setting career goals + burnout
March 22, 2021 5:55 PM   Subscribe

Work burnout caught up with me, and I feel like I have no idea what my strengths and interests are anymore. Help?

The less snowflakey core question:
Any tips for (re)thinking career or figuring out a path forward when you feel super burned out, in a way that makes it hard to understand your strengths and interests?

I recently passed the 1.5 year mark at work, which is the time I told myself I needed to stay in my current position to save up money and avoid unnecessary job-hoppery. Yay! Over the last few months in particular, I've gone back and forth with how urgently I wanted to leave the position, but mostly rode it out successfully. And as I coasted into month nineteen (bah) I felt optimistic that, although my team and department have a fair amount of dysfunction, and though I feel ill-at-ease with the premise of my employer at large, etc., I could potentially even carve out a work-to-live rhythm in the long term here. In other words, my inner "save, find something worthwhile here, keep going" voice was winning out.

Then, earlier this month, we had a sudden crisis in my family (that's a little better but still ongoing).

All of a sudden, it feels like someone hit the switch in a zero-gravity chamber. I feel profoundly unattached to anything I'm doing, any of our team projects (many of which my supervisor refuses to manage or strategize around, and instead sets aside in an endless sequence of shiny-thing-chasing), any of our dept goals (which our abrasive and sexist dept boss keeps blundering, and cultivating an egg-shells environment where ppl and especially non-straight-white-men ppl, keep leaving), etc. I'm part of some worker solidarity/antiracist organizing, and that combined with my own projects and trusted non-supervisory colleagues, and my personal savings goals, helped me feel grounded in my work, angst-producing as it was sometimes. But now I just feel like I can't focus on any of it and lost any will to bring my authentic self to it. It's just.. shit. I don't like it (as *extremely fortunate* as I intellectually feel to have a job now!)

Okay, so, this is like, a known problem with a known solution, right? This is the point where people fully commit internally "it's time to find a new job," and take care of themselves as best they can until they achieve that goal. Except I feel this same unease and uncertainty about my profession and my own skills and interests, too. Work just feels like this big... blurry... blob. I feel like I learned a few things over the last couple of years, but they also come with a shadow impression of burned-out feelings -- like, I enjoying working with open source and data and troubleshooting, but I absolutely cannot imagine focusing my entire day around code. I really enjoy helping learners grow and identify goals, but I cannot sustain any energy around building motivation for beginners. My career has been at the intersection of technical-code and collaboration-projects-education-people, and in the past I have enjoyed riffing off of both and found it at least somewhat rewarded in the market, but that always came with a kind of entrepreneurial ethic that I really really struggle to maintain right now. Every time I try to think out some of those combinations, I just want to cry they seem so boring and pointless. So, for all of these reasons, I feel lost.

I also feel lost in the sense of whether I should attempt to find any purpose in my work or not. I did some of the Designing Your Life activities and found that my central value, when it comes to work, is removing barriers and minimizing harm to everyday people as they carry out their day-to-day lives. In that sense, I could see myself potentially enjoying a shift closer to public health (as in, working to reduce environmental pollution in cities and increase access to green spaces), or ditching research-adjacent lands entirely and doing work that reduces barriers useful, contributes to cities and/or commons, something..! I think whatever I do next, I have to go much more applied and work (again) with a more general population, as opposed to a specific subcategory of researchers and software engineers. But, yeah, I dunno, what do you think?

(Thank you!! My apologies if any of this seems extra complain-y -- I'm actually very much enjoying other parts of my life. I'm almost shocked how completely the work portion has gone from "compartmentalized" to "black hole" ha, and I think some of that's coming out here too :) )
posted by Sock Meets Body to Work & Money (9 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Oh, and for context, I actually don't think I'm depressed right now in a general sense. Even with the family health problems, I feel very connected to trusted people in my life, settled in my body, healthy, etc.

Within the bounds of 10 to 6, Monday to Friday, I do feel pretty like "this is fucked, this is pointless, this is fucked" but it hasn't necessarily carried over in a global sense to everything else. Very grateful for that.
posted by Sock Meets Body at 5:59 PM on March 22, 2021

Is there any chance you could get a solid block of vacation time - like two weeks? One week just to sleep and recharge and one week to start to think about what you could feel good about doing? It is just really hard to do anything when you are feeling this burned out.
posted by metahawk at 7:29 PM on March 22, 2021 [4 favorites]

Burnout by Nagoski has some helpful science.

Sleeping for a week without feeling stereotypical guilt is likely a great suggestion.

It may help to also think about or compartmentalize stressors as little as possible during the entire sleep week. Psychological distance (or even diffuse thinking) is so important for reshaping exhausted thought.
posted by firstdaffodils at 7:40 PM on March 22, 2021

I started typing up a longer answer, but my gist is this: don’t underestimate how much bad management affects your outlook on your entire field.

I’m a programmer — recently switched from a job with bad management to a job with good (or at least much better) management. Before the switch I was feeling really DONE with the whole software field and saw this new job as just a temporary switch until I could get out of the field altogether. But the management and outlook at this new job is SO much better that it’s actually made me much happier in programming and I can actually see myself staying in the field for a while longer.
posted by mekily at 8:38 PM on March 22, 2021 [7 favorites]

no advice as yet, but saw this and wanted to express solidarity - I'm in a similar boat.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 10:45 PM on March 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

I'm really sorry to hear you feel this way. I second metahawk: I do not believe that you can come to productive decisions about where you want to go to without feeding your immediate need which is rest. Can you take a break?

I'm a very intense work situation and I find that taking a day off isn't always that helpful as I'm mostly thinking about work. It takes a few days for me to switch into a more rested headspace. Can you take a chunk of time off as a first step and then revisit the question? I feel like you'll be in a clearer frame of mind after a couple of weeks of solid mental and emotional rest, and it'll be easier to start thinking about this.
posted by unicorn chaser at 4:21 AM on March 23, 2021

Response by poster: thanks you all. this is very helpful. i'm about to take some time, but it's going to involve some family stress, so I decided to take *even more* time to give myself sleep buffer time :) I think that'll be helpful.

once I have had several days of sleep/food/staring at the sun behind me, do you have any suggestions for how to begin this process? like, idly journaling? talking to people? i'm going to put this out of mind for a while, but it would be great to try out some especially physical/writing/art making style activities, if possible.
posted by Sock Meets Body at 9:33 AM on March 23, 2021 [3 favorites]

I'd suggest all those things. You can freewrite and see what concepts surface after a page or two, if you find them insightful, explore further.
posted by firstdaffodils at 1:04 PM on March 23, 2021

In a similar boat and know many others who are struggling with the same experience. I don't think it's just pandemic depression. It's also the way the pandemic has uprooted the rhythms of many workplaces functionally and pulled the dysfunctions we all previously endured quietly to the front of our awareness, only to watch most employers bungle their response to them. Pair all that with the increase in personal stressors exponentially increasing, and our outlets for managing stress being limited, and it's a recipe for burnout and withdrawal.

This is not me saying don't sweat it, keep white knuckling it. More so, it's about fully appreciating how much your circumstances are impacting your feelings so you don't spin out into broad conclusions about your wants and capabilities. Of course you don't feel the energy to stretch or embrace your entrepreneurial, cross-functional tendencies - that is absolutely the worst space to inhabit in a dysfunctional environment because it means you are exposed to EVERY teams dysfunctions instead of just your own. mekily's note about management changing your experience of a role is spot on - I would recommend not assuming your whole career path is bungled ahead of exploring other opportunities - you might find that a change of scene and focus does wonders.

Agree with those recommending you take time off to regroup, and look at this situation with fresh eyes. You may also benefit from talking to a career coach/resume writer of some kind if you have the funds to do it - I finally bit the bullet and hired someone to help me pull job search materials together, and even though I'm still a bit fuzzy on my next steps, it immediately alleviated some of my existential dread to know I'll soon be prepared to toss out some job applications without a ton of heavy lifting soon. Are they writing a specifically better resume than I probably could write? No, but they are doing the annoying grunt work of it and keeping me on task, and while it was time consuming to fill out their questionnaires and provide feedback, I'm much farther along than I would have been if I had gone it alone. Plus, it forced me to reflect upon my accomplishments and skills, and I got positive feedback from an outside party/advocate, which has been therapeutic.
posted by amycup at 1:52 PM on March 23, 2021 [2 favorites]

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