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Recognizing the Difference Between Burnout and a Dead End

For many of us pursuing financial independence and early retirement, it’s a near passion to talk about how eager we are to leave work. Work these days is less fulfilling than in the past (blame the industrial revolution and the advent of soul-sucking factory jobs for that, so says this TED Radio Hour). The pressure to be increasingly productive only gets worse with each passing year. And people are always trying to steal our staplers.

But the interesting thing is that none of those factors is inherent to work itself, or even inherent to work done on behalf of other people. Those are all artifacts of work culture, which has evolved in western society into a fairly unhealthy thing. Whereas work itself is something that most of us crave. Work gives us satisfaction and meaning. It gives us purpose and connection to other people. Work lets us create things and contribute value to the world. Recognizing the difference between work and work culture isn’t always easy, but it’s worth doing so that we don’t mistake the negatives of work culture for work itself.

And likewise, it’s worth learning to recognize the difference between a truly unfulfilling career or job (work itself) and solvable problems like disenchantment and burnout (side effects of work culture).

Burnout is a real and significant psychological condition that can arise from unhealthy work circumstances, and I’m convinced that it’s what I’ve been feeling this year — the anxiety and dread, the lack of motivation, the negativity, the feeling of exhaustion. It’s considered to be a result of stressful jobs that cross beyond our ability to cope with them. And while it can feel horrible and all-consuming, burnout is also fixable. A dead-end career is not.

Today we’re talking all about learning to tell the difference between a true dead-end and temporary burnout or disenchantment. So that we know why we’re trying so hard to retire early in the first place.

Recognizing the Difference Between Burnout and a Dead End // Reconnecting with

This is a pretty un-PC thing to say to a bunch of people interested in retiring early, but if you have that feeling that work isn’t working for you, work itself might not be to blame. It just might be your company or field, and a culture that has developed there that burns people out. It could very well be that the thing that will make you happiest isn’t leaving your career entirely, but just making a move to a different company or field.

I’m not suggesting that anyone dial back their FIRE plans (goodness knows I’m doing everything I can think of to accelerate ours!), but it’s worth taking the time to recognize what’s motivating your career exit, and whether your “why” has to do with your current work culture or with work itself.

What Is Burnout?

According to Mayo Clinic, burnout is “a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work.” According to the Association for Psychological Science, “Ultimately, burnout results when the balance of deadlines, demands, working hours, and other stressors outstrips rewards, recognition, and relaxation.” It can feel like a lot of different things, including depression, negativity, irratability, anxiety, lack of motivation or inability to take action, extreme fear of failure, you name it.

And burnout has a bunch of causes, all related to overwhelming our ability to cope with an unhealthy modern work culture:

Lack of control. An inability to influence decisions that affect your job — such as your schedule, assignments or workload — could lead to job burnout. So could a lack of the resources you need to do your work.

Unclear job expectations. If you’re unclear about the degree of authority you have or what your supervisor or others expect from you, you’re not likely to feel comfortable at work.

Dysfunctional workplace dynamics. Perhaps you work with an office bully, or you feel undermined by colleagues or your boss micromanages your work. This can contribute to job stress.

Mismatch in values. If your values differ from the way your employer does business or handles grievances, the mismatch can eventually take a toll.

Poor job fit. If your job doesn’t fit your interests and skills, it might become increasingly stressful over time.

Extremes of activity. When a job is monotonous or chaotic, you need constant energy to remain focused — which can lead to fatigue and job burnout.

Lack of social support. If you feel isolated at work and in your personal life, you might feel more stressed.

Work-life imbalance. If your work takes up so much of your time and effort that you don’t have the energy to spend time with your family and friends, you might burn out quickly.

Source: Mayo Clinic

According to the Association for Psychological Science, “Many of the symptoms of burnout overlap with the hallmarks of depression, including extreme fatigue, loss of passion, and intensifying cynicism and negativity.” And indeed, the symptoms and potential health impacts are pretty terrible, looking a lot like other stress-related illnesses:

  • Excessive stress
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • A negative spillover into personal relationships or home life
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Alcohol or substance abuse
  • Heart disease
  • High cholesterol
  • Type 2 diabetes, especially in women
  • Stroke
  • Obesity
  • Vulnerability to illnesses

Unfortunately, many of these health impacts last beyond the time we spend working:

Mounting scientific evidence shows that burnout takes a profound physical toll that cascades well beyond our professional lives… Just as the impact of burnout stifles healthy professional growth, emerging research shows that the chronic psychosocial stress that characterizes burnout not only impairs people’s personal and social functioning, it also can overwhelm their cognitive skills and neuroendocrine systems — eventually leading to distinctive changes in the anatomy and functioning of the brain.

Source: Association for Psychological Science

Burnout is serious, and it can lead to very real health problems. But if we know what to watch out for, it’s also preventable and fixable. Treating burnout looks a lot like treating other mental health challenges — addressing the behavior that got us to a burnt out state while giving us space to talk about and process the feelings involved.

Disillusionment, Burnout’s Little Brother

True burnout is a fairly high bar, and not something that everyone has experienced. But most of us have at least experienced some form of disillusionment with work, recognizing that there is something inherently unsatisfying about the modern workplace.

While disillusionment can manifest itself as “burnout light,” sometimes it’s just a natural part of growing up and realizing that the world isn’t what we thought it was. Like meeting our heros — they’re rarely the people we expect them to be. Likewise, our dream jobs rarely turn out to be what we thought, and that can be a huge letdown.

True work disillusionment can stem from any number of sources, but you know you’re there when your thoughts go more to the negative or pessimistic than to the positive or optimistic, and when you find yourself questioning the validity or importance of tasks that you once did without questioning them.

The most interesting thing about disillusionment is that it is almost always accompanied by the thought, “This could be so much better.” We find ourselves frustrated that processes aren’t more efficient, that coworkers aren’t working harder, that managers aren’t making better decisions. All of that suggest that what we want, on some level at least, is for work to be more satisfying and enjoyable, not to exit work entirely.

Related post: Our Biggest Lesson from the Financial Crisis // Don’t Bank on Going Back to Work

A True Dead End

While burnout and disillusionment are side effects of work culture, the other side of the coin is incompatibility with work itself. When we find ourselves in a true dead end. And this situation is exceedingly rare.

Some people are truly unable to work in a traditional sense — including people with disabilities that cause major impediments to their ability to hold a regular job. (My dad’s story comes to mind.) But for most of us, the feeling that we’re in a dead end career is really just a feeilng that we’ve chosen the wrong career path for our particular interests or strengths — or it’s an indication that the path we’ve chosen is becoming obsolete and we’d be best off if we retrain for a different path.

Ultimately, if we find ourselves in a place that feels like a dead end, we have three choices — not counting staying put and hating our work life. We can retire early, we can pursue a different career path, or we can take a break and give ourselves space to figure out what we truly want.

When we have that dead end feeling at work, we can retire early, pursue a different career, or take a break to figure things out.

We know very well that there are career paths out there that we would love more than our chosen ones, and that if we’d lucked into those instead on our first guess, we almost certainly wouldn’t be pursuing early retirement so aggressively. But the chips fell where they fell, and here we are. And given all of that, it’s faster and easier to just stick with what we’re doing, keep saving fast, and give ourselves the flexibility very soon to explore what work could look like on our own terms. We’re not under any illusions, though, that there’s something wrong with work itself — we know the problem is with the work culture of our career fields at this point in time… and with our own impatience.

Learning to Tell the Difference

The tell-tale signs of burnout are finding ourselves thinking, behaving or responding differently than we have in the past to similar circumstances. Mayo’s questions to figure out if your burned out could be helpful to you:

Could you be experiencing job burnout?

Source: Mayo Clinic

If you’re more irritable or cynical than you have been historically, and your productivity is suffering, then burnout could be what you’re dealing with, and then some big time vacation, behavior modification to set clearer boundaries, and even some talk therapy could all be what you need to come back from that place.

But if instead you’ve always felt that you’re wasting your talents, or that your career path isn’t what you thought it would be, it might be time to pursue an alternative career. Or in that age old question of what you want to retire to, if you find yourself so fired up about your second act projects (that’s us over here when we’re not burned out!) and can’t wait to get to them, then early retirement might be what you need most.

Recognizing Our Need to Be Useful

The reason to raise this subject to begin with — besides to encourage more people suffering from burnout to seek out treatment for it (call your doctor! get referred to the appropriate folks!) — is to remind ourselves that quitting our careers won’t instantly make us happy. Just as it won’t magically make us our best selves, it also magically make us happy if what has been making us unhappy is not work itself but work culture. In an ideal world, it would be the culture of work that we’d subtract from our lives, not the work itself.

Because humans have a natural desire to feel useful. To feel connected to others. To create things with our own hands and share those things with others. That’s all something that work does for us, and when we subtract our careers from our lives, we need to be intentional to make space for other work that can fulfill that need within us, even if it’s completely unpaid, all-for-the-love work. This is a good reminder to be clear on what we’re retiring to, not just what we’re escaping from, before we pull the plug.

Have You Ever Felt Burnt Out? Disillusioned? Or at a True Dead-End?

Let’s talk about this in the comments. Have any of you guys felt overwhelmed by burnout? Or felt disillusionment at any point in your career? It can be hard to admit this stuff, because it can sound like we’re admitting weakness, or that we can’t handle the demands of work. But there’s no shame in admitting that something as unhealthy as much of work culture today has impacted you negatively. For those who’ve successfully overcome it, what worked for you? Have you faced a time in your career when you felt like you were at a dead end but were actually just burned out, and you were able to overcome it and carry on? So much to discuss today!

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87 replies »

  1. I remember hearing on one of the Afford Anything podcasts how to be satisfied with what you’re doing, you need to feel you have mastery, autonomy, and purpose in your work. I did a quick Google search on that and it looks to have originated from a book/YouTube video from Daniel Pink, Without those three things, no amount of money will make us motivated. I have definitely felt both burnout and disillusionment in my working career (about 15 years now). For burnout I need to take a long break from work, focus on doing other things after work and on the weekends, and possibly switch jobs/projects. For disillusionment I focus on changing what I can, and dealing with what I can’t change. And if what I can’t change is so bad I can’t support it, I would look to switch jobs.

    • I totally believe that theory on motivation at work. And I love your approach to both burnout and disillusionment! I think a special challenge many of us pursuing FIRE have is feeling like we don’t have the option of changing jobs, especially if we’re so close to retiring, so it takes some of those mitigations off the table. But that’s somewhat balanced out by the mental relief of knowing that it all ends soon!

  2. Oh my, yes. I was reading the symptoms like yes, yes, that’s right. It can happen quickly. My last job was only for 18 months but I started to burnout at about the 6 month mark. It was NOT a good fit for my skills and I was also forced to deal with coworkers that actively worked against me. While it was a great learning opportunity, my health and personal life suffered. I found myself so drained at the end of the work day that all I would do was sleep. Take a nap after work and then lie around in bed until it was bed time.

    I am so happy to escape that job unscathed. My new job is the perfect fit for my skills. I come each day happy and energized. I haven’t napped once after work since starting this new job. Both my new coworkers and the company are benefiting from the switch as I am more productive and just have a better attitude all around. I will be happy to stay in the job until I retire!

    • Coworkers that actively worked against you — that’s the worst! I’m so glad you got out of that situation. Thank goodness you got out of there before it did lasting damage! I’m so so so happy that you’re in a better job now, one you could see yourself staying in until you end your career! :-)

  3. A couple of Japanese engineers that I used to work with regularly have clear symptom of completely burnout. They show up to work around 9:30 AM then take the last train home around 12 AM. Not to mention it typically takes them an hour to get home by train. When they get home they’d answer emails until around 3 AM or so. They often work on weekends too. That’s a totally unsustainable work life IMO. You either need to take a very long break or you will end up seeing the grave.

    Unfortunately a lot of the tech firms operate like that. People are on 24/7 shifts for a few months at the time THEN they take time off.

  4. I definitely fall on the disillusioned side, there are some projects going on that I can’t believe are my job. It goes up and down though, not a continuous soul drain.

    With the amount of hours you (and other people that frequent the comment section) work I can imagine that you are burnt out! Racking up that many miles itself is a full time job! (but retired you will be happy :) )

    • I think most of us have been there with the disillusionment, so feel your pain! Thank goodness it’s not to burnout levels. And what’s interesting is that even with high hours in the past, it’s not like I always feel burned out. This year was a special case. But you’re right — those miles will be a sweet reward for it once we quit. :-)

  5. Great post! I was completely burned out at my last job. Promotions were not based on merit and neither was pay. It got to the point of why am I killing myself every day over a job that doesn’t inspire me and doesn’t pay all that well. I was lucky to find my current employer that is a true meritocracy. My pay is directly linked to the value I create for the company. Job satisfaction goes way up when you feel like you have control over your career and earning power.

    • Thanks! Ugh — why do employers think they can ask so much of people without providing basic incentives?! They need to go back and read their Adam Smith! ;-) I’m so glad for you, though, that you’re in a much better situation now and feel more rewarded for your effort!

  6. I’m pretty sure I’ve set up shop at the corner of Burnt Out and Dead-End! Seriously, it hasn’t been a good stretch. I think the onset of winter and daylight savings time might also have something to do with it, but overall I know I need a major change in my career. I’ve felt this way for sometime now, but I was always able to just put my head down and plow through. Now that doesn’t even work. I’m currently exploring a new opportunity that I’m SUPER excited about, but we’ll see what happens once that’s up. I’m really hoping it’s a spring board towards something completely different, but if not I’ll have to go back to the drawing board…which sounds horrible. So glad you’re talking about this stuff – I think it’s an epidemic.

    • Oh man, I’m sorry to hear that! I do think you’re right that burnout is at epidemic levels, sadly! I can’t wait to hear about this opportunity you’re exploring that has you so excited! I hope it all works out so you can escape your bad career situation ASAP!

  7. Let’s see – yes, yes, and no. :) Nice post! I experienced disilusionment and burnout at megacorp and man, it totally affected my life. Sleep sucked, alcohol consumption was up, I was grumpy and moody -even away from the office, my blood pressure was pre-hypertension – wtf, and I put on about 16 lbs… Mine stemmed from most of those points you brought up, poor management, too much stress, work life imbalance – even though they tout that as their mantra- bah!, feeling of no control and no job satisfaction.

    I came to them and cited having no job satisfaction, and wanting to get back to feeling like I made a difference, and even proposed 3 different scenarios that would have a more positive business impact than my current one, and I got told nope, you’re here for another 18-24 months before you can get a different position. Their point was that this was a great “resume” position, I was managing million dollar projects, working internationally, I was already “making a difference” so why would I want to leave it? (eyeroll)

    Instead of shutting down, I polished my resume, got a head hunter, and had a new job in less than 4 months. It was actually one I found on my own too! It also came with a sweet sign on bonus, 30% raise in salary and better yearly bonus targets. Add in the fact that 2.5 yrs later, I am still happy, still like coming to work, and still like the work culture, and it’s a ‘Yuge win! lol Using ‘Yuge that still cracks me up. The main point is, you don’t have to settle – trying something new can be scary, but it can pay out.

    When I went to leave my company, it felt like I was leaving a cozy little cabin in the middle of the woods at midnight to venture into the scary unknown. Now I know I was just leaving the house from TX Chainsaw Massacre to find a new happy place to work, lol. Fear shouldn’t stop you from trying to better your job situation or life. :)

    • I’m sort of curious if anyone read this and thought, “Only 16 pounds? You don’t get to complain!” Hahaha. I’m so glad you were able to escape the bad vibes of that burnout work situation, and how fantastic that you’re still happy and thriving in your current position… and still raking in the big bucks! :-) Your cabin in the woods analogy is PERFECT.

      • Even going thru an overly extended “reorg/restructuring” it’s still been mostly positive. This stupid thing has been dragging since July… Theres still positive energy around the office despite that.

        As far as the weight, I’m sure it was probably more, but i jsut remember hitting that point of “I need to do something about this” around the 16 lb mark. The whole time I was still rowing 2-3x a week for 45 min, and doing 3-4 Insanity workouts a week, and STILL put on that much weight. Hahahaha, sigh…

      • That’s pretty amazing that the energy is still positive with that reorg hanging over everyone. And wow — I don’t know how you found the time *or motivation* to keep up that workout schedule when you were in the worst of your burnout. That’s some seriously good habit wiring you’ve got!

  8. Excellent post–this really hits home with a lot of what I’ve been struggling with lately. I have not had a good framework for thinking about this, so I really appreciate this!

    I think I’ve lived through cycles of burnout and disillusionment several times. I made a very bad career choice right off the bad and sunk $100K into a law degree when that was a very bad fit for my skills. And I’ve been dealing with that sunk cost fallacy ever since–I have to use my degree! I spent so much money on it!

    Right now I am in a relatively high paying position, using skills I have built up over several years. There is very little work to do right now, so I am generally bored for hours each day. I’ll probably be able to work in this role for some time, but there is very little opportunity for movement into areas that I have more interest in. So, I’m saving my pennies.

    But I don’t know what I actually really want to do. Am I just lazy because I want out? That is the fear and guilt I have been dealing with lately. Maybe I’m just a lazy person who doesn’t want to work. I certainly feel that judgement from others when I tell them I want to retire early.

    • Thanks! And I’m sorry you’re struggling with this big question — though you’re definitely not alone for that! We know plenty of friends who sunk major money into grad degrees and then find that they don’t actually want to use them, but feel like they must to have made it all worthwhile. But like your sunk cost fallacy, it’s the same as the gambling idea of throwing good money after bad — that money is gone. You’re not getting it back. Pursuing something that doesn’t make you happy doesn’t get it back. I know you know that, and knowing it doesn’t make the decision(s) any easier, but just providing moral support. :-) Either way, I don’t blame you for wanting to exit from all of it and find a new way to shape your own life and work based around your won interests!

      • Thanks Ms. ONL! Your right, I know at this point that the money is gone. Plus, I’ve worked in a semi-related field for 12 years now, so I guess I am at the point where I have given myself permission to move on, although as I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t feel like I’m quite to my number yet.

        Biggest challenge is I just don’t know what’s next! Sometimes I feel like I have a great passion for something, but I don’t have time to explore those things (much) at this point, so it feels like everything is on hold. And other times I just don’t want to do anything at all except be done–hence the fear that I’m just lazy. So helpful to have posts like yours to help work through these challenges and think them out!!!

      • I can relate to so much of this, even though I didn’t sink big money into law or grad school. But when you’re super busy it’s hard to take a big picture view and look at what other options might be out there — AND I 100% understand the desire to just be done already. (That definitely sounds like some burnout going on!) Maybe you can take some time over the holidays to look at the big picture and what other options might be out there worth exploring? Sending you lots of good luck! :-)

  9. I can relate to the definition of burnout and many of the symptoms from the Mayo Clinic. I don’t think I’m truly burnt out though. I just feel those symptoms when certain projects just get to be too much. The late nights, the demands, etc. But projects come to a close and I do have slower periods which resemble more of a 40 hour workweek that don’t stress me out or make me grumpy. Plus there are many things I like about my job (but are mostly outweighed by the crappy times).

    For now the job works, and more than pays the bills. If something else comes along and I KNOW it would be a better fit then I’d definitely jump at it. But I know the grass isn’t always greener.

    • I haven’t seen any scientific literature on it, but I have to believe that “project related burnout” is a thing. Because I totally know what you’re experiencing, even if it’s not technically full burnout. And you’re so right, often the grass we thought was greener turns out to be different than we expect, but if we’re truly unhappy in a job, we shouldn’t stick around just because we’re risk averse. (I know, I know — I’m not following my own advice.) ;-)

  10. I absolutely love this post. I felt burnout when I was a financial analyst and I’m very glad that I had my blog on the side at the time. Leaving that day job for Making Sense of Cents was the best decision career-wise that I’ve ever made. Towards the end of my financial analyst job, there were just so many reasons for why I realized that it wasn’t for me – burnout, stress, boredom, and even sadness. That job was not for me at all.

    • Thanks, Michelle! I’m so glad you got out of that burnout situation, and can’t wait to join you! :-) I love seeing how well Making Sense of Cents is doing — so happy for you that you’ve made such a positive move for yourself. :-)

  11. This post was awesome! I’m definitely guilty of using the “bad job” as a reason to accelerate retirement. While that’s not a bad thing, I recently made a change: when my boyfriend moved, I screwed up my courage and asked my bosses if I could change to working remotely. Fortunately I had my savings pad my courage. They agreed. In the first few weeks of working from home, my job has gone from “let’s get out as soon as possible” to “I could keep doing this for a while, maybe part time…” Suddenly I have the fulfilling parts and lost a lot of the toxic work culture. Perspective is everything.

    • Congrats on negotiating a remote arrangement! That’s so awesome! And I’m so glad it’s making you happier… that’s the best. Not every remote work arrangement is healthier (ahem, just ask us!), but I’m thrilled for you that it’s working out in your case. :-)

  12. You’d like the Adam Ruins Everything episode on work culture: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x3lghq2_adam-ruins-everything-s01-e08_tv. It’s like John Oliver, blending a serious topic with comedy.

    A friend of mine yesterday had a work meeting essentially to cover many of the bullet points brought up in the Mayo Clinic citation above. I think the conclusion of the meeting, is that it’s just tough and everyone is going to have to deal with it.

    I’m going to send this on to my friend. Unfortunately, it seems like the only option in this case is staying put and hating life and judiciously taking breaks for a couple of years when other options are possible.

    • Thanks for the link! We’ll check it out. And I understand the bind your friend is in! See Mr. SSC’s comment here for a counterpoint, though — it’s easy to think the option we’re in is our ONLY option, but that’s rarely true. Of course, having said that, we’ve decided to stick it out in our “only options.” ;-)

      • Well the friend is almost in an “all or nothing” position that has been decades in the making. Imagine if you spent 23 years earning 25% of your peers with the promise of getting a six-figure pension for life if you work to 25 years. You’d have option of leaving, but then you’d have to go back to square one financially. You’d be postponing financial independence for a long time.

        I’m playing fast and loose with the details (and exaggerating a bit), but that gives the feel for the pickle. I can look at the situation objectively with little bias and not be hindered by the emotion of being in it. Still, I’m like: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

      • Ah, gotcha! That’s a tough spot to be indeed, and I’d probably have to agree with your friend. Though it rarely pays off to throw good money after bad (or in this case time!), being so close to that pension probably makes it worth it to stick it out!

  13. This post hit the nail on the head! The distinction between work vs. work culture is so crucial for making the best decisions for your personal and professional well-being. I’ve had many jobs where I knew 3 months in they were not a good fit. I thought I had to stick with them to gain experience and build a resume. Conventional wisdom recommends this when you’re first starting out. But sometimes it’s better to be honest with yourself. Decide what changes are necessary to make your current work fulfilling, or start looking for other opportunities that are a better fit.

    • Well said! Not being a good fit with one job doesn’t make us a bad fit with *any* job — we just have to work a little harder to find a better one, or to create our own. :-)

  14. You always bring up such fascinating topics, delving deeper than many of the PF blogs! Certainly I have experienced burnout and disillusionment in my career. Not using my strongest skill set, lack of autonomy, frustration with public education in general…fun times. Now I deal with disillusionment in my parenting job…a balance of part-time work so I could still spend lots of time with the kiddos would probably be optimal for me. We’ll see how things go for me after we (probably) move and Mr. COD changes jobs next summer!

    • Aw, thanks for saying that! :-D That’s SO interesting to hear you talk about disillusionment in parenting — talk about a topic that people don’t talk about! Good luck figuring out a good balance for yourself next summer, if not sooner — I hope you can find a way to get that part-time work going!

  15. My company restructured this year which led to major burnout on my end as my job and job flexibility is so unique, no one is entirely sure where I fit in. Things are starting to get a bit better, but I think this is a really important topic. Overall, I’m still passionate about my work and am valued when people figure out the right place to put me, so it’s not a dead end burnout. But should Mr. T start feeling burnt out… it would be a different story entirely since he’s not at all passionate about his work currently.

    • Oh man, I had no idea! :-( Restructuring is the worst, and I can only imagine what that’s like as a remote employee. Thank goodness you’re still passionate about the work, so it’s at least worth putting up with the restructuring headaches for now — I hope that all gets sorted out soon!

  16. Great topic–it’s true that work itself is not necessarily the problem. Anyone who hustles enough to retire early probably will keep working hard at something. I left my first job due to burn out. I knew there was no end in sight. Sometimes I felt like I failed, but I found much more flexible, less-stress ways to use my degree and skills in healthier settings.

    Neil left his last job because it was a dead end. It was a really good dead-end job–good pay, good benefits, not stressful, no extra hours. But it was in a very niche field that is not likely to grow (nuclear power) and he had no opportunity for advancement within that niche without relocating. The problem wasn’t so much the company or work environment, just the nature of the field. It was a good first job but not a good place to stay. He is so much happier in his current job.

    • You raise a great example of a true dead end — a niche field where the only way to grow is to move, and maybe move to only a small number of places. And I totally get your feelings of failure that came along with your burnout — that’s completely normal! So glad you guys both escaped to better situations and that you’re so much happier now!

  17. Yep, I had major burnout when I was working with manipulative, abusive, bosses in a very unhealthy culture where petty vendettas were the norm and you were punished if you didn’t spy on your coworkers for the wannabe petty tyrant. I knew that the problem was the people and that workplace’s culture though, and I survived it in part by finding professional mentors who regularly reassured me that the culture was both unprofessional and not norm for any functional workplace and in part by focusing on my ultimate goal: getting the kind of experience I’d need to move up in my next job where I would be seeking autonomy and authority. I earned both in spades after a series of job changes, and overall, while I don’t love the daily grind, I am fulfilled in being useful, having autonomy over my work life to a high degree, and I’m making the money I need to support our family and save for a future that doesn’t include working forever.
    In the past two years I’d been feeling increasing disillusionment because of a difficult work-politics issue but it has now passed (like a kidney stone) and I’m almost magically happier :D

    • I’m always shocked when I hear stories like yours, because WHO THINKS THIS IS A GOOD WAY TO RUN AN ORGANIZATION?!?!?! Does it not occur to people that low morale and high turnover are BAD — but also preventable? That stuff just completely confounds me. But so glad you managed to escape from there and have seen the payoff in your subsequent work. As far as I’m concerned, you deserve a medal for putting up with that as long as you did!

  18. Great topic. I’ve found in my career my disillusionment or unhappiness is directly tied to my manager. If I have a poor manager then it essentially deep sixes any desire for me to work more. With a manager that supports me but gets out of my way I feel driven to succeed. I recently transitioned from the poor to the good, and my wife daily comments about how much more happy I am. My wife was in a similar situation before she left the work force. She is still struggling with determining whether it was the circumstance or burn out. At least she has some time now to figure it out by experimenting with other situations.

    • Thanks! And that’s definitely been true for us, too — a good manager makes all the difference. (Though lately it’s larger forces that are having more of an impact on our mindset at work.) I’m SO glad that you’re in a better situation currently with a supportive manager — how great that you feel so much happier!

  19. We have zero shame in sharing that burnout was the primary catalyst in both of our decisions to stop working and start traveling. We enjoyed a lot of things about what we did, but many of the “work culture” elements (great way to describe it, BTW) were killing us — and far too literally, considering the physical impacts of the stress we were both feeling.

    Even in FI(RE), we’ll surely do plenty of work in the future. It’s good to feel useful, and it’s rewarding to effect positive change. Whatever work we choose, though, will be selected more carefully with the freedom to prioritize lifestyle and take time away much more regularly.

    • Oh, amen! Burnout is definitely driving my impatience all the way! I think you were really helpful to me in making that connection that OF COURSE we’ll work in the future. We won’t be satisfied contributing nothing. It will just be nice when we don’t feel like we HAVE to work. So I see the same thing for you guys — of course you’ll work, but you’ll set a higher bar for what you’re not willing to put up with in terms of bad work culture!

  20. I’ve been both burnt out and disillusioned at times over my 20+ years of work. I think my current source of job disillusionment is boredom plus exhaustion from near constant deadlines. I crave variety and learning new skills but took a job with limited growth opportunity because the awesome flexibility and wonderful team was more important. I’ve had some success recovering by remembering the non-financial “why” I wanted to get from the job, volunteering for more of the things I like at work and then conveniently become too busy for parts I didn’t like, and building a more interesting life outside the office. And remembering to be grateful I no longer have a boss that shoots rubber bands and paper clips at me for 45 minutes in a clients office or makes me work in a supply closet. Sometimes it’s the little things.

    • Wow — boredom AND exhaustion! That’s a tough combo. :-( Though thank goodness you have the flexibility and great team to balance it out somewhat. And ugh — thank goodness you escaped from that degrading boss. That sounds terrible!

  21. I think recognizing that it would be damn near impossible for me to spend the next 50 years (or however many years I have left in this world) not generating income in some form beyond what my assets spit off was really the realization that made me feel like it would be pretty dumb to burn myself out trying to get to 25x assets as quickly as possible. It’s also the realization that allowed me to open a DAF – more on that Monday.

    I totally get the willingness to put yourself through burn out if you are wanting to get rid of massive debts quickly or you are wanting to stop working so that you can spend more time at home with your kids, or even if you want to work for the peace corps for the rest of your life, but if you have zero dependents or financial obligations, it’s pretty hard to fathom that not any of your massive newfound free time would be spent in any sort of income producing activity.

    • I think that’s a super important realization, and I’m glad you planned your time and finances accordingly! I think if we weren’t so close to FIRE at this point, we would absolutely be looking at a major career change. Being so close, though, makes for a different calculus — AND it does help us keep going, because we know the end is in sight! (Not that we suggest others do what we’re doing!)

      • Completely agree – It’s hard enough figuring my own shit out. And yeah, it would be completely rational that if you’re only a year or 2 away, that you would be more tolerable of short term burnout and especially in your case when you have stated that it will be rather difficult to duplicate your current income doing something else.

      • Yeah, and I’m not exaggerating on that income replacement point. If we still lived in the big city, that’d be one thing. But in a tiny ski town? Um, yeah, try finding ANY six figure job up here that isn’t CEO of the ski resort or partner of the only law firm in town! Not that a person needs six figures, but it would just slow down our trajectory enough that we don’t even want to consider it.

  22. I love my work and work for myself (…so I have a boss who respects me and treats me well!) but I started to become aware of burn out lurking around the corner while looking at the lists you shared.
    I work with folks who are recovering from drug and alcohol use and this is a really rough season for almost all. I am coming home now somewhat sad and tired.
    Thanks for the heads-up. I think I am going to schedule a massage and time in nature,

    • Sounds like you have the perfect boss! ;-) And you’re so right — this is a tough time of year all around. So glad you’re going to focus on self care to stave off burnout!

  23. I have definitely experienced burnout. That toxic workplace I mentioned in a previous comment on another post burned me out so quickly it wasn’t even funny. It was my first job after university in my industry, and I was literally going home every day and wanting to cry (or actually crying) because I was convinced that I was terrible at my job, and just not cut out for the field I had chosen, and had therefore wasted 4 years and $40,000 on an education that qualified me to work at a job that was making me miserable (side note: workplace bullies are the WORST).

    Luckily, that job only lasted 8 months and soon after it ended I found my current job, which I love (and it turns out I actually am a perfect fit for my chosen field!). No, it’s not all sunshine and roses, sometimes it gets really busy or I work on crappy projects, but I never go home depressed and worrying that it’s never going to get better.

    Before that experience, I would have said that as long as a job is paying the bills, it’s doing what it’s supposed to do, and who cares whether or not you’re happy (so naive!)? After that experience, I will never again push myself to keep doing something I hate just for the money. Thanks to discovering the FIRE movement, soon enough that won’t even be a consideration.

    • What a perfect example of the difference between bad work and bad work culture! You had the bad luck of getting stuck in a bad work culture in your first job (and with an office bully to boot — I’m so sorry!), and thank goodness you got out of there and found that it wasn’t the work that was the problem after all. Hooray! How fantastic that your work story has a happy ending… or at least a happy interim ending for now, to be followed by your early retirement! :-D

  24. Starting in a new career can seem so overwhelming. However, when thinking about the few years it could take to retrain vs the few decades of productive working years left, it’s a lot more reasonable to put forth that time and effort.

    Thanks for talking about this subject–like so many other difficult ones, it’s common but we all think we’re struggling alone.

    • For anyone more than a couple of years away from retirement, I totally agree with you! I think it’s a tougher calculus when you’re closer, like we are, but it’s still important to make a clear-eyed assessment and be honest about how a current job might be harming your health and well-being!

  25. I’m considering a 30% pay cut for less stress. I haven’t found a job yet but exploring opportunities that pay less but maybe would be better for me holistically. Your dad’s story reminds us all that health and being able-bodied is not something we should take for granted. I try to remind myself of my health & happiness every time I’m feeling down.

    • You know I am dying to hear about your wedding! Send pics!! :-) Wow, that’s a big pay cut you’re considering — you must really be unhappy at work to leave that option on the table. But I applaud you for recognizing that life is too short to let work harm your health.

  26. I’ve experienced both. Being a perfectionist, I tend to drive myself beyond what’s reasonable, regardless of what my employer initially required of the position when I first started. Once the employer becomes accustomed to a certain level of devotion, loyalty and commitment, it becomes impossible to scale back without appearing to be a slacker. Having the luxury of hindsight, I can certainly see with crystal clarity how much of the eventual burnout I experienced was directly related to my own need for accolades. IF (and that’s a big if) I were to go to work for someone else again, I would check my perfectionism at the door, settle for doing a “good enough” job, and learn to leave the work at work. If I couldn’t do that, I wouldn’t work for someone else. I’ve never been able to find that healthy balance and doubt I possess the capability to do so, but that’s the only way I’d even consider employment again. I’ve been retired two years, but I’m still dealing with many health issues related directly or indirectly to years and years of holding myself to impossibly high standards, and as much as I enjoy taking pride in my work, my health is more important.

    • More than any of your other comments, this one feels like you’re talking about me. I know that a lot of my burnout is my own fault in that I set my own high standards, and then once the bar is set there, I can’t dial things back without looking like I’m underperforming — or just simply I don’t know how to dial it back. This is something I’m thinking long and hard about, and trying to learn to set clearer boundaries in 2017, which will be a real challenge as I’m sure you can understand! (Look for this in the first post in January.) But I love the parameters you’ve set, that you would only go back to work for someone else if you could do a “good enough” role and then leave work at the office — I think I need to create a similar rule for myself.

  27. Great thoughts on this, and you’re so right about the distinctions. I’ve suffered from burnout in all of my “regular” 9-5 jobs, mostly from horribly unsupportive coworkers and poor management. When I started, my motivation was very high because I take a lot of pride in my work ethic and the value I produce, but after a few months, I began to question why I was bothering (work culture was NOT a match). So I went through the disillusioned phase, too.

    That’s why, when the opportunity to move to another state and “start over” came up, I figured, why not just try and make my own path? It’s not without its ups and downs, but I feel more in control because I know I can change courses if I need to. I’ve also found that time away – specifically, unplugging – really helps. Reflection is necessary to get clear on how to move away from burnout in a healthy way. If we keep busy and never step away, it just gets worse.

    • I’m so sorry you’ve found yourself in so many bad work cultures, Erin! :-( It’s great that you’ve done the introspection necessary to figure out the solution, though, and that you’re in a better situation now. I’m going to take your unplugging advice and unplug from all of it — blog included! — over the holidays. I will miss the blog, but can’t wait to unplug from work! :-)

  28. Fore me, I think the two blended into each other. I got burned out and I kept pushing for 2 more years. That made the career a dead end. It would have been better if I just left and find a different job. Although, I did tried that once. It was better for a few years, but the burned out feeling came back. That career just wasn’t the right fit for me anymore. Sometime, you have to move on.

    • I relate to that feeling, Joe! Like I wonder if I should have changed jobs a few years ago instead of pushing through. I still love my company, though, just not the demands of my job, so it’s a tough call. Plus now we’re so close that it’s pointless to try to switch. In any case, I’m super glad for you that you were able to move on! :-D

  29. Damn! I answered every one of those Mayo burnout questions yes. This is something I already kind of knew intuitively.

    Mrs. EE and I just had a conversation this weekend about whether I should keep my license to keep the door open to return to work. She suggested maybe I just need a change of scenery. I disagreed. I am completely disillusioned by our healthcare system. As I think about the positives of my job almost all are financial. I have a good salary and great benefits. In my job, my value is in the relationships I’ve built with clients and referral sources, so I would have a hard time ever having these positives I have now without building that back up from scratch. However, the more we have, the less important those financial benefits are. This is why I think I need to completely move on to “my next life” if you don’t mind me borrowing that. I think I’m completely burnt out on my current work life.

    • Uh oh… that’s no good! But I can completely relate to how you’re feeling, though in a different field. Sometimes it’s hard to know if it’s just the need for different scenery, or if you really need to be in a different field. In your case, I wonder if you could still help people in different ways without having to deal with the same health insurance headaches — like can you do what you do for folks who pay cash? I’m sure you’ve thought about all of this, so I’ll not try to suggest more. :-) And you know I fully support you guys moving on to your next life! How’s the town search coming? ;-)

  30. Oh man, have I felt this! I have been working as a temp since 2012 in my professional field. In 2014, I started my own small business in that field while still working as a temp. The temp work is monotonous and draining. We are expendable and micromanaged. It is terrible and soulless. However, now that I am using it to fund my life while I build up my business, it is far more manageable for my heart. I’m using it for a greater purpose and that has made an incredible difference in my outlook and approach.

    • I continue to be amazed at how much positivity you find — it’s so great that you’ve made up your mind that your temp work will fund your greater purpose and dream work, and you don’t let the bad stuff bother you as much anymore, though I’m positive that everything annoying about your temp work is still there.

  31. I had major job burnout and disillusionment with my previous job. It was a place that I feel like the movie Office Space could have filmed there and would have mirrored the film, complete with interviewing with consultants at one point. Absolutely nauseating…

    • Yuck! That sounds awful! I’m so glad you escaped — I can only imagine what a toll that must have taken every day. And geez… I literally can’t imagine having to deal with consultants coming in like that to make you interview for your own job!

  32. Some good insights here on not liking to work or not liking the job!

    I have been the past years a few time in not liking the job and having some serious work disillusionment. Right now, I do feel lucky to love the job (knock on wood).

    I have seen a friend of mine that burned out… no fun for him and his family. Hes is back now, a little changed. More aware of his pitfalls and his need to be present and focused on what matters. A good lessons for us all

    • It feels like an important distinction! And I knew that you like your sort of new job — but I don’t think I’ve seen you use the word “love” before! That’s so wonderful! I’m so, so glad for you that your job move has worked out so well. And I’m glad to know that your friend learned the important lessons from his burnout episode! That’s very hard to do.

  33. Love the lists of symptoms from the Mayo clinic. I myself can check the box on many of those ‘burn out’ symptoms. I have been in the same position for about 8 years. I am very lucky in the fact that my employer doesn’t require me to be at work more than 40 hours a week or answer emails at night. This helps a lot. I think these symptoms mean a person (including myself) needs to consider changing jobs or changing positions in the same organization. I’m considering both. I think if you and your husband would also consider both if you weren’t on this early retirement plan.

    • You’re SO right that we would be considering other jobs or even careers if we weren’t already so close to early retirement! It doesn’t seem worth the trouble of switching this late in the game. But if you’re feeling so many of those burn-out symptoms, then it for sure seems worth exploring what your other options could be! No one should go through life feeling like that!

  34. I wonder if you’d feel burnt out even if you’d never heard of FIRE?

    I suspect you feel this way now because you “know the grass is greener over on the other side of the hill”.

    This makes me wonder – is it a question of motivation, or being poisoned by knowledge?

    • We think about this question a lot, actually! There is a definite grass is greener effect that comes from getting closer to ER, but I do think this year would have objectively been a burnout year either way. While sometimes planning for ER makes work feel more stressful, the flip-side is that we’d be finding different, less stressful career paths if we were planning to work longer. So hard to say which is worse!

      • While at work today, I did a search for job burnout and happened upon this blog. I can relate to all the above symptoms of being burned out and disillusionment. I’ve had three different careers and I stayed too long in the last two. I’m ready to retire early or take a really long break. My goal is to have enough “F U money” saved up in three years that I can quit my job and bounce around for a while to decide what I want to do. Working in corporate is so soul draining!

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  36. Tanja, this speaks to my soul. I have thought so much about this, and how I really don’t want to NOT WORK, I just want to do work on my own terms; work on my own projects, when I want, how I want. I truly LOVE work, but I’ve felt extreme burnout in all my past jobs after a short time and have always thought something was wrong with me. It’s a huge reason I want to be financially independent; not so that I don’t have to work, but so I can do more of the kind of work I actually want, and have the freedom to really explore what that is. I’d much rather work at something I love, an interested in, and am challenged by than stop working entirely. For that reason I’m constantly researching other fields (for fear, like you mentioned, that I got into the “wrong one”) and ways to make money and starting side projects and am always all over the place, but those things give me life in ways that jobs in the past never did.

    • I’m so glad, Emilie! :-) Modern work culture is such an odd invention, and it’s based around boosting corporate profits, not around what is good for us, what we’re wired to do, etc. So it’s no surprise that you feel the negatives of it all. I think exploring other potential paths your life and work could take is a totally healthy thing!