360° Answers: When You're Burned Out at Work

Aug 15, 2012
15 Min Read

Each of our workplace experts has weighed in on the following question from a reader to give you four points of view. Here’s the question, with our experts’ responses below:

I've been at my job for two years, and I'm getting bored. The things I'm working on are repetitive, and I'm starting to get increasingly annoyed with day-to-day nuisances. I'm essentially having to restrain myself from biting my coworkers. About a year ago, my direct manager left, and was never replaced-- instead, they removed his position and shuffled his responsibilities to me and a coworker. In addition, over the last year, the product I work on has grown a lot: we've had some success, which is good, but it comes with a lot more work and responsibility. I'm the only one working on that project, and things keep getting dumped on me, from big tasks to administrative details that someone else really should handle, but which end up on my plate as “I'm the only one who knows this project.”

My boss meanwhile seems to want us to keep growing, and wants more results, faster, with tighter deadlines and more elements. I'm starting to feel a bit burned out. It's gotten to the point where I can't even really manage to take a sick day properly -- there's too much to do, and all the eggs are in my basket, and can't be left unattended even for a minute. Most troubling, I'm bored with the work I'm doing: so more's expected of me, but I'm feeling pressured and lethargic about producing the same stuff over and over again.

As I've felt the burnout approaching, I've tried to halt it: I've spoken to my boss about getting some help and she's made sympathetic noises, but nothing has come of it, other than to actually add more work to my plate. I've tried to find ways to get excited about my tasks again, trying new things and new ideas, but they all tend to fizzle in this general funk of gloom. So, I think the time is coming for me to move on. . . only I can't. I'm planning to go to grad school next year, to help get me to the next level of my career which will excite me again. In this economy, I can't imagine finding another job that pays as well as my current position, and I wouldn't want to take a job for the nine months between now and school, only to leave so quickly.

Any advice about not hating my job as much as getting through till May? I'd really like to get there without stabbing a coworker with a pen or crying in my shower on a daily basis.

Answer from Alison Green:

You need to talk to your boss. It’s not uncommon for managers to pile more and more someone’s plate, until and unless they’re told to stop. You’re being very accommodating, but no good manager would want you to take on so much that you’re getting burned out. And not simply out of compassion –if you’re overloaded and getting burned out, your work quality is going to suffer, and that’s bad for your manager. But if you never set boundaries, many managers will simply send more and more work your way.

So you need to talk to your boss. I know that you’ve already tried, but you need to be much more direct and assertive. Go back to her and lay out very clearly that you’re overloaded, you’re not able to continue at this pace, and something needs to give. Tell her exactly what you are and aren’t capable of doing – for instance, that you can do X and Y, but you can no longer do Z. Or if it’s essential that you do Z, then Y will have to move to someone else. You can also say that you’re not able to continue working overtime, and so you’ll only be doing the amount of work that can be done in a normal workweek, here’s how you plan to prioritize, and that means that the items on the end of the list probably won’t get done, so she should probably make other arrangements for them.

You also need to say that you’ve felt unable to take even a single day off, but that paid time off is part of your benefits package (assuming it is) and that you are going to start using it when you need to. You’re not seeking permission here; you’re letting her know that you’ll be taking this very reasonable action.

Be assertive, set boundaries, and stick to them. While there are some managers who would penalize you for taking this stance, there are far, far more who will respect you for it.

Answer from Alexandra Levit:

I’m sorry to hear that you’re experiencing so much stress.  Job burnout is very common in a business world where one employee is still doing the work out many, but that doesn’t make it easier on you as an individual.

It sounds like you have already spoken to your manager with less than satisfying results.  I would revisit that conversation and this time, be a bit more assertive.  Ask for something specific to relieve your pain, such as the elimination of a particular task.  Phrase potential consequences in the best interest of the company (e.g. “I’m concerned that something critical is going to slip through the cracks because I’m so overwhelmed”).

If you aren’t doing this already, please keep up your exercise regimen and social calendar outside of work.  Getting enough sleep, eating well, and making time for the things that are important to you will protect you against the physical and psychological damage of burnout.

I also think you have to look at the big picture.  Nine months is really not a long time in the scheme of things.  If you view each completed work day as one step closer to your dream of graduate school and a better job, you may be able to recapture some of your enthusiasm.

Finally, and this may be a controversial point – since your job has a clear end in sight, maybe you don’t need to jump through quite as many hoops to keep everyone happy.   You can meet expectations and do a great job, but without the insanity of struggling to hang onto the job for the long-term.

Answer from Anita Bruzzese:

I see you falling into a trap that many people do: You believe the grass has got to be greener on the other side, and going back to school will solve all your problems.

Every job can have repetitive tasks that can make you bored and crazy. Every boss will pile work on you if given the chance. Going back to school or finding another job probably won’t change any of those aggravations.

Here are some steps I’d recommend: If you’re bored with certain tasks, see if you can delegate them to someone else, or switch tasks with them to liven things up. If you see something that interests you, go for it. Make a case to the boss why you’re the best person to do it and how your other tasks can be taken up by someone else, or even outsourced to a freelancer. (Since you’ve just been given a raise, your time is probably worth more than some others so she’ll see the bottom-line sense in having you perform more valuable work.)

I would also say you need to get a clear handle on how much time you’re spending on certain work, so that you can clearly show the boss how some tasks are overloading you or are inefficient. Start tracking your hours through the various online time management tools.

That  also will help you point out that your schedule is full next time the boss tries to dump something on you. “Hmmm,” you say. “I’m looking at my schedule and I don’t see a place to fit that in. I’d love to help, but do you have any suggestions on what I might be able to drop to accommodate that?”

While your intentions are noble that you can’t possibly take any time off, it’s just another way you’re sabotaging yourself. Of course you’re headed for burnout! Who wouldn’t be if they never took time off? Arrange to have work covered while you’re gone and give the boss advance notice.  If the boss freaks, offer to call in once a day to check things over.

I think you also need to attend more industry events or conferences as it’s another great way to recharge your batteries. As I said before, if the boss is willing to give you’re a raise, that shows she wants to hang onto you and will do what is reasonable to keep you happy.

As for school, this is something only you can decide. But if you believe it’s the only way to be happier in your career, then you may need to consider whether the source for that already lies within yourself.

Answer from Eva Rykrsmith:

You have already done what you can to try to improve the situation and, anyway, your plans for this job are very temporary. Because of this, it seems the best course of action is to find a way to cope with the job, collect your paycheck, and avoid burnout and preserve your mental well-being throughout that process. Here are some things you can do that might help that goal:

  • Write down a list of things you do like about your job (for example, you mentioned the pay is good). Keep this list handy and take a look at it from time to time to keep perspective.
  • Take breaks during the day when you feel yourself getting stressed. Use that time to find a way to shift your mood back to a more positive state.
  • If there is too much work to do that you can’t get it all done in a working day, allow the least important to drop off, or ask your boss for help with prioritizing tasks.
  • To deal with boredom, focus your drive and ambition on your personal life, side projects, or getting ready for graduate school.
  • Find something fun to do each day in your personal life so you have something to look forward to and be excited about.
  • Leave work at work. Don’t check email, don’t complain about your job, and don’t think about your current projects.
  • Get to know the people in your office. Having someone there to chat with can help you get through the day to day until it is time to leave.
  • Start a countdown to remind yourself that this situation isn’t permanent.

Recomended Posts