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PROFESSIONAL TRANSITIONS

When Burnout Is a Sign You


Should Leave Your Job
by Monique Valcour
JANUARY 25, 2018

HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES

You have the right to have work that enriches and enlivens you, rather than diminishing you. This is
my own personal declaration of human rights at work. It informs everything I do as a coach,
management professor, and human being. Yet it’s surprisingly controversial. Managers and
employees in organizations around the world have bought into the assumption that pay and other
contracted rewards are all you can expect to receive from work (and all that you owe your
employees) and that it’s unrealistic to hope for less-tangible benefits like trust, respect, autonomy,
civility, and the opportunity to make a positive impact on others. This impoverished view of work
plays out in workplace attitudes and behaviors that burn employees out. It also traps people in jobs
that harm their well-being and sense of self.

When the conditions and demands you encounter at work — like workload, level of autonomy, and
norms of interpersonal behavior — exceed your capacity to handle them, you’re at risk of burning
out. Burnout has three components: exhaustion (lost energy), cynicism (lost enthusiasm), and
inefficacy (lost self-confidence and capacity to perform), but you don’t have to be experiencing all
three in order to suffer serious consequences. For example, if you don’t believe in your
organization’s core activities, leadership, and culture, you’re likely to feel demoralized even if you
still function well at work.

While attempts to reduce or prevent burnout primarily fall to individuals, research has established
that job and organizational factors that are largely outside of an individual employee’s control
contribute to burnout at least as much as personal factors. People are most likely to experience
burnout in the face of conditions such as unrealistically high workloads, low levels of job control,
incivility, bullying, administrative hassles, low social support, poor organizational resources,
stressed leaders, and negative leadership behaviors. Organizations with rampant burnout are like
centers of infectious disease outbreaks. Many people exhibit symptoms, and the deleterious effects
reverberate throughout the whole system of employee relationships, both in and out of the
workplace. Unfortunately, in contrast to the systemic medical responses that abate epidemics,
organizational burnout vectors often go unchecked while suffering employees are left to manage as
best they can on their own.

YOU AND YOUR TEAM SERIES Therefore, there may come a time when leaving
Stress your job or organization is the best possible
course of action in response to burnout. I faced
this decision a few years ago while working for an
organization that had numerous burnout risk
factors and many burned-out employees. I tried
multiple strategies to increase my engagement,
such as crafting my job. I looked for ways to
create value for my employer that exploited my
strengths. I gained agreement for slight job
modifications that allowed me to spend more
time on work I found meaningful and less time on
assignments I disliked. I reduced my exposure to
tasks, people, and situations that drained my

Turning Stress into an Asset energy to the extent that I could.


by Amy Gallo

Resilience Is About How You Recharge, Not Over time, however, my ability to exert control
How You Endure
by Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan over my job was significantly constrained. I was

Steps to Take When You’re Starting to Feel assigned a higher load of stressful assignments
Burned Out and denied the opportunity to take on those I
by Monique Valcour
found fulfilling. Vigorous exercise, yoga, and
meditation proved inadequate to control my
stress; I found it necessary to take tranquilizers as well. I was unable to achieve any psychological
distance from the stresses of my workplace. Familiar tasks required greater time and effort to
complete, with the result that I worked nearly continuously. I’ve always been achievement-oriented,
Monique Valcour is an executive coach, keynote speaker, and management professor. She helps clients create and
so feeling
sustain myand
fullling creative and productive
high-performance capacity
jobs, careers, draining
workplaces, andaway from me
lives. Follow was
her on frightening.
Twitter Friends
@moniquevalcour.
observed that I was clearly miserable at work. I came to realize that even though leaving my job
might entail a major career change and an unwelcome relocation, my well-being depended on it.

If you’re
This feeling
article burned
is about out, how do you
PROFESSIONAL know when it’s time to call it quits? Reflecting on the
TRANSITIONS
following questions can help you to determine whether you should leave your job.
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Related Topics: STRESS | WORK-LIFE BALANCE


Does your job/employer enable you to be the best version of yourself? A sustainable job leverages
your strengths and helps you perform at your peak. One of the most consistently demoralizing
experiences my coaching clients report is having to work in conditions that constrain their
Comments
performance to a level well below their potential — for example, overwhelming workload, conflicting
objectives, unclear expectations, inadequate resources, and lack of managerial support. Persistent
Leave a Comment
barriers to good performance thwart the human need for mastery. Furthermore, when you’re burned
out, you provide less value than you would working in conditions that are more conducive to your
P O S Tless
performance and engagement. As my burnout progressed, my motivation plummeted and I had
0
toCOMMENTS
offer my employer. Not only was the organization hurting me, I was hurting the organization.
Burnout is like a relationship that’s gone bad: When the employment relationship is no longer
 JOINfor
beneficial to either party, and the prospects THE CONVERSATION
reviving it are dim, it may be time to call it quits.

How well
POSTING does your job/employer align with your values and interests? When you experience a
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probably won’t receive the support you need to perform well. Your career success suffers. My
employer’s values as revealed by managerial behavior and decision-making practices clashed with
my core commitments to authenticity, autonomy, making a positive difference, and facilitating
thriving at work. While there were small ways in which I could create value, help others, and enjoy
moments of satisfaction, overall the landscape appeared bleak. I reasoned that rather than trying to
garden in a desert, I’d be better off seeking fertile soil elsewhere to cultivate the fruits I longed to
bring to life.

What does your future look like in your job/organization? Zoom out and take a long-term
perspective to assess whether you’ve hit a short-term rough patch or a long-term downward slide.
Do you recognize yourself in senior members of the organization? Do they give you a hopeful vision
of your future? The possibility of living out the reality that some of my senior colleagues were living
filled me with dread. Considering a few senior colleagues who were clearly diminished by their
employment, frequently sick, and consistently negative set off alarm bells for me. I knew that I
didn’t want to end up like that. Opportunities to expand myself into new areas and develop skills I
hoped to build appeared slim. My future in the organization was one of stagnation.

What is burnout costing you? Burnout can take a serious toll on your health, performance, career
prospects, psychological well-being, and relationships. In my case, the negative emotions I brought
home hurt my marriage and family relationships as well as my peace of mind. Sitting in the office of
a relationship counselor and hearing my always supportive husband say, “I have no more empathy
left for you,” clarified the costs of burnout on me and my family. If you’re unsure about the impact
that burnout might be having on you, try asking your partner, family members, and close friends for
their perspective.
After considering these questions, if you conclude that leaving your job or organization is the right
course of action for you, you’ve already turned a corner. You may not be able to quit today. But
maybe today is the day that you begin to lay the groundwork: Put aside extra savings, update your
résumé, reach out to network contacts, spread the word that you’d like a new job, get a coach, or
sign up for an online course. The journey back to thriving begins with actions like these. In my case,
I began lining up side gigs, got certified as a coach, and negotiated some additional training support
as part of a separation agreement with my employer. I built a portfolio of fulfilling work activities
into a sustainable career that I love. I’m convinced that if meaningful, rewarding work matters to
you and if you commit to achieving it, you are more likely to enjoy your right to enriching work.