Maybe you’ve experienced burnout in your current role and decided to start looking for a new job. First, congrats on taking the necessary steps to care for yourself and your mental health. Next, you’ll need to find a job and environment that won’t lead to burnout all over again. After all, you don’t want this to become a self-perpetuating cycle.
Or maybe you’re doing just fine, but you’re familiar with the dangers associated with burnout and want to continue to avoid it in your next job. Whatever the case, you want to set yourself up to succeed without burning out.
Although the World Health Organization only classified burnout as an occupational phenomenon in May 2019, the phrase has been around since at least 1975, when researchers defined burnout as “failure or exhaustion because of excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources.”
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, which forced so many people to work from home, further exacerbated the rise in employee burnout. Eighty-nine percent of employees across industries, roles, and seniority levels said their work life was getting worse, according to a fall 2020 survey by the American Association of Physician Leadership, and 62% of those who were having trouble with their workloads said they had experienced burnout “often” or “extremely often.” Similarly, a global survey conducted around the same time by workplace inclusion nonprofit Catalyst found that 92.3% of respondents were experiencing some level of burnout, with 57.8% reaching a high level of burnout.
There’s no denying that burnout comes with consequences for your mental, emotional, and sometimes even physical wellbeing. Some signs include exhaustion, feelings of negativity or apathy, and even physical manifestations such as headaches or insomnia. So naturally you’d want to find a role that will allow you to avoid those costs.
The good news is your search isn’t simply up to fate. There are tangible things you can do as you prepare for your next job search to reflect on what it is you specifically need in order to prevent burnout—and to evaluate jobs, managers, teams, and companies accordingly.
Acknowledging burnout is an important step, but it’s also important to understand what might’ve gotten you to that point. In a recent keynote address on burnout, Emilie Aries, author, leadership coach, and founder of Bossed Up, which helps women and marginalized people transform their careers, shared four main causes:
- Lack of rest: Essential to this cause is the belief that you can’t take a break, whether you feel your input is too valuable to take a day off or there are personal circumstances (perhaps caring for a newborn or elderly relative) that prevent you from getting adequate rest outside of work.
- Lack of agency: If you’re frustrated that you don’t have any say in how to do your job and you feel like you’re at the beck and call of your manager and/or clients, then lack of agency may be to blame for your burnout.
- Lack of purpose: Feeling like your work doesn’t matter or your company isn’t contributing to the greater good can be a recipe for burnout.
- Lack of community: Work-from-home life has its advantages, but there are also a few cons as well, especially if you’re a person who thrives in community. Zoom happy hours simply aren’t a replacement for the real thing. Then again, even if you work in an office surrounded by people, you might not have a sense of community or feel like you’ve found the kind of community you need to thrive.
When working to avoid burnout in your next role, it’s important to take a look at the list above and determine which causes resonate with you (or what has resonated in the past), and how that translates into what you’re looking for in a future role. Determining the root cause of your particular burnout is crucial. After all, unless you figure out why you’re feeling burnt out, you’re likely to repeat history even in a new environment. It’s about “reflecting and consolidating memories,” Aries says, and “creating a narrative of what you’ve learned and what you want to take with you into this next chapter.”
“If it’s a lack of rest, you have to ask yourself, ‘How do I change my relationship with rest in my next position?’” Aries says. “I see people who burn out and quit their jobs without having used a single vacation day.” During the job search, pay close attention to how many holidays, sick days, and vacation days the company offers and do some digging to see what the culture is around using PTO. What good is unlimited vacation days if no one uses them? To put matters back in your own hands, make a vow to yourself to use your PTO in the next role and put a plan in place (or enlist a work friend) to hold yourself accountable.
If lack of purpose is the cause of your burnout, try looking for a company that aligns with your personal mission and values or a role that makes you feel as though you’re contributing to the greater good. Aries also suggests seeking out companies that believe in giving back and will provide you with the time to make volunteerism a priority if that will give you the purpose you crave. This is not to say you need to rush out and land a job at a nonprofit. Plenty of corporations have corporate social responsibility (or CSR) models, such as Ben & Jerry’s commitment to leading with progressive values and Cisco Meraki’s Time2Give program, which encourages employees to volunteer for causes they care about and gives them paid days off to do it. (Full disclosure: Cisco Meraki is a current client of The Muse.)
If the source of your burnout stems from lack of community, especially if you’re applying to a job with remote or hybrid work policies, be sure to ask the hiring manager how staff remains engaged and connected to one another. Perhaps they’ve gotten creative with Zoom happy hours, or there’s a company practice of introducing new team members to existing staff through one-on-one calls or an org-wide meet and greet. Are Slack channels all business, or is virtual water cooler conversation encouraged?
Once you have a sense of what you need in order to avoid burnout, you can use The Muse to filter your search based on the benefits and perks you value most—for example, you can look for jobs only at companies that offer unlimited vacation, company outings, and more.
Now that you’ve identified your personal causes of burnout, it’s important to process them and think through what tendencies of yours might have contributed before moving on to the next gig. While journaling and meditation are great places to start, talking through your experiences with a trusted friend or a therapist is also helpful.
“If you had a micromanaging boss, or chronically dated toxic people, you may have habitually sought out people who want to control you,” Aries says. “My therapist helped me see my own patterns that were leading to toxic relationships and therapy can really help you identify those red flags and break the cycle of finding yourself in toxic workplaces.”
However you decide to reflect, it’s important that you don’t skip over this crucial step. “If you don’t actually take the time to process, your odds of grabbing at whatever comes your way next without really thinking about setting yourself up for sustainable success becomes higher,” Aries says. “So whether you’re navigating a career transition or looking at new roles, you owe it to yourself to give yourself a bit of time and space to reflect on what’s going to work for you over the long term and not apply a Band-Aid solution to a bullethole problem.”
While they serve the purpose of telling you what the job’s about, job descriptions can also provide clues as to whether a position is ripe for burnout.
A well-written job description will explicitly state where you’ll have autonomy, for example, such as whether you’ll be leading a team, serving as the point person for certain projects, or owning particular tasks. On the other hand, if you see a job description that lacks details or combines several roles into one that could be a warning sign. “Micromanagers are not very good at writing job descriptions,” Aries says. “If you see a job description that’s very ambiguous about leadership opportunities, that’s a sign that you won’t have a lot of agency.”
Other potential clues include phrases such as “fast-paced,” “hardworking,” “team player,” and “committed,” according to Lenore Champagne Beirne, founder of Bright Ventures and an executive coach who uses best practices in management, leadership, and personal development to drive positive transformation in people, companies, and communities. “These are words you’ll want to follow up on in an interview. You can ask what those phrases mean to them,” Champagne Beirne says, to try to gauge whether you’d be setting yourself up to have the agency and rest you need to avoid burnout.
Try asking, “What is a hallmark of a hard worker or an example of a super committed team member?” Champagne Beirne says. “That might help you understand if this is a place where the measure of success is how many hours you put in or if it’s something else.”
Using your insight into your specific burnout tendencies, you can prepare a list of questions to ask the hiring manager and/or team at your interview. Questions like, “How do you measure success?” “What is the company’s policy toward PTO?” and even, “When’s the last time you took a day off?” can all point toward the culture at a potential workplace. For additional information, ask about the company’s wellness program (maybe they have an on-site gym or give a discount to local fitness centers; perhaps they offer free access to meditation programs; some companies even implement self-care days to be used at your discretion).
The body language and tone of the interviewer or hiring manager can also offer clues, Champagne Beirne says, and help you better understand how they feel about their own workload, for example. Do they seem tired or frazzled? “Is their demeanor one of desperation and panic?” she says. “Are they unsure how they’re going to fill the role if you don’t come onboard?”
As for green flags, Champagne Beirne notes that a collaborative interview process—one where candidates are encouraged to ask questions—is a good sign of things to come. “More and more employers are understanding that it’s worth asking candidates what questions they have or how they would approach issues,” she says. “Looking for interviewers and hiring managers who are comfortable with uncertainty, comfortable with ambiguity, and provide a sense of psychological safety are some of the best predictors of a workplace being mentally healthy.”
It’s true, sometimes our friends know us better than we know ourselves. Running your hesitations or concerns past your personal board of directors—a group of people you can trust with career-related questions and concerns—is one way to vet your next opportunity.
“It’s always so helpful to have the perspective of a trusted advisor and friend you can be open with about your concerns and get their feedback on if an opportunity sounds like it would actually align with your needs and your current stage of life,” Champagne Beirne says.
Taking time to pause and reflect on what’s led to burnout for you in the past—and then carefully evaluating and talking through potential opportunities accordingly—can help you find a next role that will lead to success and wellbeing, not burnout.