I’ve left jobs before but this time felt different. I felt broken. Deflated. Unable to even think past the next few days.
When it hit me, I had been giving career advice and coaching to friends and clients for over 10 years. My superpower is helping people understand what they were good at and telling a story that enables them to move towards something where they find more joy and satisfaction. People looked at me as someone that “had it figured out” and wouldn’t be in this position.
I did have a lot of things figured out. I knew what I was good at. I knew what drove me. I had a good sense for the things that were non-negotiable and the annoying work-related things that I could deal with. I always knew I could get another job and had managed my life in a way that I never depended on needing to make a lot of money.
None of my preparations mattered. No one is immune from the feeling that overtook me in my final day of full-time employment.
Burnout: slowly and then all at once
It should have been a day of joy. I was kick-starting the next chapter in my journey. Externally, I was putting on a good front. I was telling people how pumped I was for the future and telling people about my freelance and self-employment plans. Because you know, people love plans.
I saw it coming. I knew early on that there wasn’t a strong values alignment between what I cared about, what my company cared about and what my managers cared about. I’d even studied and wrote about the research on motivation that says you need this alignment to achieve big goals, stay motivated and succeed.
Still, I stayed and I stayed too long. Part of me wanted to prove that I wasn’t a “job-hopper.” But even with the confidence that I could get another job, there is something pernicious about the mindset of full-time employment and how you build your life around it with 1-year leases and other financial commitments.
From the first day of my first internship in college, I always had a deep fear that is impossible to put into words, but I’ll try anyway. Picture a slightly overweight middle-aged man, who stayed in a job too long looking at his desk amid an existential crisis. He had told himself, “one more year” so many times and in the process, a slow creepy disatisfaction built as he simeltaneously increased spending to quell that pain. He is numb and absolutely lost.
I wanted to avoid that at all costs.
I left jobs before getting promoted because I knew learning would energize me more than a raise. I always took all my vacation days. I tried not to work too many hours. I put a lot of effort into working with people I would also want to be friends with outside of work.
Yet, it still hit me.
That final day of work, I walked around in a deep fog of gloom, shame, and embarrassment.
My body desperately calling for something else.
Just wanting to run away.
The research on burnout shows it is similar to depression — just very focused on the workplace. This may be the saving grace of burnout – that it doesn’t always infect every aspect of your life.
When I reflect back, I see a different person. An optimistic person, I struggled to see the positive in things. My values were disconnected from the leaders I was working with. The National Institute of Health describes this common symptom as “Alienation from (work-related) activities”:
People who have burnout find their jobs increasingly stressful and frustrating. They may start being cynical about their working conditions and their colleagues. At the same time, they may increasingly distance themselves emotionally, and start feeling numb about their work.
I started blaming the people I worked with. If only they could change their mindset! If only they saw there was a better way to do things! It didn’t matter. My own negative attitude was destroying any good ideas before they even had a chance to survive. I was in a different mental state. The only thing that would cure me was leaving.
Is burnout an inevitable flaw of the modern workplace?
Work is increasingly complex, people are working more and managers are trying to lead without a foundational understanding of the complexity they are fighting against. Edgar Schein has highlighted these problems for decades. His article from 1993 still resonates:
…one of the most difficult problems of our age is that leaders, and perhaps academics as well, cannot readily admit that things are out of control and that we do not know what to do. We have too much information, limited cognitive abilities to think in systemic terms, and an unwillingness to violate the cultural norms that leaders must always appear to be in control and to have solutions for all our problems.
More than 25 years ago! Work from 1993 would probably seem pretty appealing today without 24/7 connectivity and limitless information to churn into more charts and graphs. I’ve written extensively about how many of these problems still persist and have outlined six core reasons people are running up against. Still, people feel helpless. If there is one phrase I hear more often than others in my conversations with people it is this:
it sucks but what can I do?
I may not have been able to save myself, but I am fascinated by what I can do to save others from burnout. Or at least to help them pick up the pieces after the fact.
As I walked out on my final day I also felt something else — disappointment. I knew that I had held back at certain times and could have done more. I left growth and potential on the table. If I was doing pretty well and was still leaving creative potential untapped, what does this say for the rest of the workforce? How many millions of people are suffering the slow, marginal creep of looming burnout?
I hope to make a small dent in helping people avoid that fate.