Career Path

Breaking Up With Burnout

Coming back from a place of exhaustion takes a thoughtful approach.

The signs were all there: 60-hour workweeks, no time for hobbies, weight gain from eating too much delivery, and a general malaise that made waking up each morning feel like a monumental task in itself.

Burnout, or the physical and emotional exhaustion you can feel from work-related stress, has reached an almost epidemic level in the United States workforce. According to a recent study by the human resources consulting firm Randstad, four in 10 employees want to quit over fatigue from their job. Research from Korn Ferry shows one-third of employees currently question whether the amount of work expected of them is reasonable—and more than half of employees express concerns about excessive levels of stress in their jobs, says Mark Royal, a senior director at Korn Ferry.

When we feel like we’ve hit rock bottom, it’s easy to jump to radical solutions—such as quitting immediately.

“People who burn out often take on more and more, which then leads to more burnout because they become known as the people others turn to and say, ‘Oh look, she can do it,’” says Frances Weir, a Korn Ferry Advance career coach.

Whether it’s a lack of passion for what you do, a weariness over the number of hours you’re working, or your belief you’re stuck in the wrong career, there are ways to hit the pause button, assess what’s driving you to burn out, and figure out a way back to a better balance.

Don’t quit your job.

When we feel like we’ve hit rock bottom, it’s easy to jump to radical solutions—such as quitting immediately. But career experts say quitting can set you back in your pursuit of passion or balance because you’re potentially increasing the stress that comes with the lack of a paycheck or structure. 

Instead, establish a routine that prioritizes setting aside some time (like on your commute or before you dig into your email box each morning) to work through the stress. 

Become more social.

One of the first things to go when burnout begins to set in is our socialization. “We cancel our plans because we think we need to work more,” Weir says. “But it’s actually a paradox because you need support networks to help you get out of your current situation that’s made you feel isolated.”

Reach out to colleagues, mentors, and friends to help give you feedback on your situation. While it can be annoying, it’s often helpful to hear others tell us what our dilemmas look like from an external view. That can help us figure out how dire the burnout may be, or if some of it is temporary.

Set (or reimplement) boundaries.

It sounds simple, but it actually is one of the most difficult things for today’s professionals to do: set boundaries on when and how much to work and how to prioritize that work. “Often clients will tell me they are so busy, but they can’t tell me exactly what they’re doing,” Weir says. “You can’t level set with your boss if you can’t identify what’s taking up too much time.”

Track your tasks and see how long they’re taking each day or week, and then take the data to your boss with solutions on how to fix the issues or delegate the work. You can also begin to set boundaries by slowly readjusting expectations; one of Weir’s clients, for example, used to respond to emails as they came in, beginning at 6 a.m. Now she doesn’t respond until 8 a.m., to chip away at the idea that she’ll be on call 24-7.

Put your passion into focus.

Sometimes burnout can happen because you have a nagging feeling that you aren’t doing the work you find meaningful. But if you don’t know exactly what kind of work that is, you can quickly get caught up in a draining circle of “what should I do with my life” thoughts. And while you try to figure that out, you’re stuck despising your day job.

Instead of thinking the entire job is worthless, ask yourself if you’re lacking a challenge at your work, Royal says. If there’s a different role that could challenge you, talk to your boss about ways you can position yourself for such a change. And even if you go through such an exercise and realize there isn’t something else you want to try at the company, you’ll be a step closer to figuring out what you don’t want to do—which often can be just as helpful in discovering what you do want to do.

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