“I thought you hated that job?”
My friend asked me this as I was in the middle of a story, explaining my decision to return a job I’d left earlier that year.
Immediately I recalled the many conversations I’d had with her about this job in the past. About toxic bosses, unhealthy cultures, long hours, lots of busywork on unimportant objectives.
However, after I took a break at a different job for a while, I realised I really enjoyed the job. I felt that solving strategic problems for corporate businesses and helping professionals navigate corporate careers was what I was designed to do.
How could both these things be true?
I really loved my job, but it also caused a lot of stress and had led to burn out multiple times.
Loving your job isn’t the cure for burn out
There’s a famous saying “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” In true internet style, this is variously attributed to Confucious, Mark Twain and even Marc Anthony.
However, I think it leads to this false belief that if we can just find a job we love enough, we will be immune to burn out and unhappiness.
The reality is, having a meaningful career doing work that matters and experiencing burnout are not mutually exclusive experiences. It is possible to be quite literally doing your dream job and to still experience overwhelm and get burnt out.
In fact, sometimes having meaningful work or work you enjoy can be a risk factor for burn out. Here’s a few reasons why:
Working on things you find meaningful and doing work that matters taps into our intrinsic motivation. Because this is such a strong form of motivation, it can drive us to run ourselves to empty working on these things. “Not wanting to” do something is no longer a viable excuse to take a break from work because we really do want to do it.
We may also find it more difficult to discern priorities in a job we love. Because we believe so deeply that our work is important, it becomes difficult to imagine that any of the tasks or projects we identify could be unimportant enough to not do. We fool ourselves into thinking we have to do it all.
We may also find it much, much harder to say no to others because we believe that the work is so important. When our boss adds more to our plate in support of an objective we believe is important, we can’t say no. When someone else drops the ball, we think we must pick up the slack even when we have no capacity. And we think we are a bad person if we say no. How can a good person say no to such important priorities?
Doing meaningful work also fools us into thinking work is all that matters. Or at very least, it is the most important thing. Because we see our job as so meaningful, we can easily sacrifice other meaningful activities to do more work: relationships, socialising, physical and mental health.
When we combine the things we enjoy with the thing that pays the bills, it can be difficult to realise we need more variety than that in our days. Just because we’ve turned a hobby or cause we are passionate about into a job, that doesn’t mean we no longer need holidays, weekends or actual hobbies with no stakes attached.
The other reason meaningful work doesn’t prevent us from burn out and stress is because working in a meaningful career doesn’t automatically make us a saint. Some days, particularly when we are experiencing burn out, our purpose doesn’t seem so important. The uphill battle we’ve been fighting suddenly doesn’t seem worth it. We definitely have days where we stop caring so much and other things seem more important. Or simply easier!
Having a meaningful career also doesn’t mean we will absolutely love every aspect of our work. There will still be frustrations. And there will still be boring parts. There will still be things that feel a bit meaningless but are required of us none the less. It’s just that those are balanced out by the parts that do have meaning.
Finally, even in a job that we love that leverages our strengths, we also still doubt ourselves. We second guess our strategy, our purpose, our strengths. We question why we are trying to solve this thing when others around us aren’t. We wonder if we are really the right person to be doing this.
Doing meaningful work doesn’t make us impervious to any of these things:
Tiredness or weariness
Overworking or being a workaholic
Lack of prioritisation
Lack of boundaries
So, if doing meaningful work doesn’t save us from burn out, what does?
1. The unavoidable need for rest
No matter how great our job is, the truth of the matter is we need rest.
Rest allows us to recharge, recovery and process our experiences. And rest definitely goes beyond sleep.
We need to have down time when we are awake. This is time when we can just tune out and not feel priorities and concerns looming over us. As hard as implementing a healthy sleep routine is, I think getting health down time is even harder.
When we sleep, our brains “switch off”. It might be hard to get to sleep but once we fall asleep, our brain does switch off. By contrast, having down time is very difficult. When we start resting, it is all too easy to let our minds wander to our to do lists or our problems or past failures.
2. The essential skill of boundaries
In addition to rest, we need boundaries. Boundaries are the line between who we are and the circumstances we find ourselves in, including others’ expectations of us. Boundaries enable us to create the strong foundation for real resilience to life’s challenges. They also enable us to mitigate the impact of the things that happen to us and around us by choosing what to allow to cross the boundary.
There are many areas of work where we need boundaries. The two most critical ones are also two of the most challenging to maintain:
the boundary between yourself and your workmates, particularly your boss, and
the boundary between your job—what you do—and your identity—who you are.
But there are many more:
Your boundaries on your work hours
Your boundaries on “bringing work home” in the form of stress and distractedness
Your boundaries between what is your responsibility and what isn’t
Your emotional boundary with your colleagues and customers
Your boundary between your personal and professional lives
There are times when those boundaries can flex, but you need to develop a discipline to make sure they do not break. Especially the boundary between your job and your identity. This one can easily undermine all of your other practical boundaries about the hours you work, the projects you say no to and whether you choose to get work notifications on your phone or not.
Implementing more rest and boundaries
As much as I love what I do, I still feel drained and burnt out sometimes. This tells me I have by no means nailed rest and boundaries in my own life. However, I do have a couple of tricks—just one for each category for now—that I am using to work on these two areas.
To increase my rest, I have started letting myself off the hook for moments of rest that I used to beat myself up over. One example is my Art YouTube habit. Often I would spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon watching through the back catalogue of several art YouTubers. I enjoyed the creativity and awkward humour they shared on video. But I also found after a couple of hours, I had had enough art YouTube and I could move on with my day, feeling more refreshed. I used to feel guilty about this. Why watch artists when I could be teaching myself to draw? Until I recognised how rested I felt after these YouTube sessions.
When looking for a moment of rest you are already taking but maybe feeling guilty about, make sure it has two qualities:
You find that you actually feel better after indulging in that form of rest, and
You are able to set a boundary on that form of rest and move on with your day once you’ve rested.
Without these two qualities, you may just enable an unhelpful habit. But if you find something that makes you feel rested and you can feel you can timebox, then you’re onto something.
On boundaries, one of the traps I fall into easily is saying yes to things just because I have nothing else in my calendar. Doing this means you never leave space for that essential rest. But because I was struggling to go “cold turkey” on saying yes, I’ve implemented a small first step. I say no every second time.
For requests that come my way often but isn’t a priority to for me, I will almost always say no every second time I am asked. This helps relieve some of the guilt I feel about saying no when someone needs help. And it also reduces the weird sort of FOMO that I feel when saying no because I worry that person will never ask for my help again.
I hope these two examples illustrate some of the simple experiments you can use to increase the rest and boundaries in your life.