Dealing with burnout

“I am feeling burned out after 20 years in a high-powered position but am not yet ready to start my own business. How do I convince potential employers to take me on in a less stressful role?” Rob

The demanding nature of high-powered jobs, coupled with a perceived lack of appreciation, leads many professionals to lament, à la blues great B.B. King, that “the thrill is gone.” A surprising aspect of burnout research is that it isn’t necessarily a result of overwork. 1 Burnout occurs when passionate, committed people become disillusioned with a career from which they have previously derived much of their identity.

You’ve come up with “a less stressful role” as the solution. Bear in mind that this may equate to stepping back down a rung or two on the career ladder. Would it really suit you to be in a role where you are not the decision maker? Where you might have to take direction from others? With less status?

Think about it from the perspective of the employer. Would you hire someone who described their motivation as “less stress”? Would you worry that someone overqualified might become bored or even criticise the way the workplace was run?

Any future employer will need to be convinced of your motivations. So what does really motivate you? Once you can answer that question, thinking through what you want most from your next role becomes much easier.

Start by building a list of all the great things you have done, and enjoyed, most in past years. Then work through what skills you demonstrated. Can you convert these to a positive summary of how you would like to work in the future and what you are best at doing?

Another simple exercise is to put the following phrases in order of how important they are for you. Add any others that come to mind. Consider discussing the list with people whose opinion you trust.

1) Security
2) Working with great people
3) Plenty of autonomy
4) Working for a high profile company
5) Stretching objectives
6) Having a predictable and manageable workload
7) Doing a job which has value to society
8) Working in a pleasant environment
Now sit back with your list and reflect on what you have just told yourself matters most.
Once you are clearer, you might be better placed to consider how to adapt your current role to create new challenges. Identify projects which could get you fired up again. You might be able to delegate work or make other changes that would help you deal with the burnout.

But if it really is time for a change then you will be better able to present a solid case for the role you want, without focusing on whether this is a “step down” or not. Then you will be well placed to tap into networks of colleagues, friends and acquaintances to enquire about openings and do some research. Instead of considering a new job a step down, you might then see it as something different and invigorating.

Some reflection will also help you to understand why you became burned out in the first place. Be proactive: take measures not only to correct, but also to prevent future burnout; it is important to try different strategies until you reach a more balanced and harmonious existence.

1 Maslach, C. (2003). Job burnout: New directions in research and intervention. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12, 189-192.

Leiter, M. P., & Maslach, C. (2005). Banishing burnout: Six strategies for improving your relationship with work. Jossey-Bass.
Berglas, B. (2011). Reclaiming the fire: How successful people overcome burnout. Random House.