Burnout 101: When It’s Time To Escape
1:30 pm, April 30th | by Jane Doe, as told to Sarah Devlin
Conventional wisdom goes something like this: the economy is sluggish, the job market is tough and everyone who’s managed to stay steadily employed for the past few years is lucky. But as companies tighten their belts, workers who managed to hold on to jobs and new entrants in the work force are being asked to take on every-growing amounts of responsibility. Couple that with technology that allows us to stay plugged into the office 24/7, and you have the perfect recipe for burnout — even in an industry or position that you love. We don’t think that women talk to each other about burning out at work often enough, and we want to change that. This is one feature of many that will address the issue of burnout head on, and endeavor to come up with practical solutions to combat it.
Jane Doe is a 25 year old woman working for a large media conglomerate in New York City, who has chosen not to reveal her name.
I finished college and knew that I wanted to work in something creative, whether that was marketing or any sort of advertising [field]. I didn’t really know — I had gotten a degree in journalism and public relations, and neither of those things really seemed like what I was great at. I spent the first two years of college having no idea what I wanted to do whatsoever, which is part of the reason why I ended up going to a state school. I knew I was going into college having no idea what I wanted to focus on, so I rationalized going to a state school because I was like “Well, I don’t need to spend 40 grand a year figuring it out.”
I literally got to the point where I was called in and they were like, “You have to declare [a major], it’s time.” And at that moment I felt like I still had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew writing was something that I was good at and the world of entertainment and media appealed to me too, so I just figured Okay fine, I’ll do journalism and focus on public relations and mass media and see if I can find a place in that world.
I went to a giant university, and especially as an undeclared [student] there wasn’t a lot of support because I think I was one of 40,000 students they were talking to. Once I got into the journalism program that I ended up going with, they were really good, and I think that had I decided to stay in-state after graduating I would have been very well set up. There weren’t a ton of opportunities out of the state and I had decided very early on that I went to state school and that felt like a sacrifice, so I wasn’t going to stay there as soon as I graduated.
When we had to get an internship all of the fairs and things that I went to were focused on things in-state, and I went to the advisor and said “I don’t want to do one here. I want to do it somewhere else because I don’t want to be here.” And it was like “Well that’s great, we support you, but you’re going to have to just find it [yourself].” In the world of entertainment and media I thought there was Los Angeles, but that wasn’t really what I wanted, and New York. I thought [NYC] would have even better opportunities and I really liked the city. So I moved here hoping that I could leverage the connections I had formed in the internship I had the year before [in NYC] as well as basically any personal connection I could find. I was going to come and mine every connection I had until it led to something.
I didn’t know that many people but I knew a couple of really good people. While I didn’t necessarily have a million people in my corner, I was lucky to have a professor my senior year [of college] who had left the media world in New York having been in that industry for something like 15 years, so he was a huge asset. He reached out to everyone he knew on my behalf. And I had a family friend who works in the industry as well and she immediately was 110% in my corner. In terms of the internship I had previously, it was in a company that I liked and ultimately ended up working for, but the department [I interned in] wasn’t really where I saw myself going.
[The people I interned for] were helpful and they definitely had my back, but they weren’t super connected outside of their department. I would have gone elsewhere, but I knew the most people in that company and it’s enormous. One of the people that I had been talking to who had been helping me contacted me and said “There’s this opening, it’s not necessarily in the field that you’ve been looking in but it’s in the company.” She said “I think if you’re interested you should come in, we’ll talk about what it is, and interview.” So I went in, learned about it, and decided that it was something I was interested in pursuing, and [then I] interviewed and got it.
[The job] was in a sales type of role, which is not something I ever considered or wanted. So when I heard about it I was not necessarily excited, but it was not a great market to be looking for a job, and I knew I had to get one because I had already signed a lease [for an apartment]. So I went in thinking Oh let’s see, you can’t really turn down chances to interview, and then having learned a bit more it definitely sounded and ended up being a lot different that what I expected. It was a lot more fun, there were creative components to it, it was a very analytical job. My brother had worked in an ad sales type of position and it was a lot of cold calling and he just wanted to kill himself. And I had in the back of my head the idea that Oh gosh, it’s just going to be this dark, sad room where I’m just blindly hitting a phone number and getting rejected, but it wasn’t that at all.
The first year was good. I discovered quickly that I was very good at it. There’s a certain personality that’s attracted to sales, and I don’t have it. I think not having that personality made me stand out because I was different from a lot of the people who were doing the same job, and I was rewarded a lot. People went out of their way to tell me that I was doing a great job. I think as soon as you feel like you’re good at something, you’re immediately excited about it. So for that first year, realizing that I was doing great and people were really appreciating what I was doing, all of a sudden I was thinking, Maybe this is a world that I want to stay in, because you get drunk on the feeling of being the best.
So then I got promoted into a different role, the next step up, and in that role you basically start to fill in the pieces of what the industry is like and what the job down the road would end up being. And in the role that I was in at that point, it just changed. I didn’t feel like I was growing, I didn’t feel like I was learning anymore. I just felt like I was pounding the pavement, doing the same thing every day, and I felt like a robot. And on top of that I started to get a clearer sense of what [the job] would like down the road and I just didn’t like it.
I said [before] there’s a certain personality that’s attracted to sales — and all the reasons why I’m not [that type of person] that made me great at the beginning, looking forward and seeing where I would be if I stayed in that world, I realized they would make me not successful further down [the road]. And on top of that it was just a rough year. We had a lot of changes within the department and there was constant reorganization and we were severely understaffed, and I ended up taking on a really large role. [Given] my type of personality I loved it, because people went out of their way to thank me and note how hard I was working and how much I was doing. But at that point I was doing the [amount of] work that should have been covered by four people. As much as people will say “Thank you” and “We appreciate it” and “That must suck” and “We commiserate” your paycheck isn’t changing. It’s frustrating to know that you’re doing a job that should be done by two or three people and that the company in any other circumstance would be paying out three times the amount of money, but they’re able to pay [just me] and get the same amount of work [done] at the cost of my mental well-being.
Being in an enormous company where any change or decision has to go through about 5 million channels [makes it so that] nothing is easy. So I think it was the perfect storm. It becomes one of those things where it’s hard to hire people and get approval, [and] it’s sort of the squeaky wheel [that] gets the oil. And when there’s someone available to pick up all the slack — my whole department was busy, my bosses were really busy too — at that point they don’t have the time to constantly go to HR begging for [hiring] approval, and when we’re able to get by I think it’s just like “Well, we can’t deal with it right now.” I think if I hadn’t been able to cover it and the department was falling apart, then they would have been able to finagle a new hire.
I had a really great relationship with both of the people working above me, and for me I knew there wasn’t a question of whether or not I was a hard worker. I knew that they knew that. And I think we just have always had a very open channel of communication, and I just felt really comfortable, and I think that speaks to their ability as managers and as bosses that they both created that open energy. Whatever happened, I knew it wasn’t going to be a reflection on me, because it wasn’t me not being able to do my job, it was me doing three people’s jobs and just being frustrated.
I [am the type of person who wants] to be good and I want people to always think I am great at my job, and I’m also the kind of person who does well under pressure and who does well under difficult circumstances, so my work I think was fine. I was able to do it; I was able to handle it. My personal life probably suffered more than anything else, just because I left work feeling so crappy and just being disheartened and disappointed and upset. But I don’t think the quality of my work was ever affected just because, you know, I didn’t let it.
I had already made the decision fairly early into this promotion that the current path I was on wasn’t one I wanted to be on. And as much as there were things that were difficult about the job that probably made me burn out faster, that wasn’t what made me decide that I wanted [to be on] a different path. It certainly made the job more of an energy suck, but that wasn’t what made me want to leave it. So I decided fairly early on — and like I said, I had really great relationships within the company and with my department — and because of that and because of that sort of openness I felt comfortable talking [about leaving] to the people above me. I had already obviously expressed my discomfort with how much was being placed on my shoulders, and I also felt fine telling them “Listen, I don’t see myself continuing down this road. I love the company, I just can’t go on this path.”
This just speaks to [the quality of] my managers — they were both invested in me, they made that clear from the beginning. They wanted to support me and they wanted me to find a career and be happy. And at the point when I went to them with this I had been in the position for a long enough time that it was the natural point when people start going for the next level up. So I was never concerned that they would feel betrayed or offended at all, and they weren’t. My boss immediately was like “Okay, what can I do, how can I help you,” and we sort of worked together, and any time I had questions about how to handle a certain conversation or going into an interview, she was there to help me and talk me through it, so that was a great thing. I guess part of it was that I was talking to people within the company — I never felt like I had to hide it, I never felt like I had to make excuses. If I was going to be in a meeting for an hour in the middle of the day, I would just tell [my boss] and she would say “Okay, well I’ll make sure to handle as much as I can so you’re able to focus on that.”
And of course it’s always easier to get into a role internally. You can just send an email — “Can I come talk to you?” — as opposed to sending your resumé into the ether and hoping that something comes back.
[The process of getting a new job] was a long one. [It was the] same thing — a large company has its advantages and its disadvantages. There was a ton of red tape, there were elements of reorganization, and a lot of things were unknown. When I started talking with people about this position it was months ago, and I had a couple of interviews that I thought went great, and then I just didn’t hear anything for months. At that point, I don’t think they knew whether or not they could hire someone, let alone if I could be that person. Finally things really kicked into gear and happened fairly quickly: there was a role available, I went in and did three more interviews, they gave me a couple of test assignments and again, even with those I would just go to my boss and say “I have this thing I have to work on for them,” and she would do her best to not inundate me with work so that I could focus on that, which was amazing. And then they just finally said “We can do it.”
Would this have been a job that I would have known I wanted right out of college? Yes. Would I have been able to get it? Probably not. First of all, it’s not really an entry level position. Maybe I could have had connections [in that department] because it’s in the company I ended up working for [anyway, but] I think the process of getting in front of someone is really difficult, and I also think there probably would have been a million candidates going for a job like this, and I think the experience of being on the other side of things [departmentally] for two years made me a much more attractive candidate.
I also think that those first couple of years are important — like I said, I didn’t know really what I wanted to do. I still sort of feel like I don’t know what I want to do. I think I’m getting closer, I think this job is getting warmer — I haven’t really been in it yet, we’ll see. I can’t say with certainty that yes, this is the path, this is my dream job, this is where I’m heading to. At this point I’m young enough that I think just being able to say “Well, I can cross that off [my list], I know that’s not it” [is huge]. Maybe this will be it, maybe this will make me feel so emotionally and professionally and creatively fulfilled that I’ll just thrive, or maybe it won’t be and I’ll say “Okay, that’s not it.”
I think being able to communicate about [burnout] was a big factor, which I was able to do. I don’t think I did it immediately, because it takes a little bit [of time] before you can go in and say that, but I think having an open relationship with the people above and below you, where you can have those honest conversations is a big part of it.
And I do think that being in a job that I’m excited about and passionate about will make a huge difference, because when you’re doing extra work and you’re killing yourself for something that you have no love for it feels sad. It feels like you’re wasting your time and your energy. So just being able to have that inner dialogue that’s like You know, this is tough, I’m working long hours, I’m not seeing my friends as much as I’d like to, but I’m heading toward something and I’m doing this in service of my career, that just mentally makes such a difference. Because in my job before it was like I feel like I’m spinning my wheels and I’m going nowhere, because as much as I’m putting into this job, it’s not going to help me because I don’t want to take that next step [up], I want to take a side step [to a different department].
I don’t know that I necessarily took advantage of everything that was available [to me] in school to figure it out. I was super uncertain, but it’s not like I was making a ton of counseling appointments. So I don’t want to say [my school] should have done more, because they probably could have done more and I just didn’t do it. I don’t regret the degree I got — it made me a better writer, which is something that I’m going to be using always, and there are so many skills I learned there that are obviously super valuable. But I think when you’re in my situation — I declared a major at the last possible second. There’s no way I was changing it. I couldn’t have, unless I wanted to add another year, which I didn’t. I just didn’t want to be there anymore.
I think within the school that I was in and the program I was in there was a lot of support. I didn’t take advantage because I sort of figured out that the program I was in wasn’t necessarily the industry I wanted to be in. Although again — that one professor who I had in my last year did end up being a huge support for me. So you never know!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
[Photo via Shutterstock]