You’re burning the candle at both ends, putting in long hours at work and (attempting) to maintain some sort of personal life. You’re exhausted, both physically and mentally. You dream of something more fulfilling. You’re burned out, and it’s time to take steps to care for yourself.
Burnout is “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” It’s an uncomfortable feeling to say the least, but remember that you’re not alone: workplace burnout has reached “epidemic proportions.”
If you think this might be you, take this self-assessment to find out where you fall on the burnout spectrum. It only takes a few minutes, and can help you clarify your current situation so that you can start working towards a solution.
Thankfully, research and awareness of burnout as a social problem has increased dramatically over the past few decades. More people are learning how to spot the signs of burnout, and how to re-align their lives to recover from it. Here are 10 steps you can take now to use your burnout to find more purpose in your work and life.
Step 1: Set a vision for where you want to go
You need to know where you’re going in order to get there. If you don’t have a specific idea in mind yet, don’t worry. Learning more about yourself and what drives you is the perfect place to start.
Think about the things that make you feel inspired, energized, and fulfilled – whether that’s hobbies, a specific part of your work, or something you do by yourself. What common threads do you notice? Burnout is the ultimate expression of not living your purpose, so try to uncover what types of things give you that feeling of purpose that you’re currently not getting enough of in your day-to-day life.
One of our favorite tools, which we use to guide MovingWorlds Institute Fellows through this exercise, is the Imperative Purpose Assessment. Imperative is leading a movement to ensure purpose is possible for everyone, and the Purpose Assessment is designed to help you discover your Core Purpose Drivers so you can align your life to fit your needs, not the other way around. We also really recommend the book, The Purpose Economy.
Armed with this information, you can start creating a vision for your best-case scenario. What type of work would you be doing? What kind of people would you be surrounded with? What kind of impact would you be making?
Be sure to write down your goals and share them with people who are close to you to keep you accountable. The research is conclusive here: people who write down their goals and make them public are more likely to achieve their goals.
Step 2: Identify the gaps
With a vision of where you want to go, you can start working backwards to identify the gaps in knowledge, experience, or action that you’ll need to get there. At every stage of your career path it’s important to find purpose, exercise your strengths, and work at a level of autonomy that is comfortable to you.
Most commonly, people will find gaps related to:
- Career – are you working in a career path that will give you purpose?
- Job – are you working in a setting that brings out the best of you?
- Impact – are you, in your personal and professional life, doing things that will contribute to a better world?
- Self care – do you have the time, and are you prioritizing, taking care of your physical and emotional self?
Step 3: Stop the slide
Moving forward towards your goal is easier to do once you stop the backwards slide of burnout. Try to objectively assess the sequence of events leading up to your current stage of burnout, looking for common threads among the activities that bring about the most stress and tension.
What is your burnout trying to tell you?
For many, burnout is a sign that you’re expending energy on things that don’t re-energize you in return. Identifying the biggest contributors to your stress is the first step towards stopping them from pulling you down.
Take a high-level view of your responsibilities and workflow to identify opportunities to delegate, ask for help, or establish more healthy boundaries between work and personal time. If you’re stretched too thin, you won’t be able to deliver on anything, so it’s in the best interest of you and your company that you take the steps necessary to stop the slide.
If you have a supportive manager, now is a good time to include them in the discussion. If your manager is open to it, schedule a 1:1 retrospective to analyze how things got to the breaking point – and how you can take steps to reduce the chances of it happening again. Mentors, friends, and coaches are great resources to turn to help think through what is driving your burnout, and what you can do to slow it down.
Step 4: Give yourself the space to rebuild
Now that you’ve stopped the slide and set a vision for what your ideal non-burnout state looks like, it’s time to give yourself the space to start rebuilding. This looks different for different people, but taking a vacation, sabbatical, temporarily reducing hours or even taking a mental health day are great options to carve out some space for yourself. Focus on down-shifting your pace from “go, go, go” to a less frenzied and more centered pace. Don’t forget about the basics, either – eat, sleep, and take care of yourself! Practicing mindfulness is another great way to stay grounded and present.
Stepping away from immediate responsibilities for a moment, ask yourself: what would I be doing if money were no object? How would I really enjoy spending my time? Journal, talk to your support network, and start looking for opportunities to connect with your true passions both inside and outside of your job.
Step 5: Create a path towards more purpose
Suffering from burnout is not necessarily an indication that you’re in the wrong job, but it definitely is an indication that your workload isn’t balanced in a way that is fulfilling to you and honoring all aspects of your life. Think of yourself as the architect of your role, rather than the passive recipient of work from others.
How can you proactively seek or create the type of work activities that give you a sense of purpose? For example, if you love to write, but don’t get to do much writing or creative work in your job, you may want to seek out opportunities to support the marketing team with its next campaign by writing a blog post. Look back at the gaps you identified in Step 2. How can you build the skills, network, and confidence you’ll need to be the architect of your own job?
A great way to gain experience is by volunteering your skills as a pro-bono consultant, which will add tangible real-world experience to your resume. Plug into your community both in-person and online to connect with others who share your passions. You never know what doors will be opened to you through those relationships down the line.
Step 6: Stretch beyond your comfort zone
Growth happens at the edge of your comfort zone. If you keep doing what you’ve always been doing, you’ll keep getting the results you’ve always been getting. It’s time to switch things up!
There are a number of ways you can switch things up while keeping your job and paycheck.
- Is there a stretch project you can volunteer for in your community that builds on your skills while helping provide more purpose in your life?
- Is there an “social intrapreneur” activity you can launch at your company?
- Is there a course you can take to keep learning?
We naturally prefer to stick to what we already know we’re good at, but push past the fear to really challenge yourself to grow.
Another great way to stretch beyond your comfort zone and grow personally and professionally is through international skills-based volunteering. Take Andreia for example. She was burned out at work and ready for a change, and found that volunteering her skills with Sistema B in Ecuador turned what began as a midlife crisis into an exciting midlife transition full of new possibilities. Taking the leap into a different cultural and work environment, even for just a few weeks, will challenge the assumptions you have about yourself and what you’re truly capable of. The sense of self-efficacy alone will change the way you approach your work once you return! Skills-based volunteering is also a practical way to ‘test’ a new career or role before you make the change for real. Particularly if you’re interested in a career in social good, what you’ll need is more experience – not necessarily more education. If you have a feeling that you’ve reached the upper limit of development and autonomy in your current role, it may be time to start looking for other opportunities.
Step 7: Build your support network
Growth and change are hard, but you don’t have to go through it alone! In fact, you’ll get so much more out of the experience if you intentionally build and maintain a support network that challenges you to grow and holds you accountable. If you’re curious about a different industry or role, see if you have any connections on LinkedIn or within your personal network in that industry who might be available for an informational interview and eventually even to serve as a mentor. If you don’t have anyone in your network like that already, join a group with the type of professionals you’re looking for and don’t be afraid to introduce yourself.
See if your city has any Meetupgroups for what you’re specifically interested in, and if not, how you can start one. Facebook groups and networking on LinkedIn are also great resources for connecting with other professionals with similar backgrounds or interests, so dive in and do some research. Talk to your close friends about what you’re doing and the goals you have professionally and personally, and ask them what goals they’re currently pursuing. Commit to checking in with each other to track progress against your respective goals – having an “accountabilibuddy” will keep you moving in the right direction!
Step 8: Journal, reflect, & introspect
Wherever your personal and professional development journey takes you, be sure to document your experiences and take the time to reflect and introspect. Honest reflection opens your mind to reprogramming, allowing you to incorporate new behaviors and approaches you’ve learned. If taking the time to write it out feels like ‘extra work’, consider this: reflection is proven to enhance learning AND increase happiness. Rather than framing it as ‘extra work’, try framing it as the final step of your overall growth experience.
Step 9: Make it part of your professional story
Whether you’ve created a new path to purposeful work within your existing role, taken a sabbatical to volunteer your skills around the world, or found a new job that better fits your needs, you’ll need to weave this change into your overall career narrative. How will you present this new direction to the next hiring manager you’re interviewing with? Look for threads between your previous experience and your future, and how what you’ve done has prepared you for what you’ll go on to do next. Particularly if you’re hoping to break into the field of International Development, check out this episode of Get Ahead by Getting Away with Kate Warren, Executive Vice President at DevEx. Kate is an international development insider who knows what it takes to break into the industry, and in this episode she shares insights on how to use your volunteer experiences to catapult your career, and what employers look for.
Step 10: Pay it forward
Remember how overwhelmed and exhausted you felt at the beginning of this process, while you were burnt out? Now that you’ve come out of the experience on the other side and used your burnout to find purpose, you are uniquely qualified to pay it forward by helping others do the same. You’ll benefit from mentoring and lifting up others, too – the best way to keep what you have is to give it away!
When burnout hits you, it can hit hard, and it’s a real struggle to push through. If you find yourself with any symptoms of burnout, just remember these 10 steps:
- Set a vision for where you want to go
- Identify the gaps
- Stop the slide
- Give yourself the space to rebuild
- Create a path towards more purpose
- Stretch beyond your comfort zone
- Build your support network
- Journal, reflect, & introspect
- Make it part of your professional story
- Pay it forward
And remember, navigating your recovery from burned out to purpose-driven is easier with support. If you’re looking to move into a career with more impact, make sure to check out the MovingWorlds membership programs for community and support to find a more fulfilling career that makes the world better.