I’m bored and burned out at work

A reader writes:

I’ve been at my job for two years, and I’m getting bored. The things I’m working on are repetitive, and I’m starting to get increasingly annoyed with day-to-day nuisances. I’m essentially having to restrain myself from biting my coworkers. About a year ago, my direct manager left, and was never replaced– instead, they removed his position and shuffled his responsibilities to me and a coworker. In addition, over the last year, the product I work on has grown a lot: we’ve had some success, which is good, but it comes with a lot more work and responsibility. I’m the only one working on that project, and things keep getting dumped on me, from big tasks to administrative details that someone else really should handle, but which end up on my plate as “I’m the only one who knows this project.”

My boss meanwhile seems to want us to keep growing, and wants more results, faster, with tighter deadlines and more elements. I’m starting to feel a bit burned out. It’s gotten to the point where I can’t even really manage to take a sick day properly — there’s too much to do, and all the eggs are in my basket, and can’t be left unattended even for a minute. Most troubling, I’m bored with the work I’m doing: so more’s expected of me, but I’m feeling pressured and lethargic about producing the same stuff over and over again.

As I’ve felt the burnout approaching, I’ve tried to halt it: I’ve spoken to my boss about getting some help and she’s made sympathetic noises, but nothing has come of it, other than to actually add more work to my plate. I’ve tried to find ways to get excited about my tasks again, trying new things and new ideas, but they all tend to fizzle in this general funk of gloom. So, I think the time is coming for me to move on. . . only I can’t. I’m planning to go to grad school next year, to help get me to the next level of my career which will excite me again. In this economy, I can’t imagine finding another job that pays as well as my current position, and I wouldn’t want to take a job for the nine months between now and school, only to leave so quickly.

Any advice about not hating my job as much as getting through till May? I’d really like to get there without stabbing a coworker with a pen or crying in my shower on a daily basis.

You need to talk to your boss. It’s not uncommon for managers to pile more and more someone’s plate, until and unless they’re told to stop. You’re being very accommodating, but no good manager would want you to take on so much that you’re getting burned out. And not simply out of compassion –if you’re overloaded and getting burned out, your work quality is going to suffer, and that’s bad for your manager. But if you never set boundaries, many managers will simply send more and more work your way.

So you need to talk to your boss. I know that you’ve already tried, but you need to be much more direct and assertive. Go back to her and lay out very clearly that you’re overloaded, you’re not able to continue at this pace, and something needs to give. Tell her exactly what you are and aren’t capable of doing – for instance, that you can do X and Y, but you can no longer do Z. Or if it’s essential that you do Z, then Y will have to move to someone else. You can also say that you’re not able to continue working overtime, and so you’ll only be doing the amount of work that can be done in a normal workweek, here’s how you plan to prioritize, and that means that the items on the end of the list probably won’t get done, so she should probably make other arrangements for them.

You also need to say that you’ve felt unable to take even a single day off, but that paid time off is part of your benefits package (assuming it is) and that you are going to start using it when you need to. You’re not seeking permission here; you’re letting her know that you’ll be taking this very reasonable action.

Be assertive, set boundaries, and stick to them. While there are some managers who would penalize you for taking this stance, there are far, far more who will respect you for it.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase. 

{ 32 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    I know this may come across as trite but take a vacation. A proper one. Unless you are a nurse or doctor (or something like that) and someone’s life is literally in your hands, it can wait. Tomorrow is another day Scarlett. Get away from it all for a few days, totally disconnect. Maybe that’ll be enough to give a little perspective and raise your spirits.

    I’d also say to stay there till you finish your Master’s. At the very least, it might provide fodder for grad projects. And avoids the juggle. Unless your program requires FT enrollment and working isn’t an option.

    1. Andie*

      I agree with this advice! The last time I felt this way I took a two week vacation. Didn’t go anywhere just stayed home and enjoyed not going to work. It did wonders. I eventually left the job about a year later for a new position (after getting my Masters degree) but now I make it a rule to take vacations even if I am just staying home.

    2. Rana*

      Another advantage of your taking a vacation is that either (a) your boss and co-workers will realize just how much you’re responsible for, when they attempt to handle it in your absence, or (b) your boss and co-workers realize that they can, in fact, handle some of your tasks themselves.

      Either way, it should help.

  2. Jenna*

    Talk to your boss, and be assertive about it! I went through the same thing. I produced documentation for short little projects that were basically repetitive, so I was doing the same thing over and over again. There were a ton of these little projects so I was constantly overloaded. I was headed towards burnout, so I eventually talked to my boss and said that unless something could change, I was thinking of looking for a new position. She immediately balanced my workload. I was put in charge of documentation for a few larger projects, and started sharing the workload of the little ones with a co-worker. I am so much happier now, and while there is still some stress during busy periods, I no longer feel like I am going to burn out.

  3. Josh S*

    Alternate title: “The hidden cost of eliminating positions and shifting work to other people.” It’s not that there isn’t (often) inefficiency in the system that can be removed–there really is a lot of the time. But for each person who leaves and isn’t replaced, a very real cost is being added to the company. It may not show up in salary, but it *does* show up in more subtle ways.

    To the OP: If your boss doesn’t give you a way to take a real, meaningful vacation (no calls, no emails, no ‘check-ins’), consider a Personal Leave of Absence (if your company affords such a thing). But find a way to get out of dodge for a week or two. They’ll survive.

  4. Liz in the City*

    I feel like I could have written this letter, but with a few changes: I’m not heading back to school (already have a master’s) and I feel like if I ever approached my boss to suggest that I have too much on my plate, I’d be given the same speech everyone has been given since the president stopped raises / cut benefits 4 years ago: everyone needs to take on additional tasks and make it work. And if you don’t make it work, we’ll replace you. And since the company has been restructured twice in those four years, I believe that I’m as valuable to them as a disposable paper plate, even though if I left, they would be scrambling because the hole is about as big as three people’s jobs.

    I know I need to look for a new position–bought Alison’s book, brushed up my resume and cover letter–but I’ve got a new problem: what do I want to do with my life? And will another job be any better or is the devil I know safer?

    Anyway, sorry to vent, but this entry struck a chord with me.

    1. Anonymous*

      Liz, your post struck a chord with me! Particularly “what do I want to do with my life? And will another job be any better or is the devil I know safer?”

      EXACTLY. I miss the days of being a kid and thinking that I’d be an artist/movie star/astronaut/etc when I “grew up”. If only it were so easy to know what you’re meant to be doing!

      1. Heather*

        I like to explain that feeling with a favorite “Friends” quote:

        Chandler: Hey, you guys in the living room all know what you want to do. You know, you have goals. You have dreams. I don’t have a dream.
        Ross: Ah, the lesser known “I Don’t Have a Dream” speech.

        Yeah, that about sums it up.

        1. Liz in the City*

          LOL. That’s pretty much it. After 20 years of schooling, I went to work not realizing that I had to make my own decisions and goals and would be getting almost no feedback. Now, just sort of feel like I’m treading water…

        2. Wilton Businessman*

          I think that was the same one as:
          Chandler: I just don’t want to be one of those guys that’s in his office until twelve o’clock at night worrying about the WENUS.

  5. Wilton Businessman*

    You need to make your management prioritize your tasks. If they are unwilling to do that (which would be foolish on their part), you have to self-prioritize your tasks and over-report the status of each item.

    Oh, and it does sound like you need a vacation.

    On the topic of being bored, well you are responsible for you. Are you learning outside the office? Are you trying to bring new things in or making the existing processes/procedures more efficient?

    You are a product. You have to keep improving yourself in order to raise it’s price or sell it to someone else.

    1. Liz in the City*

      When my *wonderful* boss “helps” me prioritize, I suddenly have 3-5 things that are No. 1 priority–I’m not even kidding. And this same manager does this to everyone in the department when they ask for help or when she offers to prioritize. It would be funny if it were not my life.

      1. Anonymous*

        I had a manager like this who refused to prioritize. Everything was priority 1, no matter what.

        I dealt with it by just making my own decisions about what was top priority, and letting the other things fall through the cracks. I always made sure to keep the manager informed as to when something was going to slip. I’d always give him the option of doing something about it or making the choice himself.

        I got yelled at a lot for the things that slipped through, but I chose well enough that our projects were successful. I also left as soon as I reasonably could. It’s been three years, and they haven’t completed a major project since I left – not saying it was me holding things together, necessarily – there are also other factors at work. But it’s given me a good laugh over the years.

        1. Laura L*

          Same. I had this conversation with a former manager:
          Me: Which tasks should I prioritize?
          Manager: All of them.

          That was super helpful.

      2. Wilton Businessman*

        I have four categories for my people:
        Drop what you are doing

        I think it is perfectly reasonable to give people more than one high priority project and let them manage their own time on each project. I clearly set deadlines and let them work on their high priority projects as they see fit. If I have concerns during our weekly status meeting, I will bring those concerns up. If I see you are spending time on a Medium priority project and you have three high priority projects, we’re going to have a discussion about deadlines.

        Medium priority projects should be worked on if you are waiting on somebody else for your high priority project. When your information comes available, you go back to the high priority project.

        Low priority stuff might get folded into a medium or high priority project if you are on time or it would be a good time to combine the two.

        Drop what you are doing means this is the only thing I want you to work on until further notice. Let me worry about your high priority projects, I want you to eat/sleep/breathe this project.

  6. EM*

    Wow, this almost exactly describes the situation my coworker (apparently) was in. She quit about a week ago and does not have a job lined up. Yeah.

    What is the most frustrating part about the situation in my office is that I really could have taken a lot off her plate but for some reason she couldn’t let go of any of her projects. It was ridiculous. Some of them I could have managed entirely myself with a technical review of reports from her. Also frustrating is knowing that my boss was in the process of interviewing people to help ease the load on her, but she quit before someone could come on board and take some projects off her hands. It didn’t help that she was very disorganized and that contributed to her feeling overwhelmed. She had projects open that didn’t need to be on an active status, and many many projects that just needed a final review before being finally finished.

  7. Anonymous*

    If you’re having these kinds of problem with your job, it might not improve with going to grad school. Depending on what you’re going for, it can be all of the things you described before – repetitive, 1 project/person with all that means, pressured to do even more work with less time – the details might change, but you’ll be facing these sort of things in grad school. Go talk with some current grad students and recent graduates in your area of study and make sure now this is what you want to do.

    1. Mary*

      I agree. When I was working on my master’s it felt like more work than a full time job. There was little time in the evenings or on weekends to actually relax and have fun. However, it’s only a temporary sacrifice.

  8. J*

    Ok call me dense here but how can you get your boss to agree to a holiday sans check in? I’ve not had one in several years. . . I just booked one in october (so excited!) but we work on monthly projects and I’m the only one handling mine. My boss was happy for me to have the time off, however, I was told I was going to have to make sure ‘deadlines were still met’. Which doesn’t just mean getting work done before I leave, and working extra hard upon my return to catch up– as I’m the only one on my project, usually when I take holiday I have to take my work laptop, check work email (and reply/answer queries/often do work as needed), as well as being available via phone for anythign that comes up. Last year when i took a vacation I ended up working for a couple hours each day from my hotel. How can I avoid this? If I don’t do it. . . no one will :S

  9. Mary*

    Would it be possible to work from home one day a week? That might help with some of the feelings you’re having towards your coworkers. Working in a different environment might refresh you even if that’s the only thing changing about your job right now.

  10. Paul Johnson*

    I can relate to your situation – the difference is I am the boss. I do the very same things you are talking about to my staff (outside of the “making noise” part). I am aware that my staff/my team makes or breaks me, if they fail then I fail.

    It sounds as though your plate is incredibly full – can you not delegate some of those tasks? Train someone on the basics of the project so that you get that “assistance” you are looking for? Niether here nor there you are a smart individual and I’m sure you will do what you think is best. On a side note I remember reading an article several years back that I go back to on a regular basis (since I posted it on my office wall) maybe you can find some means by which to resurrect your passion for work and LIFE. Good Luck!!

    A professor stood before his philosophy class and had some items in front of him. When the class began, he wordlessly picked up a very large and empty mayonnaise jar and proceeded to fill it with golf balls. He then asked the students if the jar was full. They agreed that it was.

    The professor then picked up a box of pebbles and poured them into the jar. He shook the jar lightly. The pebbles rolled into the open areas between the golf balls. He then asked the students again if the jar was full. They agreed it was.

    The professor next picked up a box of sand and poured it into the jar. Of course, the sand filled up everything else. He asked once more if the jar was full. The students responded with an unanimous “yes.”
    The professor then produced two cups of coffee from under the table and poured the entire contents into the jar effectively filling the empty space between the sand. The students laughed. “Now,” said the professor as the laughter subsided, “I want you to recognize that this jar represents your life. The golf balls are the important things–your family, your children, your health, your friends and your favorite passions–and if everything else was lost and only they remained, your life would still be full.

    The pebbles are the other things that matter like your job, your house and your car. The sand is everything else–the small stuff. “If you put the sand into the jar first,” he continued, “there is no room for the pebbles or the golf balls. The same goes for life. If you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff you will never have room for the things that are important to you.

    “Pay attention to the things that are critical to your happiness. Play with your children. Take time to get medical checkups. Take your spouse out to dinner. Play another 18. There will always be time to clean the house and fix the disposal. Take care of the golf balls first–the things that really matter. Set your priorities. The rest is just sand.”

    One of the students raised her hand and inquired what the coffee represented. The professor smiled. “I’m glad you asked. It just goes to show you that no matter how full your life may seem, there’s always room for a couple of cups of coffee with a friend.”

  11. craig scott*

    Quit. You’re in the wrong job. Take some time and listen to yourself. Try new things. Stop letting your material possessions run your life. The only way to see change is to make a change.

    1. Anonymous*

      do you think this is practical if you are in your middle age. starting a new career also requires patience and discipline. Of course it will be more bearable if you love what you are doing. I think we have to resasses our own attitudes first, otherwise we might end up going through the same cycle.

  12. Jim C.*

    Consider the much bigger picture; that humans weren’t meant to exist in such rigorous, structured roles. It’s not your failing, it’s the whole mindless maze of modern life. Life has become too complex, always chasing technology and economic growthism, with no real improvements in the quality of life and leisure time. Just more gadgets and “conveniences” that create new forms of labor.

  13. ew0054*

    Sounds like it’s that time for…. new job! Be sure to get the customary 20% raise when you do!

  14. Bonnie Power*

    Wow! It sounds like you are doing it tough! I suppose on looking at the bright side, you are gaining some great skills and experience….which will lead you to better jobs in the near future. Just One tip – don’t forget to record all the great work you do into your resume, write down all the tasks and achievements you do, so at least your future / prospective employers will value the contributions you’ve made to this employer. Good luck!

  15. Tammy*

    I quit my job June 7 of this year, I just found another, but my problem is deciding weather I want the hours this job is offering. I know this sound crazy, but I’m thinking I might like 2 part time jobs.This job was going to be 6pm to 10pm, now since they have realized the experience I have they want me full day hours, and I had gotten used to the idea of working one job maybe 8am to 4pm and then this one late in the evening with neither really being a 40 hr work week, just close. I have no desire to be smothered by another job, I need the income but I don’t want a job that is going to become my life, at 50 I’ve decided I want to live it not work it. I think with 2 jobs to play off of, neither company can take me for granted, I’d be taking back the control of when I could work. I know that you probably think this is crazy, but believe me I’ve worked with managers that bend over backwards to keep their partimers happy, while just shifting their work load onto the full time help, and making them feel if they can’t do it they are the ones that need to hunt another job.

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