Updated on 12.14.09

Eight Tactics for Dealing with Professional Burnout

Trent Hamm

Carlos writes in:

I’ve been working at the same job for the last six years. I used to love it but lately I’ve started dreading going to work. I can’t really put my finger on a reason why, either. I’m considering quitting but I am very afraid to take that leap with the economy the way it is. Got any suggestions?

Once upon a time, I was in a similar situation. For me, it really boiled down to three factors, two of which had little to do with the job. First, I felt like my dream of being a writer was slipping away from me. Second, I felt like I wasn’t spending enough quality time with my children. Third, the aspects of my job that I loved (my great coworkers and the creative work) were often buried behind minutiae, maintenance, and paperwork.

Even in this situation, it took me more than a year to choose to walk away. Much like Carlos, I was very afraid to take that leap for financial and career security reasons.

That year was not miserable at all. In fact, when the time came where I could walk away, I found myself having a lot of last minute second thoughts because I actually liked my job so much. It was the non-job aspects that finally called me away.

Here are eight key things to try when you’re feeling professionally burnt out.

1. Reconnect with your core work.
You were hired to perform a certain task, right? Get back to that task, which is often the part of your job that you love the most. Take a break from all of the extra stuff – the paperwork, the committees, the office politics – and just focus on the work that you enjoy.

You might have to get a bit of buy-in from your boss on this, but most bosses will be receptive. After all, you’re requesting to focus on the task that they hired you for.

2. Plan for the next step.
If you were to quit, what would you do? Develop a detailed plan for doing this. On one level, it might just be escapism to help you deal with a rough patch. On another level, you might be putting together the blueprint for a powerful life goal for yourself.

Make the plan as detailed as possible, then start taking action on those little details. Actually moving forward on such a goal can bring it to life in a very powerful and life-affirming way.

3. Build new relationships.
If you’re feeling burnt out with the circle of people you work with (and office politics in general), reconsider the group you’re associating with. Look for new people in your office – and outside your office – to adopt into your inner professional circle.

New people offer new insights. They offer new opportunities and connections and ideas. More than anything, though, they offer new attitudes and new perspectives, which might be exactly what you need right now.

4. Share your gifts.
Open up a Twitter account. Start a blog. Link to interesting things that you’ve discovered. When you’re on Twitter, follow and converse with people in your field. On your blog, link to articles by people in your field that you find interesting.

Most importantly, share the things that you know. Over a long period of time, with consistent activity, a thoughtful blog becomes a powerful resume in and of itself. Never mind the fact that it’s also a potential way to earn some money, too.

5. Learn something new.
Jobs can sometimes become frustrating because you’re stuck in an intellectual loop, doing the same thing over and over again. Many jobs can change radically if you take the time to learn new ways of doing things.

Look for opportunities to expand your education. Take some classes. Read some books. Focus on learning some new techniques. They’ll breathe new life into your current job and open the door to better ones.

6. Talk with your supervisor.
This works particularly well if you’re a longstanding productive employee, because a supervisor will actually pay attention to what you have to say. If you’re chronically underproductive, this is a bad route to take.

Just have a meeting with your supervisor and lay your concerns on the table. Ask for some help in coming up with a plan to solve those concerns. Your supervisor may be able to handle some of them and offer solid advice on how to handle other aspects.

7. Build an emergency fund.
Sometimes, the pain of a job comes from a sense that you’re completely tied to it financially: that without the job, you can’t possibly survive financially. Take a hard look at how you spend money. How much of that spending is really necessary and life-fulfilling?

Learn some frugality. Cut down on your needless overspending. Start socking away some of your money. Build up a cushion – and don’t give into the temptation to spend it just as you start building it. Quite often, the long-term presence of a healthy emergency fund can make life seem a lot more tolerable.

8. Build an exit strategy.
If none of these tactics work, it might actually be time to leave – and leave soon. Polish up your resume and get in touch with the people you know in your field. Seek out that next position so that when you make the leap, you leap into someplace safe.

Good luck.

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  1. Johanna says:

    It seems to me that an important first step would be to try harder to figure out what is causing the burnout. Until you understand what the problem is, it might be hard to figure out whether you can learn to love your job again, whether you really do need to change course, and what kind of changes you should be trying to make.

    When you used to love your job, what did you love about it? What kind of situations made you the happiest at work? What kind of situations make you the most miserable now? Maybe the job itself has changed (you’re doing different tasks, or working with different people in a different environment), maybe you’ve changed (your values and priorities are different than they were six years ago), or maybe a big part of what you used to love about the job was the novelty, and you just need a change of scenery every so often.

    It’s true that this is not a great time to be looking for a new job. So if you determine that there’s no way to get back what you used to love about your job, maybe you should focus for right now on making your life outside of work as fulfilling as possible. Do some volunteer work, join a club, take a class, or plan a weekend getaway to a place you’ve never been before – or think of other ways, based on your own interests, of defining your identity apart from your career.

  2. Amateur says:

    Luckily, the holiday break is coming up, a good time to reconnect with related and unrelated people and pets (for those who dislike other people). The time off should be used to not think about work and how work is dreadful. Really, there are not too many jobs that exist, that pay livable wages and stable, that are barrels of fun with constant changing challenges and developments without mounds of education or years of specialization. Even so, the current situation with burnout is not permanent and there is no guarantee that another job will be better or worse.

    Before running up to the boss and probably coming off unloading feelings or voicing any concerns that may be misinterpreted, it is also important to figure out if you are good at your job. Are the tasks complete? Are the clients or colleagues satisfied with your work? If the answers are yes, it may be a good opportunity to refine it, and then ask to work on other things within the organization. If shifting responsibilities is not an option within your organization, the next step would be to save up some money, get some additional training for perhaps a job you may want, and slowly make that leap.

    If the situation is deeper than that, where you dislike your colleagues (where their attitudes and moods affect you personally) and understand these folks will not leave their positions, it may be time to use personal time to train for that next job opportunity – while saving money not knowing if a future job may pay less or have less benefits.

    Johanna makes a good bit of sense in staying put in the job market today and trying to find some joy outside of work, if possible.

  3. Penny says:

    Could a lot of the recommendations in this article also work if you’re feeling like you’re in a rut within your LTR or marriage as well? Good article; probably has touched us all at one point or another….

  4. Craig says:

    Like anything else doing the same thing over and over can be tedious and get boring quickly. Maybe there could be a new aspect to the job that you would like but trying to set new goals, learn new skills can help bring that back.

  5. I have seen burned out employees suddenly quit without a well-planned exit strategy and end up with severe separation anxiety, after leaving a job they could have kept. It’s sad.

    John DeFlumeri Jr

  6. Dee Wilcox says:

    I’m a person who likes stability, and I know myself well enough to admit that I’ll pretty much stay in any kind of horrible job just to keep that sense of stability. It doesn’t make sense for me to feel or behave that way given that I’ve been laid off enough times in the last six years to know that stability doesn’t exist when you’re relying on an employer for your stability. I’m not sure whether being laid off has made me crave stability more, but I’m learning to recognize that stability doesn’t come from a job.

    About mid-way through this year, my employer cut my hours and salary in half, and I spent the first two weeks afterward in a kind of stupor. Then, my husband and I got creative with our finances, found ways to cut back that we could have sworn weren’t possible before, and I focused more on my other passions. I will be returning to full-time work in January, but I’ve weighed that decision out carefully. These last six months have taught me that my full-time job just isn’t as important or necessary to my sense of stability as I thought it was.

    I will add that our emergency fund has taken hit after hit in the last six months. If you are anticipating a job change, build that thing up substantially before you do. Start living on less now, and put the extra into savings. It can really make the transition so much easier.

  7. stella says:

    The first step–reconnect with your core work–is critical. However, for some of us, the real reason we have burnout is that our jobs have changed and we no longer DO the work we were hired to do. If we even got to do it in the first place.

    In fact, for some of us, we never DID the work we were hired for because in fact the company changed the game and, in some cases, actually misled new hires with false job descriptions.

    It happens. A lot more than people talk about. And given the lack of jobs today, few people, if any, do anything.

    In some cases, a changing job description is inevitable and part of an industry. Sometimes you can still find something you want to do. But sometimes, there is no option but to plan an exit strategy, no matter how long it takes.

    Sometimes, knowing you are working on an exit strategy is the only thing that allows you to get up and go to work day after day. Knowing there will be an end.

    The bit about talking to supervisors? I’d be very very careful about that, no matter how good an employee you are (or think you are) and how constructive your comments. The minute you raise any concerns, especially today, it’s the rare supervisor who then doesn’t start looking at you differently. And an even rarer one who doesn’t brand you as a troublemaker.

    As has been discussed before, another way to cope is to simply stop investing so much of your life, self-image, etc. in what you’re currently doing. Do your job to the best of your ability and meet the specs, but save your time and energy for elsewhere, whether it’s doing something you love as a volunteer or learning new skills.

    Some jobs will never provide a level of personal satisfaction. Why waste time looking for it? If you can perform it and not be totally stripped of your mental, emotional and physical energies, do it. And allocate time/resources for what does interest you outside work.

    One of the great myths, in my opinion, is that we think we can always find the kind of work that is what we love. Depending on what we do, or can do, that may not be possible.

    Having known plenty of people, for example, in low-paying jobs that do not reflect their interests or passions (but who are grateful to be employed at all), you see how they adapt. The ones who survive long-term are those who first of all do not believe that “what they do is who they are.” And 2, conserve their energy for the rest of their lives even while doing the jobs with a smile, regardless of the circumstances.

    By the way, the most difficult thing happens not just when you are burned out or dissatisfied. It’s when there is an office full of folks who feel the same way. That’s when it’s really hard to ignore and just do the work.

    Life is short. Use your energy to find some way out. Everyone will benefit.

    All work has value (whether management acknowledges it or not), but not all work is for all people.

    Unless you take action, you could find yourself working thirty or 40 years and realizing: I’ve NEVER done anything I really wanted to do. That’s NOT a place you want to be!

    By the way, some of the most burned out folks are often those who are well-compensated and have seemingly “great” jobs! They can afford shadow comforts and it’s often years before they realize they have literally sold themselves into a contemporary form of slavery.

  8. Writers Coin says:

    I would add: take a break.

    Not from the job, but just from worrying about it so much. Do something totally different, like give your time to a charity or something. That can really put things into perspective.

  9. Sharon L says:

    A better approach with a supervisor would be the positive one: you see some need in the company that nobody is fulfilling, and you would like to tackle it. However, to have time to do that, you need to pass along (whatever is giving you grief) to (someone you really dislike!)

    Also, you might want to take the time to really analyze your work. If you have to write a regular report, why? Who sees it? What happens with the information generated? Is there additional information missing from the report that would be more useful? If nobody reads it or acts on the information, see if you can substitute something actually useful for that task.

    See if all your tasks actually contribute to the company, or if some are just being done because they have always done them or done them that way when you can think of a more efficient way.

    Then you can go to your supervisor with good, thoughtful ideas and not look like a whiner.

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