Welcome to the Sidebar’s advice column, where rabble, rabbits and rabbis alike sit down for a chat with our very own Muffle. Her advice might be bad, but hey, at least someone’s listening. Today we’re talking about burnout.
I experience burnout really easily and really intensely. The reason behind this is how graduate school seems to be set up for my particular degree. You have one year of practicum and then you move on. This happens for four years in a row. Then you have one year of internship, then you move on. Then you have one year of postdoc, and then you move on. Basically, you get a lot of great experience, but you begin to expect that all jobs will last a year. I’m currently starting my career and am past that sweet spot of one year. My body is telling me it’s time to move on — but I can’t. I’m a real adult now, with a real adult job (that I actually really enjoy!). I do a lot of fun things during the weekend, I don’t overwork myself, and I have friends that I can talk about non-work things with — but I still feel drained. It doesn’t help that in my particular line of work I do not get paid vacations (paid via insurance — any time you don’t work, you don’t make money). Any advice?
Doctorate in Burnout
DiB, this letter really hit home, because I experienced the exact same thing a few years ago.
Though it sounds like our graduate programs were structured pretty differently, I spent my life in school from the ages of three to twenty-five, and got deeply accustomed to the fact that things constantly change. Until you get out of high school, you have the same schedule for about nine months at a time, then summer, then something new. In college and beyond, it’s even worse, because that timeline condenses down to a semester (or even a trimester) at a time before you get a whole new set of teachers and classes and expectations. You run your little race, you hit the finish line, and it all resets. Fresh start, #newyearnewyou, the works.
But then, assuming you ran all those little races adequately, you graduate, and with luck, you get a job. Hooray, all that hard work paid off! You did it! You made it! And at first, that’s great; you got exactly what you were working for all along. But, gradually or all at once, you start to realize that, in exchange, you gave up all those finish lines and all those reset buttons. And now… this is it. This is your life. Forever, until you retire or you die.
It hit me all at once. I started working in October, and went home to see my family for the holidays. When I returned to work on January 6 (I remember the exact day), it was like the world fell apart. Suddenly, the job I’d actually rather enjoyed felt like being trapped in an elevator with no hope that the doors would ever open. For the first time in my life, I developed acute anxiety, and each work week was a never-ending, low-level panic attack. I would pretend I was going to the bathroom, close myself in the soundproof cubby my office had for confidential phone calls, and just sob. Half of what I was feeling was grief, half confusion; what was wrong with me? I’d made it, remember? This is what I wanted all along! But there I was, in my expensive big-girl heels and my freshly tailored suit, crying in a glorified closet instead of doing my job.
So how did I fix it? To be totally honest, like Simba, I ran away. I stayed with that company, but I changed offices, moved to a city closer to my hometown and near my family, and changed the kind of work I was doing. I also saw both a therapist and a psychiatrist for my anxiety, and I moved in with my then-fiancé (now husband). I built up my support network, shifted my expectations, and tried again.
It hasn’t been perfect (I had another brief period of similar anxiety this past summer, which I was able to work through without moving 300 miles away), but I like my job, and I enjoy going to it. Because your experience hasn’t been so acute, it’s unlikely that the changes you need to make are as extreme as those I chose, but the essential needs are likely the same. Build your support network, as it seems you’ve already made sure to do; take time for yourself when possible, even if you don’t get paid (if you can afford it); and last, reevaluate your expectations. Maybe this job isn’t quite the right fit, even though you enjoy it; are there others out there where you could do similar work but in a way that might feel energizing rather than draining? It’s okay to change the plan if it’s not working out the way you expected; just take your time, take a look at the life you’ve built, and make sure it looks like the life you actually want rather than the life you dreamed about before you knew what it was like.
Snark and tipples,
Got a question for Muffle? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.