Save Yourself from Burnout and Rebuild Resilience
You have the right to have work that enriches and enlivens you, rather than diminishing you. This is my own personal declaration of human rights at work. It informs everything I do as a coach, management professor, and human being. Yet it’s surprisingly controversial. Managers and employees in organizations around the world have bought into the assumption that pay and other contracted rewards are all you can expect to receive from work (and all that you owe your employees) and that it’s unrealistic to hope for less-tangible benefits like trust, respect, autonomy, civility, and the opportunity to make a positive impact on others. This impoverished view of work plays out in workplace attitudes and behaviors that burn employees out. It also traps people in jobs that harm their well-being and sense of self.
When the conditions and demands you encounter at work — like workload, level of autonomy, and norms of interpersonal behavior — exceed your capacity to handle them, you’re at risk of burning out. Burnout has three components: exhaustion (lost energy), cynicism (lost enthusiasm), and inefficacy (lost self-confidence and capacity to perform), but you don’t have to be experiencing all three in order to suffer serious consequences. For example, if you don’t believe in your organization’s core activities, leadership, and culture, you’re likely to feel demoralized even if you still function well at work.
While attempts to reduce or prevent burnout primarily fall to individuals, research has established that job and organizational factors that are largely outside of an individual employee’s control contribute to burnout at least as much as personal factors. People are most likely to experience burnout in the face of conditions such as unrealistically high workloads, low levels of job control, incivility, bullying, administrative hassles, low social support, poor organizational resources, stressed leaders, and negative leadership behaviors. Organizations with rampant burnout are like centers of infectious disease outbreaks. Many people exhibit symptoms, and the deleterious effects reverberate throughout the whole system of employee relationships, both in and out of the workplace. Unfortunately, in contrast to the systemic medical responses that abate epidemics, organizational burnout vectors often go unchecked while suffering employees are left to manage as best they can on their own.
Therefore, there may come a time when leaving your job or organization is the best possible course of action in response to burnout. I faced this decision a few years ago while working for an organization that had numerous burnout risk factors and many burned-out employees. I tried multiple strategies to increase my engagement, such as crafting my job. I looked for ways to create value for my employer that exploited my strengths. I gained agreement for slight job modifications that allowed me to spend more time on work I found meaningful and less time on assignments I disliked. I reduced my exposure to tasks, people, and situations that drained my energy to the extent that I could.
Over time, however, my ability to exert control over my job was significantly constrained. I was assigned a higher load of stressful assignments and denied the opportunity to take on those I found fulfilling. Vigorous exercise, yoga, and meditation proved inadequate to control my stress; I found it necessary to take tranquilizers as well. I was unable to achieve any psychological distance from the stresses of my workplace. Familiar tasks required greater time and effort to complete, with the result that I worked nearly continuously. I’ve always been achievement-oriented, so feeling my creative and productive capacity draining away from me was frightening. Friends observed that I was clearly miserable at work. I came to realize that even though leaving my job might entail a major career change and an unwelcome relocation, my well-being depended on it.
If you’re feeling burned out, how do you know when it’s time to call it quits? Reflecting on the following questions can help you to determine whether you should leave your job.
Does your job/employer enable you to be the best version of yourself? A sustainable job leverages your strengths and helps you perform at your peak. One of the most consistently demoralizing experiences my coaching clients report is having to work in conditions that constrain their performance to a level well below their potential — for example, overwhelming workload, conflicting objectives, unclear expectations, inadequate resources, and lack of managerial support. Persistent barriers to good performance thwart the human need for mastery. Furthermore, when you’re burned out, you provide less value than you would working in conditions that are more conducive to your performance and engagement. As my burnout progressed, my motivation plummeted and I had less to offer my employer. Not only was the organization hurting me, I was hurting the organization. Burnout is like a relationship that’s gone bad: When the employment relationship is no longer beneficial to either party, and the prospects for reviving it are dim, it may be time to call it quits.
How well does your job/employer align with your values and interests? When you experience a sense of fit between your values and interests and the values and needs of your organization, you are more likely to find meaning and purpose in your work. When fit is bad, on the other hand, you probably won’t receive the support you need to perform well. Your career success suffers. My employer’s values as revealed by managerial behavior and decision-making practices clashed with my core commitments to authenticity, autonomy, making a positive difference, and facilitating thriving at work. While there were small ways in which I could create value, help others, and enjoy moments of satisfaction, overall the landscape appeared bleak. I reasoned that rather than trying to garden in a desert, I’d be better off seeking fertile soil elsewhere to cultivate the fruits I longed to bring to life.
What does your future look like in your job/organization? Zoom out and take a long-term perspective to assess whether you’ve hit a short-term rough patch or a long-term downward slide. Do you recognize yourself in senior members of the organization? Do they give you a hopeful vision of your future? The possibility of living out the reality that some of my senior colleagues were living filled me with dread. Considering a few senior colleagues who were clearly diminished by their employment, frequently sick, and consistently negative set off alarm bells for me. I knew that I didn’t want to end up like that. Opportunities to expand myself into new areas and develop skills I hoped to build appeared slim. My future in the organization was one of stagnation.
What is burnout costing you? Burnout can take a serious toll on your health, performance, career prospects, psychological well-being, and relationships. In my case, the negative emotions I brought home hurt my marriage and family relationships as well as my peace of mind. Sitting in the office of a relationship counselor and hearing my always supportive husband say, “I have no more empathy left for you,” clarified the costs of burnout on me and my family. If you’re unsure about the impact that burnout might be having on you, try asking your partner, family members, and close friends for their perspective.
After considering these questions, if you conclude that leaving your job or organization is the right course of action for you, you’ve already turned a corner. You may not be able to quit today. But maybe today is the day that you begin to lay the groundwork: Put aside extra savings, update your résumé, reach out to network contacts, spread the word that you’d like a new job, get a coach, or sign up for an online course. The journey back to thriving begins with actions like these.
In my case, I began lining up side gigs, got certified as a coach, and negotiated some additional training support as part of a separation agreement with my employer. I built a portfolio of fulfilling work activities into a sustainable career that I love. I’m convinced that if meaningful, rewarding work matters to you and if you commit to achieving it, you are more likely to enjoy your right to enriching work.