Updated on 03.15.16

‘My Job Is Killing Me’

Trent Hamm

Seven strategies for handling professional overload.

When I was in the process of deciding whether or not to walk away from my previous career, I made a balance sheet of “pros” and “cons.”

The “pros” list was straightforward. I loved the people I worked with, especially the two other people on my core team. I really enjoyed parts of my actual work, too.

The “cons” list was a lot longer, though. I absolutely hated the bureaucracy. I didn’t like traveling and being away from my children. However, one thing that really stood out on my “cons” list was the fact that if something went wrong at work, even if it was way outside of my wheelhouse, I was almost always the one who took care of it. I often felt completely overloaded while, at the same time, uncertain as to what aspects of the many challenges at work I was personally responsible for.

I remember one weekend in particular where my wife’s family came to visit and I basically had to spend the entire weekend fixing a major crisis at work. I almost entirely missed out on seeing them, missed out on several meals together, and just felt awful about it. Even worse, I essentially received no pay or compensation for that extra time – it was just expected.

Even worse, I remember being asked to come into work during my wife’s labor for one of our children, without even a chance of extra compensation, even though I had filed appropriately for that time off.

Those experiences put me into a deep funk for the last several months at work. I ate a lot of unhealthy food. I didn’t exercise. During what little free time I had, I just kind of sat around in a funk.

My job was killing me. So I quit.

I took a giant professional risk and became a freelance writer (among other hats). Eight years later, I’m still doing just that.

The thing was, this wasn’t an easy switch. I didn’t wake up one morning and decide to quit my job to be a freelance writer. I had spent years trying to make it work on my own in my spare time. Without all of that initial effort, I would have been stuck at that previous job for many more years.

Looking back, however, I can see how I could have handled the whole situation better. There were a lot of things I could have done to make that situation more tenable and even enjoyable for me. I just didn’t see the forest for the trees.

Here are seven smart strategies I could have used at that time to turn a job that was killing me into something much better.

Strategy #1: Do Something

If you’re in a job that’s draining away your life, the absolute worst thing you can do is to go home at the end of the day and wallow in your own sadness. Doing so will not help things get better. It will actually make things worse.

The reason for this is simple. If you go home and sit around in a funk about how hard your job is, or you sit at your desk or your work area feeling miserable about everything, you’re doing absolutely nothing to make your job situation better. All you’re going to do is feel bad about your professional situation, and without additional effort from you, your professional situation is not going to change.

Instead, start looking at your spare time where you feel burnt out – both at work and at home – as time that you can start using to either improve your current job situation or build a path to a new one.

For example, you can start building a side gig. There are many ways of doing this – starting a YouTube channel, building wooden furniture in your garage, fixing computers, launching websites, and so on.

You can get some exercise to burn off those negative feelings. When I’m feeling stressed out, going on a two hour walk in a state park or even around the neighborhood makes me feel far better than channel surfing or staring at the computer for two hours. Just do something to move around.

You might want to take some classes or other forms of training. This can help you get a promotion at work, find a new job, or even simply learn how to do your current job better so that it’s less stressful.

If nothing else, just take the time to make some healthy meals. Eating a little better will make you feel a little better over time.

The thing is, you can’t do any of those things if you just sit around and feel burnt out. So stop sitting at your desk or on your couch doing nothing and start doing something – any of these things will do because, at the very least, they will make you feel a little better and get a little healthier.

Strategy #2: Build an Emergency Fund

Here’s the reality: 76% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. In other words, they don’t have enough cash available to them to be able to survive for more than six months without their job. Twenty-seven percent have nothing at all.

What does that mean? It means that an awful lot of people are completely handcuffed to their job. They have to keep working because if they don’t, they can’t survive for very long at all. Bills have to be paid, after all.

If you’re earning minimum wage and find yourself in that situation, the solution is pretty easy. Most people can easily find another minimum-wage job.

However, many people that feel professional burnout have a job that has a high level of pay, yet it’s still fairly likely that they’re living paycheck to paycheck. They’re financially chained to their job but they don’t have the flexibility to switch to a job at Burger King or Home Depot. Their minimum monthly expenses are far higher than what they can swing with a minimum-wage job.

Often, it’s those financial handcuffs that make you feel “stuck” at your job. You don’t really have the option to quit. You don’t really even have the option to take much professional risk. Instead, you simply have to take what’s given to you and live with it.

Having a big, healthy emergency fund changes that equation. Suddenly, a job loss doesn’t mean immediate financial apocalypse. It means that everything doesn’t start collapsing if you’re let go from your job. It means that taking a risk at work doesn’t seem quite so risky. It means that shopping around for another job won’t potentially backfire against you in such a disastrous way.

How do you get started? The easiest way to do it – and the way I recommend – is to open up a savings account with a reputable online bank, like Ally Bank, and then set up an automatic transfer that moves a small amount of money each week from your main checking account into that emergency fund. You won’t even notice a small amount – it will mean just skipping out on buying something at a convenience store or something else that you’ll not even notice – but the more you put aside, the faster you’ll have some money for an emergency.

When you have an emergency fund in the bank – one that can cover your living expenses for at least a few months – you no longer feel like you’re being held to the fire every day at work. You no longer feel like you can’t take any kind of risk at work. In other words, an emergency fund is a very powerful tool for helping cut through work stress and misery.

Strategy #3: Start Building Your Resume by Taking on Resume Builders

A “resume builder” is simply a task that you take on that can add or improve a line to your resume. The better your resume, the easier it is to get your foot in the door for more jobs.

Most jobs are made up of a mix of tasks, some of which are great for a resume and some of which are not. If you’d like to eventually make your exit from your current job situation, you should make an extra effort on the tasks that are resume-worthy and, in particular, seek out tasks that are resume builders.

At many jobs, you’ll have situations where a supervisor is simply looking for someone to step up to the plate for a new challenge. Who wants to do this presentation? Who wants to take the lead on this project? Who wants to go to the remote location?

Most of the time, people don’t raise their hands for such tasks. They sound daunting, at the very least, and there is at least some risk of failure involved. Who wants that?

The thing is, opportunities like these are career builders. They raise your reputation in your current workplace and also boost your resume. They’re going to put you in line for a promotion, whether at your current workplace or at another one. Tasks like these build new skills – public speaking, people managing, information organizing – and they’re often the kinds of things that employees work for.

Not only that, tasks like these are great at breaking up the day-in-day-out drudgery at work. It’s a new challenge, something different than what you’re usually doing. The antidote to drudgery is something new.

If you have opportunities at work to take on these kinds of challenges, jump on board. Volunteer for the new task, even if it seems difficult. At the very least, it’ll make your day different.

If you don’t have these kinds of opportunities, talk to your supervisor about new challenges and look for ones that will help you build a resume. Think about what skills and projects make you look attractive to other employers and specifically request those kinds of projects.

Strategy #4: Talk to Your Supervisor

The feeling of “burnout” at work is often the result of a good employee feeling overwhelmed with their situation at work. “Burnout” is something that builds up over a long period of feeling overwhelmed, and that sense of feeling overwhelmed has, at its core, someone who actually cares (or did care) deeply about their job.

Any decent supervisor will recognize this. There is a lot less risk in finding a way to reduce a good employee’s work load or stress level a little or alter their environment a bit in order to retain them rather than have to go through the hiring process for a new employee who has a significant likelihood of being far worse.

That’s why, even though it seems risky, it makes senese to talk to your supervisor about your sense of feeling “burnt out” at work.

The best approach is to simply say directly to your supervisor (or to a higher-level person if the supervisor is part of the problem) that there are aspects of your job that, over the long term, are hampering your work performance. Before you go in there, spend some time thinking about what specifically is causing the problem. Is it an overload of work? Is it too much work outside of your skill set or interests? Is it a particular coworker or other personality conflict? Whatever the challenge is, think about it and know how to articulate it before you meet with your supervisor.

Of course, there is always some minor risk involved with this kind of conversation, but that risk is often vastly escalated in the minds of workers, especially if they don’t have a long history of complaints. A long-time employee who has been involved in many projects and received good workplace reviews is likely going to get serious attention from their supervisor and a genuine effort to improve the identified problems, because it’s far better to retain you than to seek out someone else.

Trust me – the vast majority of the time, your supervisor will help. They’ll look at the resources available to them and try to find a way to make things work out for both of you – you’ll be happy at work and your supervisor will gain a happier employee. You both win.

Strategy #5: Walk Away from the Tasks That Make You Miserable and Focus on Excelling at the Rest

In a given workday, your hours are going to be filled with a mix of tasks. Usually, some tasks are much more fulfilling and interesting than others. You can probably think through your workday and recognize which tasks are more pleasant to you than others.

Every single job I have ever had has a mix of tasks that are better than others. I once spent a summer working at a job where I spent eight hours in a windowless room shoveling and sifting dirt. This isn’t a joke. Even at that job, there were tasks I relatively liked – the actual sifting – and tasks I didn’t – dealing with the rock pile.

Now, it needs to be said that there is great value in sometimes taking on the tasks that no one else wants to do. No one wants to clean the bathroom. No one wants to spend all day collating. Stepping up to the plate and doing those tasks sometimes is incredibly valuable and will be recognized, whether you see it or not. These kinds of tasks should be at least a small part of your day.

Having said that, your entire work life shouldn’t be tied up in tasks that you loathe. If you do that, you’re destined for burnout.

There are a few approaches for how to minimize the time spent on tasks you hate and maximize the time spent on other tasks.

One, think about how you’re doing those hated tasks and look for ways to reduce the time. After a week or two of “dealing with the rock pile” in the way that my supervisor requested, I discovered an unused cart in another part of the building that I got permission to use. Instead of hauling up small batches of rocks over and over, I simply loaded up the cart and took the freight elevator. It cut off about 80% of the time spent on the rock task, which increased the time I actually spent on sifting (which was fun in its own way) – and it also made me suddenly look insanely productive to my boss.

Two, simply choose to skip over some of the less essential unliked tasks. Just make sure you’re actually doing other things with that time. If your boss questions it, point out the other stuff that you’re doing instead. The worst that will happen is a discussion about priorities.

Three, do all of the terrible tasks first. Do them right off the bat – if possible – and you’ll find yourself with a healthy part of your workday left and none of the terrible tasks in front of you. Sure, some of them can’t be controlled like that, but some can.

These strategies – along with talking to your supervisor – can minimize the impact of bad tasks on your day.

Strategy #6: Find Healthy and Positive Professional Support

Some people have no professional support at all. They don’t know other people that share their career challenges outside of the workplace. Thus, when there are challenges, they can’t discuss them in a more casual way with an understanding friend.

Others have professional support, but it’s negative support. Professional support that consists of various people complaining about their job and everyone else just agreeing about how horrible it is isn’t a positive professional support group. It’s negative. It just reinforces how horrible your job is without any support for improving your situation.

On the other hand, a positive professional friend or professional group shares stories both about successes and challenges and, rather than agreeing with how bad things are, tries to look for the positives or how to improve one’s situation. Those kinds of relationships are valuable.

In my “office work” years, I spent a lot of time with what I thought was a positive support group, but they were actually pretty negative. Looking back, much of the conversation was about how horrible everyone’s jobs were, and it just reinforced the idea for everyone that our jobs were difficult and terrible. We didn’t share ideas or tactics for making things easier, either.

Take the time to seek out new professional groups and professional relationships. Use social media, particularly Meetup and LinkedIn and Twitter, to seek out positive people and positive groups related to your career. Get engaged with those people and groups. You’ll end up feeling more positive about your own career.

Strategy #7: Focus on the Moment

If all else fails, I find this is the best strategy to fall back on. Just focus on the moment.

If you’re doing a task that you hate and you’re just grumbling in your mind about how much you dislike it, back off of those negative thoughts for a minute. Make a conscious effort to clear your mind.

Then, just focus on the task you’re doing. Focus on every action and movement you’re taking and how you can do this task right. Don’t think about how miserable it is or anything like that. Just focus on nailing the next step, then the next step after that, and so on.

So often, I’ll just get lost in the moment when I take this approach. Even with a task that I hate, I’ll get sucked into getting the little thing I’m working on right, and then getting the next bit right, and so on until suddenly the task is done. And it feels good.

Just focus on the moment and the task will pass right through you.

Final Thoughts

So, what’s the reward for all of this?

The reward is a job that you don’t hate – or at least don’t hate as much.

The reward is a resume that will line you up for a new job or a new promotion.

The reward is no longer having to walk a professional tightrope, as you no longer feel as though your life and job are completely tied together.

The reward is a happier life and the opportunity to earn far more than before.

Are you ready to turn things around? Good luck.

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