I’m so burned out at work

This week on the Ask a Manager podcast, I talked to a guest who’s feeling burned out at work. Here’s the letter:

How do you distinguish between burnout (which can be addressed) vs. a job that’s unfixable (which means you need to leave)? I know I’m burnt out, but I’m not sure if I should try to make things better in my current role or start aggressively job hunting.

My workload has exploded over the past six months and I don’t see an end in sight. I don’t have anyone who can help with my tasks at the moment – my coworker is on medical leave and hiring a temp is not an option. My manager is sympathetic, and has taken on some of my functions, but I’m still drowning. My work quality is suffering because my focus is split in so many different directions. I like my manager and the broader team, and I work on some interesting projects. I’m also on a promotion track, which would be great if I had any time to spend on my career development. Because I’m a high-performer, my leadership team relies on me a lot. It’s stressful though, and I know I’m not putting forth my best effort right now. This is starting to affect me outside of work (insomnia, anxiety etc). Is it time to give up on this job?

The show is 24 minutes long, and you can listen on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts (or here’s the direct RSS feed). Or you can listen right here:

If you’d like to come on the show yourself, email your question to podcast@askamanager.org … or if you don’t want to be on the show but want to hear me answer your question, record it on the show voicemail at 855-426-WORK (855-426-9675).

And if you like the show, please subscribe and leave a review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

You can get a transcript of last week’s episode here.

{ 53 comments… read them below }

  1. Bea

    I’m interested…has anyone actually come back from burnout? I sure haven’t. At that level I’ve unplugged every wire and am donezo. This could just be me though. I’m the same with people, once you burn me out, you’ll never see me again. Trying to rekindle a relationship is not doable (I’ve tried but old scars are a helluva thing to deal with).

    I would be aggressively looking. I was out within a month of the last dumpster fire flame out.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago

      I’ve talked about my toxic former job a lot here before and the answer is no for me. Alison’s advice is wonderful, but it only works if you’re in a functional workplace with a manager who understands what you do, why it’s important, and actually supports you.

      They had to replace me with two people and it took them several months to figure out all of the pieces of what I actually did.

      1. Bea

        My old job went through multiple people to try to replace me. I never felt more validated than hearing that. They should have two people doing it but they’ll never do that.

      2. Anon Today Anon Tomorrow

        Alison’s advice is great, but often I find that these sorts of conversations fall on deaf ears, especially when the critical parts of the job are being completed. It’s not until staff leave that the managers (or their managers, because often I’ve found that the manager gets it but the grandboss, etc., doesn’t) realize that the work load isn’t manageable.

      3. Ask a Manager Post author

        I’m going to argue that the advice works even if you’re not in a functional workplace — because an important piece of it is “if nothing changes after this conversation, now you have the information you need to decide with more confidence how to proceed.”

        1. Detective Amy Santiago

          That’s a fair point.

          Maybe you could do a piece sometime about how to job hunt when you are in that kind of situation. I know for me, it was nearly impossible because I was working 11 hour days and was completely exhausted both mentally and physically. It took me a good three months to get back to ‘normal’ after I got fired.

      4. Monty's Mom

        I had to leave my last job because of this, and they replaced me with 1.8 people. I had told them more than a year prior to me leaving that it was just too much for me and it wasn’t sustainable – I cried in a meeting! most embarrassing thing of my professional career! – but nothing was done. But I noted that when I left, there were TWO job postings, so I’m glad that they eventually listened!

      5. TardyTardis

        In most of my jobs with ExCompany, I’ve been replaced by about two and a half people. It’s just the reality of where I’ve worked (and why I’m glad to be mostly retired right now).

    2. Ciara Amberlie

      It took me over a year to recover, but I had to quit my job, so in that sense I didn’t come back from it, I moved on! Mine was a combination of work and life burnout. I was incredibly overloaded at work, because a coworker was on long term sick leave, but management wouldn’t hire a temp so I did double everything for 18 months. And at home I was a caring for a severely mentally ill family member. I ended up quitting my job without anything lined up, because I got so burnt out and couldn’t see any end in sight to the work issue (there was no fixed date for my coworker’s return and management adamantly refused to address my workload).

      I took a few months off work and then found a new job, but I still struggled with the effects of burnout for a long time. I’d say it was about 15 months before I felt normal and able to give 100% to my job again.

      1. Jen

        I’m glad you brought up the effects of burnout. I’ve been burned out for awhile, and while my manager is very supportive, the owner of the company is completely irrational and goes on spending sprees to fund pet projects that are always colossal failures. I feel like he is deliberately sabotaging the company at this point, and as a result, I have completely checked out and have dropped the ball on even basic tasks that I still have time for, simply because my former drive is not there. I have been aggressively looking for another job (my manager just put in his notice so things are about to get even more hairy) but in the meantime I continue to feel more hopeless. I worry that even if I get another job, that I won’t be able to fire on all cylinders like I used to.

        1. Bea

          You’ll recover once you’re free. *hugs* I know that fear all too well. It took until my 90 day review at my new job to settle down from the old mess.

        2. Ciara Amberlie

          It will take time, so don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself still struggling even though you’re out of the toxic environment. I made it harder for myself by expecting myself to be better quicker than I was. It was sort of a mental and emotional bruise that took a while to heal, but I got there in the end, and so will you!

        3. Blue

          I’m in this recovery stage right now. I’d been burnt out for well over a year, and they’d come to rely on me so heavily that there was no end in sight. I found a new job and arranged for four weeks off before I started my new position, which was absolutely necessary. I’m still feeling pretty unmotivated (see: me on AAM right now) but I’m not having to forcibly drag myself to work in the morning, so I consider that progress.

    3. LCL

      I mostly recovered. But mine was a situation of only chronic understaffing, I didn’t have to deal with personnel issues such as vengeful managers, workers harassing other workers, etc. Once staffing was raised back up my situation improved.

    4. Nita

      I’m interested too. I burned out some three years ago and have not bounced back. It was mostly work stress back then, but now it’s mostly life stuff. The good thing is, I’ve learned to detach myself from work to survive… I was starting to get chest pains if I couldn’t get out a report on time or staff a project. On the flip side, caring less has affected my performance, I’m carrying a much lower workload, and one day I may find myself quite unnecessary here.

      I’m not sure I want to bounce back. It’s not really because of my job, it’s just that doing a great job/earning more will not get me anywhere near my life goal (spending more time with my family). I really want to start my own business instead, but so far, circumstances are against it.

      1. Bea

        I think part of why some of us don’t bounce back is that pathway we are forced to create in our minds when we reach the end of the rope. You go into survival mode and turn off your “fcks to give” switch.

        I feel like we call it burn out because something in us is torched. We can rise above the ashes and be reborn but the ashes (the job in my mind) are not salvageable. You rebuild and given the pain of waking up in ashes one day, it’s easiest to rebuild elsewhere.

        1. Anon for this

          Your comments are giving me so much hope today! I have been burned out for…a long time, measurable in years. I’m starting a new job soon and very excited about but also apprehensive. I know I’m capable of good work. But I also now know I’m capable of really not performing well. I’m terrified of either not being recovered enough to do well at new job or if starting out strong, falling into bad habits, and burning out again.

          I think you’re so right about the “fcks to give” switch. Once you turn it off to stop the burnout from getting worse, it’s really hard to turn it back on at the same job (and believe me, I tried). I’m hoping it gets easier in a different environment.

          1. Bea

            I’m all about spreading the hope and prospect of taking calculated risks for your own happiness. So I’m grateful to know you’re feeling positive right now.

            Try hard to remember that we need to learn from our pasts but can’t let bad apples taint our entire outlook on humans as a whole.

            There are scummy abusive manipulative bosses who will drain our energies until they discard us with the trash.

            But there are wonderful bosses who will give you everything and more as well.

            I learned young about crazy things in business. My first job at 19 included listening to the owner being threatened by angry vendors who were in a country known for violent cartels. And even then, his advice to me when I was upset was “some people are just bad people. But many people are good.”

            The next bosses were much better business men. Self made, intensely brilliant in their crafts. Incredible humans who adored me, paid me as well as possible and trusted me when they trusted next to nobody.

            Then I got a rotten apple. I saw it and I knew logically I couldn’t have been as awful as he was twisting was but it still crippled me for awhile. It got in my head and made my head done, shy side push through to save me.

            Like a wounded animal we crawl into our safe spots and worry if it’s a sign of more to come.

            But no. I brushed off and took the risk. It was worth it. I am now working less, making more and can laugh at work again because I’m free from the abusive crappy experience.

            So I’m hoping that you can go in there a little guarded because that’s important but willing to trust again. Not everyone is a bad person and when you meet one, don’t run straight away but craft a well planned exit. You’re worth it.

            1. Anon for this

              I can’t imagine shrugging off threats from people who might have connections to violent cartels. That must have been a very…enlightening experience for a first job!

              Thankfully my bosses have never been the problem. They aren’t perfect, and I think there have been some communication mismatches that played a role. But generally the three supervisors I’ve had have been very nice, supportive people. For me, it’s more the nature of the work (think high workload non-profit with low salary, revolving door of staff, growing pains, challenging clients, weird funder requirements, etc.) coupled with some personal life situations that at the time I tried to minimize but I now realize taxes my resources a lot more than I recognized at the time. I also acknowledge that there are things I could likely have handled better or differently that had an impact. So I’m hoping to be able to channel that into some self-awareness to help in my new role.

          2. TardyTardis

            One of the things that helped me was a temp job where I was a part-timer (ok, in the middle of peak tax season I ended up being more or less full time, but I had a hard time saying no), and realizing that I wasn’t stressing that much. I was competent, I had a wonderful boss who actually made people go home when they were sick, and I did rather nicely on the bonus. And then it was over, and I could go back to our regularly scheduled program at home.

          3. debonairess

            First, congratulations on the new job! Job hunting (and getting) while burnt out is both tough and impressive. I hope you’ve taken a moment to acknowledge that.

            Having burnt out in one toxic job, I moved to another where I am still overworked but nowhere near as stressed. I did turn the “fcks to give” switch back on but what I have noticed is that it’s more like a dimmer switch now. The fcks I have to give are now proportionate to how that person has interacted with me or my team in the past.
            Some people walk into the room with a project and I take just as much pride in doing a good job as I ever did. Others walk in and – nope! I’ve got nothing. I’ll do the minimum and the rest is up to you. And the whole range in between.
            I think it comes down to recognising that we only have a finite number of fcks to give. I use them much more wisely now, and they bring me greater satisfaction as a result.
            Some people, including previous perfectionist me, would be appalled with what I wrote above (doing the minimum for some people not others??) but previous perfectionist me burnt out and was barely capable of focussing on anything. Current me is still doing fine. So which is better for the company, I ask you? Some people just don’t value your fcks however many you give – so why waste them on them? Others do and are rewarded accordingly.
            Go forth and enjoy new job!

    5. Falling Diphthong

      I recall an update to that effect, but the key was that OP thought her manager must surely see she was hanging on by her fingernails, and then she talked to them (per Alison’s advice) and they had had no idea AND started getting some stuff off her plate.

    6. Not A Morning Person

      I haven’t read all the responses, but I see many of them seem to be about recovering from burnout while in the same job or same circumstances, and that’s typically only doable when the job or management changes in some significant way. Otherwise, leaving for different and better circumstances is the way. I don’t think coming back from burnout requires that you are feeling good while in the same crappy situation. And I don’t necessarily think that should be the goal. I think that leaving that situation is often the better and maybe the only option. Even then, it can take awhile to overcome workplace PTSD. But it is doable. I’ve done it in both situations, leaving a role for a different one and having a boss moved to a different role where I no longer had to work with that boss. In both cases it took awhile to get used to the new and better circumstances, but I did “come back” and even got back to my normally optimistic and engaged self.

    7. mrs__peel

      I was getting very close to burnout a few years ago, due to a greatly increased workload. I was only able to get out of it because our manager was replaced by someone who recognized that we were understaffed and hired more people. So that was mostly out of my control. (Although I *had* tried to push back gently with the previous manager, to let her know that the expectations were unrealistic and that we needed more help. It’s hard to do that sometimes without repercussions).

    8. Memily

      I have, but I also think it depends on the situation.

      In my case, I was dealing with an exceptionally busy season in an understaffed office, I had a particular problem client who latched on to me and made it impossible to get anything done, and I was dealing with some very serious issues in my personal life (family death, my moms cancer, husbands unemployment, etc). My wonderful boss listened to me break down and made me take a day off. I found a therapist, moms cancer got better, the busy season ended, the client somehow dropped off the face of the earth, and suddenly it was all a whole lot easier to deal with.

      So it can get better, but it really can depend on so many factors.

    9. Emily K

      I think there are degrees of burnout. I’ve been at my job about six years, and I would say there have been 2 times where I started job searching a bit more actively (as opposed to just reviewing job alerts that come to my email which I always do even when I’m super happy and fulfilled at work, because you never know!) because I was feeling burned out and started to feel like the door was my only hope for relief.

      In each case I made it back. At some point things calmed down enough that the balance tipped back in favor of inertia keeping me where I am. My work is seasonal and the first time I really started to burn out was when our busiest quarter ended but I’d been given way more projects for the next quarter than was typical or reasonable, so just when I was expecting to get to slow down for a couple of months like I had in previous years, instead I was still working 50+ hour weeks. My manager helped me lighten my load and eventually we hired another person for my team.

      The second time I felt burnt out enough to job hunting more actively was in the middle of our second busiest quarter. I just sort of hung in there til Q3 ended, said “no” to everything I possibly could, and when Q4 hit and I no longer had any imminent deliverables I basically surfed Facebook and filed email for 3 days. Then I started attacking my back-burner projects with ferocity and about a week later I suddenly realized that things were going well enough again that the idea of a shiny new job was no longer holding the same appeal it had been in Q3.

      In both cases I was in the early stages of burnout and was able to recognize it, so there was still time to make changes before I got to the point of no return. If I hadn’t spoken up when I did the first time, or if things hadn’t slowed down so much in Q4 the second time, and I had had to keep working at the intensity I’d been going, it would have eventually gotten to that point.

    10. cat owner

      I’ve recently had the cause of my burnout fixed (was doing two jobs at the same time and they finally hired someone) and I’m really trying to recover because I really like the people I work with and the organization.

      I’m struggling, but I think it is getting better. Who knows though – some days it feels like I’m never going to be able to be as efficient as I was.

      1. sometimeswhy

        Similar here. One of the major contributors to a multi-year case of burnout has been alleviated by getting my group some support staff.

        Am I still stressed? Yep. Still overloaded? Absolutely. Still understaffed? Hahahaha yes. Still spending 2-3 hours twice a week processing administrative paperwork? NOPE! And it was shocking how much of a difference it made, just to be able to concentrate on other things.

    11. Mr. Bob Dobalina

      Bea, what a good thought-provoking question. My answer is no–I have not been able to recover in the same job and the same work environment. It has always taken a significant change in my job (either a new employer or internal job change) to feel refreshed and recovered from burn-out. I’m going to think about this more, since I am currently burned out from an unmanageable workload and casually considering a job change. If there is no reason to believe that I will recover (based on past evidence), I should probably get more serious in my job search. I have had all the right discussions with my manager (who is also overwhelmed with work and stressed), but nothing will change because my manager has no authority to change it. No new hires. No ability to reduce the workload. Same old story. I work in a field where long hours and burn-out are the norm. But frankly, I am getting too damn old for this.

    12. Dr. Johnny Fever

      I got burned out and tried taking different internal positions, but the burnout would come back and come back harder each time. It tool leaving and finding a new job to break me out of the cycle. It’s also taking time to deal with the dysfunctional behaviors/perspectives I picked up during that burnout time.

      I got lucky and found a job that advances my career in the field I wanted, which made it easy to overcome the ennui. I don’t know if you’ll need to go to the degree of leaving, but if you do, I wish you luck and best wishes in finding an awesome place!

  2. The Person from the Resume

    This is so relevant to me, I just downloaded the podcast and will listen today.

  3. irritable vowel

    I was in this position over the past year, to the point where I was applying for jobs and had a couple of initial interviews. I ultimately decided (for now, anyways), that I needed to work on reframing things at my current job rather than moving somewhere else – to focus on the pros, which are mostly to do with good benefits and good work/life balance, and try to stress less about the cons, of which there are many but they’re ultimately manageable. Every job is likely to have its cons, and I got to a point where I realized it was a “better the devil you know” situation, because the thought of starting over somewhere else and potentially getting into a situation that was bad in a different way was giving me a lot of anxiety.

    I’ve learned that another thing that really helps me battle burnout is taking a full 2 weeks of vacation at a time, rather than a day here and a day there, even if it’s just a staycation. (And yes, the ability to do this twice a year is one of the things that is a good thing about this job…)

    In this case, it sounds like some of the LW’s stress might be alleviated when her coworker returns from medical leave. In the interim, trying to create a more rigid barrier between work and life outside work might help. I will listen to this episode for sure!

    1. Emily K

      I can relate to this. I don’t especially love travel so I use most of my vacation time on staycations most years. I get 5 weeks, and I use about a week’s worth for what little traveling I do (mostly long weekends), two taken as either two weeks together or a full week twice, and the other two I use to take Fridays off whenever my to-do list at work is short and my chore/errand list at home is getting long.

      It actually really helps with avoiding burnout at work to take the staycations and Fridays, not just because it’s important to mentally detach from work every now and again, but also because having a long list of chores and repairs and errands at home that you can never seem to find time for creates a kind of stress that spills into all areas of your life, including work.

  4. Jennifer Pritchard

    Thank you again for including transcripts! It’s very helpful for those of us with hearing issues

    1. Trout 'Waver

      Having tremendous drive is a huge positive in just about every way. But the “Just push harder” mentality causes burnout if it’s not paired with the self-awareness to know when it’s time for self-care.

      I learned that the hard way.

    2. Bea

      I’m thankful it’s only hurt once in 15 years. Every other ass busting hustle paid off for me in the end. I could still pack my life up and “go home” to take over where I left off. That’s not something most can say I’ve learned.

  5. ArtK

    I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but literally minutes before this post went up, I was sitting here wondering if I could make it through today.

  6. Rezia

    Oh hello letter writer, are you me?

    Everything you talked about here sounds like me, a few years ago. I was the highest performer on my team, my coworker left and I was covering two jobs for 6 months. I started getting burned out, talked to my boss, and he kept saying “You’re doing great, I understand if some things drop” but I still felt bad that so many things were dropping. I eventually started experiencing pretty bad anxiety and got sick to the point of developing a chronic health issue… please don’t let it get to that point! It’s not worth it.

    Alison’s advice was spot on. I just wanted to underscore her last piece of advice about taking a vacation. Even after I talked to my boss more explicitly about reducing my workload, and he did, by that point I was so physically, mentally and emotionally tired that I couldn’t even handle the reduced workload. Completely atypically to me, I was having panic attacks over relatively normal tasks like making a hard phone call. I ended up having to take an FMLA leave for medical reasons, and besides helping physically, I was really surprised how much that recharged me mentally and emotionally so I was back to my earlier capabilities.

    One last thought for you is to use this opportunity to think about what sorts of conditions you thrive in vs. don’t work for you. I always thought that just because I was capable of juggling many tasks, that I should be thriving in my job. I am capable of doing that, but I realized I really didn’t like it. I ended up switching jobs and now am at a workplace where I’m still held to a high bar of performance, but where success comes through focusing on one thing at a time. I’m much happier. Good luck!

  7. Epsilon Delta

    I am excited to listen to this one. I could have written this letter a few months ago. My solution was to get out because there was too much that needed to change and wouldn’t (and still won’t). I am curious to hear about this person’s situation and the answer!

  8. mark132

    I’ve been in similar position, and one thing I finally started doing was simply leaving work on time every day. When I’m at work I work, and when the “whistle blows”, I go home. It’s surprising how many tasks just don’t need doing or simply can wait. On one project we looked at our backlog that had been hanging around for over a year and hadn’t gotten completed, so we just closed every issue that was that old. Some two years later, nary a peep.

    I actually think I get more done using this format anyways. I’m alert(mostly) at work and can think clearly. When I’m tired tasks that usually take minutes can take far longer.

    LW it might be worth it to take a “hard line” with your boss. Politely but firmly let them know you aren’t going to be able to stay late any more for life/work balance reasons and starting in the very near future you are going to start leaving work on time, so let’s figure out what needs to be done.

  9. Teapot librarian

    This gave me some things to think about separate from the specifics of burn out. My team has been overworked for forever (over a decade) without any addition of resources. They have let go everything that isn’t an immediate priority and have gotten complacent (if frustrated) about what we can get done. When I go to my boss to ask for more resources, I get told “we all have to do more with less.” I’ve never approached the situation as advocating for my employees as people, only as advocating for my office. I don’t see my team members coming to me and saying that they are burnt out because this has been the only situation they have known, but this sounds like an approach that I should take. Thanks!

    1. Anon for this

      Yeah, sounds like my office, though we’re not at “over a decade” yet.

      I have been burned out for years and we are having even worse crunch time than usual this week, but there really is nothing at all anyone can do other than “just keep swimming.” Those who could do something refuse to, so….oh well.

  10. Amy

    This really sounds like me as well but my case may be even more severe. Unlike all the commenters here I believe I am actually not a good performer at my job no matter how hard I try. From the moment I started this job, the bar was set really high, for my very first project i was given the lead for four intense roles. It came to a head about a month after I started and since then though my roles were slowly reduced to one, i guess i was so burned out I couldn’t even do the remaining one well.

    It didn’t help that 2 months into the job i was harshly approached by a manager who literally told me they expected more from me, that it was clear I wasn’t cut out for their industry – I actually asked her at that point very honestly (I was exhausted at that point) why they didn’t just let me go then and find someone else who could do the job as they wanted it – no response from her, she backed off after that – I didn’t interact with her again. So here I am still struggling with my current role with a chronic illness but already lost any hope in salvaging the job. I keep hearing that mangers’s words and it hurts like hell… Another manager, after hearing my story felt sorry for me and has been trying to keep my workload manageable, but I just don’t think I can do this anymore, I’ve lost confidence in the job and most importantly myself…. my family and husband feel I should stick this out as I left a previous job after 2 years for work overload issues as well and since this one has good financial perks to buy a house and start a family but everyday I feel like I am dying and every book, ted talk or inspirational video I’ve watched to try to force myself to stay on just is not working :( where do I go from here… how can i push through this to avoid messing up my CV and keep my family stable….

    1. Nita

      First of all, sometimes jobs just don’t work out. You were in your first job two years – that’s really not bad these days. In my department, many new hires only stick around that long, and no one thinks less of them. I was in my very first job only four months – nothing wrong with the job, but the location turned out to be pretty awful.

      Second, you probably do need out. The thing is, if you’ve landed in jobs where you’re being overworked twice already, is it something about the industry? Can you think of some way to make sure your next job isn’t like that? I know some industries just come with problems built in, but I don’t know if yours is like that…

      Third, I know all about unsupportive families and husbands :( It’s the absolute worst if the people who should be holding you up are pushing you down, even when they see your mental health suffering. Do you have access to counseling, or an EAP through work? Can you take your husband with you when you go, or at the least, go yourself? The other way to cope is just to forget caring about the opinions of anyone but yourself, and just do what’s right for you on the principle that it’s easier to apologize than to ask permission… but I do realize that’s not ideal, especially in a marriage (extended family, on the other hand, can go get lost, it’s not their life!)

      1. Amy

        Thanks Nita! I nearly cried reading such a friendly response from you. I am due to see a career counsellor and psychologist soon, hope this helps me atleast figure out the problem and take the right steps to address it (nothing I am doing now seems to be working). I will consider taking my husband in at least for the meetings with the psychologist.

  11. Rachael

    I’m a bit behind on podcasts, and just listened to this one. This could have been written by me, and I appreciate the advice. I’m leaving my job in October (my husband got a job out of state a few months ago, and I’m finally joining him), and I’m just trying to hang on until then. The powers that be have known for a few months, but have kept piling more duties on me, and are just now starting to look for a replacement, and the thought of training whomever while writing neglected documentation (because who has time for that!) and trying to keep up with the normal stuff, on top of moving and job hunting, has me wanting to hide under my desk because I’m already so tired!

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