can I tell interviewers my weakness is that I burn myself out?

A reader writes:

I have a question about talking about your weakness, in interviews in particular, but also in performance evaluations and just generally when evaluating your strengths and weaknesses for your own sake. I know you have often said employers can see right through positives framed as negatives, such as “working too hard” or an inability to leave work at work, but what if these genuinely are your main weaknesses?

I have struggled throughout my career with following a boom and bust pattern. Most of the time I am incredibly conscientious and hard-working, give my work my all, often greatly neglecting all other areas of life, worrying about work in my time off and working well over my hours. However, this is never sustainable, and I tend to suffer burn out every couple of years, where I need a couple of weeks to a month off sick and there is often a temporary decline in my productivity. Usually, as I have built such a good reputation in the boom periods, my employers are understanding about the slack periods (though a couple have been less so), but I do believe this to be a genuine and serious weakness. It doesn’t help that I work in social services, so I regularly deal with emotionally intense situations, and with services always being overstretched, I often see clients getting less than they need, so I feel I need to go above and beyond to make sure they are adequately supported, rather than out of some abstract commitment to my employer.

I have got a little better over the years, partly through trying to adjust my approach and look after myself better, plus I have taken a role that whilst broadly in the same field is a little less directly at the coalface. However this remains something I need to improve on and be constantly vigilant about. I also have a number of friends who suffer with the same issue, to the detriment of both their careers and their wellbeing.

How can I talk honestly about this in such a way that doesn’t sound like humble-bragging or BS-ing?

Honestly, I would pick another weakness. Framing it as “I get overly invested in work / work too hard” is just too strongly associated with BS at this point. But if you’re up-front about why it’s truly a weakness — i.e., if you explain that it causes you to regularly burn out and need up to a month off sick — it’s likely to be concerning and even prohibitive to a lot of interviewers.

Having an honest discussion of your weaknesses is important so you can make sure you don’t end up in a job you’ll be a bad fit for. But you also don’t want to announce something that’s truly alarming and could torpedo your chances.

You noted that (most) past bosses have ended up being understanding about this because by the time you burned yourself out, they knew you and your work enough to cut you that slack — but your interviewers won’t have that perspective. What they’ll hear is, “I keep burning myself out repeatedly and rather than resolve that, I’ve just continued doing it.”

In theory, you could talk about this as something you’ve worked to overcome — being specific about what you’ve done to resolve it and what the outcome has been — but it sounds like it’s an ongoing issue that isn’t really under control yet.

We have all have multiple weaknesses, so you’re better off picking a different one that won’t be so alarming.

All that said, though, I think fewer interviewers are asking this question, because it’s come to be seen as so cliched — and also because the answers are often so cliched that they’ve become frequently useless. So this may not come up at all (although it’s smart to be prepared in case it does).

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 132 comments… read them below }

  1. Trout 'Waver*

    Asking “What’s your biggest weakness” to an applicant is just a sign the the person doesn’t know how to interview. Just have a canned answer ready. Honestly, it’s a minor red flag to me if the person who would be my direct manager asks it.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think you’re more likely to hear it in different forms — like “what kind of feedback have you received from past managers about development areas to work on?”

      1. Trout 'Waver*

        I don’t object as much to the phrasing of the question as much as the sentiment behind it. It’s a bad question because everyone prepares a canned answer to it, so it reveals little useful information. Also, it comes across very much to candidates as “Tell me why I shouldn’t hire you.”

        1. The JMP*

          For me as a manager, if someone can’t talk relatively honestly about areas where they would like more support or training that’s problematic. I need my team to have some level of self-awareness around that. For me as a candidate, talking about areas where I need to improve helps to ensure a good fit with the job – though granted that’s a lot easier to do when you’re not in desperate need of employment.

          Also, the applicant may have a canned answer for that question, but their references probably don’t.

          1. Diahann Carroll*

            I honestly can’t think of a single area of improvement that wouldn’t end up sounding negative, so I’m glad I don’t get asked this question anymore, lol.

            1. Wintermute*

              Anything you could say is going to sound negative, that’s sort of the point. Trust me, people that ask this are probably hard filtering for people that try to play it off with a non-answer or a fakey one like Alison pointed out (the classic “I work too hard,” “I care too much,” etc).

              But there’s a difference between revealing a crippling flaw and a legitimate area, and also how you reveal you work to overcome it.

              The answer I use, for instance, is that organization does not come naturally to me. I use charts, calendars, alarms, and checklists and to-do lists to allow myself to keep on top of things but it is not a natural skill I find effortless. It doesn’t hold me back because I DO all those things to mitigate, however in a career that requires those things to be effortless and doesn’t allow you the time or facilities to lean on external means (a job like an event coordinator) that would be disqualifying, but a data center job that has you in front of PCs all day long it’s not.

              1. Calanthea*

                Ah Wintermute thank you for putting this in writing!! o the question is really looking for an answer along the lines of “I have to put quite a lot of effort into being able to do X – i can do it for maybe 10% of the role, but if the job is based on being able to do this easily, probably not for me.”
                So maybe, “I find public speaking offputting, so I’ve done classes and always rehearse beforehand. I can present to colleagues at the end of a project, but a sales/public advocacy role probably isn’t for me.”

                1. TardyTardis*

                  Mine is, “I go really slowly when I learn new things, but once I have them integrated I go at my usual warp speed”.

          2. wittyrepartee*

            I’d respond much better to a question like “what kinds of support or training do you feel is important for you to succeed in a workplace?” rather than “what are your weaknesses?”

        2. Lavender Menace*

          Having a prepared answer doesn’t mean that it reveals little information – I have a prepared answer for this question that is both honest and talks about the work I’ve done to try to overcome this weakness in myself.

          But I agree that I don’t find it that useful – I’ve removed this question from my interviews because I find it patently useless. If I’ve done my job correctly elsewhere in the interview, then I’ve already identified strengths and weaknesses in my interview competency area.

          1. Anonapots*

            Same. I also prepare my students to have an idea in mind they can discuss honestly. I also coach them to follow Alison’s advice of talking more about how they mitigate their weakness or how they’ve worked to strengthen it.

      2. Just Another Hiring Mgr*

        I like “What part of this role do you think will be most challenging for you?” at the end of the interview.

        1. NotAnotherManager!*

          This is the version I use, too. I have never liked the weakness question because the prepared answers are always useless and often terrible or humblebrags.

        2. Washi*

          Yes, plus this question sometimes instantly points out the people who will probably not take feedback very well because I get a flat “nothing would be challenging.” I work in nonprofits/social services so the idea that nothing about our jobs is challenging is…suspicious.

        3. une autre Cassandra*

          I like that because it makes the applicant articulate something specific to the job they’re interviewing for, too. And I imagine the answer might highlight any misconceptions or confusion about the position.

        4. Taniwha Girl*

          I like this because it pivots the question to being about the nature of the job, instead of the nature of the candidate. And you can easily follow up with how the candidate/you will rise to those challenges.

      3. Anona Nonna*

        I do something similar in interviews in that I ask about project failures/things that one could have done better. Since I hire some entry level positions I’ll phrase it so it’s inclusive of school projects, internships, or unrelated jobs. I’m screening for introspection and self-awareness. In my opinion, failing and moving forward from it is a valuable experience. Fragility or an ego that gets in the way of being clear-eyed conflicts with being successful within my area of work.

        RE: explicit conversations about weaknesses- I generally save those for references. I’ve found that the problems we think we have aren’t always the same as the problems others have with us. And if they are, they manifest in ways we don’t always recognize.

        1. Anonymous Educator*

          Yes, anything you can do to focus on specifics (What happened? How did you react? How did you fix it? What did you learn?) over adjectives and general descriptions (My weakness is _________) is better for both the candidate and the interviewer.

      4. JSPA*

        That suggests OP could frame the issue as “pacing” or “spreading myself too thin.”

        And in fact, it’s possible that OP in some way mentally relies on going over-and-above to create the goodwill needed for the crash-and-burn-out moments.

        My tiny, elderly neighbor does that with mowing the lawn. She mows it three times a week–it’s so short that it’s crispy!–in case the weather gets even hotter, or she gets sick/injured, or “something happens.” Nobody else is allowed to help. The yards to all sides of her place get mowed every ten days to two weeks (or not).

        Talking about getting emotionally over-invested and burning out is worrisome. Talking about a bad habit of front-loading one’s schedule too heavily is an, “I have self-knowledge and am working on my pacing” presentation of the same sort of issue.

        IMO, it may well come up if they call references and past coworkers, so it’s probably smart to acknowledge load management and pacing issues in some way. Just not in that particular way.

      5. office bee*

        I’m less interested in someone’s weaknesses and more interested in their ability to take and apply feedback. When I’m interviewing I talk about how our team takes continuous improvement seriously and if they can talk about a time they got feedback from someone and incorporated it into their work going forward. It gives them an opportunity to talk about a weakness they’ve overcome OR just a better way to handling situations. If they can’t think of a time they took someone’s feedback, it’s a bit of a flag for me.

        1. Gumby*

          Or it could be that they so regularly take feedback that nothing stands out. I tend to view feedback as just learning a job and it has always been matter of fact and integrated into any job I have had. It’s never been a big “let’s talk about this sub-optimal pattern you have exhibited” experience.

          If I were in an interview, I am not sure I could come up with a reasonable example. Right now I am only coming up with silly little things. “When I was preparing for a company-wide presentation I did a practice run with [person A] and [person B] and incorporated the changes they wanted” seems… lame. Or “my manager suggested I email [stuff] to [person] and it mostly made sense but he was missing [context] so I sent [stuff + other stuff] instead and it really worked out well” feels very minutia-heavy.

    2. Threeve*

      I don’t think it’s all that bad. The “greatest strength/biggest weakness” question is dated, yeah, but when I first started in my field it was practically mandatory to ask it in an interview.

      IME, a really experienced, confident interviewer is often better at misrepresenting the job/workplace than someone who finds interviewing candidates sort of awkward and wants to rely more on canned questions–the latter tends to ultimately be more candid when you move into real conversation.

    3. RobotWithHumanHair*

      Yeah, I would definitely need a canned response, because I don’t think “my daily, crippling anxiety” would be too encouraging as an answer!

      1. wittyrepartee*

        “I have ADHD and as a result I’m not good at spot checking spreadsheets for errors.”

          1. Lauren*

            I’ve said something along the lines of, I get distracted easily when stressed, so I keep to-do lists and re-prioritize them a couple of times a day. Then I use headphones to drown out distractions when I’m working on something detail-oriented. It’s code for “I have ADD” without actually saying that, and employers like to know you are aware of your own challenges and have processes in place to minimize the effects.

    4. beanie gee*

      What I’ve seen more often lately is questions geared towards areas of weakness that you’ve overcome or mistakes made it the past that you’ve learned from. Which I like a lot better since it gets at what the intent of the “weakness” question without putting people in an awkward position.

      1. Akcipitrokulo*

        Yeah – I’ve mentioned sometimes when have lot on plate it’s difficult to keep on top of everything – so I use outlook tasks for anything that I need to do in a given timeframe and sort emails that require action into “to do” folder that I check regularly; I’ve found this stops things falling through cracks.

    5. Beth Jacobs*

      I was lucky enough to job search last year when the job market was great and I honestly acknowledged that my face-to-face communication is weak. I am more than capable of working in a team, but it has to be the kind of work where we’re each responsible for a fairly independent section, not actually working together all of the time. I think using a real yet serious weakness is a good strategy toscreen out jobs one won’t thrive in, but I’m not sure whether the advice is transferable to today’s job market.

      1. Tau*

        This is what I do too – use a genuine weakness where if the manager thinks it’s going to be a problem, I’d likely be miserable and unproductive in the job anyway. (One of mine is actually the opposite of yours – I need a job where there’s room for collaboration and teammates I can brainstorm with because I go spare if I have to just work on my own all the time.) I agree that if you’re desperate this may not be an option, but if you’ve got any choice in the matter at all I think it makes sense to screen out jobs that will probably result in bad references, lack of accomplishments and potentially being fired!

    6. Echo*

      Yeah, I mean, when I interview candidates (I should say “when I used to interview candidates” since I haven’t since the lockdown, alas) I would indeed love to know what their weaknesses are but I’m not going to get at that by asking them directly. The goal isn’t to know how they’d overcome a weakness or screen out a less-than-perfect candidate, it’s to know a) where I’d need to spend the most time coaching or training them and b) whether their working style is a good fit for the role. So that’s usually what I ask about: where they would need or like more training, what kind of working environments they do well in, an example of a great manager they had in the past and what worked well about their management style, etc. That’s usually enough to understand fit and coaching needs without asking the negative version of the question.

      I actually think there’s a very reasonable way to talk about the letter writer’s weakness in an interview, btw: “in past roles I’ve found that I get burnt out in environments where there are constant, emotionally-charged interactions with clients. I tend to do best in a role where those kinds of interactions come less frequently, so I have time to prepare and time to reflect back.” That tells both letter writer and interviewer if the prospective job is a good fit. Personally, I’d always advise candidates to think of the question less as “what’s a thing you’re bad at?” and more “what’s something that would make this job miserable for you?”

  2. juliebulie*

    I used to have the same weakness, and when I got that question in a telephone interview I told them about it. Even as I was speaking, I realized I was not giving a good answer; and I could tell right away from the interviewer’s awkward silence and then his hasty wrapup of the interview that it had been a mistake to mention it.

    That had been my first interview in over five years. It was a wake-up call for me to prepare better for those “typical” questions that are stupid but you have to answer them anyway.

    1. Sleepytime Tea*

      I used to have this weakness too, and I think I’ve found the right way to frame it, and I’ve used it in interviews. Instead of saying I burn myself out , I say that I have a tendency to always want to jump in on new projects and take them on because I get excited about them. Which is true! That has been a primary source of my burnout. I take on too much and it’s because I want to be involved in so many interesting and/or important things. And then I talk about how I’ve worked on that – which is that I started working more with my manager to prioritize things and take a more realistic look at my workload. I also started getting better about simply being realistic about how many hours are in a day, and really thinking about how much time my current workload takes, and how much time bringing in something new would take.
      That has gone over very well as a realistic discussion of a real weakness along these same lines. I think part of the key is evaluating the REASON for the symptoms, and not just talking about the end result (which is burnout).

      1. mf*

        I think your approach is very smart. It gives the hiring manager something they can latch on to in terms of how they can ensure this weakness doesn’t become a hindrance.

    2. Probably Taking This Too Seriously*

      Same weakness. I frame it as being too personally invested in work and therefore getting sad and deflated about setbacks. This is the truth, and this answer hasn’t hurt me, even though it probably casts me as too emotional.

    3. Moo*

      I would tend towards the same weakness – as in its something I need to watch in myself – while no one has asked me such a blunt question in a long time, I’ve thought about it in prep for interviews (and for self-reflection). In the end I came up with a prepared (and true) answer.

      “I do have a tendency to take too much on, this mostly results in me being overworked, rather than non-delivery. To combat this I’ve become more proactive in assessing my workload, working with my colleagues/superiors to prioritise more clearly, collaborating/delegating to ensure the workload is more evenly spread and communicating early and often on delivery timelines. This makes my work more sustainable, and I make a real effort not to fall into those patterns any more.”

      As an interviewer this tells me you’re the kind of person who’s dedicated but self-aware and proactive in addressing your limitations. I think questions about weaknesses, things you’d do differently now etc, are all opportunities to show self-awareness and growth. If you’re falling into “I’m just too dedicated” more than 5 years into your career it would be alarm bells that there’s a major issue going on that you haven’t addressed. As a manager I don’t want someone who will burn out frequently, I want someone who will tell me when the workload is getting too much, or if there’s pressure points I haven’t realised, and who will work with me to make sure our team’s activities are sustainable.

  3. KHB*

    What if you said something like “My weakness is a tendency to run myself ragged to the point of burnout – and therefore I’m looking for a job with a strong culture of work-life balance to keep me in check. Can you tell me what things are like here in that regard?”

    (My own weakness is a tendency to go down rabbit holes and turn every project into ten times more than it needs to be – so I got myself a job where I have deadlines every month to force me to wrap things up, whether I want to or not.)

    1. juliebulie*

      That doesn’t sound good to me. It sounds like you want them to balance your life because you don’t know how to do it yourself. Maybe you can say it more in terms of you’d like a strong culture that supports your efforts to balance your work and life.

      1. Turtle Candle*

        Agreed. “I’m looking for a role that plays to my strengths” is good (great!), but “I’m looking for a job that will shore up my weaknesses” says (to me) that you’re looking for your job to fix your issues for you, and as a manager I’d find that concerning at best.

        1. KHB*

          How about “I’m looking for a job that doesn’t kick me in my Achilles heel any more than it has to”?

          I like juliebulie’s “supports my efforts” phrasing.

          1. Turtle Candle*

            I like that phrasing better, but I think that it only works if the phone call is not coming from inside the house. In other words, if the thing causing one’s weaknesses to become serious is something that can be fixed by a better company culture, more structured work, less structured work, etc., something in the manager’s control (or at least partially in the manager’s control), then yeah, that’s essentially saying “I’m looking for a better fit.”

            But if it’s inherent in the type of work (in social services, your managers can’t really do anything about the fact that there’s always more work to do and it’s work that’s desperately needed and you really care about), or by something about your personality, I don’t think it really works as an answer. Not kicking someone’s Achilles heel is fine unless your job is fighting Troy, and then there’s really not much to be done about it.

            Either way, I’d think you’d want to have an answer ready to “how do you see the workplace supporting these efforts?” with specifics. Because that’d definitely be my follow-up question, and if the answer was “in my previous job my manager expected eighty hour weeks,” sure, I can not put that expectation on you, but if it’s something essential to the job or interior to your mind it’d remain a problem.

            1. JSPA*

              Some workplaces don’t let people log in from home. Some don’t let you access work files outside of work hours. Some prohibit weekend hours. The position could be hourly, not salaried, and they could police work outside of hours strictly, and have a “no overtime” rule. It could be against policy or even a firing offense to recontact a client outside the scope of providing a specific set of referrals for a specific set of services.

              All of those are ways where the structure of the job / rules of the workplace could force you to have a greater level of balance.

              If someone is doing (say) “well baby” visits (or teleconferencing or calls) and “good nutrition and how to read with your child” trainings for young single parents (for example), that might be a flavor of social work that’s open to being less crisis-driven, more preventative, and more open to set hours.

              1. Turtle Candle*

                Yes, I get that there are possible answers to how management could support balance, which is why I suggested the LW find honest ways to answer that followup. My point was that in the original letter, this was being framed as how the LW is, not as something forced upon them by bad management.

                If the answer is “I have difficulty finding a work/life balance, so I’m excited to be interviewing at a workplace with [no overtime/lots of telecommuting/a lower level of situational stress/a good vacation policy]” then sure. But if the problem is internal to the LW, as in, they won’t take advantage of vacation policies, or will telecommute but do so for hours and hours and hours and hours into the night, or will (as one of my coworkers does) sneak work when they don’t need to, or etc., then that’s another matter… and the letter as I read it was far more the latter case than the former, more about how they see themselves as a person than how their job is set up. If it’s genuinely about the workplace, then that’s another story.

                1. JSPA*

                  It’s not bad management to not have those things, though! Different people mesh better with different sorts of workplaces.

                  Some people thrive when they’re potentially “always on,” but can also cut out for a run or a nap in the middle of the day, if they feel like it. If you have strong natural boundaries and are not only in tune with your own needs, but enjoy making them a priority on a fairly regular basis, it can be a great way to work.

                  I went skiing with a friend who was doing translations in three languages from her cell phone on the chairlift; didn’t phase her a bit, and the international transactions went through just fine. She’d warned her workplace that she’d be “a bit more remote than usual, with occasional patchy signal.” My biggest worry was that she was going to drop the phone down the composting toilet when she took the multitasking a wee bit further.

      2. Kiki*

        Yes! I can see how it would be tempting to bring this up in response to a “greatest weakness” type question because it is truthful, but I think framing it as juliebulie suggests, saying you’re looking for a culture with strong work-life balance, is much better and less alarming.

      3. Jenn*

        We ask near the end of the interview, after we’ve talked in detail about the position and asked questions that give the candidate an idea of what we’re looking for: “Where do you think you’d need support in this role, especially at the start?” I find it makes candidates more comfortable in coming forward about a weakness or struggle they’ve had in a previous workplace, and I genuinely want to know the answer! There’s almost no thoughtful answer to the question that would turn me off. I don’t care about making candidates denigrate themselves – no one wants to focus on their weaknesses in an interview! – but it helps all of us understand where we should focus our greatest support if we hire this person.

        1. ampersand*

          This is a great reframing of the question, and I like that it sounds so much more friendly and has a “we’re on the same team” vibe. Interviews sometimes feel adversarial due to the nature of the process: I have something you want and need (a job); now convince me why I should give it to you. (Not all, but some.)

      4. Green*

        I think whether that is wise depends how much you want/need the job, regardless of its culture.

    2. NotAnotherManager!*

      If someone told me this in an interview, I’d have concerns about how they’d manage their workload and that they didn’t have the judgment to raise the issue of an overloaded portfolio before it hit critical mass. I work in a very deadline-based area, so you can’t just take everything on and hope it works out or that you can just power through it. You miss a deadline (which are outside and sometimes codified and often immovable), there are serious ramifications. And burnt-out people don’t have the sharp attention to detail and fresh eyes required for a lot of my positions.

      But I also work in an industry with terrible work-life balance unless you actively manage your life and workload, so anyone looking to us to keep their work-life in check is going to end up burnt out.

  4. Turanga Leela*

    I agree with Alison’s observation—the last time I interviewed for jobs (around 3 years ago), hardly anyone asked this question.

    When interviewers do ask it, I’ve had good luck with two strategies:

    1) Give an answer that’s very specific about your weaknesses for the job you’re interviewing for. “My biggest weakness for this job is probably that I’ve never done in-person llama grooming before, so I’d be on a learning curve there.” And then talk about how you’d manage that and get up to speed. It’s not about “I’m bad at this,” but about recognizing a weakness in your candidacy.

    2) The tried-and-true method: Admit a minor failing that nobody cares about. Mine used to be that my desk is always messy (true!), but then President Obama said that in a debate, and I felt like I had to stop saying it. “I always feel awkward at networking events” is a good one, if that’s not central to the job. It’s good if you can actually point to ways you’ve improved and made the minor problem even less of an issue.

    1. ampersand*

      I was reading through the comments that are on the page that Alison linked to in her answer, and the consensus seemed to be that your answer to #1 (while completely intuitive!) is not a great answer, either.

      Honestly, reading through the comments I was reminded of how terrible the weakness question is. If a person is truly honest in answering this question, it seems like it could raise red flags because the interviewer doesn’t know the person yet. I was last asked this question about four years ago and my answer didn’t land well with the hiring manager–she offered and I accepted the position, so it didn’t keep me from getting the job, but I knew the second that I answered the question that it was not a great answer. I hope interviewers really are phasing this one out.

      1. Lavender Menace*

        I also wouldn’t use the second tactic. At best, it can be perceived as evasive; at worst, it can make you look like someone who doesn’t think about their job-related shortcomings and work to fix them, or that they can’t tell what’s relevant information and what’s not.

        That’s why this is such a terrible question.

      2. Diahann Carroll*

        Yeah, interviewers need to just stick to behavioral questions since those get them the responses they’re looking for anyway.

      3. Thankful for AAM*

        Also in those comments from 2018 was someone asking if it would be ok to say teleworking was their weakness. I thought, not in 2020 it wont be, and better start working on that now!

      4. Wintermute*

        I don’t get why everyone is saying it’s not a good question and shouldn’t be used. The fact people are having trouble coming up with a way to spin it and come up with something that has NO negative connotations is, in my mind, a plus on the hiring manager’s side. Yes it’s hard to answer, but being hard on the candidate doesn’t mean it doesn’t generate a ton of useful information.

        The only problem I can see is that so many people will have evasive or non-answers that you have to be careful not to weight that too heavily against them (I always think you have to be careful not to weight too hard against good candidates that have gotten bad advice from sources that imply they should trust them like university career centers, state unemployment office job advice programs, career coaches, etc).

        1. boop the first*

          Yeah the reaction from the interviewer is important too. There are lots of times where the job changes almost immediately after hiring. If I say that my weakness is that I am socially awkward around strangers and tend to avoid starting conversations, I would hope that my employer would have a second thought about secretly planning to dump some customer-facing duties on me that weren’t mentioned. Sometimes it reinforces the fit for the job because it’s an isolated backroom position that they have difficulty keeping filled for all the loneliness involved, and they’re worried I’ll bail right away. Seems like a useful question to me!

  5. Roja*

    Obviously, listen to Alison.

    That said, I suspect that in social work, that kind of burnout is really common. Maybe not to that extent, but there’s a reason social workers and teachers and similarly caring, underpaid professions where you’re helping people and have that pressure of “if they don’t get it from me, they won’t get it at all” often leave the field after a few years. And there’s a reason it’s so hard to leave work at work in these fields. It’s a lot easier to set boundaries on writing a report or answering an email. When it’s a frantic person needing help, it’s awfully hard to just turn your phone off.

    Doesn’t mean that burning out like you say you are is good or wise, only that I suspect that you’re just one of the ones who have managed to return to the field instead of leaving entirely. I wouldn’t use it as an answer to the greatest weaknesses, but I sure would use it to ask some questions in the interview, like what kind of support for employees is there in dealing with job-induced trauma/burnout/whatever your situation is?

    Good luck.

  6. The Wall Of Creativity*

    Yeah. Have a better answer ready. My biggest weakness Is that I can be quite condescending at times (that means I talk down to people).

      1. The Wall Of Creativity*

        I’m in a different/boat to the OP. My response would be something along the lines of “I’m a contractor, not a potential employee and this is a business to business meeting, not an interview. Let’s talk about what this problem is that you have and how I can solve it. Just like we’d do if I was a builder and you needed a new conservatory.”

    1. Threeve*

      I’m honestly just too humble. I’m the most humble person you’ve ever met. People are always shocked at how rarely I tell the truth about how amazing I am and tell me I need to brag more, but I find it a challenge.

        1. Jules the 3rd*

          I can’t wait to look in the mirror, ’cause I get better looking each day.
          To know me is to love me, I must be a heck of a guy!
          Oh, Lord, it’s hard to be humble, but I’m doing the best that I can.

          My weakness: If you throw a song quote at me and I know it, I have to keep going. My family uses this to my disadvantage.

      1. Fabulous*

        OMG yes!!! I totally had a different weakness in my back pocket but this – THIS – is truly a weakness of mine. I literally cannot “toot my own horn” so to speak, lol. I’ve taken to saving all the emailed feedback I’ve received for this very reason.

      1. fhqwhgads*

        This was frequently my internal monologue when I worked helpdesk, which is why I no longer work helpdesk.

  7. Ali G*

    As Alison points out, this isn’t just about sounding BS-adjacent. If I received an answer like yours I would be concerned that you bad habit would impact my other staff. Will you complain about being overworked constantly? Will my other staff think they have to push themselves as much as you do (unnecessarily)? How often are you going to need “a few weeks off?” This just swirls up a bunch of questions and concerns for me that would make me go with some that seems less drama.
    FWIW, I have a real weakness that I share. I am/was a procrastinator. I am very careful to tell them how I manage myself to know it’s no longer a problem. That’s the key – I am still a procrastinator, but I have learned to manage it and it doesn’t affect my work (as much).

    1. Anonymous at a University*

      +1 The worst answer I’ve ever seen in an interview, which was in answer to the question, “What aspects of the job are you most concerned about?”, was “I have zero flexibility and will need to be able to have the same schedule every day that I work here, and cannot do anything to handle emergencies or requests for extra help.” If you expect your colleagues to be able to be flexible so they can cover when you do inevitably end up having an emergency, but can never offer the same flexibility in return, you’ll create resentment at best and people leaving you out of important projects and meetings at worst. It’s not just about your particular weakness, but how it impacts the people you’ll be working with.

    2. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

      +1. If I heard this from an applicant, sure I’d be sympathetic to some extent, but I’d also be listening very very carefully for their acknowledgement of how this might impact their colleagues from an emotional labour perspective, in addition to everything else that Anonymous at a University mentioned. It’s one thing to acknowledge how your burnout affects you, your clients, and your employer, but I’ll be left wondering how concerned you are about managing your capital with your peers .

  8. HR Ninja*

    While it may be something you need to work on for your own well-being, yeah it sounds a little too much like, “My biggest weakness is I care too much.”

    1. Moo*

      I always think of Craig from Parks and Rec, yelling:
      “Yes I have a disease. It’s called caring too much and it’s incurable!”

      This is often my internal monologue!

  9. rayray*

    I think just about everyone I know has a canned answer ready to spit out at this question.

    I don’t know why anyone would expect anything other than a rehearsed “turn a negative into a positive” answer at this. I think you could work on how you phrase it, but if people are going to ask stupid questions, then they shouldn’t get mad when they get stupid answers.

    1. Aggretsuko*

      I’ve always interpreted this question as NOT something you honestly answer so that the interviewer can rule you out because you have a weakness, but more of a “Is this person smart enough to give a politic answer to this question?”

      Unfortunately, the only times I’ve been asked this is interviews within my own office, where they already knew what was wrong with me and I absolutely could not lie or fudge about it. And of course never got the jobs. And will never apply in-office again.

  10. Koala dreams*

    The interview is not the time for discussing your health issues. Not only is it awkward, but you also risk encountering biased interviewers and limit your chances. If you need any accomodations, you can mention it after you get the offer. Otherwise you can wait until you have started working and know people a little bit better.

  11. Forrest*

    My biggest problem with this answer is that it doesn’t really sound like you really take it seriously as a weakness: your framing of “the good reputation I’ve built during the boom periods” makes it sound like you think that it’s basically a pretty good trade-off for your employers and you don’t really seem to be addressing how disruptive this pattern might be. That’s what makes it come off as a humble brag! You say “I’ve got a little better over the years”, as if that’s something that’s just happened rather than something you’ve actively worked on. To take this seriously as a weakness, I’d want it hear a much more concrete plan for, “I’m confident this won’t happen again because I’ve got better at setting boundaries, these are the red flags i look for when things are starting to get too much, and this is how I reach out for help or start addressing my workload.” Most of all, I’d want to be confident that you’re still a great employee when you’re *not* burning yourself out, not just when you’re working in a totally unsustainable way.

    1. Cinnabar Red*

      Yes! This was my thought too. Your best answer is to make progress against what sounds like a genuinely disruptive and problematic pattern, not hope that your earlier work will trump your later collapse.

    2. Washi*

      Totally agreed! As someone who works in this field, I think you could maybe use this in an interview, but framing it as “I just care so much that I regularly burn out” would raise some red flags for me that the person doesn’t have a healthy sense of boundaries or needs to do some introspection around a “saving” mentality.

      I could more imagine something like “one thing I find really hard is finding the balance between being invested in client success and advocating for them, and recognizing that there are unfortunately limits to what we can provide. At times I’ve found myself taking client outcomes too personally and I’ve realized that ultimately, I don’t do clients any favors by trying to be a superhero and then burning myself out. In the past couple years I’ve focused more on client empowerment and giving clients the best possible experience within my professional limits, and it’s something I regularly discuss in supervision when I’m noticing that I’m getting overly emotionally invested in one particular case.”

      1. MsLilyRowan*

        This! So much this! While I don’t work in social services, per se, I’m in a closely related field, and there’s nothing wrong with recognizing the difficulty with balancing committment to your clients and the very real limits on your resources, including your own time, energy and wellbeing; between processing the vicarious trauma that comes with the job and finding a self-care routine that works. If you keep your response focused on that struggle-which is common to so many of us in fields that work to serve vulnerable populations-you should be ok. I’ve never held that sort of self awareness against a candidate-it honestly gives me a sense that they understand the job and the associated realities.

  12. ThursdaysGeek*

    Our company used a different, and I think much better version of that question: “Everyone has weaknesses. What have your done to overcome a weakness?”

  13. Turtle Candle*

    Oooooh, yeah. I have a coworker who overworks herself to the point of neglecting her life, working super-long hours even when not asked (and not strictly speaking necessary; other coworkers do their work fine even when not running themselves ragged, she’s just always the one trying to take on extra projects, go above and beyond on everything, etc., because this is–like social services–an industry where there is always one more thing you could do), never taking a real break even on weekends or vacation, etc., and then suffering a collapse. The quality of her work is good when she’s in the ‘on’ phase, and she does probably average out to above her colleagues in quantity too even with the collapse periods, but…

    It’s alarming. Watching her run herself ragged on a repeating cycle is stressful to the rest of us, not because she’s “making us look bad” or anything foolish like that, but because it’s hard to watch someone who you are on a friendly basis with repeatedly make themselves sick. And because she’s setting expectations with upper management as to how much our department can do, which will be hard to explain if she ever leaves and suddenly our output drops. And because the cycles of burnout-collapse-burnout-collapse make it hard for the rest of us to load balance our work, because they aren’t predictable. (This would be true of any chronic illness, of course, but taken together with the rest it’s not great.) And because we have to take new employees quietly aside and reassure them that, yes, when your manager says you can stop at X or take a vacation day or whatever you really truly can, and just because Concertina doesn’t do that doesn’t mean you can’t. And quite simply because stress and anxiety can be contagious and even those of us who know that this isn’t necessary can readily start to absorb the constant aura of pressure.

    And because we care about her and she’s making herself miserable!

    (I’m almost positive her manager has tried to address this multiple times, but I’m sympathetic to their problem, too: “my problem is my employee works too hard” isn’t exactly what most people think of when they think of issues a manager might need to deal with, and also in my coworker’s case I think there’s very strong possibility of a mental health component, which makes it all the more delicate.)

    So, yeah. I’d pick another weakness because this is in fact genuinely alarming.

  14. HailRobonia*

    My canned response, which is honest, is public speaking and formal presentations, and that I have taken training in order to improve in these areas. I like to explain that in my current job, if I am asked to give an impromptu presentation to some people about our programs, I would have no problem. But if I were told “next week a big group is coming in to learn about our programs, please present to them” I would overthink it and get nervous in the preparation. (and in that hypothetical I would ask if there were similar presentations before, if this group has had experience with our office before, etc…)

  15. Oh Fiddlesticks*

    “I do believe this to be a genuine and serious weakness”

    It’s a major concern, not for interviewing but for your life. You’ll do more than burn out. This is life-endangering. Please, OP, do what you can to change this behavior, and by that I mean get “help”. Please trust me – 2-4 weeks off to recover from hard work is by no stretch common, normal, or tolerable.

    1. Keymaster of Gozer*

      Bit late but this, exactly. See below for the situation I do NOT want OP to end up in.

  16. 3DogNight*

    I am not going to respond to the interview question, because that has been addressed quite well.
    I would suggest that you find a way to correct this issue before your next interview. This kind of burn out is terrible for your mental health and work/life balance. You have to resolve this, even if you only find one thing a month to improve, it will be steady improvement over time.
    A book that helped me a lot was What to Do When There’s Too Much To Do. A lot of it is common sense, when you’re looking at it from the outside. So, I suggest taking a vacation, and using that time to really assess what you’re doing at work, and how you can re-balance your load.

    1. Keymaster of Gozer*

      This, so very much.

      I suffered a complete breakdown earlier this year and that’s something that takes a long, long time to recover from (months, not weeks). I’d let the stress and depression and everything build up, unchecked, until the day my mind snapped and I ended up in a psychiatric ward.

      Extreme, I know, but I really campaign for people to get help and support for their mental state now. It’s so much better than letting burnouts become breakdowns.

      1. Moo*

        1000% agree – you’d don’t know the day when too much becomes really too much, and recovery becomes much much more difficult

        (hope you’re doing better now)

        1. Keymaster of Gozer*

          Yup, even looking for a new job (been unemployed for over a year) now since I think I can go back to work without shedding my mental mess all over people :)

  17. Time_TravelR*

    I word it this way… I have trouble delegating to others. It’s true, but I have worked to overcome it and do much better now. Resulting in less chance of burn out.

  18. Georgina Fredrika*

    I always reply that I tend to be very independent – in the sense that I’ve gotten this as “something to work on” feedback twice from managers before, and then say that I work on this by trying to keep people in the loop at appropriate times throughout rather than just delivering the finished product with no checking in.

    I figure it indicates I’m both aware of the necessity of checking in, while also signaling that I’m not the best fit for a micromanaged office.

  19. Ann O'Nemity*

    I’ve always liked this format: “In the past, I’ve have sometimes struggled with X. To combat this, I have learned to do Y and Z.”

  20. Blarg*

    Personally, I’ve stopped seeing this as my weakness and started using it as my superpower. The way I explain it is that I love to create excellent programs or overhaul poorly functioning ones, but maintenance isn’t my thing. I excel at taking what’s broken, or what doesn’t exist, and figuring out how to do it and do it well — and setting it up for sustainability so that others can step in and do it. This has allowed me into a niche role in my field — I’m now managing a huge grant for a non-profit that’s being stood up because of Covid. I will give it every ounce of energy I have until the funding ends next year and then I’ll take a nap and find what’s next. I have the flexibility to do this cause I don’t have a family and like bouncing around jobs and cities. It won’t work for everyone but I love it. And I love that my reputation in my field is “ahhh we’re so glad it’s YOU,” not “she changes jobs more often than people change their pants in quarantine.” (And FWIW, I’ve never been a contractor — always an employee).

  21. BelleMorte*

    I was always told to frame your weakness honestly in something that applies to the job, but also indicate how you plan to fix it.

    i.e. I am a little weak on X coding language which you have listed as a “nice to have”, however I plan to take courses from X org and refresh my knowledge within the next few weeks.

    1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

      Yup. Like, telling me you suck at something that applies to the job…sure, I guess that shows self-awareness and vulnerability. If you don’t seem to have a concrete plan to improve, then why exactly are you applying for this job?

  22. Anonymity*

    No one wants to hire someone who needs a month off every other year due to burnout. Maybe some good therapy can help you avoid this behavior. I’d go this route and not bring it up.

  23. Blanche*

    I agree with Alison’s suggestion to not use this example, but from what you’ve described it sounds like you’re not describing burnout so much as compassion fatigue! There are some great resources out there for people in caregiving professions on how to manage compassion fatigue that might help you on your way to turn this into something you’ve learned to manage effectively.

  24. Gravy Boat*

    I’ve been thinking about this recently as I tentatively start a job search. The two possibilities are both kind of rubbish but in different ways, but I’ve never had useful feedback towards anything else.

    1. I am hopeless with finance. My arithmetic is sound, and I can do complicated things with Excel and produce cost projections and so on right up until the point where you add currency symbols, at which point it becomes double Dutch and I have zero instinct. Currency conversion makes me cry. I overcome this by setting clear boundaries on work I can and can’t undertake (finance is not a generally expected part of my job) and use established idiot-proof tools when ad hoc tasks are unavoidable. But I *suck* at money.

    2. I don’t like it when people don’t follow procedure. I’m the one trusted to create the procedure to make sure it’s compliant, including all the escape routes and exceptions. I build the training around the “why” to increase buy-in. People would like me to chill out. I have learned when to leave it and when to insist.

    Your “weakness” has to be something you have learned to mitigate, right? Is it now considered gauche to name something which is the flipside of a strength? Does your mitigation/revelation have to be recent or is it better to have been early in your career?

  25. LoV*

    *sigh* I’ve always hated that question. It’s such a game. I mean, what could I say? My anxiety can render me semi-functional in a work environment on rare occasion but that overall I’m very productive? It feels like a true greatest weakness would scare any employer off and any other answer is going to seem like spin or BS.

    1. nep*

      It’s a terrible question. Interviewers should get more creative to get at what they want.

  26. Lynn Whitehat*

    I like to answer it as “I am weak in area X (which is not part of the job, or at least a small part), which is why I was interested in this job, where I can use my strength in Y.” So like, “I once had a job grooming teacup poodles for dog shows, and I found that I wasn’t very successful making small animals conform to a strict aesthetic standard. That’s why I’m excited about the llama-grooming job here, because grooming large animals to maintain health is where I thrive”.

  27. Ms Frizzle*

    I’ve been on a lot of interview teams at my school and we hear variations on this answer (or struggling with work/life balance) a LOT. It gets really old really quickly. I know that it’s an honest answer, because it’s also true for every other teacher on the interview committee, but it doesn’t show the kind of self-reflection on professional practice that we’re looking for. I imagine interviewers in social service fields are also really familiar with it and probably a bit tired of hearing it too.

    1. ampersand*

      That’s understandable–I imagine most people have had problems with work/life balance at some point, so it’s an easy answer. It sounds like it’s time to reframe the question if you’re not getting useful answers.

  28. 789a*

    You just have to tell them about a weakness that makes you the right fit for THEM! In my last interview, my answer was along the lines of “I’m not good at panicking in a performative way, I prefer to move directly to solutions. This is a strength in some offices and a weakness in others.” I wanted a way to communicate “Hire me if you want someone to get work done, do not hire me if you will need me to have the correct facial expression when things go wrong.” The best answers to this question have a “do not hire me if…” which strengthens the “DO hire me if…”
    I also think there’s room to be a lot more specific in your answer. It is also refreshing when people are just honest. “I’m not really a morning person, I’m always on time but need a LOT of caffeine.” “I have struggled with jobs where I’m responsible for trash, I’m looking to not do that anymore.” “I’m introverted, so sometimes coworkers find me mysterious.” “I type so fast that Google flags me as a spambot.” “Sometimes I write and send emails too quickly and realize I should have included an answer to an obvious follow-up question, so I have started rereading each email quickly before sending thru the lens of ‘what questions will the recipient have?’ and make sure I include all the info they’ll need.”
    Short term memory problems (“so I take a lot of notes”) and attention problems (“I struggle in an open office setting and do better at focused work when I am in a quiet area”) are riskier but also even more useful at assessing the fit. IF you are fortunate to be in a position where you have the time to hold out for the RIGHT job for you, brutal honesty and accurate self-evaluation are great ways to get there. Yes, it will screen you out from some places but screen you out accurately.

    1. 789a*

      Obvs you can tell which flaw is mine because I didn’t reread this and should have added clarity. I said the “not good at performatively panicking” because I was moving from a place where drama WAS the work (rapid prototyping model, so if anything was only 99% perfect, we’d dive into what went wrong in that 1% and probably have a full company reorg to address it) to a very sedate and (what some would consider) dull environment. I figured they were looking for someone drama free and I was right.

    2. Anononon*

      I disagree – this advise used to be common (I’m too much of a perfectionist), but it comes across fake and not legit. Do you really think an interviewer would genuinely believe that typing too fast or NOT panicking is a weakness?

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        Some of these odd drawbacks actually serve to the toxicity of the place someone is leaving.
        But for what it’s worth, PageMaker used to crash regularly for me only because I typed faster than the software could compose layouts. And due to the size of the document I was working in, it took 5 minutes to recover every time I crashed. So for that time and place, yes, not being able to slow down was a problem. It’s all in the explanation, isn’t it?

  29. HailRobonia*

    Interviewer: “what’s your greatest weakness.”
    Candidate: “My weakness is that I am too honest.”
    Interviewer: “I don’t think that is a weakness.”
    Candidate: “I don’t give a %*&@ what you think.”

    (joke stolen from the internet)

  30. Esme*

    You mentioned performance reviews. This isn’t the kind of weakness you’d want to mention there – that’s more for knowledge gaps, training needs, unfamiliar processes etc.

  31. Keymaster of Gozer*

    Last time I was asked what my greatest weakness was in an interview I just held up my walking stick!

    (Then said something about my tendency to crack jokes in stressful situations)

  32. Gee*

    There’s a classic moment from the UK version of The Office where David Brent (Ricky Gervaise) is conducting a performance appraisal with Keith who has to give his strengths and weaknesses. It’s at the beginning of the clip. Skip to 1:14 for the Q&A section of the appraisal.

  33. Nacho*

    The first time I was asked that question, I said “Quantum physics”. I’m still not sure how I got that promotion, though I think the competition must not have been that heavy.

    The important thing is to pick a weakness you can solve, and point out how you fixed it after disclosing it. That way it doesn’t sound like BS when you mention it, but you’re also not losing points for having a weakness. I say that I used to have trouble remembering everything I had to do, and was picking up cases but not following through on them. Now, I have a to-do list I check for everything, and that’s no longer a problem.

    1. AnonThisTime*

      Ha!! In almost any office that would go over well. But since that is what my current company does…

      Though actually, in my interview I did say I had only done one year of physics in college and the response was that they had plenty of physicists and no one who wanted to put the time or effort into [tasks this position would cover] so it was not a problem. Side benefit: I now do know more about quantum physics. Obviously not enough to compare to the bulk of my co-workers (who all have PhDs) but more than the average man on the street does.

  34. Akcipitrokulo*

    Generally a good answer to the weakness question would be “I have struggled with X, and this is how I’ve overcome it”.

    It sounds like you can’t do that because you haven’t overcome it.

    This may be a bigger issue than the interview question; it sounds like you care very much for the people you help, and being able to give them the best of you for longer would be awesome.

  35. Elfie*

    I’m interviewing at the moment, and this sounds a lot like me, except my burnout is depression-related. I work in IT (definitely not a caring profession!!), but I care too much about my specialism (which tends to be neglected in many companies) and get personally invested in making improvements. Except most companies I work for pay no more than lip service to my specialism, which leaves me with no money, no resources, and no time to make the quality improvements that I long to make. It doesn’t help that I don’t have kids, so I look to my job for more personal fulfillment than I should, but over the last 5 years I have probably ended up off sick for 2 or 3 months at a time every 9 months or so. I’ve been in my current job for almost 4 years (so most of those absences have happened at this one employer), but unfortunately a lot of the depression and absences have been due to the absolute toxic misogynistic nature of this particular workplace (and one of my triggers is feeling helpless, which sexism does to me).
    I’m dreading this question or a report on my absences going to a new employer. I’m classed as disabled (UK based here, so ADA and FMLA, etc don’t apply here, but we do have similar sort of provisions) so disability-related absences aren’t supposed to be counted, but I’m still working my way through swathes of anti-depressants trying to find the best meds for me and how to cope with – well, life, actually – but I do actually wonder if anyone else will ever employ me.
    On the flip side, I’ve had 10 final interviews and no job offers recently, so I could say that one of my weaknesses is interviewing!!

  36. Titta*

    I would also come up with a different weakness.
    I don’t want to sound unsymphatetic, but this seems to me like TMI for an interview. As a interviewer just trying to get to know your experience and style of working, it would be very uncomfortable to hear about such huge health/life issues. Personally I would honestly worry about your health, past and present. To me it would show poor judgement to bring that up.

    I am sorry you have this tendency. Twice in my life I have experienced burn-out like symptoms, but both times I was able to slow down at work and make other changes in my life, so it never really got too bad. But the symptoms were scary and I can only imagine having that and worse multiple times in my life. Good luck to you!

  37. J.B.*

    I am not diagnosing! However, I will observe that burnout has been described as a type of anxiety. If you’re really invested and getting in worry loops that can be improved by recognizing the patterns. Setting boundaries around what you will and will not undertake at work may help your balance overall.

  38. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    I don’t have a good answer for OP, but I can offer commiseration. I intentionally reworked my modus operandi in several ways to recast weaknesses as strengths, and I have no idea how to communicate them now without risking humblebrag or answering a different question than was asked.

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