Burnout 101: Protecting Your Work/Life Balance As ‘The New Girl’
12:15 pm, April 2nd | by Chelsea, 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 the first feature of many that will address the issue of burnout head on, and endeavor to come up with practical solutions to combat it.
Chelsea is a 25 year old woman working in a highly competitive agency environment with high profile clients in Chicago. We sat down with her to hear about her first few years of working full time.
I went to school in a city and state that I did not grow up in, and the industry that I wanted to go into was pretty competitive, so I came out of school feeling like if I didn’t get something right away, I wouldn’t get something at all. Unfortunately, the workload that I had my senior semester didn’t allow me to get a head start on the job search, but on the other hand I was working on internships and projects and campaigns to hopefully set me up for [a job after school].
My parents had supported me throughout college with the mentality that those things would pay off in the end, and I feel like they did. When I graduated, I had the goal of being an independent, career-driven woman who would move to a larger city — New York, LA, San Francisco, Chicago. I had the challenge of not only looking for a job in a competitive market, but also trying to relocate. I knew that we were not in an economy where employers were exactly flying you out for interviews.
I graduated in May of 2010 and I searched for jobs all summer long, and unfortunately, the only opportunities that came about were local. A lot of them were paid internships and not full entry-level positions. That was a little disappointing to me, considering I had three internships under my belt that basically were entry level positions, so I was really looking for the next step. There were no benefits [included] and no salary. It came down to, “Do I take this and wake up in December after and still be here in this college town, or do I turn it down and do something completely different?”
I made the decision to turn down the job opportunity, move back home to Colorado and reevaluate. By the time that I got back to Denver I had set a date to permanently move to Chicago. I signed a lease without a job, alone, not knowing anybody in the city. I was really going to make this work, and whether I failed or not, I felt I really needed to go there and make something happen.
I moved to Chicago in October and was out there getting an apartment a month or two before I moved, and I had a few informational interviews while there. Thinking back on it, I felt like I was under the gun because rent was due and I just up and [moved]…thinking back on it, I don’t know how I was that brave, but that’s how badly I wanted a change. I had informational interviews with several large companies — all fantastic leads from a professor from school — and within my first month here I landed an informational interview that ended up being a job interview. I think you have to take big risks to gain big, and it really worked out in my favor.
I did have [the bad economy] in the back of my mind, and I think my parents instilled the belief in me that the longer I waited after graduating [to look for a job] the harder it would be, so I felt this pressure to get out there. In interviews, I think the economy did play a part [since many companies] weren’t taking the risk and spending the money on new grads, or didn’t actually have the money for the positions they needed to fill. People who were interns were doing fulltime positions and not getting paid at the rate they should be.
It was really frustrating, because I had 3+ internships under my belt and I was really ready to work. [But I also understood] the mentality of working as an intern and working my way up. I didn’t start as an intern in my company, but I did start in the mailroom and work my way up.
There is the pressure and the excitement [that comes from being] a recent grad. You may have done internships before and worked through school and had to juggle all of that, but I think there is an element of transition [having to go] to work 9 to 5 Monday to Friday, and sitting in a cube for the majority of it. I think there’s a shock [factor] there. You have a schedule that’s pretty much set, and you have to manage your life around your 9 to 5. [If you have a] work phone you’re in constant communication [with the office] and you’re responsible for that after hours, so I think the first year and a half is a transition.
There was the excitement of [getting a job], there was the excitement of the city, and I was so eager and had nothing to lose and I was completely willing to start at the bottom. [My bosses told me] “Your position is not an internship, but everybody has to start out in the mailroom and you have to learn the trade and be open to any and every opportunity,” and I did it. Our office is pretty small, which is a double-edged sword. It’s a great thing because I’m exposed to so many different things in our industry and I take on quite a bit more responsibility because I’d rather be challenged and busy than twiddling my thumbs, but on the other end of that, at one point in my career I was still considered an administrative assistant, but I was managing 3, 4, 5 accounts in addition to doing the administrative duties that I was hired to do.
On the one hand it was this great feeling of satisfaction: “I’m climbing my way up and I feel so great, and they obviously know I’m doing a great job because they’re giving me more responsibility,” but on the other end I was still doing the administrative stuff.
I think that everyone, after being with their company for a year or two years, starts to wise up. I think that it’s only human nature for people who are career driven and disciplined to want to know what the next step is. It’s that challenge of “I want to succeed, but every time I take on more responsibility I just add more to my plate because there’s not somebody coming in below me and taking it on,” so I think that adds to the [feeling] of being overwhelmed.
Also, I have the type of personality where I put pressure on myself to succeed and handle it all. If I have ten balls in the air [I'll think] Let’s add another one and keep going, because it’s not an option for me to take a step back and think, Something’s not working or This is definitely too much. In my office I’m on my own — it’s just me and my boss and another individual who works in the division that I’m in, and so I think that that’s been challenging and definitely has worn on me because it takes that much more of an effort to bounce an idea off of somebody or to learn, because I’m not working side by side with my peers.
We have a very conservative corporate culture, and I think that starts at the top and trickles down, from the dress code to lunch. A lot of people don’t take lunches, or if they do they eat at their desks. Everybody has Blackberries or iPhones and I do feel like there’s an expectation to work around the clock. But I think part of that is also your [personal] work ethic and the managers that you work for, and the other part of that is the industry that I’m in. It’s demanding, and [there is work to do] after hours and on the weekends.
Someone’s always going to be responding to emails and sending things, and it’s the way that you mentally approach it. If you look at [an email after work hours] you’re going to think about it until it’s handled. I don’t know if I can say it’s female thing or just my own personality, but I definitely think that it’s hard [to step away from work in that case]. When you’re trying to have a work/life balance and your phone is buzzing and you read an email to make sure there’s not an emergency, that doesn’t mean that you’re not still being distracted and concentrating on things that you can’t control or can’t address until the morning.
When I got my job I didn’t have a BlackBerry or a work phone, and I remember being almost insulted that I didn’t have one. [For me] it was a status thing. Then I finally got one, and I remember my boss saying, “Be careful what you ask for, because now you’re on 24/7,” and he was right. When you have a work phone and the company pays for it, I feel like that places even more pressure on you to be accountable and to answer it.
For the longest time I was juggling [all of my work responsibility] and getting headaches and I was overwhelmed and I wasn’t sleeping well and my mind was constantly going and I was really stressed out during work and after work, and there wasn’t a lot of relief.
But then I actually had a conversation with my superior — it was sort of an annual review, but also more of an evaluation. We had become very comfortable talking about what was working and not working and I had the opportunity to say, after the fact, “Let’s talk about [my state of mind] a couple months ago, because I was drowning. And I want to talk about the future because I don’t want to dwell on the past and what wasn’t working, but I don’t want to go back there because that was really negative and I felt like that put me and our account at risk for errors.”
I told him, “Telling you that I couldn’t do something or there honestly wasn’t time to get something done was a failure to me. And I felt like that was [showing] weakness.” And we leveled on that and he said no, you should never look at it that way, but you need to communicate because if we get down too far the road and it’s not handled because you didn’t say something sooner, then we’re going to have a problem.
I definitely think that if you’re comfortable and confident in what you’re doing you need to communicate [when you're overwhelmed]. There were so many things that I was responsible for and so many things that I just did without anybody telling me to that I don’t think [my bosses] were taking into consideration that those were time consuming. I think that that pressure overflowed into [feeling like] I needed to work at night and I needed to work on the weekends because I was doing more than I had originally signed up for.
[After our conversation] my boss did start taking other clients and other accounts and responsibilities and delegating them to other people, which was helpful and which was a relief. But on the other end it was sort of like Oh, but you’re taking it away from me! And I enjoyed working [on those accounts] and they were relationships that I had built and I had enjoyed. But I was really nervous about what the end result would be if I kept going and going at the rate and the speed that I was. I don’t think it would have been a positive outcome for me or for the work that we were doing.
I feel like [college] did not prepare us at all — not only in career services and the transition to fulltime work, but there were so many things that were left unsaid that they did not prepare us for. Then again, I don’t really think that it could be taught — I had other internships and one was in an executive office environment and the others were out in the field or in operations [so I was exposed to] a few different environments, but I still don’t think that anybody in a classroom or lecture can prepare you for office politics and the professionalism and the maturity that you need to go into the workforce.
I think [in your first few years of fulltime work] you learn a lot about yourself. You’re not going to change other people, so you have to get in and carve your own path and take everything that comes at you and be open-minded and be a sponge. It’s sink or swim — I don’t really think there’s anything that would have prepared me for that, but that doesn’t make it any easier either. I think that I’m definitely not the same person that I was when I entered the workforce.
I find that I’m very sensitive and I take things really personally when I don’t get great feedback or the account or conference call isn’t going very well, and that’s not going to go away. But I definitely have learned to move on because of the experience that I have in the industry. My first year out, I was so nervous about making a mistake, I felt so much pressure on my shoulders and I was second-guessing myself, but after being there over two years I definitely have started to understand my role.
[I think after a few years] you start to have more confidence in yourself, and you start to look around and realize the responsibility you have and the people that rely on you, and you know that you have value in your company. And that’s something that I think is very important for people out of school — the confidence to know that the work that you do is valued and that nobody else can do it at all or as well as you. I do think with the confidence in the work that you do and the relationships that you build and the reputation you have in your office, you start learning what works for you.
Something that I’m definitely evaluating now with my personal life and my work life is trying to have a balance, because right out of school I was so eager and so excited to have this job, and now I’m in this phase of thinking, ‘This is my 9 to 5 — let me make sure that I also have the quality of life that I want and that there is a balance between my personal life and my sanity and my ‘me time’ to do all the things that I want to do, including be successful at work.”
I think the longer that I’m at my company, the more boundaries I’ll feel comfortable setting. Before that I was in before 9 every day and I wouldn’t leave until I asked permission, and now that I have more responsibility I’m working on things on my own and can gauge what’s appropriate and what’s not.
I do meet a lot of people where it’s like, How do you not have the pride in what you do to double check your work and make sure that it’s correct? Every email that I send or text that I send to our clients has my name on it, and has my company’s name on it, and even more importantly has our clients’ names on it. I take it personally because I care about what I do. If you think about it, you spend more time at your job than you do doing anything else. That’s why I think it’s so important to make sure that you’re doing what you want to do, and it’s working for you, and that’s it’s something that you’re going to want to continue to get up every day for.
Have you felt burned out at work before? Are you working with a case of full-blown burnout right now? How did you handle it? Tell us about it in the comments.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
[Photo via Shutterstock]