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.
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
- A negative spillover into personal relationships or home life
- Alcohol or substance abuse
- Heart disease
- High cholesterol
- Type 2 diabetes, especially in women
- 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.
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.
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.
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:
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!