Burning out and quitting

I’m burnt out. Or, I was.

I was recently unemployed - fortunately, by choice - and I was struggling to get out of bed by 10am, struggling to work out, struggling to only have one glass of wine, struggling to fall asleep. It’s not much different than how most weekends have felt since the pandemic began, but I was doing it every day, going on… too many months. And it’s not (just) the pandemic - it’s an overwhelming feeling of being done, done with this, whatever this is. I needed a break.

It’s hard to describe exactly what this feeling is, but burnout seems like the right descriptor. There isn’t a clear definition of burnout (and I’m not any more adept at describing it, especially not while experiencing it), but I am indeed experiencing the “exhaustion, cynicism, and loss of efficacy” that is its trademark. Being exhausted or cynical isn’t new for me, that’s my personality; I’ll overcommit at work, travel to six cities in a month, and make it home in time to pull out all the stops for an elaborate dinner party. The loss of efficacy is the symptom I’ve been wrestling with the most, for months now - and what I want back the most.

My experience

The pandemic

I think I burnt out around November 2020.

Like everyone, I went through phases of the pandemic (and no, I have no desire to read another pandemic memoir, including my own. I’m sorry). I was thankfully employed - doing well at work, though adjusting to more loneliness and working from home, and keeping busy with exercise. I started really losing it around June 2020, drinking too much. I noticed, reigned it in, and continued. But by November, I was tired. Tired of another monotone day. Tired of my inability to control basic choices that I knew would improve my lifestyle, like my volume of meetings. Tired of 7 hours of Zoom a day, only to try to cram more work in in the evening, to no avail. Tired of unnecessary drama at work - drama for the sake of drama. I was floundering.

I was working longer and longer hours, and getting less and less done. And being asked to continue doing that. Or worse, being told I’m doing a great job with one crisis, and to move onto the next fire. I didn’t think I was doing a great job. I was doing a terrible job.

And I definitely wasn’t fulfilled. I never got to finish anything. I barely got to start things. I was always tired. Always in another meeting. Always pretending everything was fine, to myself and to others.

I don’t think I noticed I was burnt out until early February 2021, almost six months later. Honestly, realizing it was kind of a relief. I hadn’t noticed how bad it had gotten. A few weeks later, I quit my job. And then a new, different kind of struggle started. Not knowing what to do with myself, or how to recover.

This burnout felt different from before

This experience was different from when I’ve burnt out in the past. A few jobs ago, I remember being really truly exhausted - going on weeks of working 80+ hours, staying up until 2am every night working to get back up at 7:30am - but I was still, shockingly, productive. (I blame my younger self, there’s no way I could sustain this for even days now.) One day, I was on a conference call (remember those? it’s like Zoom but you can mute to have side conversations with whoever is in the room!), and I just, uh, stopped. I couldn’t process what people were saying, I didn’t understand what was going on, I felt nothing. Like my brain shut down. I just stared off into space, looking outside at the sky. This lasted for a few minutes, and mellowed out over several hours, but it felt like something fundamental had just shifted. I could no longer will myself to work those long hours, or to go to the office, or to answer calls. And this feeling lasted for days. Each of those moments was a struggle. I took a month off work, and only returned for the time I needed to job hunt.

In retrospect, this might not have been a burnout. Or, it was on a vastly different scale, a 3 on a scale of 1 to pandemic (if you want an actual scale, check out the Buzzfeed-inspired Maslach Burnout Inventory). I guess I didn’t realize I was burnt out this time, because it was nothing like my prior experience - there was no singular event that felt like a step change. It was just the monotony of another exhausting day with 7 hours on Zoom, then trying to do real work, at 1am, with a glass of wine on the couch. It felt like I was making the best of a situation. I hated it. It hollowed me out. I had nothing to look forward to.

So why did I burn out? I don’t know. It’s not a single thing - like a specific work stressor - that caused my burnout. It was the neverending treadmill of yet another day’s worth of useless meetings, with a TODO list that only grows, while you get less and less done on it every day. There isn’t a single moment that causes burnout, but there is a single moment when you realize it - that what you’re doing is impossible, insurmountable, unachievable - and that you don’t care. You can’t do it. And you don’t want to anyways.

So, why am I writing this?

Well, first, it’s taken 10 weeks to get to the point of thinking about writing this to actually doing it. (I’ve finally read every fucking article on pandemic burnout.) Damn. I thought I had almost recovered a few weeks earlier - but I hadn’t. I’m still not fully myself again, and it’s hard to say how long that will take.

I’m writing this for two reasons:

  1. This is a hopeful directive that you can treat yourself, and others, better than I did. The reception I’ve had from colleagues, friends, acquaintances to my burnout has been varied, and also, not always what I expected. And I know I personally would have been on the unfavourable end of that spectrum.
  2. If you’re reading this, there’s a strong chance you’re burnt out too. We’re about to have, uh, a moment, so brace yourself. A lot more white collar workers are burnt out from the pandemic than they realize. (Blue collar workers are obviously burnt out too - and underpaid and mistreated - but hopefully that is already apparent.) A lot of folks are about to take extended leave, or change jobs - the rate of job quitting and switching is the highest it’s been since 2000. I’m hoping you can give yourself the freedom to recoup, and learn what to expect from yourself in this transition.

Responding to burnout

To vastly oversimplify, there are two kinds of people I’ve talked to about burnout - those who get it, and those who don’t. Those who get it, get it because they’ve felt it themselves. Or, they’ve seen friends or family hit a wall, become a ghost of their former selves, and know. They wouldn’t wish it on anyone. They know it just takes time.

At the other end of the spectrum, is, uh, what I used to be like. “Oh, yeah, I hit a wall one time, I took a few weeks off and felt fine. You’ve been off for, what, two weeks now? You’ll feel fine next week. Let me introduce you to some people. Let’s have a call next week.” Other people did this to me; but the worst part is, I did this to myself. Just one more meeting to connect. Just read one more blog post. It’ll be fine. You’ll feel fine.

I didn’t. I needed to step back, and actually do nothing - or as close as I could possibly fathom. I needed to completely remove any feelings of pressure, or any external, and internal, obligations. “You decide what to watch on Netflix because I literally can’t.” I’ve eaten more takeout in the last few months, than the whole pandemic; I didn’t have the energy to shop for groceries, or cook. I desperately needed to enjoy things again - so I could remember what that was like - so I could get back to enjoying ‘productive’ things too. Remember that producing recovery, relaxation, or joy for yourself is still being productive.

If you’re in the same situation, or you encounter a friend in the same situation, all I can suggest is to be kinder to yourself than you realize. Don’t add anything to your plate until you’re recovered - and please don’t be the person that does that to others. If you haven’t experienced burnout, then maybe, imagine 10x worse than your current perception, and act accordingly.

Taking time off or changing jobs to address burnout

It’s been a year. The media thinks we’re languishing, or, if we’re not, we might spend the summer living out our wildest dreams. There are So. Many. Predictions.

They don’t know, because we don’t know. I don’t know what I want to do today, or eat for breakfast, or which local coffee place to support - like I don’t know what kind of job I want, or if I want to still be in the Bay Area in five years. This past year has caused fundamental changes in our lifestyles, and caused us to rethink, or reconsider, what we really want. I’m overwhelmed by choice, and simultaneously, tired of making choices, so the solution is just to… do nothing.

Everyone I know is going to change jobs this year - for various reasons. I don’t always believe Bloomberg forecasts, but well, sometimes I do: The Great Resignation is coming.

Paraphrased from a few friends:

The narrative I’m seeing in the media is wrong - I don’t see people leaving their jobs to take unreasonable risks, running a full-time Etsy jewelry store or dog clothing dropshipping business. I see people leaving their jobs for other relatively secure jobs, because they’re fed up. Many are considering career downsizing, a previously unavailable option - (trying) to trade in unpredictable things you don’t like, for only the things you do. They’re burnt out, and need a break. “If you think you’re burned out, you’re burned out, and if you don’t think you’re burned out you’re burned out.

A lot of tech employees have already changed jobs this year - it’s easier to interview than ever, when it’s just opening another window on your laptop, not taking a shared ride across town. But a lot more tech employees stayed - because of uncertainty, and, honestly, because of record stock performance. And they’re pulling the trigger now.

It’s going to be extremely hard to hire talent in 2021 - banking is already facing serious turnover rates, and beefing up recruiting teams. There are 10 million job vacancies in the US, more than there are unemployed people. And as hard as it’s going to be to hire talent, it’s going to be even harder to retain talent. (I’ll share some of my thoughts soon on building a culture to attract and retain talent.) And if you’re already down a recruiter, well, good luck, you can basically resign yourself to having a lot of open roles at the end of the year… which will make it just that much harder to retain talent. (Startups - you know those crazy valuations you’re getting right now? Go get the fucking people you want. Now!)

I never thought I’d take five months off, without being able to explain to a future employer what I was doing. It felt like too much. But here we are. I hope they’ll be empathetic and understand - and honestly, it’ll be a red flag if they don’t. But I also think that this will become so common, that it’ll be normal. “Oh, you took a few months off in 2021? Me too.” (“Oh you gained 15lbs in 2020? Me too.”) If you have the financial ability to, don’t feel like you can’t quit your job. Your sanity is worth it.

What’s next

I’m finally in a mindset where I can actually think about how to invest my time, not just be afraid I’ll never recover from this. End to end, it’s taken 6 months to realize I was burnt out while trying (and failing) to work, 3 months to recover, and then 2 months of vacation to feel excited to work again - which is longer than I ever would have expected. But I’m so happy I gave myself the time I needed. I don’t know exactly what I’m looking for, but I know what I’m not looking for: spending all day on Zoom.

I just went on vacation, and I just started a new job (slowly), one I’m excited for. Going on vacation felt normal, like other vacations - something I enjoy, that re-energizes me, that gives me new hope and new ideas and an itching desire to just get in front of a whiteboard or a keyboard and do something.

Looking back, the best moment I had in 2020 was over Christmas break, sitting on the couch with my laptop. I spent all day, maybe 8 hours, reading about SolarWinds. My boyfriend told me to stop working. It wasn’t work, and it was great. I was learning something. Completing something. Doing something because I wanted to do it, not because it was the next urgent thing that needed to happen. It felt like work used to feel like. That’s what I’m looking forward to again.