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Burnout is real, but I didn’t expect it to happen until I was 45

On the inevitability of burnout in today's corporate world

I’ve left jobs before but this time felt different. I felt broken. Deflated. Unable to even think past the next few days.

I’ve been giving career advice and coaching to friends and clients throughout the years. My superpower was helping people understand what they were good at and start to tell that story in a compelling way. People have looked at me as someone that “had it figured out.”

I know what I’m good at. I know what drives me. I have a good sense for the things that are non negotiable and the annoying work related things that I can deal with. I know I can get another job. I’ve done it before.

It didn’t stop me. Over the last year and a half I had a slow and steady crawl towards that terrible feeling as I left the office on my final day.

It was full on burnout.

I’ve been terrified of that feeling, but I always pictured it coming in my mid 40s after working at a company for years without a passion to create, solve problems and learn. I used that as motivation to keep moving and pursuing opportunities based on the ability to learn. It didn’t matter — it hit me at 32 instead.

I saw it coming. I knew early on that there wasn’t a strong values alignment between what I cared about, what my company cared about and what my managers cared about. I’ve even read about the research on motivation that says you need this alignment to achieve big goals, stay motivated and succeed.

Still, I stayed. The research on burnout shows it is closely linked to depression — just induced by the workplace. Once you hit that point you have a hard time seeing the positive in things. In this case I was working at a place where people did not embrace ideas — they embraced personalities, status, power — anything but ideas. This was anathema to what drives me and that combined with a shifting negative outlook led me to burn out.

Is burnout inevitable in today’s working world? The work is more complicated, people are working more and often managers don’t even know what they are doing. Edgar Schein pointed to this in a 1993 article quoting research from the 80s:

“…one of the most difficult problems of our age is that leaders, and perhaps academics as well, cannot readily admit that things are out of control and that we do not know what to do.”

And this was the 80s! Work seems pretty simple looking back. If you hear the way many people talk about their jobs these days it does not offer much more promise:

“it sucks but what can I do?”

What drives me is saving as many people from my situation. As I walked out on my final day I also felt something else — disappointment. I knew that I had held back at certain times and could have done more. I left growth and potential on the table. This is happening every day in every organization and I’m motivated to make a dent in avoiding that fate.

*Originally published on The Better Working World Project

Paul is an independent strategy consultant with Vivo Strategies and is passionate about building a better working world.

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