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It’s an ironic Catch-22: Your job is sapping your energy to the point where you can’t muster the strength to look for a new one. So what are you supposed to do?
One of the most considerable issues with modern work is pervasive burnout. According to Michael Leiter, co-author of the upcoming book The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships With Their Jobs, the core aspects of burnout are feeling exhausted, cynical, and discouraged. Last year, 71 percent of workers reported experiencing work-related stress, according to the American Psychological Association’s 2021 Work and Well-being Survey. Three in five employees said they experienced negative impacts at work from stress; the top impacts reported were lack of interest, motivation, or energy; difficulty focusing; and lack of effort at work — all symptoms of burnout.
Workplace burnout isn’t a byproduct of the pandemic; this specific breed of exhaustion predates it. The term first became popularized in the 1970s to describe the exhaustion human services workers experienced. Over the ensuing decades, burnout has been shown to exist in nearly every profession, was classified as an occupational phenomenon by the World Health Organization, and was famously named a hallmark of the millennial generation.
If your job is contributing — or is the sole contributor — to your burnout, you may feel pulled to search for greener pastures. But when you’re burned out, completing even the smallest of tasks, let alone a massive undertaking like a job search, can be daunting. “Looking for jobs is one of the hardest jobs there is,” Leiter says. “You’ve got to figure out how you’re going to put your energy together for that.” There are steps you can take to preserve your energy and look for your next role regardless of industry.
Get to the root of your burnout
Before jumping onto job boards, first determine what’s causing your burnout, says workplace well-being expert Jennifer Moss, author of The Burnout Epidemic: The Rise of Chronic Stress and How We Can Fix It. When you narrow in on why you’re so stressed, you can avoid entering another workplace culture that perpetuates the same issues. Is your workload too overwhelming, or so light you’re feeling bored and unfulfilled? Do you feel lonely and alienated from your colleagues? Are you being overlooked for promotions and raises? These topics are worth discussing with your current manager, Moss says, and can be addressed by fixes like limiting meetings, triaging important tasks, reconnecting with colleagues, having more control over your schedule, and fostering more communication with your manager (however, this will only be successful if your manager meets you halfway). Ideally, your boss will be receptive to your concerns and you won’t need to leave your job. “What are you looking for?” Moss says. “Because it isn’t going to be easy starting a brand new job, especially if you’re burned out.”
Of course, if the workplace is truly toxic, you should feel empowered to quit. An MIT Sloan Management Review analysis of Glassdoor reviews found the top five descriptors of toxic workplaces were “disrespectful,” “non-inclusive,” “unethical,” “cutthroat,” and “abusive.” Women, LGBTQ people, and people of color face systemic and structural issues in workplaces that further contribute to burnout. While quitting an unhealthy job without another offer is a privilege not everyone has, if your mental health is being seriously impacted, “we always have the option to leave,” Moss says.
Do some soul-searching
If you’ve decided to find a new job, it’s helpful to determine what an ideal next position looks like for you in order to avoid getting overwhelmed by the deluge of job listings. To help workers envision their ideal working conditions, Leiter recommends reflecting on your current (or most recent, if you’re unemployed) workday for a week or so, making mental notes of the moments where you felt happy and fulfilled: What were you doing? Who were you working with? Who weren’t you working with?
Then, Leiter says, think about the situations where you disliked the job: What were the most tedious moments? What overwhelmed you the most? What was the worst part of the day? What projects or situations gave you the Sunday scaries? “It could be just as simple as, ‘This job requires a lot of travel that takes me away from my family and I hate that,’” Leiter says. ”It could be, ‘People interrupt me all day. I hate it when people interrupt me.’”
Instead of looking for narrow skills or specifications in job listings, identify roles and companies that align with your values and well-being, Moss says. All of the factors initially contributing to your burnout can help guide you. For instance, if you’re burned out by isolation, you might want to look for a workplace with a hybrid approach so you can interact with colleagues face-to-face a few days a week. Or if your concern is with workload, perhaps a scrappy startup with a small team won’t be the best fit. “A lot of it is looking for mental health goals and priorities versus some of the other compensation factors that we might have looked for before,” Moss says.
Break down the job search
The job search process can be long and arduous. Updating your resume, scouring job listings, writing cover letters, scheduling informational interviews, going on actual interviews, completing skills assessments, and then waiting patiently for updates is a lot even for people who aren’t burned out.
Don’t be demoralized by the path to employment and instead break down the process into bite-size milestones: Give yourself 30-, 60-, and 90-day goals, says Minda Harts, workplace equity consultant and author of The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table. During the first 30 days of your search, consider your values and what you’d like your next role to look like. Another 30-day goal is to work on your resume, Harts says, whether you’re devoting a few hours a week to sprucing it up (college and university career centers often have free resume writing resources online) or hiring a resume writer, if you can afford one. Sixty-day goals can include reaching out to folks who work in interesting positions or companies for short informational interviews. By 90 days, you should be applying for jobs. “I’m breaking it down, but I don’t feel overwhelmed,” Harts says. “I’m still able to heal during this process and get healthier because you want to be healthy while you’re job-seeking.”
While you’re taking on the extra burden of looking for a new job, you’re going to need to outsource some other tasks to create mental space. Harts suggests asking a partner or loved one if they can pick up the kids from day care a few times a week or take on extra chores around the house. You can also work with a career coach who can make the ordeal feel less overwhelming and isolating. Again, working with an expert will come with a price tag — anywhere from $100 to $150 per session — which not everyone can afford, but if you go that route, look for people with personality types you work well with and coaches with expertise in the field or industry where you’re looking to find a job.
Moss also recommends pairing applying for jobs with a pleasurable activity, like sipping a comforting cup of tea while firing off resumes. “You’re taking a moment to do something that engages those pleasure centers of your brain and then you’re doing something that feels like it’s productive,” she says. Don’t apply for jobs during work hours or on a company-issued laptop or phone, Moss continues, and don’t let applying eat too much into your personal time, either — just keep it to contained moments of the duration of your warm beverage or the time it takes the sun to set.
Make the most of the interview
Under ordinary circumstances, it’s crucial to come to the table prepared with questions for your interviewer — it’s your chance to figure out if the role and the company are a good fit, after all. When you’re dealing with burnout, it’s even more important to use the Q&A portion to ask pointed questions about culture. Without mentioning burnout outright, you can ask about office self-care practices, paid time off, flexible scheduling, and remote work. “You can get down to the question without actually coming out and saying, ‘Hey, are your employees experiencing burnout?’” Harts says. “You can position the burnout conversation around wellness.”
If your boss contributed to your burnout, you can ask about management style or team dynamics, Harts says. If the job listing mentioned flexible scheduling, ask what such flexibility looks like in practice. “Because maybe my last company’s flexibility was working five days a week in the office instead of seven,” Harts says, “so that’s not very flexible.” Moss recommends other sneaky questions worth asking to get to the root of burnout culture: “What are the company’s mental health benefits?” “How does the company build supportive working relationships?” “Tell me about the company’s employee resource groups.” “How are goals met? Are there individual or shared goals?” (Individual goals are more likely to lead to burnout, Moss says.)
Rejection is, unfortunately, a requisite part of job searching. When you’re burned out and already contending with a defeatist attitude, rolling with the punches is much more difficult. Acknowledge the feelings of hurt and disappointment, Harts says. “Sometimes it’s easy for us to sweep them under the rug or we dwell on them too much,” she says, “which could create forms of impostor syndrome where we’re starting to gaslight ourselves about the situation.”
Then, acknowledge your limited control in the interview process and focus on the areas within your power, like which jobs you apply for and how prepared you are for each interview. “I can’t control if this company hires me or calls me back,” Harts says. “We have to remind ourselves, What part of this equation can I control? and I’m going to lean into that. I’m not going to allow myself to overwhelm myself additionally, or gaslight myself additionally by wondering if I’m good enough.”
Don’t bring burnout into your next role
Once you’ve landed a position, the last thing you want to do is bring burnout into your new job. Experts agree taking time off to recharge, log off, and rest is the best way to heal from burnout, so if you can afford to take a couple of weeks to invest in rest, you should. But many workers don’t have the option to forgo work for an extended period. In the absence of a transitory break, Leiter suggests partaking in a reenergizing activity — meditating, reading, spending time with friends — and reflecting on what excites you about work in the first place.
Harts also recommends having a conversation with your future manager to set boundaries, whether that’s determining how many days you’re able to come into the office, hours and days a week you’re able to work, flexibility when it comes to scheduling, or the after-hours email and chat expectations.
The goal, Moss says, is to prioritize yourself instead of your work. The best-laid plan for plotting a job change while burned out is one with your needs and values at the center, orchestrated in small, but meaningful, steps.
“After two years of facing our own mortality, our identity with work has really changed and our priorities have changed,” Moss says. “How important is work? Is it worth my health? Is it worth my happiness? If the answer is no, you want to think clearly about what the plan is to make that more of a priority.”
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