how to explain to interviewers that you left a job due to burnout

On a post earlier this week, a commenter offered this excellent advice on what they said to interviewers after quitting a previous job due to burnout, and I want to highlight it here:

I burned out hard from my last job, and quit after only a year. To my surprise, explaining it in interviews was really easy.

I used different explanations depending on the job and the company culture. These all went down great:

– “It was a great project and a great team, but it was also a really small team. As a result, I was pulled in a lot of directions and working a lot of overtime to get it all done before the event. Over time, I realized it wasn’t sustainable and wanted to take some time to catch my breath and think about moving into a position I DO want to do for a long time.”

– “Because it was such a small team, I was wearing a lot of hats. Your classic combined communications role: press relations, marketing, speaker communications. But also things way outside my wheelhouse, like web design and a lot of event management. I spent so much time writing back and forth with people about tent dimensions! In the end, it was too much. So I decided to step away and look for a role where I can focus on what I’m good at: writing and communications.”

– “Because it was such a small team, I was wearing a lot of hats and pulled in a lot of different directions. I was really unhappy, and realized I need to be in a role where I can focus on doing just a few things, and doing them really well.”

– “It’s a great project, and I’m glad to have worked on it. But the reality of event work is there’s a lot of mundane stuff that needs to get done, and it’s a race to do it in time. As a result, there wasn’t time to sit down and create any sort of cohesive strategy, which I think is really important. I realized I’d be happier in a job where I can step back now and then to make sure all the details fit into a bigger picture.”

Nobody ever batted an eye at these explanations. Of course, I went on to explain why I felt whichever role I was interviewing for was a much better fit.

And in a follow-up comment:

I’ll also add that in some ways, my career DID take a hit. Not because I committed a career sin by quitting a job, but because the reality is when you’re applying from unemployment you don’t have the luxury of waiting forever until an objectively “better” job comes along.

Still the best decision of my life. When I look back, it wasn’t even a decision. There was simply no other way. My new job is less prestigious-sounding, but I’m still doing the kind of work I want to do, and I am waaaaay happier. Like, no longer crying while I brush my teeth in the mornings happier. Have energy and motivation to do home improvement projects on the weekend happier.

Also, I have the energy now to think long-term about my career instead of just struggling to keep my head above water. I think in the long-run, this temporary step back will be good for my career. But even if it’s not, it’ll still be worth the change in my quality of life. You only get one life. No sense in making yourself miserable in it.

Some things to keep in mind from someone who’s been there:

1. Recovering from my burnout took way longer than I’d planned for. I thought I’d take a month off and then go out and get myself an awesome new job. During that month, COVID hit (fun timing!), and my job search ended up taking five months. And it’s a REALLY GOOD it did. I needed almost that time to fully, properly recover. When I did start a new job, I was fresh and ready to go.

2. Getting to the place where I feel good about taking a less prestigious but less stressful job didn’t happen on its own. It took therapy to untangle my sense of identity and worth from my career.

{ 66 comments… read them below }

  1. Thankful for AAM*

    I loved this in the comments and am so glad Alison highlighted it here!
    It helps me think about how to talk about all the things I might need to address, not just burn out.

  2. GreenDoor*

    I appreciate the reminder about just how long it takes to get recharged from work burnout. Often when we’re right in the midst of a burnout or other stressor, it is really hard to come up with a way to put a positive, work-focused spin on what we’re feeling. These are really great scripts to have in hand!

  3. Always Late to the Party*

    Do others have anecdotes on how long is enough to recover from burnout?

    I’m feeling incredibly burnt out and am now worried the two weeks off at Christmas I’ve been looking forward to won’t be sufficient.

    1. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

      Find the cause! My burnout wasn’t just from a working environment that didn’t work for me, it was also because I was dealing with so many other things (an international move, two surgeries, and incidentally a lot of smaller, more mundane things that were wearing me down more than I realized). It’s taken months to get my health back on track and I’m realizing it was a big reason why I wasn’t flourishing in my old position. So get to the root of the problem! One or two sessions with a therapist could also help as well, it tremendously to learn to acknowledge what was in my control and what isn’t.

      1. Janne*

        Yes, really, they should find the cause.

        I found out that I was burying myself in lots of work to escape my thoughts and my situation, so when I stopped working to recover from the burn-out I felt even worse. Now more than 2 years later I can tentatively say that I am getting better…

    2. AKchic*

      I was burned out from my last job. I’d spent 8 years in that industry, but had spent time in adjacent fields, and my entire life inured in that “life” (substance use/addiction) from the other side.
      I got two weeks “off” with no work and then hopped right in to a new job in a completely new field. Work was so slow at my new job that I didn’t even have a computer for the first 3 months and only filed for an hour on Fridays. I spent my time crocheting and watching movies on my cell phone.
      It took me a while to understand that I could move at a slower pace, that while deadlines were necessary, it wasn’t as crisis mode to get things in ASAP. I wasn’t on the verge of tears daily, and most days I was downright giddy at not having to go back to my old job.

      However… four years on? Well, Things have righted themselves. I’m back to being irritated at being the one getting up early and working the most. I’m tired of being the one with The Stable Job and The Stable Income (because we’re both Millennials and he’s career retail with a college education that didn’t go anywhere except debt). I’ve got one newly adult child at home that was supposed to go to college, but *something* happened (and nobody would give anyone any answers) and they sent home 20+ students because their student loans funding didn’t get processed so now he’s sitting around figuring out what to do (his goal of Japan is in a holding pattern thanks to both covid and college). And I have 30+ more years to look forward to of 40 hour weeks of monotony.

    3. DrSalty*

      I burned out after qualifying exams in grad school and it took me probably 4 months to get it back together and get motivated again. I worked ineffectually through this period. After defending, it probably took me another 4 months to recover. My husband (who had also just defended) and I called it “learning to have fun again.” It probably didn’t help that I never really took time off and didn’t realize at the time that what I was experiencing was burn out.

      1. Darlingpants*

        While I was writing my thesis I told my husband “don’t worry, I’m not stressed. My soul froze and I don’t feel emotions now.” It took about 3 months after defending for me to feel at all interested in work. I was walking down the lab hallway and was like “what is this feeling in my stomach? Is this… ambition? I don’t remember what that feels like.”

        Grad school can be so rough!

    4. nona*

      I think it really depends on the person, and for how long you’ve been stressed/burned out. And how much down time you are actually giving yourself over the holidays.

      I would make sure to schedule as little as possible, and sign yourself up for as few obligations as you can.

    5. Wisteria*

      I am probably an outlier, but when I dropped out of the work force, it was 5 YEARS before I could stand the thought of going back. Now that I am back full-time, I am remembering all the reasons why I didn’t want to go back. I’m pretty sure I’m permanently burned out.

      1. Filosofickle*

        It took me 2. And in the 18 years since I’ve only gone back a couple of times, on a temporary contract basis, when I was desperate.

        It feels like my body and brain are just incompatible with “regular” f/t jobs. I’m incredibly fortunate that I can make a decent living (most of the time) consulting from home part time. When I try to work onsite or go full time it’s okay for a while, but I burn hot then get overwhelmed and crash. Lots of downtime is the only way I stay healthy and happy.

      2. Mel_05*

        You might be in the wrong field. I love my job, but there are any number of jobs that would absolutely destroy me. I’ve worked a couple of them, didn’t last more than a few months. Getting into my field completely flipped how I felt about work.

    6. Ann O'Nemity*

      However long you think it will take, double it. Seriously though, it can take weeks, months, or even years.

      Burnout recovery depends on so many things – the intensity of the burnout, why you were burned out, what you do to recover, your own personality, etc.

      1. Uranus Wars*

        I think there are so many questions around burnout. I felt it, and thought I fixed it but it turns out the reason I was feeling so burnt out at work…had nothing to do with work. It was all the things I was piling up in my off hours.

        So when I left one job, the burnout followed and was immediate. When I took time off from the extra curriculars and just came home and enjoyed most nights instead of volunteering to do all the things, I righted myself.

    7. Happy Lurker*

      Great question that I have been wondering about for a long time. Thanks to all those who answered. Commisseration for many in similar circumstances to my own.
      I have spent my adult life waiting for things to slow down, only to discover the hamster wheel is either spinning faster or gotten bigger.

      1. InsufficientlySubordinate*

        I spent 1 year after the yelling place, sleeping only 4 hours a night and reading every moment I wasn’t at work. My spouse was very patient. There was more to it than that (I could spend 20 minutes talking about why/what, but that’s the gist.)

    8. Darlingpants*

      It took me about a year to recover from grad school: 5 months of a post doc where I could basically do whatever I wanted, 5 months of unemployment and then 2-3 months at my new (pretty easy) job. Every month I’d think “wow, I feel so much better, I must still have been so burnt out last month and I didn’t even notice!” And then the next month I’d feel even better. You really get used to feeling overwhelmed.

    9. No Longer Gig-less Data Analyst*

      I burned out at my last two jobs due to traumatic company acquisitions – so about a year of constant stress stress and anxiety. I quit the 2nd job in February and due to the pandemic was unemployed/underemployed for 8 months. It was just about perfect for me – I had never really processed the grief associated with the first job and jumped into another position at a toxic small company that came to an end six months in when they fired everyone in my chain of command with no notice. It was enough time to think about what had happened, mourn it properly and figure out what was really important to me going forward.

      It was really weird for me to discover this past August that even though the world is completely FUBAR, I was mentally so much happier and healthier than I was in August 2019 when the first job ended. I started a new job in October and I now feel like I’m going to be able to give my new employer the best of me.

    10. DistantAudacity*

      Caveat: live in a country with national health care, worker’s rights, etc, Northern Europe.

      When I was out with a burnout a few years ago, I was out for three months. I then gradually worked my way back up to a full-time position again. This was always a great support from my employer. This meant that I was on full time and then partial sick leave during this period.

      I was also supported by therapy (CBT) on the company’s dime (formally 10 sessions, but “whatever you need” – 10 turned out to be about right). That was tremendously helpful to me to identify the triggers and to help me recognise when I was approaching needing a mental day off to avoid hitting another burn out at a later stage. I now know to pre-emptively take a mental day to gather myself if necessary.

      For me, HR was very helpful. They helped me change doctors when my doctor didn’t really understand what was going on (to get the right type of sick leave), and they also helped set up the therapy sessions et cetera without me having to deal with anything and make any particular decisions.

      The HR people were also keen for me to not come back to soon. They had plenty of experience with this sort of thing happening in this high-pressure type of business (high-end consulting), and that it takes time.
      In simple terms it’s a much better economic proposition for the company to take care of their people when something like this happens, rather than letting highly experienced and competent people go, and then doing costly hiring and training of new people. (This of course is in addition to the fact that it’s the right thing to do.)

    11. fhqwhgads*

      For me, a good solid 2 week away did wonders for me…while I was away. It took two days back to end up right back in burnoutland. But that’s how I knew it was time for me to move elsewhere. Still the break was good while it lasted.

      1. Mill Miker*

        That’s a good thing to note. The period of time before you feel like yourself again, and the period of time before you can go back to work without immediately burning out could be wildly different.

        I took 6 or 7 months off (so grateful I could swing that) and was starting to feel normal when finances meant I needed to pick up some work again, and I was straight back to feeling terrible. Four months after that I switched into an actual good job, but it took me another several months before I realized it. I spent the first few months having panic attacks about how terrible the job was before I realized I was actually freaking out about how bad the jobs that burnt me out were, and some time after that to get my legs under me. It’s been over almost 2 years since then, and I still have the occasional breakdown over things that even slightly remind me of the bad job.

        It probably would have been better if any of the therapists I managed to find in that time were a good fit.

    12. Partly Cloudy*

      Echoing others, it’s so personal – it depends on the situation, your personality, how long the burnout has been going on, etc.

      For me, years ago, I left a job that I had loved for a long time but it had gotten to the point where I was stressed almost 100% of the time. Waking up in the middle of the night stressed, crying on my way back to work from lunch stressed, totally preoccupied with work stress unless my brain was actively engaged in something else that was challenging enough to use up all the bandwidth (for example, I couldn’t just watch TV to relax).

      I had another job in the works but ended up with 6 weeks off in between. Those weeks were tremendously helpful in decompressing so I felt pretty ready to get back to the swing of things when I started my new job. The new job ended up being a dumpster fire from a management standpoint but two things happened that kept me there longer than I probably should have stayed.

      First, about a year and a half later, I was injured and dealt with surgery and recovery and all my energy was focused on that vs. looking for a new job. Then, over time, I became very emotionally invested in my co-workers, especially the more I became aware of the abuse from management that they were dealing with. I had a significant sense of survivor’s guilt when I left that job (which was a layoff, but came as a relief in a lot of ways).

      Heading into my next job, coincidentally also about 6 weeks later, I was emotionally burned out but ready to re-engage my brain since the dumpster fire job had been easy as far as the actual work was concerned, This was another reason I’d stayed, in hindsight – it was like a continued break compared to the previous job. When COVID began, I could see the burnout on the horizon and left for the job I have now, voluntarily and seamlessly (one ended on Friday, the other began on Monday).

      I honestly thought it would take longer to “recover” from my last job because I worked with two of the most wonderful, supportive mentors I could have imagined and it was really hard to leave them (again, survivor’s guilt). But it just… didn’t. I think partly because my new/current job is so wonderful.

    13. Public Sector Manager*

      I’ve been at my current agency for 15 years, but my prior public sector job before that caused me a lot of burnout. I ended up quiting that prior job and opened my own law office again. About 6 months into working for myself for a second time, I decided I missed the regular paycheck and the benefits. So I ended up closing my office after about 9 months, and that was the time I needed to get my head on straight.

    14. allathian*

      In my case, it took 6 weeks off work. I’m monthly, but not exempt (not in the US), so I still need to keep track of my working hours. I had a big project that finished in spring last year. I had accumulated so much OT during that project that I was able to take 2 weeks off just on OT, and then I had my annual 4-week vacation right after that.

      When I got back to work, it took quite a while to get back to my usual productivity levels, I’d say about 6 months or so. It also took 5 sessions with an occupational psychologist through our EAP-equivalent to get me in a better place. If I’m honest, though, I doubt I’ll ever recover completely from that burnout. My tolerance for the sort of stress that comes from simply having too much work to do has tanked, but at least now I can recognize the symptoms early and do something about it before things get really bad.

      But it helps to know that my employer cares about keeping its employees productive and healthy. It’s not just words, either, because I’ve seen how it works. My near-burnout also ensured that our work was reprioritized and reorganized in a way that ensures that the risk of overload is smaller now than it was. We’re basically being more selective in the sort of jobs our team takes on.

    15. Exhausted Educator Was Exhausted*

      For me it took about one year to recover after about three or four years of feeling burnt out and looking off and on for jobs (when I could muster the energy). That year was an “active recovery” while in a new job. The adjustment to a normal workload, autonomy vs. bureaucratic roadblocks, and hearing appreciation vs
      “If you feel overworked, you just have to figure out how to work smarter” was a revelation. Not crying on the way to work is awesome.

    16. Sloan Kittering*

      Honestly, I hate to say it, but a month and a half wasn’t enough for me. It took almost six months of very low stress. That’s terrible because it’s almost impossible to achieve – I hope it’s not universal. (I think two weeks can certainly HELP, just not like, completely clear it).

  4. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

    I cannot explain how helpful this is! This is some powerful reframing and is incredibly validating as well. Burn out is real, but always viewing your situation as “burned out” can prevent you from seeing it in all of the useful ways that this commenter did. Love it and love the self-compassion as well.

  5. Melewen*

    I can attest that recovering from burnout takes longer than you expect. I had a little over a month between my semi-toxic job and my new job. I thought it would be enough, but my experience at old-job still negatively affected me at new job — to the extent that I was let go after only one year. To be fair, it wasn’t the best fit for me, but I could have done more if I was 100% going in. It’s been over a year now, and though I’m still job searching, I’m a lot better mentally. (To be fair, a lot of that comes from living in Germany where I’m able to get good unemployment support which included intensive language training and professional job coaching.) Recently I’ve been able to get more interviews for positions in my field. When they’ve asked about what I’ve been doing since my last job, I talk mostly about my German classes, but I have mentioned taking time to recover.

  6. Kathlynn (canada)*

    yeah. Honestly I was burned out at my last job (probably started burned out too), and it took at least 3 months, if not the entire 6 months before I started looking for work (I was on Canada’s CERB for physical health issues. and yes I put money aside for taxes) for my mind to recover from the burn out. On the flip side, I’m now in the best state I’ve been since before high school. And the lack of work expenses plus holiday pay out from my old job means I was able to pay off some of my debt. But there was no way I could have done things like learn a new computer skill or online courses. No mental space for it.

    1. DistantAudacity*

      Yes – That’s mental space thing is important, or rather the lack of it.

      When I was out it was so helpful for me when a lot of things were just handled (my employer was super helpful) and I did not have to take care of anything.

      I was just away for work from work and could take a walk during the middle of the day et cetera without feeling guilty about it. In fact I was encouraged to do so!

  7. MissMeghan*

    I can’t express how much I needed to hear this, and to hear how many others have done the same. I feel like it’s taken me a long time to give myself permission to be burned out and to take time to recover. I just had this conversation with my husband and he was so supportive of me leaving without having another job lined up and said he could see how much I needed it. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I’ve somehow failed. It is such a relief to hear that others have gone through this and come out the other end.

    1. BurnedOutInMichigan*

      I’ve been trying to explain to my husband for years how completely and totally burned out I am and that the problem wasn’t going to be solved by finding a new job. I need some extended time away to recover, to thoughtfully consider what I want to do next, and to possibly learn some new skills relevant to the direction I’d like to move in. After having an unexpected employment change during COVID and some time off between jobs, he finally understands my perspective. I’m glad for you that your husband is so supportive! Are you in the US?

      1. MissMeghan*

        I am! I was dreading the conversation because I didn’t think he’d get it, but as I’ve gotten more and more burned out I’ve stopped hobbies I used to love, I stress eat, and I just in general lack motivation for things outside of work. I think he’s looking forward to me being a full person again instead of a work zombie.

        I’m glad your husband understands now too! It is definitely a difficult conversation to have and a hard thing to understand from the outside looking in.

    2. SansaStark*

      I was in a similar situation with my then-fiancee (now husband) about 7 years ago. I don’t think I ever did find a way to really express it to him, but he sort of trusted me to do what I needed to do. Five years later, I was with a good company in a new industry and got a really great promotion that finally bumped my salary up to what it had been and I am so.much.happier. I thanked my husband for trusting me to know myself because I knew that I’d eventually be back better than ever. That promotion was one of the highlights of my career because it validated the trust I had in myself.

    3. Kathlynn (Canada)*

      Honestly, people’s ability to put their health first over financial concerns is one of the reasons I’m a big supporter of UBI.
      and a low income person, it extremely hard to save money, and not regularly have an emergency that empties it out.
      Knowing that I don’t have to worry about keeping a roof over my head was such a relief with CERB.

    4. Persephone Mongoose*

      I could have written this comment myself. I was having a conversation with my OH and complaining about my job, and how my stress levels were through the roof, and saying “Ugh, I don’t think I can keep doing this”. It was such a weight off my shoulders to have him respond “Then don’t. Quit”. I didn’t have another job lined up when I left and ended up taking 3 months off to just unwind and recover before starting something new. I don’t regret it in the least.

  8. Firecat*

    These are all great. One thing I will add is that it is important to mention that you sought solutions. I didnt burn out, but I was looking for a new role due to being pulled in too many directions.

    The above blurbs are amazing for explaining the issue – but it causes some managers to be concerned that you will get overloaded and not speak up. A blurb I’ve used for that

    After working with my manager to determine what we could shift, it became clear that the role was going to keep those diverse tasks and I really wanted a role where I could focus on analytics.

    1. SharonC*

      I agree. I’m feeling burnt out right now and it’s all I can do not to quit on the spot but not from overwork so much as micromanagement and intense pressure from my manager(s!). I can use this kind of reframing, too.

  9. in_every_sense*

    Does anyone have advice on talking about the time spent recovering from burnout, especially when it stretches into months or years? I was laid off from my last job as part of broad cutbacks – fortunate timing because I was only a couple of months from quitting. That was a year and a half ago. I’ve spent the intervening time recovering from the cumulative burnout of several bad jobs and leaving an abusive marriage. (I’m very lucky to have had the savings and family support to do so). I’m still not in a place to return to work, but when I get there, how do I talk about this time which I’ve mostly spent keeping myself alive and going to counseling? I likely won’t have any stories about volunteering or taking classes, because right now I’m spending whatever spare bandwidth I have helping my family and friends get through the multiple disasters we’re all living through. How do I answer “What were you doing during that time?” without oversharing personal details?

    1. Forrest Gumption*

      Alison often suggests using a generic “I was dealing with a serious medical issue, but now it’s been resolved.” It’s not necessarily their business that you were burnt out and how you were treating it.

    2. burnout*

      I’ve been in that position—no impressive list of accomplishments to share and much of my time spent in therapy as well. I’ve found that as long as I have a very confident demeanor, people get it if I’m honest and say, “My last job was a high-stress, high-pressure job, I was working long hours, and I eventually decided I needed a break from that lifestyle. I’m lucky I’ve been able to afford this time off, and it was a great decision. My priorities have changed, so once I decide to go back to work, it won’t be in that kind of environment. Balance is important to me now.” Honestly, people sometimes seem jealous or at least admiring when I word it this way, and even congratulate me (“That’s really great that you’re able to do that”). Again, confidence is key. If you act like it’s an embarrassment, people will judge it as one.

    3. OP*

      Those multiple disasters (especially COVID) are really going to help you here.

      People will just assume it’s the COVID job market. Unemployment numbers are insane right now. I’m in Germany (where the unemployment onslaught has been less extreme), and in 16 first-round interviews and 8 second-round interviews, I was only asked this once – for the job I ended up getting.

      Here’s what I said:
      “Looking for a job. In part because COVID threw quite the wrench into things, but also because after my last experience, I want to be careful about finding a position that’s going to be a better long-term fit.”

      However, that might work better after 5 months than after a year and a half. In your position I might go more in this direction:
      “Unfortunately, a family crisis* cropped up at the worst possible time. With the job market what it’s been the past year, I decided to take some time to deal with that. Now that it’s sorted, I’m excited to turn my attention back to pleasanter things, like [insert field here].”

      *Leaving an abusive marriage is like the ultimate family crisis! But the interviewer won’t know that. For all they know, it could be a death, custody battle, adopting a nice or nephew after a COVID death. Only a massive jerk is going to pry.

  10. Former Teacher*

    I love this. I was just meeting my new manager and explaining why I left a career and ended up in this less prestigious position. I was a teacher and after 9 years and so many adult politics making a mess of everything, I left. I ended up in a call center environment and yall, I cried sad tears when I got the job because I felt like I had taken such an immense step back in life. Not an auspicious start but it is something to work through, and now I’ve built a platform to move after having to turn my career over.

    It is emotional and hard and it can be embarrassing to explain, but it was also necessary. Nobody does their best burnt out. It wasn’t fair to me or my kids to stay when I was in that position internally. Change is okay and it’s hard to not feel defined by your work but you have to make that choice.

  11. CurrentlyBill*

    This post does demonstrate that the haberdashery industry is in pretty good shape these days.

    1. Idril Celebrindal*

      Oh! Many hats! I get it!

      I have been staring at your comment for several minutes trying to figure out where the OP indicated their industry…. Maybe I need a nap.

  12. what is my purrrrpose*

    Getting to the place where I feel good about taking a less prestigious but less stressful job didn’t happen on its own. It took therapy to untangle my sense of identity and worth from my career.

    This is me right now and let me tell you, it’s for real. I work in a competitive “passion” field, got let go from a not-great job during COVID and am now in the same field but doing a business admin oriented job which is a step back and to the side of what I’ve been doing so far (think going from Director of Teapot Programming to Teapot HR/Facilities Coordinator). It was an ego blow, but what’s worse is…I don’t even know where I want to go from here. I wouldn’t even want my old job back and might leave the field altogether — but for what?

    Curious if anyone else has been through this or is going through this currently.

    1. OP*

      This is kind of where I am too. I went from doing communications for a cool nonprofit to writing marketing blog posts for a software company. The pay is similar, but it feels like a step back. I don’t see myself as a marketer and I’m struggling with that a little. It also feels icky to pretend I know about marketing (I kind of do, but I also just Google stuff and regurgitate it).

      That said, I like my new team. I really respect my boss, and can learn a lot from him. I can stand behind the product we sell. And the workload is reasonable. So I try to focus on those good things.

      Most importantly I’m learning. About marketing though the “research” I do for those blog posts, and about SEO writing from my boss.

      I have a two-year contract, so I’m giving myself permission to just live in the moment for this year. After that, maybe I’ll think about what’s next. But in the meantime, at least I know I’m learning valuable skills. I can worry about how to leverage them later.

      If you haven’t yet, check out the book Can’t Even by Anne Helen Peterson (I found it via the excerpt Alison published). Her chapter on “passion” careers resonated SO hard with me.

    2. Recovering burn-out*

      I’m going through something very similar…you’re not alone.

      I was on the fast track for advancement at my former mega-corporation. I enjoyed the work I was doing but it was TOO MUCH work. I was working 70-80 hours a week for months to barely get by. The work was extremely high pressure and my company had very little tolerance for anything but perfection (or that is what I perceived). I got to the point where I was crying every day and getting SO, SO angry at the littlest things.

      I took a women in leadership course for my MBA that had Brene Brown’s book Dare to Lead as required reading. It changed my perspective. It took months but I finally got to the point where I knew something had to give. I took a step back into a job at a non-profit. The pay is better, the benefits are better, the mission is better and the work-life balance is WAY better but I’m six months in and still struggle every day with feeling underutilized and like I’m not living up to my “potential.” I started therapy a few months ago and it is helping, but I think it will be a long road for me. I’m also considering a career change and trying to focus on using my newly found time to explore different options.

  13. Span*

    I burned out at a job last year and have only recently got a new job. In my interview I said something like I realised the job wasn’t the right fit and that I was lucky enough to be able to take some time out to figure out which direction I’d like to move in. Sounds very planned and well thought out. But in actual fact, I quit because there really was no other choice for me, and I spent my time off not thinking about work AT ALL and doing nice things for myself. Only started to consider what I wanted to do when I felt ready to.

    Also, I think Covid will provide a huge blanket ‘reason’ for long periods of unemployment. I think everybody will understand a long gap during this time, especially if it overlaps with your already happening ‘planned gap’. My unemployment period was half and half Covid/not-Covid. Best of luck!

    1. OP*

      Yes, I left my job in mid-February. At first, I thought COVID was the worst possible timing, but actually it was the best possible timing. An excuse for time off. An excuse to not do something “productive” during those months.

      Plus, the job I quit was in public health communications. Good that I got out when I did. Would not have been a relaxing time to still be in that job!

  14. Blarg*

    Second on getting over burnout took longer than I expected. I had like six weeks of vacation pay out at a job I loved and also almost killed me, and some other savings, and thought I’d take a month. Or two. I thought for sure I’d get bored.

    I never got bored. But I did eventually get less exhausted. I didn’t do squat for nearly three months and could have gone on possibly forever had I not run out of money.

  15. burnout*

    This could have been written by me. I relate to so much of this, including the follow-up comments.

    Several commenters have asked about time to recover. I was glad to see someone said five years because it’s been four for me. I had planned to take six months off after leaving and that stretched to eight or nine months before I started working again, but only in “fun” jobs I was extremely overqualified for because I wasn’t ready to go back to work but needed some income to get by. Four years after leaving (almost to the day), I am only now at the point where I’ve started interviewing for “real” jobs again.

    Therapy made a big difference for me. My therapists had to constantly reassure me that these things take time, that I wasn’t pathetic for taking so long. I didn’t want to rush back to work before I felt comfortable, so with my therapists’ help I eventually gave in and accepted that someday I would feel ready but it might be awhile. And that day came. My fear was that I’d be “stuck” forever, but it turned out okay.

  16. All the Stress and Guilt*

    I was in a very high stress job for nearly five years, but spent the last 15 months of that job searching (with a few months not looking due to colds/flu) and between the job stress, the job hunting stress, and the general stress of keeping a household (three grown adults, but after awhile, you kind of want to burn the house down if you have to dust ever again) was just so much that I ended up with cluster headaches, which is now my body’s go to strategy for handling stress (yay?). When I finally got my new job, it took probably a good six months before I stopped expecting to leave work in tears, to not have to look for a job every night and every weekend, and to not want to just resort to using paper plate because the idea of loading the dishwasher again was a strain. I had no down time between the two- my last day of work at high stress job was Friday, my first day of the new job was Monday. If circumstances had been different, I’d have liked to have had at least a week off to just unwind, at least a little bit.

    Now, I’m job hunting again, nearly two and a half years into my new job, and it’s a whole new world of stress and weirdness. I’m trying to give myself lots of leeway this time because even the idea of going whole hog on the job hunting- basically making it a part time job- was just too stressful the last time. (Not to mention the guilt of job hunting during Covid- even looking for a new job when I already have one when so many people do not, plus the potential for spread, etc. I have to just stop thinking about it.)

  17. Hydrangea McDuff*

    I left a two decade career two years ago for an adjacent position with much better work life balance. It took me a long time to leave my FormerRole guilt behind—I was accustomed to 10 -12 hour days plus weekends and never ever ever being caught up. Unfortunately a string of crises culminating in COVID have me wondering whether my organization will ever recover. But my work is still fulfilling and I choose to put my work away every evening. I have to or I would be right back where I was two years ago.

    1. gsa*

      I made a similar move in August of 2019, except it was 25yrs i for me.

      “…adjacent position with much better work life balance.”

      “I was accustomed to 10 -12 hour days plus weekends and never ever ever being caught up.”

      “But my work is still fulfilling and I choose to put my work away every evening. I have to or I would be right back where I was two years ago.”

      I ended up going to work for a former supplier. From working with them I could tell it was very good organization. At least for me, less hours and stress equals less money I’m at the other day that was a very good thing for me and my family!

  18. DarnTheMan*

    If I didn’t know any better, I would say the OP is me :D

    My old!job was incredibly toxic and I started job hunting about 9 months into the role, but obviously didn’t want to bring up any of the drama or my burnout in interviews so did the exact same as OP – focused on the company culture and what about the role was making me look for a new job so soon; I even found that finding one or two positive things to say (in my case, that I was given so much responsibility and able to work on so many different things) and then shifting into my realizations about the role (that I had learned where my skills lay and the work I was most interested in doing and growing in) into why I was looking for a new job. It also helped that old!job was a very tiny organization so many companies I interviewed with were very understanding when I said that I was looking to work for a larger organization, where I could have more teammates to learn from and collaborate with.

  19. Katrine Fonsmark*

    I took 2 years off before starting a new job in January of this year – I had left a job of 16+ years in 2015, then had 2 more jobs in a different field that weren’t great fits, and quit the second one after 6 months with nothing else lined up because my boss was a sociopath and I was having panic attacks. (She got fired 5 minutes after my exit interview, which I didn’t find out until months later. I know that sounds like fiction, but it actually happened! Karma’s a bitch.)
    I intended to take about a year off, but then the job search took much, MUCH longer than expected. Thankfully I landed my great new job right before Covid, and spent 7 weeks in the office before we all got sent home.

    My standard line when asked about my 2-year work hiatus was “I was dealing with a family health issue that’s now resolved.” – I think I got the language from this site actually. No one ever questioned it – people have to take time away for various reasons all the time. They didn’t need to know that the family member was me, and the health issue was mental burnout from the turmoil at my last couple of jobs!

  20. Momma Bear*

    OP3, consider asking for a sabbatical. Former coworker took something like 6-9 months off after her husband died. I suspect the company really valued her and wanted her back, and it was a win-win in that she got some time to regroup and they retained her institutional knowledge. It was a small company so maybe there was more flex than a bigger one, but I was always impressed that they did that for her.

    I burned out at a previous job with a bad boss. After having a therapist tell me “you need to quit that job”, my spouse and I crunch numbers and the official reason is I took time to care for our child. In reality I took some time to do nothing job-related and then started back up with PT and freelance projects. By the time the kid was school aged, I was ready to gear up and had the PT work as current experience. You could take a look around in a few months and decide if you want to chill, volunteer, work PT at a very low stress job. I didn’t hold a 9-5 job for about 5-6 years.

    You should also find out how your mother invested so well and see if some of your new nest egg could work for you long-term.

    Good luck with everything.

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