Burnout at work: how to like your job again

About 40 percent of US workers say they are stressed out—are you one of them? Here’s what you can do about it.

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Marta recently turned 40, and on her birthday, she quit her job. “It’s the best thing I have done in my life,” she says. She studied economics, has an MBA, and worked in management for an appliance chain store. For many years she enjoyed her work, and good pay went hand in hand with a decent atmosphere and career development. She faced challenges head on and always succeeded. A few years ago, as a result of restructuring, everything changed. “First my boss changed, then my duties changed. All the decisions were made by the central office, and I was given unrealistic goals without any input on my part,” she said. She stresses that while she got along with her boss, she was upset at his lack of confidence, lack of skills, and general competence to lead her division. “Typical careerist without skills,” she adds.

First she stopped sleeping, then she lost confidence. “I began doubting my abilities and making decisions were stressful and difficult, even though it was never a problem in the past.” She was afraid to answer the phone at work. “A simple phone call from an employee calling in sick caused my hands to tremble. I cried and thought I couldn’t handle it. And it was a really small issue,” she says. After a year of living with the stress, Marta quit her job.

For Martyna, it also took a year. “It was my first job after graduation, and I didn’t realize that something was wrong until I landed in a hospital,” she says. “The symptoms appeared every Sunday, chest pains as if someone had put a vise in my heart and lungs. It hurt until Monday,” she says. “It got better as I got busy with work, until Sunday, when it would start again.” One day the pain was so severe Martyna went to ER. Tests found she had very high blood pressure, but all the other results were normal. She was given pain medication and spent the night at the hospital. The pain went away. “No one could figure out what caused the pain, and only a conversation with a psychiatrist made me realize the cause was stress-based and could be due to burnout.” Doctors decided to keep her in the hospital all of Monday. “In the morning I called my boss and told him I’m not coming to work because I’m in the hospital. He heard me, but actually called back later asking if I could get away for a few hours because he needed invoices sent out. I said not really because I’m hooked up to an IV.”

Total waste of energy

A few years after quitting their jobs, Marta and Martyna discovered exactly what had caused their symptoms—burnout. In the U.S., around 40 percent of workers complain of stressful conditions at work, with various consequences. They can be quite varied, starting with the physical ones: headaches, sleep disturbances and blood pressure spikes, as well as the psychological ones like depression, feeling helpless and discouraged, and low self-esteem. A burned out employee often comes to work less often, is less efficient, and has conflicts at work and home. “My poor condition, initially caused by work, after a while had a destructive impact on my private life as well,” remembers Marta. ”I would take my frustrations out on family and friends. I was nervous, had conflicts with my family. In the last few months before I quit, I could not enjoy anything. Even during the vacations, I was always stressing out that something would happen during my absence,” she adds.

Agnieszka Karłowicz, a mother of four, is no stranger to these feelings. She experienced it several times over 15 years of working in high-level corporate positions. “I wanted to leave the company and find a job that felt more meaningful. Despite children and debt, I decided to leave. I became a director in the city department of strategy and investor services. I lasted 30 days. It is unbelievable how terribly burnt out people in the financial sector are, “ she says. She is currently working for an advocacy organization to help reduce professional burnout and feels her work now has purpose. In her opinion, professional burnout is a feeling of total meaninglessness, a disregard and abuse of the employee’s energy.

Like a hamster in a wheel

It might seem like more women than men experience work burnout, but that may be because women aren’t afraid to talk about it. “Women suffer the most because they are inclined to find meaning in their life, and that includes their careers,” emphasizes Karłowicz. Sophie, working for a company for what feels like “forever,” reflects on that situation perfectly: “My version of burnout is the painful knowledge of how useless, unnecessary, and empty my job is. It feels silly to be required to come in at the same time every day to the same box called an office, so that I can pretend that I am doing something important and something meaningful. And it has no meaning at all,” she says. “Knowing that working hard is not leading to a better world or a better you. The results feel so intangible … if I had only grown a carrot, built a house, planted a tree … Moreover, what I do today will probably just be plowed over, forgotten, and in a year someone else will be in my wheel and will run after something important that was done long ago done by someone else, but no one remembers who and what,” she says. She is very unhappy, but doesn’t have the strength to leave her job. “I have a job, a mortgage, children. Depression number two will come when I leave all that I hate for nothing else,” she explains. Sophie stresses it was not always like that. “There was a time when I thought I am saving the world and I am doing great things,” she says. “The first sign that something is not right was staying up at night. When I liked my job, I went to bed early, so I could get enough sleep and be mentally sharp for the challenges of the coming day. Today, I stay up late because I miss my own time after work. I don’t care about 9 a.m. tomorrow. All I want is to go through the day, say a few things right, and make it until 5 p.m.”

A good employer

How to deal with burnout? It’s best to start straight from the job search. Choose a company that has a good track record of respecting it’s employees (websites like Glassdoor.com are one great place to check). And it’s not just about the health benefits or a gym voucher, but about a company that rewards commitment. For example, an employer who respects people typically offers feedback during the recruitment process. Meanwhile, many companies fail to provide any feedback even for high-level positions they are recruiting for. If you have the luxury of interviewing on site at the office, pay attention to the workers as your potential new boss walks in. Does the room fall silent when the boss comes in? It can be very obvious and telling in open offices.

How to cope?

If you notice a feeling of meaninglessness or any of the physiological symptoms associated with burnout, it’s important to sit yourself down and have a talk right away. Don’t necessarily try to convince yourself you are making a big deal out of nothing; everyone has a bad day now and again but having them weeks on end means there’s a problem that could lead to depression or a host of other physical symptoms from long-term stress. A change of career might be in order, but it’s obviously not that easy or always a solution. Ask yourself, do I really hate my job or am I just looking for more? Perhaps a slightly longer vacation and some down time to re-evaluate your mindset is all you need; it is still possible to adapt and go to work every day at a job that doesn’t necessarily have a concrete sense of purpose. You can channel those desires in different ways, by volunteering for a charity, for instance. And don’t forget about turning to your friends, in the office or out, to air your problems—not to gossip but to share what hurts you and accept their sympathy. It helps, and it goes both ways.

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Katarzyna Kozak
Katarzyna Kozak

Katarzyna is a journalist covering psycho-oncology and Great Britain. She loves travel, the mountains, and the Polish Jura. She lives with her husband and her not entirely tamed cat.

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