Updated on 11.01.07

Dealing With Professional Burnout Without Quitting Your Job

Trent Hamm

At some point, most people reach a point of “burnout” with their job. The routines, paperwork, and effort reach a point of becoming overwhelming and you go home feeling absolutely empty, devoid of energy and life. I’ve gone through several periods like this myself, and I’ve developed a lot of techniques for dealing with this level of burnout.

Take vacation as soon as possible. File paperwork to take a week or two off, and just do nothing. Seriously. Sit at home and recharge. Get caught up on things you’ve been putting off because you’ve been burnt out. Eat very healthy and get some exercise. Do a few things that are purely fun. In fact, most of these other items work best if done immediately after returning from a vacation.

Make a list of the items that you do at work that you enjoy. What tasks make you feel fulfilled at work? What ones do you actually enjoy doing? Think of the pieces of your job that make you feel productive and make you feel like you’re actually contributing in a positive fashion, then list several of these.

Make a list of the items that you dislike doing at work. Don’t include ones you’re indifferent about – just include the ones that are truly dreadful to you. For me, the bane of my existence is bureaucracy – I hate filling out reports, forms, etc.

Spend a week or two doing only the tasks you enjoy. Seriously. Just let the other stuff build up for a while. If a supervisor questions this, tell them that you’re working on higher-priority stuff, which is true – you’re trying to discover – or rediscover – the aspects of your job that bring about passion and excitement within you.

Hand off some of the burdens. If you literally feel you have too many tasks to keep up with, talk to your supervisor and suggest that too many tasks are keeping you from providing excellent work on your core responsibilities. Before you go in, identify some of the tasks that could potentially be moved to other workers.

Compress the periods where you do the things you don’t like. Don’t like email? Do it only once a day. Don’t like paperwork? Do all needed paperwork in one batch once a week. Don’t like dealing with others? Hang a “do not disturb” sign outside your office or cubicle most of the time. Likely, you have to do at least some of the tasks you don’t enjoy, so compress them.

If there are strong interpersonal issues and you work in a large organization, request a transfer to another area. This will usually be accommodated if you have a good work history. Look for other positions in other areas in the organization where you might be able to be productive and feel comfortable.

If the situation is truly untenable, work on preparing your resume to move on. Don’t sit around feeling miserable. If changes like these aren’t fixing the situation, it’s time to make a serious change. Sharpen up your resume and start applying for work elsewhere.

Remember, a job that makes your entire life miserable is not worth it, no matter what. If a job is really making your entire life painful, it’s well worth it to walk out the door and find something else.

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  1. Writers Coin says:

    Hoo boy, and what timing! Fortunately I have a vacation lined up in less than a month!

  2. Or you can do what I do – contract work. I work on an extended contract basis but when it’s over I have the option of rotating into something else or I can take an extended break.

    Another trick is to have several income producing or side projects going on at the same time to bring variety to your working life.

    When I hear stories of people who’ve been with the same employer for 10+ years I’m always amazed. I don’t know how they do it. The routine and deja vu feeling would eventually get to me.

  3. Susy says:

    I must be either very content or lucky. I’ve always really enjoyed my job. I am very laid back so maybe that’s part of it.

    I suppose if I didn’t like it I sure wouldn’t be doing it for the salary I get. Working for a non-profit is very fulfilling. I know that what I do directly affects the welfare of others, especially the children I raise money for for! And I know that there are many people in the world that don’t have a choice but to work terrible jobs.

  4. js says:

    It’s the conviction that changing employers doesn’t help anything. The work itself gets old.

  5. David says:

    I work at an insurance company as a Commercial Underwriter. I deal with 90 emails a day. There just isn’t any option other than answering them the whole day.

  6. Mrs. Micah says:

    Burned out already. Or maybe I just discovered that this isn’t what I’m supposed to be doing and cutting my losses, moving on. The suggestions look good, however. Were I to stay, I think they’d help. Unfortunately, many aren’t options for me, but then I’m a receptionist/admin assistant. I spend most of my time at other peoples’ beck and call, some on my own projects, and some being bored. Oh well, moving on, which is exciting!

  7. D says:

    I noticed when I was in a job that I dreaded, that as soon as I made the decision to do something about it, I felt better. It felt like I was taking back control of a big part of my life, and that’s a good feeling. Even just making that first list – of thing’s I’d rather be doing with my professional life – made me more energized, and ready to try something to be happier. Pretty soon, I decided to change positions in my company. And that felt even better.

  8. Oswegan says:

    Thanks for the tips.

    The best of us go through this, that is unless your dreams somehow align with your career.

    I certainly wish that was the case.


  9. Steve W says:

    I’ve been with one employer for the last ten years, without a shred of boredom or burn-out. The trick? I’ve had five different jobs within my company, each more difficult/responsible than the last. I had a situation once where I worked 48 hours over a 54 hour period (over the weekend). Was I burnt out? Not after the crisis was averted with 15 minutes to spare, and I woke up 12 hours later. Have I had dead-end, soul-killing jobs? Of course. LEAVE THEM. You only live once. You can always match your income doing something else, and in the end, you’ll live longer and earn more.

  10. vh says:

    “It’s the conviction that changing employers doesn’t help anything. The work itself gets old.”

    Right on, js!

    I don’t really hate my job; to the contrary, it’s a good job with halfway decent pay and I feel privileged to be in it.

    The issues are that I’m sick of working (period!) and I hate, hate, HATE the commute from the central city to a suburb that I wouldn’t live in if you gave me the whole grubby little burg on a silver platter coveted by every collector on Antiques Roadshow. I wanna be home, I wanna be working in my garden and tending to the dog and singing in the church choir, and I absolutely positively do not want to be on the Arizona State University campus.

    When you get onto the freeway first thing in the morning and the thought that enters your mind as you fly off the onramp is “I can’t wait to get home,” what, really, are you supposed to do? Moi, I count the days, hours, and minutes in the three years between now and the time I can retire.

    Vacation? Are you kidding? Do you have a clue what the sharks will do the minute the fishnet is unguarded? Gimme a break.

  11. Patrick says:

    Nice article, Trent. I’ve been feeling burnt out lately, and have actually been using a few of these tips already. A few others I hadn’t considered – such as compressing the periods of work that you don’t like. This is a *great* idea. I’ll start first thing tomorrow and knock it out so I won’t dread coming to work on Monday. :)

  12. plonkee says:

    I hate making or receiving phonecalls at work. Sometimes at work I let the phone go to voicemail, switch my mobile off, and only pick up messages twice a day. I couldn’t do it all the time, but if it turns the day from hell into merely a bad day, then it’s justified.

  13. ashley says:

    My main problem isn’t that I don’t like my job (even though I really don’t). My problem is that I work full time and I’m working on my MBA. This leaves very little, if any, time to get personal things done or even have a little fun to alleviate the “burn-out.” I go to work in the morning, school at night, and when I’m not in class during the week and on weekends, I’m doing homework, prepairing a presentation, or studying.

    I would love to find a job where I could gain some valuable experience, rather than the monotonous, mind numbing work that I’m doing now, but I feel like I don’t have the time. I also currently have the benefit of some flexibility in work hours, which allows me to concentrate on school when I need to. It’s really not a bad job, I just don’t feel like I’m going anywhere.

    I don’t feel burnt from work. I feel burnt because after work, the work’s not over. It’s only just beginning.

    I really do need a vacation. At least this semester will be over in a month, and I’ll only have work to worry about for a little while.

  14. Great article/comments… I’m definitely dreading to go for an MBA. Sometimes it’s exhaustive enough to hold a full-time job :) But “you gotta do what you gotta do”, and just keep the eyes on the prize and treat yourself to mini-vacations with friends or a significant other to get yourself through another week.

  15. vh says:

    Great work going for the MBA. This is the smartest move, even if it is a horrible lot of work now. The two people I know who enjoy their lives the most have been able to apply their MBA training to running small businesses (one has a very successful B&B in a beautiful resort town, and one is holding his own quite nicely thank you as a Realtor in the current market).

    Hang in there…it’l be worth it.

  16. Frank says:

    Heh, good timing on this post. I am feeling SO burned out at work these days. Lots of ominous deadlines and my current projects mostly involve doing boring stuff that I normally try to avoid. I’m just trying to survive until my two week vacation around Christmas.

  17. Rita says:

    i need a vacation too.
    sigh. january is so far away, that’s the time i’ll be entitled to vacation leave.

    i am totally burned out. just staying on because this job has a schedule that lets me go to grad school, i have decent pay and great office mates. but the thought of doing another prospecting call and my looming sales goal makes me want to scream. and we are supposed to report to work on Christmas and New Year’s Day. arrrrrrrgggg!!!!

  18. 60 in 3 - Fitness and Health says:

    Take a look at the 4 hour workweek. Even if you’re not going to do the whole NR thing, there’s still a lot of good advice in there on how to minimize your work and get more done.


  19. Megan says:

    I’m sure everyone will think I’m crazy, but I’m burnt out on work because I have nothing to do. Most of my day is spent surfing the Internet, and it is wholly unfulfilling.

    Thankfully, I’ll be switching groups within the company soon and hopefully have more work there.

  20. Stephan F- says:

    Megan, you’re not crazy at all. I once burnt out on trying to find a job. That is pretty terrible when you don’t have income. Then I talked my way into a job so soul killing that I literally couldn’t remember what I did all day. And then having “friends” wondering why I was having problems since I had a “job” which should have solved all my problems.

  21. Anuj says:

    It is difficult to do only the things which you enjoy,it is not optional to do the non enjoying things.
    have little humour while at work , do’nt let away even a single opportunity of office gossip,this is a best stress buster.
    Remember to give 100% of your committment to work to minimise faults.
    Last but not least ,if boss barks then pretend to listen and say O.K and afterwards do whatever you like.
    Make one rule never trust any one on earth but yourself.

  22. Jamie says:

    Don’t forget to delete all of your email when you return from vacation. I’m not kidding either. Turn on the out of office assistant and tell folks that you do not intend to follow up on back email when you return (you just get too much). Ask them to politely contact you after you get back.

    I get some funny replies to this out of office notice, 100% positive.

  23. burnt out says:

    I really like your suggestions. BUT, What happens if you are burnt out already, and you can’t take a vacation or follow through with many of the other suggestions? I am a teacher, and we don’t get a break until Christmas now, what do I do to get through my burnt out stage? I love helping students, but I hate the bureaucracy and the expectations that are put on me by admin, parents, students, etc. Now, I am starting to dislike everything, because it is all too much… I am miserable on a regular basis, and working from the time I get up until the time I go to sleep just to be prepared with a basic lesson for the next day… I feel so stuck… I don’t think this is worth the stress level in my life right now… I still like my life, but hate my job…

  24. Jim Lippard says:

    When I take travel vacations, I like to have at *least* one day of vacation after returning home to recharge from the vacation and travel.

    I like Jamie’s suggestion, a lot–I find that towards the end of my vacations I feel my stress level start to rise from thinking about accumulating email at the office.

  25. FM IN SA says:

    perfect timing – burnout after two years of no vacation and I think its time to take a break start applying some of these useful tips and see if there is any hope for me! because it might be time for me to move on…

    thanks trent

  26. carl says:

    Megan, those jobs where you literally have nothing to do are the MOST soul destroying. Several times I’ve wondered if “there was another internet” I could read after exhausting the current one. Nice article generally, it’s helpful to take a break and get some perspective on things. I’ve been doing the same basic job for 20 years now (programming) and I’ve gone beyond burn out into somewhere bad. I’ve had 3 trial periods this year alone and I’ve stopped every one of them :( The MBA and running your own business thing is great advice.

  27. Luke says:

    What a great article. The last comment by FM in SA talks about a break after two years straight… I am in a very similar position myself. Just finished a huge project. I think what you have written here is very important… especially the last paragraph. Good stuff.

  28. Steve Williamson says:

    I’m on day one of my much needed vacation right now. Top tips! Thanks for this. Steve.

  29. Siva says:

    Those are really worthable tips.
    But consider the point.

    Hand off the BURDENS
    some one should be there to share your burdens. if not ?

    Take Vacation as soon as possible.
    if you are called by your mgr. during your vacation ?

    Any idea’s

  30. Nate says:

    Take vacation? My employer penalizes my monthly proficiency report if I even take a sick day off! A letter from the doctor makes no difference. Yes, you read it right. The company I work for punishes its employees for using the medical benefits that come with the job. And it gives the inhuman department heads and managers’ a real kick to get to do it, too. It’s no wonder that employees in the United States “go postal” and rampage at their jobs. In the eyes of management, employees are just units-of-work, resources to be used then discarded, not human beings. Ask this question: Would you want your children to work where you do?

  31. corey says:

    I work at Charter Communications. Its a call center in Louisville, Ky. The only thing I have been able to do to prevent myself from quiting is taking a vacation. I got away for about 9 days around Christmas this past year, which was good…but it didnt quite cut it. The job is simple, taking calls surfing the net troubleshooting internet connections…no big deal right…WRONG. Charter Communications is a fucking hell hole of a service provider…the BBB calls here to warn us our call volumes are to high…which is true…we are always in que…for repair…not just for general questions. They were doing maintainance on email and they lost 50,000 emails that customers will never get back. Entire states go down and are without internet for sometimes 2 days. Some people are so insanely irate…one lady wanted a supervisor right off the bat i didnt even say my name yet…i asked her for her phone number and she told me it was “hell” i just cant deal with people calling in cursing me out for shit that i didnt do…yes i work for this company but Charter doesnt provide service in the state i live in so its hard for me to care. it is a drain on my life. i leave here to go home and im already dreading the next day. it really does drain me…i want to quit but cant find anything with a decent pay

  32. Ldee says:

    I am leaving a position that most people build their resumes from college on in hopes to attain a sales position like this. This job offers the potential to make 500k. I beat out hundreds of applicants and have been here for 2 years. I love sales and want to stay in the industry, but want to take a step back. I am no longer interested in sacrificing my family, my hobbies, my peace of mind for a job. The money is no longer a priority. How can i explain this to future employers without sounding unmotivated? I really want some balance.

  33. black puma says:

    The listed suggestions sound good, but once you are burnt out they are in no use. I am on sick leave since a few months due to the job burnout and stayed in bed almost whole day for about 2 months because of severe exhaustion. Burnout kills your confidence and can be accompanied by feeling quilty. I only started to feel OK recently. I started to think back (I feel stressed just by thinking about how I felt) and identified the reason that led me to this situation. It was because of the value conflit between the management and I. So, I know what to do now.

  34. laura says:

    I was highly thinking about quitting my job after just a few months and then I got fired. I wasn’t surprised at all. I was so unhappy with my boss and I told someone about it and bam the axe went down fairly fast after that. I thought it may help but it was not the case. I feel sad but then again I also feel relieved. What really sucks is that I went to school for this job ( to be a paralegal) and it was my first job out there. A part of me wonders if I can handle it or not and another part of me is just wondering how long its going to take to get a job now with so little experience. This is kind of scary, but overall I feel I did the best thing i could have done.

  35. droid says:

    my job is causing musculoskeletal stress. i am seeking a a medical dispensation from work. i like my what i do, just dont like who i do it for or why i am doing it for them. forced unpaid overtime was the last straw. the workplace culture hides the frAudulent results that the work is based upon. vicious toxic cycle

  36. dukester says:

    i have to disagree with the premise of this article entirely. i used to believe that when i was burned out, a vacation would be the remedy. i would take a vacation and have a great time, but when i returned i would be hating my job so much more, and getting more depressed because i was still there and it was xxx long till next vacation. this convinced me that vacations are only good if you enjoy your job already, otherwise you’ll return to a job you still hate, and the vacation just magnifies that.

    i’ve been in IT for 15 years and have loathed every job and almost every day. i have been looking for that other “thing” to do but don’t know what it is, and the almighty $ is holding me back from leaving my job. i agree you only live once, but i don’t want to be standing in the line for free cheese either. i don’t know what the answer is; i think my wife is ready to kill me from hearing this so much so maybe i won’t have to worry about it much longer! :-o

  37. tony says:

    I can completely relate with the last comment. I too spent many years in the IT field and I am totally burnt out. Taking vacations just increases the workload and anxiety when I return and I get more depressed. Plus there are times where I have to call in when I am on vacation.

    I knew I hate my job for years, but it pays very good. I am now at the point I cant take it any more..the long hours, sleepless nights, the mental exhaustion, the workload is overwhelming. I am strongly considering cutting the cord. It is a tough decision, but there’s more to life than being stress and burned out all the time. I am seriously considering starting my own business in a different field. I know the economy is slow right, but I don’t know what else to do.

  38. Kris says:

    Great article, Trent. This is a subject I can really relate to. I struggled really hard with total burnout last summer, and didn’t listen to the signs until it was too late. Basically, I worked 16-20 hour days for four months straight (no days off) for a huge project. My three bosses basically kept telling me everything I did sucked and there was a lot of redoing things, backstabbing, backhanded crap, and ugly office politics. This was supposed to be my “big break;” I had finally made it. One day I showed up at work – and just started to cry. I had to go to a meeting right away, and tried everything to stop crying, but nothing would stop it. Then I just sorta…snapped, I guess. I ran from the building, jumped in my car, and started to drive. Didn’t care where I was going, I was just going to go…away. I drove for an hour before I calmed down enough to realize I didn’t want to leave my husband, I didn’t want to leave my life – just my job. So I came back and saw my doctor and he put me on stress leave, saying I was as close to a nervous breakdown as you could get. I was just looking for a couple of days off, but he put me off for a month and gave me some “happy pills.” I was still crying the rest of the day, and the week following. And my three bosses all called me and I had the shock of my life – they all told me what a great job I was doing and that they really needed me. I finally realized it wasn’t worth it, even if this job was what I had worked towards for years. Almost a year later, I still find myself to be suffering some the effects of this – digestive problems, cry too easily (before this, I hardly ever used to cry at all), stress out too easily. I suddenly have a lot of grey hair, and I’m only 28! I also struggle a lot with feeling like a big failure because of this, even if quitting was the smartest thing I ever did. Needless to say, I learned this lesson the hard way, and really wish I had listened to advice like this before it was too late. I’m now working at a less “prestigious” and lower paying job. I’m so much happier, it’s ridiculous. Still have a ways to heal, but I feel so much better, and hope to never get sucked into that crappy rat race life ever again. Learning to be more frugal was a big help; you really don’t need the big salary if you don’t own a bunch of crap with monthly payments attached.

  39. Ronnie says:

    Life sucks; the myth that you can eventually find ‘what you love doing’ is just that…a myth. People don’t hesitate to blame the success of models, movie stars etc on their good looks, emphasizing that they won the genetic lottery. But other factors count as part of that hellish lottery too, which people like Trent have a tendency not to acknowledge. Diligence is a trait that is inherited; intelligence, sociability, ability to work in a team, even creativity: these are all just as inherited as looks and athletic ability.

    Hard work can improve your lot, but not by much unless you have uncommon luck.

    Life is bad, hard. I like this blog because it helps me save some money here and there. But the truth of the matter is that I feel like a slave, and my abilities don’t allow me to escape the treadmill. With a family, and no real talents, I am stuck where I am. A slave, eeking out a living doing something I hate, working with people I simply can’t stand. They make me shake with their anger, their ambition, their hatred and superficiality. They might like me (I do a good job of faking my dissatisfaction with life), but I don’t like them. And that, like it or lump it, is life.

    Then sometimes I watch the news and see 10 year old kids buried by the THOUSAND in an earthquake, their horrified mothers yelling their names as if they could hear (but they can’t… they’re crushed, lifeless, braindead)

    You can look on the bright side of life, but if you have integrity you must at least acknowledge that it’s just a ‘Jedi mind trick’. Life is hell.

  40. senga says:

    I thought I was alone in this painful mess of hating the job I once loved so much. I dislike vacation because of everything that piles on my desk while I am away. I do not know how to rest since I am thinking about work. I am a trouble at home, scatter brain at work and as an executive cry in the pillow at night since there is no way I can be caught up even if I put 25 hrs a day into my job. I tried Dave Allen Getting Things Done, prioritizing, closing doors, time blocking etc, nothing work and the piles are getting bigger and the emails just pop up every minute. The “world” sees me as a successful role model for women, young grandmother “who has it all”.
    Where do I start ?

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