— September 1, 2019
A thoughtful reader saw my piece “How to Help Yourself If You’re Feeling Stuck at Work” in Forbes, and wrote to me. She wanted to know how to deal with the burnout she’s experiencing from being bored and demoralized by a job that doesn’t take advantage of her expertise. Even worse, she feels ignored and demeaned by management that refuses to see her value and potential.
Burnout can come from underuse as well as overuse. And it can be exhausting! A remarkable amount of stress builds up from not having enough work or the right kind of work, and from being overlooked and going unrecognized for what you can do. Your energy gets sapped when you feel like you have no choices or power in the situation, and there’s no visible end to your suffering.
But being burnt out doesn’t actually mean you’re helpless. Here are some things you can do if you’re stuck in a job that undervalues you and offers no possibility of institutional growth.
Find another job, internally or externally. Why stay if you’re miserable? I’m not suggesting that you should run away at the first sign of discomfort or confusion, but if you’ve felt burnt out for, say, the last three years, then it’s long past time to start making a move. While you’re trying to make this happen, though, if you can’t just walk off the job, you need to keep your sanity, cool, and a positive approach so you don’t turn potential employers off. So work on self-management in the meantime.
Accept that this is where you need to be for the moment. I’m not suggesting that you should lull yourself into staying for the long term or blind yourself to things that are truly unpleasant or wrong with your circumstances. But it’s an assertion of your autonomy to be able to say that it’s your choice to stay, at least temporarily. You can structure it like this: “I’m making the choice to stay here for three to six months while I figure out my alternatives/look for something better/develop a side gig/let my pension vest/learn crucial new skills, etc.”
Become indispensable. While you’re searching for a way out, look for colleagues you can help while you have some downtime, or extra projects you can take on to make yourself more valuable. Even if you can’t get the credit you deserve, there’s a perverse pleasure in being harder to replace than people realize.
Make the most of the job while you’re there. Gain expertise in your chosen field. Study some skills you’ll need wherever you’re planning to go. There’s so much free or low-cost information available online, even at the public library. Are there influential individuals elsewhere in the company or within your industry who can help you in some way? If you truly have been sidelined, can you work from home part of the week, or use some of your downtime for more appealing non-work purposes?
Seek out alternate sources of ego gratification. Your job may be an ugly grind, but you don’t have to be miserable every day. Remember why you’re earning money, whether it’s for your kids, your pet, or your own self-respect. You should feel proud of yourself for sticking it out. But everyone needs a little fun and satisfaction, so invest some emotional energy elsewhere — perhaps in volunteering, deepening personal relationships, or starting a new hobby.
Try a thought exercise. Instead of feeling buffeted and squeezed by forces beyond your control, play a mental game in which everything that happens is part of your plan, and you’ve structured this very state of affairs to help you learn certain life lessons or build emotional strength. By flipping the power in the situation, you can see what you need to learn or new ways in which you can develop yourself. When you’re in a bind, self-control is one of the few ways to create wiggle room and choice.
You may have been dealt a lousy hand, and need to put up with inattentive leaders and unrewarding tasks for a while longer. So try to find some benefit for being where you are; meanwhile, keep looking for the smoothest path to extricate yourself as soon as you can.