When I landed a full-time job in Boston, I felt like I hit the jackpot.
At the time, I was waitressing 40+ hours per week and freelancing for local businesses on the side, all while religiously applying to full-time jobs.
In January 2014, I got my first “big” job offer—a marketing director position for a small programming bootcamp. It paid $72,000 and came with health insurance and $3,000 in relocation assistance. This was more than exciting to a 23-year-old, who had just dropped out of college and felt trapped because of it.
Today, $72,000 hardly feels like a lot, yet, at the time, it was the most money I’d ever received for doing something that I actually enjoyed doing.
Seemingly overnight, my career had taken a dramatic turn for the best, and for the first time ever, I felt like I had “made it.”
Making it soon turned into losing it, and signs of burnout quickly followed.
In 2014, content marketing was still very new, and the overwhelming majority of companies just didn’t get it. (Many still don’t.)
To these startups, content marketing meant blogging about your company every day. The thing is that’s not content marketing; it’s PR, and it doesn’t work.
My boss, who was a developer, didn’t comprehend this. He didn’t know how to write, or how long a good post took to create, and to be frank, he didn’t care.
Instead, he expected me, a one-woman marketing show with no budget, to: publish daily, promote posts, be active on Slack, attend after-hours’ events—not to enjoy myself but to “capture” a story for the blog… with a party full of drunk brogrammers—ghostwrite for him, network with other companies, manage PR, and do a zillion other things that no one person could possibly do on their own without ample resources.
To make matters worse, I worked in a small, open, chaotic office. So, I was not only distracted by chatter online but also distracted by the 30+ people in the office daily, which meant constant interruptions.
I couldn’t write or get anything done to save my life, because I was being pulled in so many directions.
To my former boss, it wasn’t enough to simply create epic content. He expected me to publish epic content every single day, all while doing nine million other things, like pick up donuts on a Saturday.
In less than three months, I lost my job—and by lost, I mean I was fired—with only one-month’s pay as severance.
If I didn’t sleep those first three months, I surely didn’t sleep after them.
Before I ran out of money, I was able to score a bunch of freelance gigs to sustain my income. I designed infographics; built WordPress websites; wrote a lot; and took on every project that came my way. I never said no, because I was always petrified I wouldn’t have enough work.
For nearly three years, I logged 18-hour days, dividing my time amongst client work, personal branding, and cold outreach so I could—you guessed it—get more work.
And then, because I’m clearly a masochist, I decided to restart the startup I failed at building a few years prior.
Everyone around me was so motivated and impressive, and it brought out the most overachieving person in me. Regardless of what I did, though, I just couldn’t seem to dig myself out of this cycle of exhaustion. And honestly, I didn’t try, because I saw no alternative road to success.
Little did I know (or believe) I was on a fast path to burnout.
If you have ever seen a building that has been burned out, you know it’s a devastating sight… some bricks or concrete may be left; some outline of windows. Indeed, the outer shell may seem almost intact. Only if you venture inside will you be struck by the full force of the desolation.
Like a burned-out house, a person who is burned out may not seem that way on the outside, but “their inner resources are consumed, as if by fire, leaving a great emptiness inside.”
I’m far from the only one who’s been burned out from work.
A recent Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that 23 percent reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44 percent reported feeling burned out sometimes. Even scarier, burned out employees are 23 percent more likely to visit the emergency room.
It comprises profound physical, cognitive and emotional fatigue that undermines people’s ability to work effectively and feel positive about what they’re doing.
This can stem from the demands of an always-on, 24/7 organizational culture, intense time pressure, or simply having too much to do, especially when you lack control over your work, dislike it, or don’t have the necessary skills to accomplish it.
In a state of exhaustion, you find that you’re unable to concentrate or see the big picture; even routine and previously enjoyable tasks seem arduous, and it becomes difficult to drag yourself both into and out of the office.
This is how the signs of burnout began. I was overworked, and finally, I hit a wall. The next symptom that arose was cynicism.
Cynicism, also called depersonalization, represents an erosion of engagement. It is essentially a way of distancing yourself psychologically from your work. Instead of feeling invested in your assignments, projects, colleagues, customers and other collaborators, you feel detached, negative, even callous.
Cynicism can be the result of work overload, but it is also likely to occur in the presence of high conflict, unfairness and lack of participation in decision making.
Chronic cynicism is a sign that you’ve “lost your connection to, enjoyment of, and pride in your work.”
For me, cynicism started to rear its ugly head around 2014, when I was the editor for a new blog that hadn’t been properly managed. Before me, anyone could write for the blog, so I was the bad guy when I stepped in and put proper procedures in place (and that grew the publication to 100,000 weekly uniques in less than three months, #justsayin).
This was only the beginning though. As a young white woman, who looks and sounds 23, I’ve learned the hard way that a lot of people simply won’t respect me from the get-go.
Take G (I won’t use his name to be respectful). G was an SEO contractor for a startup I worked for as the head of marketing. His pay was taken from my budget each month, and he reported to me, as the internal stakeholder.
When I’d ask G for deliverables, three to five days after the deadline (because I didn’t want to be pushy), he’d freak out.
One day, in a public Slack channel in front of the entire company, he lashed out at me for asking for deliverables he was paid to deliver a week prior. He blatantly disrespected me because, in his eyes, he was too good to report to me.
This experience was emotionally draining. I felt the sting of losing the happiness and motivation I used to get from work.
The last symptom of burnout is the feeling of inefficacy, which refers to feeling incompetent and unproductive.
People with this symptom of burnout feel their skills slipping and worry that they won’t be able to succeed in certain situations or accomplish certain tasks. It often develops in tandem with exhaustion and cynicism because people can’t perform at their peak when they’re out of fuel and have lost their connection to work.
When you lack the resources and support to do your job well, including adequate time, information, clear expectations, autonomy and good relationships with those whose involvement you need to succeed, you’re more likely to experience inefficacy.
Lack of feedback and meaningful recognition can also lead to inefficacy, when you’re left questioning the quality of your work and feeling like you’re unappreciated.
While signs of burnout can start with any of these symptoms, it’s different for everyone. Some people are just exhausted and don’t (or haven’t yet) developed cynicism and/or impostor syndrome.
For each block of time, record what you’re doing, whom you’re with, how you feel (for example, on a scale of 1 to 10, where 0 equals angry or drained and 10 is joyful or energized), and how valuable the activity is. This will help you find opportunities to limit your exposure to tasks, people, and situations that aren’t essential and put you in a negative mood; increase your investment in those that boost your energy; and make space for restful, positive time away from work.
Change your perspective, and know when to get out
While becoming healthier can help reduce exhaustion, curb cynicism, and improve efficacy, it doesn’t completely solve the root causes of burnout.
It’s extremely likely that the office environment will remain the same. You’ll likely still experience the same impossible workload, unreasonable conflicts, and/or few resources.
Before giving up on the department or company, reflect on your mindset and assumptions. Can you change your outlook on the bad parts of your job?
For example, if you’re suffering from exhaustion, try delegating tasks—even important ones—to give you space to do other important/meaningful projects.
Or, if you’re struggling with cynicism, how can you protect yourself from the parts of the company that bother you while still engaging in your specific role and the enterprise as a whole? Another solution could be to make a few new friends in the office in order to negate the negative relationships.
Maybe you’re feeling ineffective. If this is the case, is there help you could seek out in the form of professional or personal development? And if you’re suffering from a lack of recognition, ponder how you could brand yourself or better showcase the work you’ve been doing.
It can be extremely difficult to tear yourself away from a “good” job—one at a big company with a great reputation that pays well. But, like me, you may realize that values and ethics (and your physical and mental health) mean more to you than any perk ever will.
What do you do then? Well, if you’re like Ari, you eventually quit, and start your own business.
“After I pushed back a couple of times and said that what we were recommending wasn’t right for the clients, my boss cranked up the pressure on me and assigned me to only the most difficult clients. At one point I said to my wife, ‘It might be good if I got hit by a bus. I don’t want to die, but I’d like to be injured enough that I’d have to stop working for a while.’ She said, ‘That’s it; you’re getting out of there.’” He took a few months to line up some independent consulting assignments and then made the move.
To fully address signs of burnout, you must also address high-value activities and relationships that trigger unhealthy levels of stress.
Do this by managing and resetting others’ expectations of you—colleagues, clients, and sometimes family members. Be clear about what and how much you’re willing to take on.
If/when you receive pushback, let them know that these changes are required for your long-term success, productivity, and health. That’s exactly what Barbara did.
Barbara, for example, is keenly aware of the aspects of PR work that put people in her field at risk of burnout, so now she actively manages them. “There’s constant pressure, from both clients and the media,” she explains. “But a lot of times, what clients label a crisis is not actually one. Part of the job is helping them put things in perspective. And being a good service professional doesn’t mean you have to be a servant. You shouldn’t be emailing at 11 at night on a regular basis.”
One of the best cures for burnout, especially when triggered by cynicism and inefficacy, is making rich connections and focusing on personal and professional development.
Find coaches and mentors who can help you identify and activate positive relationships and learning opportunities. Volunteering to advise others is another particularly effective way of breaking out of a negative cycle.
Lastly, find others who are going through this experience—or have been through this experience before. There are tons of groups out there—even on Facebook alone.
You can’t run on empty forever
If you asked me back in 2014 what I wanted to do with my life, you’d have received a passionate response. The short answer would’ve been: Become an altruistic Steve Jobs. Make a massive contribution to the world.
I’m sad to say, just a few years later, I no longer have a passionate response. In fact, it may even sound a bit cynical, and that’s because I’m still recovering from the extreme burnout I experienced for years.
For too many years, I tried to be superhuman. I thought it was the only road to success. I thought I could ignore toxic work environments and coworkers. I thought I could run on empty forever, but as I [painfully] know now, I couldn’t.
I thought burnout was stupid… until it happened to me. Don’t let it happen to you too.