What do I do now?
January 22, 2019 5:54 PM   Subscribe

I’m confused, frustrated and lost in this crossroads of life. I’m hoping the Hive Mind can help.

For context, I am a 37-year-old single female living in the Midwest. I work in nonprofit world, and have done so for 13 years (my entire professional life). This is a field I made a very deliberate effort to pursue, and it’s brought many wonderful people and experiences my way. Despite this, I feel I'm at a crossroads and I don't know how to figure out my next step.

At its core, the problem is straightforward - I am deeply, deeply burned out. More than burned out. Imagine a sentient pile of ashes holding planning meetings. That’s me. This is a small organization (myself and one other person), I am the only one regularly in the office and for most of the year my day is 10-12 hours long. As you can imagine, this seriously limits my ability to enjoy my earthly existence. Not that I could really do that even if my schedule was more reasonable – I’m just barely able to pay my bills on my income.

You might ask why I would take a job that is so clearly going to be exhausting and unpleasant, and the answer is that I needed a job – any job. I had just spent a year recovering from a nervous breakdown following the sudden passing of my partner and my unemployment, savings and 401k had all run out. It’s been several years since that time and while it’s obvious that I need to switch jobs, I feel like the problem is bigger and the answer more elusive than that.

By age 37, most people have paired off, bought a house, moved away, had kids. I have a studio apartment, a cat, a shitty job, several mental health providers, a bankruptcy filing and myself. I feel wildly isolated in my life experiences, which are so separate from those of my friends and family. I feel alone and directionless. I don’t really have any goals or ambitions to speak of. I’m just trying to survive and not hate being alive. I’d rather trade these truths for more charming ones, but well, here we are.

So I suppose we’re back at the original question – what now? Get another nonprofit job, where I have a wealth of good experience but will likely never be able to really build a life? Start over on the for profit ladder, potentially from the bottom? Shave my head, move across the country, change my name and join a commune? Something a little less hyperbolic? I’m at a loss and I could use some fresh perspectives. I thank you all in advance for any thoughts you may have.
posted by Imogenetic to Work & Money (21 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
OK, look.

You will still be a Good Person if you decide to take your life in a new direction and start a new chapter that is a little bit more about you and not this work. You don't have to devote your entire life to pushing against the wheel. It's OK to just take a shift and then step back before you hurt yourself.

I don't know what your organization does, but I'm sure it's worth doing. However, you don't have to kill yourself in the doing of it. You've done more than your share, and the world is better off for your efforts. You are clearly a good person who cares about the world, and I know you will carry that into anything you do. We're not talking about you changing careers to become a supervillain, realistically we're talking about you still doing something positive but more low-key. You are obviously someone who inherently cares about making a positive contribution.

You are allowed to reinvent yourself. I'm not saying you must, or even necessarily that you should, but it's allowed. You are allowed to reinvent yourself, and you are also allowed to make choices that lend themselves to having a pleasant life. Why even be here otherwise?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:06 PM on January 22 [26 favorites]

I don't have a complete answer for you, but I do have a suggestion: it seems like a cheapo vacation might give you a chance to get away from the job for at least a week or two, chill out with as few responsibilities and planned activities as possible, take a few deep breaths, and relax. A "staycation" might not do it, if it leaves you surrounded by all the detritus and reminders of the daily grind that has no doubt built up during your burned-out-ness; but if you feel happy and cozy and relaxed in your home then it might be fine.

The goal would be to give yourself some psychic breathing room, a chance to cultivate a little perspective, to regain the physical and mental energy you need so you're able to think productively about what you want and what you need. Trying to do that while you're both spending most of your energy and totally burned out is just about impossible.
posted by Greg_Ace at 6:16 PM on January 22 [7 favorites]

I feel alone and directionless. I don’t really have any goals or ambitions to speak of. I’m just trying to survive and not hate being alive.

In order to figure out what you want in the long term, you need to be able to breathe. In order to breathe, you need to get out of survival mode. Yes, look for a better job in the for-profit sector, one with better pay and better hours. It doesn’t have to be permanent; it just has to let you feel stable for awhile. Once you’re no longer collapsing into bed exhausted and burnt out every night, you will be able to start pursuing some small hobbies, meeting some people, thinking about the future. But first, you have to be able to breathe.
posted by yawper at 6:17 PM on January 22 [16 favorites]

It helps to compartmentalize problems and tackle them one at a time. (I know it's easier said than done.)

When I read your question what stood out to me is that you need a new job. You are barely able to pay your bills on your income and that's a problem. Finding a job that allows you to pay your bills easier will make everything else easier, so I'd pour all my energy into that for the next while. Apply to anything that looks interesting. You've been in the work world for a while, you've built up lots of transferable skills that you can use in other industries. Try anything -- take a risk by applying to something different. I've worked in government, non-profit, small business and huge corporation -- all have their ups and downs but as long as I work with good people and I can pay my bills -- that's a lot.

Don't worry about what other people are doing or where they're at in life. You don't really know, it may not be what you want anyway, and it's a distraction. Focus on one thing. I suggest it be finding a new job but it could be finding a lower-cost apartment, getting rid of your car, learning a new skill, anything -- start with one thing and then it will be easier to tackle others. You can do this!
posted by Pademelon at 6:17 PM on January 22 [6 favorites]

both spending most of your energy and totally burned out

Just to clarify, that should have been "both spending most of your energy at work and totally burned out"
posted by Greg_Ace at 6:23 PM on January 22

If I were you, I would 1. take a vacation, stat, to relax and get some perspective, then 2. start looking at nonprofit jobs on the coasts. Maybe this is just my perspective, with my particular set of life circumstances that involve living in the Midwest sometimes and on the East Coast at other times, but I think a change of scenery and a move to a place with more people and more opportunities and higher salaries could be good for you. It sounds like you've got the skills to take your work and life to the next level, if you had more people around and more support at work. So yes: Move across the country and try living a different life.
posted by limeonaire at 6:32 PM on January 22 [2 favorites]

I second everyone who suggests looking for work - between the low pay and the long hours, your job sounds crushing.

My next question would be, what does the good life look like, for you specifically? Is it 2.5 kids and a garden, the time/money to go to the movies every night, room for a second litterbox, an office where you see other people...? If that question seems too vague, there are "plan your year" type workbooks that do that kind of brainstorming in a more guided way (and in smaller chunks). I've found those useful, even the ones with a lot of woo.
posted by mersen at 6:39 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]

Start over on the for profit ladder, potentially from the bottom?

I don't think you'd have to start from the bottom! You said "planning meetings": do you have experience in project management? Program management? (Program management can translate into product management.) Training? (Tons of opportunities in corporate training.) Or even if you don't want to go into for-profit, I think you can enter a job search as a currently-employed person and be really picky about finding a place that is reasonably staffed-up and doesn't expect more than 37.5 hours a week of your time.

And finally, I'm so sorry for the loss of your partner. I think it's important to let yourself grieve and acknowledge that you are grieving.
posted by capricorn at 6:40 PM on January 22 [6 favorites]

Hi! I just wanted to chime in and say that you seem to have somewhat idealised the life of other people our age. I’m 36 and do not have my shit together- last years big achievement was buying a flat with the help of my parents, I hate my government job and get badly paid despite others in my industry earning plenty more, I have no partner, precisely two friends in my city and not much idea how to improve things. I can see your situation isn’t perfect and I would second the advice above to look for a different job, but please also be a little kinder to yourself by not comparing your reality with someone else’s highlight reel.
posted by EatMyHat at 6:52 PM on January 22 [23 favorites]

Other people's lives are other people's lives. I think it's important to ask yourself--after you take a much-needed vacation--what you want. Hitting arbitrary markers of adulthood isn't actually all that satisfying.
posted by praemunire at 7:44 PM on January 22 [1 favorite]

Lots of nonprofits get their employees to work long hours for low pay because there's a general mindset that "this is just what nonprofits are like," but that isn't necessarily the case. You've been in the industry longer than me, so I'm probably not telling you anything you don't already know - but it's really easy to get sucked into a bad situation and then forget that it doesn't need to be like that.

A couple of years ago, I was trying to figure out a plan for leaving the nonprofit world because I was working insane hours at a very stressful job for crappy pay. Eventually, after formulating a couple of radical new plans and then abandoning them because all my energy was going into my job, I decided to just get another less-stressful nonprofit job first and then start planning my exit from there. And then I got a new job, and then it turned out that my new workplace was way way better than my previous workplace, and for the time being at least I am very happy where I am, and much more mentally healthy too.

I'm not saying you should stay in nonprofits necessarily, but if the idea of making a bigger career change is too overwhelming right now, applying for other nonprofit jobs might feel more manageable.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:07 PM on January 22 [5 favorites]

Stop working 10 hours. You're being paid poorly for 40 hours a week. Unless you are literally saving lives in those additional hours, stop.
Use the time for getting more centered in life - therapy, meditation, job searching, whatever.
posted by k8t at 8:44 PM on January 22 [5 favorites]

Hi. I was you 3 years ago. Stressed out of my mind working in a non-profit, making crap money and hating life. I started to realize that long term non-profit work suits people well who have a wage earning partner, have money from their parents, or have already made large sums of money and dont need to make a real living wage. Or maybe I was just tired of being broke. Anyway, it's not the responsibility of people like us to stay in cash-starved companies, no matter how good the cause is. Dont martyr yourself. Life is too short.

Find a private sector job and once you are making decent money you can donate to whatever cause your heart desires. For now, put your foot down and just work 40 hours. If they dont like it, they can fire you and you'll get unemployment while you look for a new job. I would bet that's not what will happen, though. Use the extra time to job hunt.

You wont be starting from the bottom. Your skills and experience will transfer. I found a really good job with a for-profit doing almost the same thing and now i don't have to wear clothes with holes in them because I cant afford new ones. The money is better, the people I work with arent burnt out, and neither am I.

I'm almost 40 and I dont own a house, I'm not married, I dont have kids, or many of the other markers of 'adulthood'. But I dont care. It's my life, and it makes me happy. Dont compare your life to your perception of someone else's. Avoid Instagram and start trawling LinkedIn instead.

Best of luck. You can do this.
posted by ananci at 10:53 PM on January 22 [14 favorites]

I have also struggled with burnout. It sounds like you don't have the money for a vacation, but you need something in your life to look forward to in order to contain the work part of your life and put it in perspective. It also sounds like you'd rather not be dependent on other people in whatever changes you take on. What about taking up some kind of disciplined, slightly difficult or risky practice outside your work hours? One with goals that are far enough away that you need to direct energy towards them, but not so far away as to be disappolntingly unattainable.

I say this because having something meaningful and challenging going on outside the job helped me find the mental resources to do the job more efficiently. The tricky part is finding something to take on that doesn't cost money. The obvious choice is exercise, but gyms aren't free, it's really cold outside, and perhaps you're like me and only enjoy exercise in the form of walking around the city. If that's also the case for you, then what about making things? If you do a lot of writing at work you might be averse to writing on your off hours, but perhaps there's a form of writing that appeals to you nonetheless. And of course there are non-verbal forms of making. Art supplies are expensive, but photography in this day and age is not an expensive art form.

Just to be clear I know it sounds like I'm saying "get a hobby," but from my experience, having some sort of creative and slightly challenging activity to look forward to outside work is the only antidote to burnout that has worked for me.
posted by Morpeth at 3:28 AM on January 23

The non-profit/for-profit divide is not as binary as it seems. There are shitty, burnout-producing, exploitive and boring jobs in the for-profit sector as well, and a few minutes' investigation will turn up plenty of stories of them.

I've labored in the nonprofit trenches all of my career. What someone said about moving to the coasts (or a big city) is worth noting. Salaries are more competitive. BUt also, there are plenty of well-remunerated jobs in NPOs - they tend to be in leadership, and if that doesn't appeal, business services and fundraising. I'm not good at the latter two, so I skilled up for leadership. I am now pretty content with my earning potential, many times that of entry level FTEs. So, you don't have to give up on the sector entirely, since you do care about the work. But you do need to start generating some ideas for your long-term career path. Investing in some career coaching can be invaluable, as can doing it yourself via lining up a lot of informational interviews, reading around about career development, etc.

Also, what someone said about only working the hours you get paid for. My last job involved a lot of excessive hours, and it wasn't good for me. I'm now trying to keep much better hygeine about hours, which forces me to be realistic, to be a better planner (because you have to manage timelines rather than just accepting all the work and letting it pile up on you), and to understand that not everything urgent is important. And meanwhile, it's really true that when you take the time coming to you - in mornings and evenings, holidays and vacation time - when you don't check your email in off hours, when you actually use your own time to take care of yourself - then work sucks a lot less, because you are more resilient and comfortable overall and it occupies less space in your overall life. Oddly enough, in situations like yours, working less actually makes you better at your job.
posted by Miko at 4:48 AM on January 23 [4 favorites]

In such a small organization, is there a chance of changing your responsibilities or your scope -- even temporarily -- to get yourself a better work/life balance? I'm sure your organization would prefer to keep you in place rather than bring a new person up to speed, and as Miko says, you may find yourself more efficient once you are in a better mindset.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:08 AM on January 23

I just want to underscore what everyone else has said about reducing your hours. Employers of all kinds have a tendency to absorb any number of hours you're willing to produce. This isn't just non-profits. I have worked in public, private, and non-profit sectors, and found much the same dynamics in all.

Non-profits, and to some extent, government service, do have the additional hook of attracting people who want to serve the mission. Astute management will not allow employees to work excess hours for two reasons: It tends to result in turnover, which is expensive, and it misrepresents what is actually needed to accomplish the work, so planning is distorted.

Lazy or incompetent management ignores those factors. Don't help them, if that's what you've got. They are going to want to bang the mission drum at you. "If you don't work 300 hours per week, the world will collapse and it will be all your fault!!!!!!!" The mission is always going to be bigger than the individual. You cannot close the gap by yourself. You should not try. Management should not encourage or allow people to do this. It does not serve the mission.

As the saying goes, put on your own oxygen mask first. Find a place that understands that. You, and the world, deserve better.
posted by Weftage at 5:49 AM on January 23 [4 favorites]

I feel wildly isolated in my life experiences, which are so separate from those of my friends and family.

I'll just speak to this: There are people out there with similar life experiences to you, so maybe put on your 'ways to change my life' list, working out how to find them. The world is terrible at letting single people know that our lives are OK. We're bombarded with messages that family, or the love of a partner at least, are the only things that make a life well-lived. I'm sure both those things are indeed great, but it would be nice if those of us who don't have them, had more role models suggesting that our lives are (or can be) worthwhile and happy.

One thing that helps me in that regard is being friends with other middle-aged single women, and I'm lucky enough to live in a place where there are quite a lot of us. So - and I realise this is probably mid-term planning, not short-term - if you're considering moving, I'd include that in your plans. Maybe a later Ask about suggestions for places and social activities that have a lot of other people in that demographic (for me: a mid-sized city, wild swimming and running). Even if you decide your life plan is to date like hell until you can settle down, you can't always control whether that works, so it's nice to have the fallback of a social network that makes you feel like a normal human being (and can come meet you for a drink after work with zero notice if that's what you fancy doing, because they don't need a babysitter).
posted by penguin pie at 6:15 AM on January 23 [5 favorites]

So, I'm dealing with a similar situation (burnt-out, 35, single, apartment, debt, non-profit work nearing 10 year mark). I understand why everyone is telling you not to make comparisons, but I totally get it. I was full-on sobbing on my birthday a couple of weeks ago because I'm just not where I hoped to be. But right now I'm applying to grad school in preparation for a career change. It took a lot of soul-searching to decided whether to apply for jobs in my field, apply to jobs where I had skills that could transfer but were for-profit, or go back to school. There just aren't that many jobs in my field that pay a living wage, have benefits, and will not just perpetuate burnout. Plus, I realized that a lot of the skills I have had to build in my current job are ones that I don't really enjoy doing. So, I fully intend to take grad school as a time to learn a ton and prepare for a new career, but I also want to recharge my mental and emotional batteries. I think the advice above to find a new job is great, but I think AOANLA,T's point about reinvention more broadly is good to think about. That's the positive flip side to our situation- what do we have left to lose?

Giant hugs from me to you. Memail if you'd like a sympathetic ear.
posted by Mouse Army at 9:29 AM on January 23 [4 favorites]

Starting over doesn't mean going back to Square 1. You have 13 years of experience, which can probably translate to a number of different fields, if you get creative. Look at jobs that sound like you could manage, and might even be interesting, or at least have fixed hours and don't include unpaid overtime. At some level, many jobs require similar skills (managing projects and people, boiled down to the basic bits), and from there you can learn and adapt.

Also, agreeing that there's more variation and range than Non-Profit and For Profit, and in either scenario, you could find jobs like yours, and jobs that provide all that you want. There's also government gigs, which generally provide more stability and good benefits, and usually pretty good about the work day being a fixed thing, but with the trade off of lower salary.

I was able to up and move to another state and land in an adjacent field, leveraging my past experience to show I understood the general topic, and from there I have learned a lot. It was scary, but I'm enjoying myself, and I wasn't at the bottom of the ladder. If you like where you live, you can start applying for all sorts of jobs around you, and aim higher than you might think you're suited -- don't say "no" for them, do your best to convince others that you're qualified and let them make that call.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:27 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]

Stop working 10 hours. You're being paid poorly for 40 hours a week. Unless you are literally saving lives in those additional hours, stop.

Ooh, yes, this brings to mind a very good point. Does your manager know that you're working these hours? By which I mean: has your manager literally said the exact words "I need you to be in the office from 8-8" OR "we need to get Project A done even if it requires you to be in the office all night"? Have you literally said the exact words "I am working 10-12 hours day. Is this normal for this job?"

I am a manager and I don't monitor my managee's hours. It's a skilled and salaried (exempt) position so as long as he is completing his work, I'm assuming he is being responsible for his own time and I don't want to micromanage him. If he came to me and said "I'm working 10 hours a day every day and I still feel overwhelmed" I would be shocked that he hadn't mentioned it to me, and I'd immediately start working with him to figure out what we can take off his plate or whether there are places he's spending more time than he needs to.

So, if you haven't had that conversation, here's another option before bailing on this job. Tell your manager your workload is unsustainable, tell her how much time you spend at work (again, assume she does not know unless she has directly told you in no uncertain terms that you must work these hours, even if you're pretty sure she says "good morning" and "good evening" to you every day when you arrive and leave), and propose a plan to deprioritize certain projects or tasks to get your workload back to a sustainable place. If you already have a foot out the door there is nothing to lose.
posted by capricorn at 7:31 AM on January 25 [1 favorite]

« Older Should I Eat This Eventually? Citrus Confit   |   Help me think about the morality of fostering... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments