I faced what I consider to be “career burnout” at three points in my life.
In 2004, I was getting burned out on uncertainty. My job for the few years prior to that was based on a series of short-term contracts and I was just getting fed up with not having any sort of stability. Sarah and I had been talking seriously about children and it just didn’t feel like stability was coming.
In 2007, I was getting burned out on bureaucracy. It felt like almost all of my job centered around maintenance, bureaucracy, and travel, none of which I really wanted to do. I felt like I was constantly putting out fires and that work was taking me away from my family, but that I wasn’t doing anything of any importance to anyone any more.
In 2011, I was getting burned out by overwork. I was working eighty hours a week or more keeping The Simple Dollar running, with three young kids at home, a marriage to maintain, a home to care for. I was getting sick regularly and I was almost constantly stressed out.
In each of those situations, I felt frustrated and unhappy with my professional life. I didn’t want to continue doing what I was doing and I was genuinely unhappy with my work.
I was burnt out.
However, in each of those situations, I recovered using a number of strategies.
In 2004, I had a heart-to-heart with my supervisor and took some time off. My supervisor then went the extra mile and found a solution that enabled me to sign a much longer-term contract than before.
In 2007, I started building a number of side businesses, one of which was The Simple Dollar. By 2008, I had enough income from other sources that I was able to walk away from that situation.
In 2011, I found additional help to take some of the burden off of my shoulders, drastically cutting down on my work responsibilities and time.
Some of those situations involved wage cuts. Others involved having difficult conversations. Some involved a bit of career risk.
All of them were worth it.
Why? Having a career that makes you feel miserable every day can make your whole life feel miserable. You can quickly find yourself in a place where you genuinely feel distraught about your entire life due to the fact that work eats up such a sizable portion of one’s working hours. It can create a strong cycle of negativity that’s hard to escape from. You often feel like your only other option is financial ruin.
The truth is that you don’t have to feel distraught. You don’t have to be chained to negativity. You don’t have to feel like you’re playing with financial ruin.
Other people might simply find themselves in a career situation where they simply feel bored, as though they’re clocking in and out without any sort of challenge on their plate. Many people thrive on challenge and can feel very empty when it’s not there.
Here are ten strategies that you can apply to help you step back from the edge if you’re feeling burned out in your career, whether it’s simply just a sense of boredom or a deeper sense of unhappiness. Not all strategies work with every situation; choose the ones that fit your situation and apply them.
Remember That You Work to Live, Not Live to Work
When your job takes up a lot of your time as well as a lot of your physical and mental energy, it can feel as though your entire life is centered around your job. You can feel defined by it, and when you feel defined by something, that thing goes a long way toward indicating whether you are happy in your life as a whole. Thus, when you are defined by your job and your job isn’t going well, you can feel as though your life isn’t going well, whether that’s true or not.
The truth is that you work to live, not live to work. Your job is not the meaning of your life; it supports the meaning of your life, whatever that might be. It provides the income that you need to do whatever it is that you most value doing – your true higher purpose. Yes, in some cases, aspects of your job might apply to that higher purpose, and that’s great when it happens, but it’s not a requirement. Many people work at a job that has nothing to do with their main life values.
If you’re finding that your job is completely in control of your emotional state and that it is defining whether or not you’re happy in your life, step back for a moment and remember that you are working to support a life you want to live. The main focus here is the quality of your life, not your job.
It’s worth noting here that it’s very common, especially for younger people, to not have a central meaning in their life or a central set of values or a big goal that you’re working toward. In that situation, it’s often easy to fall into a mindset where your work provides that goal and focus for you. It becomes your center, and when your job turns negative, it can become devastating.
Don’t let that happen. Define what you want out of life independent of your job and then view your job as simply a way to make the money you need to support those things you truly want.
Take me, for example. My family is the center of my life. My professional work is important to me, but the thing that matters the most is that it helps provide the financial resources needed to make sure that my family has a good life. Aside from my family, my personal interests and hobbies rank quite high – they are central in the time I have remaining when I’m not tending to my family or my job.
By having that mindset, bad moments at work don’t become overwhelmingly bad. It becomes no different than dealing with, say, laundry. Sure, it’s inconvenient, but it’s not life-altering. Save your true concerns for the things that you’re working for.
Strangely, I’ve found that this mindset makes me more productive at work, not less. I tend to seek out tasks that I enjoy and do them with relish and the bad moments don’t cause me to fall into despair.
Talk to Your Supervisor Frankly
If you’re feeling burnt out at work, don’t let your performance fall off. Instead, talk to your supervisor and be clear about your concerns.
Unless there is extreme dysfunction in your workplace, your supervisor will try to find a way to meet in the middle regarding your concerns and the needs of the business. It is far better to put forth a bit of effort to retain a solid employee than it is to hire and train a new one.
Of course, this does rely on your own performance at work. Bringing up concerns to your supervisor when you’re already on thin ice and struggling to meet basic job requirements (like showing up, for example) will generally backfire on you unless you have other strong aspects of your job performance that you can point to. If you do your job and do it reasonably well in a non-dysfunctional workplace, talking to your supervisor is a great idea for alleviating specific concerns related to burnout.
Take a Vacation
One effective strategy for reducing burnout is to simply take a vacation where you completely disconnect from your workplace for a while. No checking emails, no social media, nothing. You’re on vacation from your job for your own mental well-being.
Take that vacation time to engage in things that are genuinely meaningful to you and can genuinely lift your mood. Don’t spend it burning time channel surfing or looking at websites. Spend it doing things that you genuinely enjoy that you don’t normally have time or energy for. Go outside and explore nature a little. Get in touch with all aspects of your life.
As you’re doing this, spend some time really reflecting on what you’re doing. Think about the idea of working to live rather than living to work, and whether or not you’ve allowed your job to take on an excess level of importance in your life.
Some jobs may frown upon taking personal vacation time. Here’s the thing, though: burning out is going to be far more damaging to the bottom line of both you and the business as compared to taking vacation time and refreshing your mind. Don’t be afraid to make the case to your boss that you need a week or two completely disconnected to recharge and be a better and more effective employee.
If Your Employer Won’t Allow a Vacation, Switch Jobs with Downtime Between Them
In general, if your supervisor discourages vacation time and the culture of your workplace discourages leave of any kind, it’s probably not a healthy place to continue working. Rather than demanding and forcing a vacation, you’re probably better off working toward switching employers and using a period of downtime between jobs as a vacation.
Sharpen your resume, focus on working on things that will bolster your resume, and quietly begin seeking other jobs in your field. When you find one, negotiate a starting date that will give you some downtime between jobs; ideally, see if you can negotiate a start date that gives you no downtime in your insurance benefits between your old job and your new one.
The purpose of this is to get yourself away from an employer that isn’t respectful of the mental and physical well-being of their employees, which is exactly what’s happening at an employer that actively discourages vacation time. That’s not a healthy state for employees and it’s not a place you want to remain at long term.
If You Are in a Big Organization, Look Into Switching Teams
One aspect of professional life that can burn people out isn’t their overall career, but the specific project that they’re working on or the specific team they’re working with. They’re stuck in the midst of a team or a project that isn’t fulfilling or is bringing negativity into their life, elements that wouldn’t be there if they were involved with a different project or a different team.
In those situations, simply looking for an opportunity to move to a different team or to a different project can make all of the difference in the world.
Some of my family members experience this in their workplace. I have several family members who work for the same employer and they often move from team to team, from shift to shift, and from specific task to specific task if they’re feeling unfulfilled in their current position. In fact, their employer even encourages this, as people will often eventually become bored and unhappy with the same task and the same team over and over and over for years.
Explore Alternative Working Arrangements, Like Working from Home or a 9/80 Schedule
Another avenue that might help rekindle your fire with your current job is an alternative working arrangement. Are there days when you can work from home at your current job and it really wouldn’t make a difference in the office? See whether or not you can move to a schedule where you work from home a day or two a week. Could it make sense for you to switch to nine hour days while taking every other Friday off? See if that type of schedule is available for you. Perhaps there’s an opportunity to switch to a different shift as well.
Sometimes, simply rearranging the balance between your work time and your personal time can make a great difference. I know that, in the past, when my work schedule has kept me away from things that were important to me, it didn’t take long for me to start resenting that job, but it was often just a simple working arrangement switch that took care of the problem.
Talk to your boss simply to see what’s possible before writing off the idea, particularly if there are large advantages for you personally in adopting a change in your work arrangement.
Intentionally Step Back from Job Aspects You Don’t Like While Leaning Into Other Areas
If you work in a job where you’re fine with much of the work but find that some specific areas are frustrating, intentionally minimize those areas and redirect your energy to the other aspects of your job. You’ll often find that if you perform very well in some aspects of your job, it’s perfectly fine to give less energy to other aspects.
For example, I used to work at a job where regular meetings were simply part of the job. I was required to attend these meetings, but they were almost completely irrelevant to my work. So, I simply started bringing my laptop with me, sitting near the back, and getting actual work done during the meetings.
No one noticed. No one really cared. All I had to do was be there for the roll call and sit in that meeting room for an hour and a half. I was able to get more of my real tasks done and during the once-every-six-months event where I was actually useful in a meeting, I was right there ready to answer the single relevant question that came my way.
Naturally, this doesn’t work at every job, but it does work well at many jobs where you have some leeway in terms of what you’re doing minute to minute.
Start a Side Gig
Another route is to simply start a side gig. A side gig is merely a small business that you start in your free time that’s usually oriented around something that you’re more passionate about, like a Youtube channel focused on a particular passion or a small woodworking business, or a skill that you have, like selling insurance or real estate.
Side gigs allow you to not only dabble in another “career,” but also to potentially develop a new income stream. What’s the advantage of having another stream of income? It makes the process of jumping to a new job much easier because you’ll still have income coming in during the jump, plus if the side gig really takes off, it can become your primary income stream.
The best part? It provides a completely different environment to explore your passions and test your skills, turning some of your professional focus away from the elements of your primary job that are burning you out.
Build a Plan for a Different Career – and Start Executing It
On the other hand, you may feel that switching to an entirely different career is the smart option. If you’re feeling burnt out on every aspect of your current career, it may simply be that it’s not the career path for you.
If that sounds like your situation, consider a career reboot. The best first step you can take is to sit down and write a career plan for that career switch, working through what you’ll actually need to make it happen as well as many of the pitfalls that can keep you from achieving that new career.
It can be a very scary leap, don’t get me wrong, but giving the option some careful consideration and planning can often show you that many of the giant potholes that you envision in that path really aren’t as big as you might think. That’s the advantage of a career plan – it can help you figure out the best path to where you want to go.
Avoid Financial Handcuffs
One final strategy that everyone should follow if they’ve even got a hint of professional burnout is to simply avoid running the risk of having “golden handcuffs.” In other words, do everything you can to minimize how much you’re financially beholden to your current job.
If you’re in a situation where the loss of your job would mean financial apocalypse for you and your family, then you’re basically in a position where you’re forced to keep working, and when you’re in that sort of situation, any small irritation can quickly grow into intense misery and pain. You’re left feeling like you’re walking a tightrope constantly at work because the cost of losing your job, in terms of your personal life, is immense.
Break out of that situation. Get a grip on your financial life. The best way to do that is to dial down your spending on non-essential things. Cut out the most frivolous elements of your spending and get ahold of your financial impulses.
The cycle that many people fall into is buying things and experiences to temporarily “get away” from the stresses of professional life. However, all that does is make the stresses worse. You’re chained more than ever before to your job.
Stop that cycle. Stop spending your money on frivolous things. Use your money to get rid of your debts rapidly and get control over your financial state. Soon, the bills won’t be breathing down your neck and you won’t feel pushed up against the wall by your job any more, and often all it takes is that change in mindset about your job to make a sense of burnout simply vanish.
Being burned out by your job isn’t a unique experience. I’ve felt it, as have millions of other Americans and billions of people around the globe. Everyone gets frustrated with the specifics of their employment at times.
The question is whether you just accept it and curl into a ball of misery or whether you take action and do something in your life to take care of the problem.
The choice is up to you.