This post is a bit longer than usual. But it’s super important. I’m writing this for all of you who are experiencing struggles at work and trying to find a way out.
In my last post I acknowledged that there are times when we need to quit. We’ve given it all we’ve got. We’ve really tried to make things work. But we’re hitting the wall.
If that sounds like what you’re feeling, it’s probably time for a change. There are four reasons that work may not be working. (This also applies to other major areas of your life.)
Let’s take a look at these four possible scenarios:
SCENARIO #1: Your work is really hard right now
If you used to enjoy the work you’re doing and you can clearly define why it feels hard right now, the “thing” that is making it hard may be finite. If so, this tough situation may soon be over.
The tricky thing about “really hard right now” is that sometimes things are hard for so long that you get exhausted. From there, you can easily turn the corner into full burnout.
We don’t always see burnout coming. If we are in a rough patch and we think we can see the end, we may just tell ourselves, “Keep going, work harder, this will be over soon.” But if you JUST push through it without slowing down, you may end up exhausted and spent, with all your perspective gone. Then you WILL hate what you’re doing and want to leave.
The key here is to do things that help you avoid burnout WHILE you are going through a big push at work.
1. Take breaks.
2. Define your sense of purpose beyond your work.
3. Ask for support at home and at work.
And remember that this period of work or pressure has an end.
(If no end comes — or if there’s no end in sight — you may have entered burnout.)
SCENARIO #2: Your work is no longer the right fit
Once upon a time, your job was pretty good — even great! — but now you feel something is shifting. Something is pulling you in a new direction. That feeling is exciting and scary. You are beginning to think about leaving and doing something different. Perhaps you can see how someone else could do your job now.
Congratulations: Your work here is done!
Listen to this voice. Begin to explore other options and talk to people you trust. Talk about that little voice telling you it’s time to move on. Build a plan and exit the job.
New beginnings are good for everyone — for you, for the person who could step into your job, and for the organization you work for. New beginnings create new possibilities. You can create a ripple of good things by leaving when the time is right.
SCENARIO #3: You could be burned out
If you used to enjoy what you did and now find little to no fulfillment in your work, you are probably burned out. When you reach burnout, you get exhausted, then depressed and possibly very distant. You begin to feel despair. You feel that things can never change or get better.
Burnout is no good because it leads to all the ways we don’t want to feel as human beings: sadness, anger, exhaustion. We lose insight. We feel our lives lack purpose. Like I said — no good!
If you are burned out, you probably remember enjoying and taking great pleasure in your work. You were proud of it. Then more and more was added to your plate. You felt an ever-growing expectation to do well. And you kept going. Perhaps something very difficult occurred with a project or a person in your workplace. And you kept going. You wanted to do your best no matter what. You kept going. And going. And going.
If you are experiencing burnout and you can admit it (which is actually very difficult), you have three options:
1. Keep working at your current job, but acknowledge the burnout AND do something about it.
Take some serious breaks (breaks during the day, days off, AND a longer break). Get support from family and friends. Make a plan to take some work off your plate. Celebrate your successes AND separate your sense of self from the work that you do.
2. Seek other employment.
Ideally you will take a BREAK between jobs. You need time to regain strength and find a new sense of self OUTSIDE of your work. Request some time off before you start your new job. Or plan ahead for a break between your current job and your search for the next one. This time will help you figure out what limits to set with yourself in your new position so you do not burn out again. (More about leaving your job in Part Three of this series.)
3. Just keep working.
You can keep working and ignore what is happening to your body and mind. If you stay at your job and do not make any changes, your burnout will increase in severity. Your physical and emotional health will decline. Your relationships will suffer. You will continue to feel less fulfilled.
I DO NOT suggest this option. You CAN choose option 1 or 2. People escape from burnout by taking action and making changes. You can regain joy and avoid a full collapse.
SCENARIO #4: Your workplace is toxic and bad for you
Are you constantly walking on egg shells, waiting for the other shoe to drop? Do you try to get your work done without interacting with most of the folks in your office? Do you find yourself feeling bad about yourself and your work?
If you have answered YES to one or more of these questions, you may be in a toxic workplace.
A workplace can feel rough and rocky — and yucky! — for periods of time, during a time of change or during difficult work projects. And organizations CAN change the way they work together and shift the workplace environment for the better.
It is also possible that the entire workplace feels toxic when it’s just one or two people who are bringing everyone down. Perhaps they are burned out or tired of their work. Perhaps they are going through personal struggles. Figure out if you are dealing with an organizational culture issue or a personal one.
Once you have figured out the source or sources of the stress and toxicity:
1. Talk to someone.
Start by talking privately with someone in a position of authority. Someone you TRUST. Someone you think can help. Prepare and have an honest conversation about what is going on. This can help. It may take a while and it may be a hard journey.
This could be a good starting place if you are still committed to the work and not in burnout.
2. Set up strong boundaries and outside supports.
Remind yourself who you are as a person, what you have set out to accomplish, and what you wish to achieve at your work. Then DO your work. Ignore and avoid the folks who are toxic and just DO your work. Cultivate a full, fruitful life outside of your job.
This works best if the work you’re doing is not deeply entangled with the folks who make you feel bad about yourself. This solution may work only for a short period of time — perhaps enough time to look for different work.
3. Leave the job.
That’s right — LEAVE! You have done good work. Pat yourself on your back. You did your best. Now go out and get a different job.
I know this is not quick and easy. I know it’s scary.
That’s why I’m devoting Part Three of this series to discussing what to do when you know you have to leave. Stay tuned!
If you are feeling stuck and overwhelmed and you do not know where to start, I provide practices for moving out of overwhelm and into action. Sign up for my monthly newsletter for tips and to receive updates about upcoming workshops – like The Room Next Door – where you’ll develop practices to help reduce your stress and find your joy.