercising. Or maybe you can do find a routine that requires less chores, or try some healthy meal box services.

“Do less” is advice that’s easy to give, but really hard to follow. It’s not always possible to do less. Your boss might not let you take days off. You might not be able to pay your salaries if you turn away some of your customers.

Get help

If you can’t reduce the amount of work, you might be able to share it among more people. More people to do the same work means there’s less work for everyone.

JojaCo could hire new employees or temps.
Jane could get someone to run with, or help her with some of the other responsibilities she has.

Getting help isn’t always easy though. Perhaps you don’t have the social support to find someone to run with. Maybe you can’t afford or find qualified people to work at JojaCo.


Death Spirals are particularly tricky because there’s often no easy way out once you’re in them. Often we keep struggling along, while hoping that something will change.

I don’t think Death Spirals usually correct themselves until you hit rock bottom. We just stay in that slow, steady decline, because all the ways to break free are either impossible or requires choices we can’t get ourselves to make.

So here’s my plea to you: If you observe someone in a Death Spiral - say something. Breaking free without help can be extremely difficult. It’s okay to ask if someone needs help.

Do you have any experiences with death spirals? How did you get out of it? I’d really like to hear some other opinions or stories!

  1. I’m not actually sure if there are people who don’t respond well to diabetes medicine. However I have seen the situation play out in real life with people who were unwilling to take it. 

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