transcript of “I’m So Burned Out at Work” (Ask a Manager podcast episode 19)

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “I’m So Burned Out At Work”.

Alison: Today we’re going to talk about burnout and what to do when your job has been exhausting and overwhelming you for a while and how to know if it’s even fixable. Our guest today is wondering about those things and hopefully we will be able to solve what’s going on. Hi and welcome to the show.

Guest: Hi! Thank you, Alison.

Alison: Why don’t you start by reading the letter that you sent me and then we’ll talk about it?

Guest: Great, sure thing. How do you distinguish between burnout, which can be addressed, versus a job that’s unfixable, which means you need to leave? I know I’m burnt out, but I’m not sure if I should try to make things better in my current role or start aggressively job hunting. My workload has exploded over the past six months and I don’t see an end in sight. I don’t have anyone who can help with my tasks at the moment. My coworker is on medical leave and hiring a temp is not an option. My manager is sympathetic, and has taken on some of my functions, but I’m still drowning. My work quality is suffering because my focus is split in so many different directions. I like my manager and the broader team, and I work on some interesting projects. I’m also on a promotion track, which would be great if I had any time to spend on my career development. Because I’m a high performer, my leadership team relies on me a lot. It’s stressful though, and I know I’m not putting forth my best effort right now. This is starting to affect me outside of work – insomnia, anxiety, et cetera. Is it time to give up on this job? Thanks.

Alison: What a hard situation. Let me ask you some questions. How long have you been in this job?

Guest: I’ve been in this job for about three years now.

Alison: And how long have you been feeling like this? Is it all linked to your coworker being away or did it start before that?

Guest: I would say it actually did start before that. I mean the workload has increased before my coworker left.

Alison: And then I imagine her leaving just accelerated that.

Guest: Yes. This has exacerbated it.

Alison: Is there a likely timeframe for her coming back?

Guest: I believe it should be about three more months. Unfortunately, it’s a medical issue so it’s kind of hard to determine, but the latest I’ve heard is about three more months.

Alison: Okay, that’s a long time. It’s not like in two weeks this is going to get much better.

Guest: No.

Alison: Have you talked your boss about how you’re feeling?

Guest: Yes, I have.

Alison: And how explicit have you been? Have you just kind of mentioned that things are a bit overwhelming, or have you really told her that you feel like your work is suffering and the stress is starting to affect you outside of work?

Guest: Oh, I’ve been pretty honest with her. I’ve told her that the stress is affecting me. I’ve demonstrated that my work quality is not up to its usual par, so I feel like I’ve been pretty explicit with her.

Alison: And what’s her response when you talk about it?

Guest: I would say she’s sympathetic, but she just tells me to keep plugging on and do what I can. I mean, she says that realistically we know that some things are going to drop, but I don’t know if that’s a great answer to what I’m feeling.

Alison: Yeah. And when she says realistically some things will have to drop, is that happening? Are things dropping or are you just kind of keeping everything in the air?

Guest: No, things are actually dropping. The important functions that I need to do are still getting done, but there’s a lot of great-to-have work that I could be doing that I can’t do.

Alison: So you’ve had the conversation with her, which is good. Have you gone back to her again since then to say something like, “Hey, I know we talked about this. It’s not getting better. I’m not in a place where this is sustainable.”

Guest: I have not expressed it explicitly, but we talk to each other every day. So I think she can kind of tell, but I haven’t been as explicit as maybe I could be.

Alison: I think that might be the right next step, and let me tell you about why I think that. I think as a manager, sometimes you kind of assume that people are okay. And I’m not saying this is the right way for managers to be, it’s not – managers should be really proactive and looking around at what’s happening on their staff – but I think it’s really, really common for managers to assume, “Well, if there’s a big problem, someone will flag it for me.” And so, yeah, you went to her and you talked about the overwhelming amount of work that you have, and it sounds like she said, “Do your best and if things have to drop, they can drop.” And she might be thinking that’s good enough, that that gave you the empowerment that you needed to speak up if things needed to drop and to flag it for her if you were overwhelmed. She might not realize that that conversation didn’t do the job that she thought that it would, so I do think you might need to go back and say, “Hey, I think we need a more deliberate plan to handle this, because just trying to stay afloat isn’t doing it. I’m still really stressed, I’m still really overwhelmed. It’s causing me problems outside of work. What else can we do?”

Guest: Okay. Yeah, you know what, I think that’s good feedback.

Alison: I got the sense from your letter that you might be worried that maybe there really isn’t anything else that can be done. Even if your boss does grasp the full extent of the problem, you might feel that she’s already made the adjustments that can be made and there aren’t really other options. Am I picking up on that correctly?

Guest: You know what, you are.

Alison: I think it’s so common for people to feel that way and sometimes it’s true. Sometimes it’s possible that there really isn’t anything else that can be done, but I would not assume that until you have thoroughly talked it out. Because I can tell you, so many times as a manager, I would discover that someone wasn’t speaking up about something because they assumed that there was no solution to it – and so why would they come to me if there was nothing that could be done about it, then they would just be annoying me and if there’s no solution, there’s no solution. So, they would just sort of live with something really challenging. But when it finally came to my attention, either because they cracked and told me the full extent of the problem or I uncovered it some other way, often I was able to find solutions that they hadn’t realized were possible. Sometimes it’s pushing projects back, sometimes it’s cutting them out entirely, sometimes it’s borrowing someone from another team – but more often than not, it really can just be about deciding we’re just not able to do X and Y right now. Even though X and Y seem like they’re really crucial things for our team and it seemed like there would be no flexibility there, given the context that we’re in, we’re going to eliminate them or we’re going to push them back to next year or we’re just going to do a really abbreviated version of them.

And I think it’s really common for people to think, “Oh, well my manager would never say that, because this stuff is so important and it has to be done.” But upon hearing how this stuff is impacting you, a good manager would find a way. And you know, nothing is ever 100 percent unchangeable. If you were hit by a bus tomorrow and you were in the hospital for the next two months, God forbid, they would find a way to carry on. We can make that less alarming – if you quit on the spot tomorrow and you never came back, or even if you just gave two weeks’ notice, they would find a way to move forward. And it would probably mean some stuff wouldn’t get done, and they would find a way to be okay with that.

And I think if your boss is a good boss and you have this more explicit version of the conversation with her, hopefully she’ll recognize it’s better to cut some things back now and keep you from running out screaming one day, than to pile as much on you as humanly possible and risk losing you entirely to burnout at some point.

Guest: I think that’s great input. I have absolutely felt like there is nothing more to be done so I’ve kind of just resigned myself to what’s going on. So I think being more explicit could definitely help. And then I have actually thought about, what if I did find a job or win the lottery and walked out of work? I do a lot of critical functions, but they would have to find a way to move on if I weren’t there.

Alison: And they would! I hear from so many people who are so fraught with anxiety about quitting their job when they finally decided that the time has come, because they feel like the work that they do is so crucial and it’s going to be so difficult to find someone else who can fill in, and what’s going to happen during that period where the position is vacant – and I have never heard from an employer who was like, “Oh my gosh, our organization fell apart when this key person quit.” Because the reality is yes, it can be inconvenient, and it can be challenging, but organizations find a way to make do and, and I am sure that your boss would rather find a partial way to make do in order to retain you rather than lose you to burn out and lose you entirely.

Guest: Yeah, that’s a good perspective to have because yeah, I’m important, but the organization would go on without me.

Alison: Yes. It’s possible that not every boss will be good at this kind of thing and what should you do if it turns out that you have this conversation and you’re just not really getting solutions? I think the big thing to know is you won’t know if that’s going to happen until you lay it out for her and give her a chance. And once you do that, you’re going to have much more information about what’s possible in this situation and you’ll be better positioned to make good decisions for yourself. Worst case scenario: let’s say you lay it all out for her, you don’t pull any punches and her answer is still, “Oh, just find a way to do it all.” Well, now you have really good information about what you can expect there and then you can make decisions for yourself accordingly, which might bring us back to the question you asked in your letter about whether it’s time for you to leave. But I wouldn’t start worrying about that until you have that conversation and see what comes of it. Does that make sense?

Guest: It does. It seems like I’m acting on imperfect information right now until I talk to her.

Alison: Yes. And I think it’s so normal to do that when you’re as stressed out as I’m sure that you are. I know that when I am super stressed, things can feel sort of desperate and you can go to the most extreme solutions in your head. And it might be that it turns out that that is ultimately the right solution, but I think it would be premature to do that before you have the conversation.

Guest: Yeah, I think I’m just getting trapped in that all or nothing thinking. So, this helps get me out of that.

Alison: Good. I also want to say I think sometimes people worry, “What if I talk to my boss about this and she does lower my workload, but then it reflects badly on me and she thinks of me as someone who can’t really handle all the pressure of the job?” Do you have any of that going on?

Guest: Yes, absolutely. I mean, I mentioned I’m a high performer and I really do want to do the best job that I can. I constantly put more pressure on myself than anyone else ever would.

Alison: If your manager is generally reasonable and has good judgment, that isn’t going to happen. Unless the reality is that an average person could handle this workload just fine, but it doesn’t sound like that’s the case. Based on what you’ve described and the fact that you are a high performer and the fact that on top of everything else that you’re already doing, you’re now covering for someone else who’s out, I doubt that the problem is you. And so, if you have a good manager, she’s going to know that. If she has awful judgment, that does change things and it does introduce some risk that she might think less of you – does she generally act reasonably and have good judgment?

Guest: Yeah, she does. She’s not one who would fly off the handle or react really emotionally within the moment. She’s definitely more of a take feedback and think about it kind of person before she reacts.

Alison: Good. Okay. And I mean, frankly, even if she weren’t always the most reasonable, it would still be worth having the conversation because the reality is that no one can keep up with a crushing workload long term, so something would have to change anyway. And also, sometimes managers are unreasonable in some ways but reasonable in others. So even if you had said, “Ooh, I am concerned about her judgment,” I would say still have the conversation. But you do think yours is reasonable, so I think that can bring you some peace of mind as you contemplate doing this. And I think too, remember that your performance is strong, and you have been there a while, and that puts you in a pretty good position. You’ve presumably built that reputation over a long period of time. You’re not brand new, you’re not an unknown quality, they have seen that you can keep up with a high workload. That reputation isn’t the sort of thing that gets destroyed just because it turns out that you’re not superhuman and you do have limits. Needing a break from a sustained period of time of high workload is really normal and people especially understand it when it stems from working as hard as it sounds like you’ve been working.

Guest: Yeah. I think it’s that whole superhuman thing, will they think less of me, but I don’t think they would. Thinking about it and the framework that you put it in, I don’t think they really would think less of me for taking away some functions that really aren’t that necessary.

Alison: Yeah, I don’t think they would either. And I can tell you, when I think back to times when I didn’t think very highly of the way someone handled a situation like this, it was actually the opposite. It was that someone didn’t speak up when they were getting increasingly overwhelmed and it started to affect their work and it started to affect their health and their general peace of mind. And I still didn’t think poorly of them for not speaking up, but I definitely had the thought of, “Oh my gosh, why didn’t you say something? Why didn’t you trust that you could speak up about this and we would find a way to handle it?” I don’t think you have to worry about it.

Guest: Okay, that definitely helps.

Alison: Good. In your letter you asked, how do you know when it’s temporary burnout that can be fixed versus something that is long term and can’t be fixed – and I think for you in your situation it is going to come down to this conversation with your boss and also what happens after that because if your boss does say she’ll make changes, we need to make sure it really happens – and relatively quickly, not months down the road. So, I think your next step here is to have the conversation, really lay it out, see what happens – and then if nothing changes then you know, okay, this is the way things are likely to be for the foreseeable future. And if you don’t want to stay under those conditions, which would be a very understandable decision, then you know that you need to start working on leaving. But if your boss was receptive and you do see changes, or if she’s credibly able to show you that they’re coming very soon, then it probably makes sense to just give it a little more time and see if you start feeling less burned out.

Guest: Yeah, I think that makes complete sense.

Alison: I will say even if things do get better, it’s possible that your feelings of burnout might not go away. Sometimes you can go through something so exhausting with a job and it lasts for so long that it can be hard to recover even when things do get better, but I think you’ll recognize that that’s happening if you see that the conditions have changed, some time has gone by and you’re not feeling any differently. What do you think? Does that sound like a workable plan?

Guest: I do. I definitely do think that sounds like a workable plan.

Alison: Good. Two more things come to mind as we’re talking. One is that I wonder how good you are about pushing back when you’re given more work – do you pretty much always just say yes, or do you ever say, “I won’t have time to do that because of X,” or “I could do that, but it would mean pushing back Y”?

Guest: Oh my goodness. You have hit on my biggest area of improvement that I’ve been told by several people is that I have an incredibly hard time saying no.

Alison: Aha. Yep. So, to some extent you may be partially the perpetrator of this situation on yourself (laughs).

Guest: (Laughs) I don’t disagree.

Alison: You know that it’s an issue. Have you been able to get better at it, or no?

Guest: Yeah, absolutely. And I think this situation has actually forced me to get better at it where realistically I have time constraints and I cannot do certain requests. It’s just out of the question.

Alison: So do you feel like you have it under control now, or is it still contributing to the problem?

Guest: I still think it contributes a bit, but I’ve gotten much better over the past few months at saying no to – not necessarily unimportant requests, but in the hierarchy of requests, these are lower on that priority list. I think I’ve gotten much better at that. I still think there’s improvement to go, but yeah, we all do, right?

Alison: Absolutely we do. That’s great that you recognize it and that you’re working on it and that you’ve gotten better. I would just say, really keep that in the forefront of your mind as something that could make this a lot harder on you than it necessarily needs to be. And at a time when you’re already grappling with potential burnout and overwork, it’s going to be so important to treat yourself well in that area.

Guest: Yeah, definitely.

Alison: Also, is there any chance that you can get a vacation pretty soon or have you had a vacation recently?

Guest: I have not had a vacation in several months, but I am taking a vacation near the end of the month, so that will be good.

Alison: Okay, good. Are you going away for at least a week, I hope?

Guest: Yes, at least a week.

Alison: Because sometimes, just having at least a week where you don’t have to think about work at all – if you can do it that way, don’t check your email, don’t think about work, really disconnect. Sometimes that can really combat burnout and sometimes it can really clear your head and just make you realize maybe you are ready to move on, but sometimes you’ll just see things more clearly when you get a break from them.

Guest: Yeah, agreed. I mean I haven’t had a break in so long and I’ve been working weekends. I haven’t had that real extended break, but thankfully I have gotten approval for a vacation at the end of the month.

Alison: Good. I mean, if you’ve been working weekends and you haven’t really had any real time off, it’s no surprise that you’re feeling the way that you’re feeling. I’m really relating to you right now because I was very much feeling like this earlier this year. I hadn’t had even a single full day off on the weekend for several months and I was losing my mind. I think maybe that’s important to remember too, that if you are feeling a sort of desperation about the situation and wondering if you just need to leave, remember that you’re probably not thinking clearly right now. I mean, maybe you are, but you can’t totally trust the conclusions that you’re coming to you before you have a chance to really disconnect and get some time back.

Guest: Yeah, I think that’s a great point. I am definitely stuck in that kind of vortex of must-work-must-work, and I can’t see anything else outside of it right now.

Alison: Yeah, so I’m so glad that you have a vacation scheduled. I bet that you will come out of that with more clarity on where you want to go. That doesn’t mean you’ll have all the answers, but I think you will feel clearer about what your options are.

Guest: Yeah, I certainly hope so.

Alison: I hope so too.

Guest: I think this was really helpful. I just want to thank you for having me on the podcast and letting me talk this out. I think I have a really actionable plan now.

Alison: Good. I’m so glad. Will you write to me and let me know how it goes, maybe after you’re back from vacation?

Guest: I absolutely will.

Alison: Wonderful. Thank you so much for coming on.

Guest: Thank you for having me.

Alison: Thanks for listening to the Ask a Manager podcast. If you’d like to come on the show to talk through your own question, email it to – or you can leave a recording of your question by calling 855-426-9675. You can get more Ask a Manager at, or in my book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. The Ask a Manager show is a partnership with How Stuff Works and is produced by Paul Dechant. If you liked what you heard, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Play. I’m Alison Green and I’ll be back next week with another one of your questions.

Transcript provided by MJ Brodie.

You can see past podcast transcripts here.