You’re not going to be part of the Great Resignation. You just aren’t. Yes, work has been overwhelming lately, and you’ve lost touch with why you’re doing what you’re doing. But you can’t quit, right? You have a couple kids, or 17 years left on the mortgage. Or you just fundamentally like what you do, but it’s a slog to actually get it done.
And maybe the changes you’ve made to your life during the pandemic have been, as weird as it feels to admit, pretty positive. You might be working from home more. Perhaps you stopped drinking (at least Monday through Wednesday) or you took up trail running (900 feet of elevation this morning!). But even thinking about work leaves you exhausted. Unenthusiastic. You’re crispy around the edges.
What to do now: Bringing yourself back from being fried is about adjusting how you think and what strategies you use to prevent yourself from getting all burned up again in the future. Consider the following. . . .
Interrogate your urge to quit
The problem with quitting is that quitting is a lot of work. Suppose you decide to do something new. “To make it commensurate with what you were doing before, you usually end up working more hours,” says Manhattan-based clinical psychologist Brien Kelley, Ph.D. “Worse, you work less-boundaried hours.” So before you get the heck out of your current job, you’ve got to wonder, “What’s on the other side of quitting?” Note: Hustling is mostly unpaid work.
Find your 2 percent
When career strategist Stacey Staaterman is coaching someone through feelings of burnout and disillusionment, she tells them that they can put about 98 percent of the blame on the workplace. True, employers have cut people and left you to pick up the slack, so there’s no way you can shut your laptop at 6:00 p.m. “The safety net’s full of holes, and there’s pressure from up top, and everything has just gotten faster and more expensive,” Kelley says.
Still, that’s only 98 percent. “You need to ask yourself, ‘What’s my 2 percent?’ ” Staaterman says. “Maybe it’s that you can’t say no to anyone. Maybe it’s that you treat everything on your to-do list as equally important, so you’re in a pressure cooker all the time.” That’s the stuff that’s going to travel with you from place to place and burn you out again and again. Drill down and find your patterns.
Detach from “passion”
Meaningful work can burn you out just as much as meaningless work. People who think they have a passion for something and aren’t finding it in what they do report lower job and life satisfaction, more conflict with coworkers, and higher burnout, says Kira Schabram, Ph.D., a burnout researcher at the University of Washington.
Schabram saw this clearly in research she and a colleague did with animal-shelter employees. They’d assumed that those who were the most passionate would also be the most likely to do well. They found the exact opposite: The ones who came in wanting to make the world a better place for animals were working long hours, neglecting other parts of their lives, and feeling overwhelmed by stress. But the ones who said, “I’m just here to work, to learn, and to be part of a community” were leading the field 20 years later, she says.
What you really need from a job isn’t “meaning”; it’s to feel that you have autonomy and competence—the sense that you can gain mastery over what you’re doing and that you are connected to others. Living without these “satisfactions,” as researchers call them, is tinder for burnout. Meaning, it turns out, may not be something you start with and work down from. Instead, it’s the act of meeting these needs—deciding how you’re going to apply your skills to gain mastery, for example—that creates meaningful work. Sit down and figure out which of them are missing and what you can do about it, says Staaterman.
Skip work-sponsored wellness
Employers love wellness initiatives. Mental-health experts get why you don’t. “You’re working at some place and you’re grinding out 85, 90 hours a week, and then they throw you a workshop . . . a mindfulness workshop?” says Kelley. It feels like one more thing to do. And it might not even be effective. A 2019 Harvard Medical School study found that one large company’s workplace wellness program didn’t ultimately improve crucial markers of wellness: absenteeism, job performance, and health-care spending. Instead, a change to a more supportive corporate culture might help. Burnout researcher Christina Maslach, Ph.D., at the University of California, Berkeley, puts it this way: “Imagine investigating the personality of cucumbers to discover why they had turned into sour pickles without analyzing the vinegar barrels in which they had been submerged.” But for many people, corporate change is not going to happen.
If that’s the case, then “you have to look at all the systems and processes you’re participating in and ask, ‘What can I control? What can I influence? And what can I absolutely not control?’” Staaterman says. Then take one small step at least toward controlling what you can control.
Take transgressive breaks
Experts agree that working more won’t pull you out of burnout. Pausing for a moment and doing something else may. But here’s the thing: You need a pause that’s not just a walk-around-the-block/call-a-friend pause. It has to feel like something you’re not “supposed” to do. It shouldn’t be something that gets you ahead or that you have to ace, like going on a long hike so you can post about it. Kelley says, “For instance, if I have all sorts of billing crap to do but I just had an early-afternoon cancellation for an hour, you’d better believe I’m taking a nap.”
This kind of break may not be easy at first. Best-selling author Eve Rodsky’s new book, Find Your Unicorn Space, is about how to make time for yourself when you don’t have time. In interviewing 750 people for this and a previous book, she saw that no one felt guilty when they were making money from a side hustle. They didn’t feel guilty when they were parenting or if they were taking care of someone, but the second they didn’t assume any of those roles, the idea of “Oh, I can’t do it. I don’t have time” came out.
The things you “don’t have time” to do are exactly what you need to do. “Going to the gym is great, but that’s your baseline,” Rodsky says. “I’m talking about thriving. Thriving comes with the active pursuit of what makes you you—and sharing that with the world.” Give yourself permission to be unavailable from your other roles and do what doesn’t get you ahead. Ideally, share it with others. Guide a hike on your favorite trail with your friends. Teach someone to play the drums.
Because, of course, those activities actually do get you ahead. Make time for them. Look at it this way: The extra time you’ve given work adds up. A nap here, a drum riff there is not an indulgence in today’s work environment. Work pushes into our lives, so we need to push what rejuvenates us into “work time.”
When you commit to meaningful breaks—even short ones—you’re not just restoring your energy and optimism; you’re also restoring work’s proper role in your life. It isn’t a monolithic, oppressive everything but rather something you can manipulate when it demands too much of you. The Great Resignation is leaving lots of workers with more leverage. Don’t quit. Push back.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2022 issue of Men’s Health.