Career burnout

Imagine being told at the start of your career you would, at some point, flame out.

In fact, in certain sectors, there was a high probability of falling by the wayside.

Would you still commit?

In the past, career burnout was associated with the overtaxed employee who lost their mojo, or, worse still, suffered with depression. The result was inevitable – you abandoned your job or chosen profession.

However, I think the problem is now more subtle: there are many people who aren’t at the precipice but are close to it, leaving them bereft of passion, enthusiasm and a lack of engagement.

This comes about because of: (i) a lack of leadership; (ii) poor communication across the organisation; (iii) a first line manager failing to take any interest in your career development. Of course, there’s likely to be an extrinsic component whether that’s in pure monetary form or otherwise. But it’s not the principal driver.

Much has been written about reconnecting with your work, challenging the status quo or looking for emotional reward outside of work. But the truth is that most people invest their time in a career to satisfy their life goals. Most still come up short.

As someone who has tried my hand at a multitude of ‘careers’, I would like to think that I can offer some sagely advice but, in truth, my experience only serves to remind me how little employers, in whatever guise, care about their people. Large companies, SMEs or private practice, the treatment was universally the same. As long I didn’t rock the boat and did what I was told then that was fine. Managers were not purposefully engaged in understanding if I was happy, engaged or at risk of burnout. The only time they ever showed any interest was when I challenged the status quo, particularly regarding the financial rewards or when I was on the cusp of jumping ship.

Nowadays, I have no boss. It’s not that I can’t work with people, it’s simply that I’m self-disciplined enough to not need someone standing over me. Also, I know that in order to be happy and self-fulfilled I have to have the freedom to pursue my dreams.

You might think I’m advocating for everyone to leave the world of work and go it alone. I’m not. Indeed, from where I sit, I think it unlikely that many people will face down their demons sufficient to make the leap. Instead, they will expect the safety net of employment to provide them with the pleasures in life, to pursue their passions and to find a higher purpose.

If there is one message though I wish people would take to heart, either to avoid burnout or make the most of their working life, is that you are the master/mistress of your destiny and before the fateful day arrives, you need to put in place sufficient (life) building blocks to make your escape something other than an emotional roller coaster. You need to understand that your career will, at some stage, hit the buffers. There’s no point waiting for that moment knowing that whatever decision you make will be influenced more by fear than a reasoned analysis of what you want to do with the rest of your life.

If you want to avoid this scenario then you have to work on your life in the same way as your career. This means:

  • Staying curious
  • Learning something new every year
  • Building relationships
  • Staying in touch with the real you
  • Working on your portfolio of skills
  • Thinking about your family
  • Remembering that your work is not your life

I recognise this subject a thorny one. For many people they resist acknowledging they have a problem. They assume that staring down their internal demons, putting up with boring, mind-numbing work and succumbing to the money will get them through this period of their life. But the problem is that however hard they bear down on the situation, there’s the pressing need to do something more enlivening – something that connects with their true purpose.

If you are on the cusp of career burnout, then now is the time to start planning. And not thinking about planning but doing something. At the very least, you need to buff up your C.V., rewrite your LinkedIn profile, consider the need for a blog, and start connecting with everyone and everybody, even if you don’t immediately see the ROI in relationships.

But a word or two of caution.

Recruiters don’t like taking risks. Even allowing for the fact that your ‘profile’ looks employer friendly, what you’re likely to find is that you end up applying for jobs doing much the same thing as your current role.

Is that what you want?

Perhaps you need to take a more reflexive position.

“Am I really cut out for this industry?”
“Does [x career] float my boat?”
“Is money the most important thing in my life?”
“What am I passionate about?”
“What part of me have I allowed to go to sleep?”
“Am I prepared to waste my life doing something that I hate?”

I don’t expect for the answers to wash over you and persuade you immediately to do something different – it normally takes a few more career mistakes to change your mind-set – but I do expect you to think. Yes, think. Too often we get caught up in the ritual when it comes to moving jobs. If people would just take time to reflect then I’m convinced that so many of the poor or doubtful decisions could be avoided.

In the final analysis, as hackneyed as it sounds, we have to understand that life is very short; and given the time we spend at work, we need to ensure that we’re happy. If all we do is wait for the inevitable, and don’t properly plan then we can hardly be surprised with the outcome.


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