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  • Writer's pictureJohn Graham

Why A Vacation Won’t Save You From Burnout

Writing this week is Ariel Simpson. She is an independent executive coach who specializes in change management, trust-building, and Agile transformation transitions. For more content like this, check out her blogs at ArielSimpson.com or EngagedAgility.com, and follow her on LinkedIn.


“I really need a vacation.”—Everyone you know, probably

I noticed recently that several of the people I coach are exhausted and burnt out, focusing their tiny reserves of energy and hope on their upcoming vacations. They are working tirelessly, sometimes as a result of the new “work from home” norm necessitated by two years of COVID, and sometimes because of industry expectations (e.g. stock brokers who check the DOW from bed). Surely the only thing that can restore our energy is a good, long break on the beach, right?

That’s right! At least, that’s right for a small, lucky percentage of people. But for most of us, we return to the same exhausting environment we left, doing too much work for too little pay, putting up with the same difficult boss, with only a suntan to remind us of our recent time off. So if a vacation isn’t going to solve our problems, what will?

Your Job Description

One way to push back on burnout is to reflect on your job description and your initial employment interview. Are you burnt out because your boss is asking too much of you, or have you just pushed yourself too hard? Scaling back your energies to match your job description has come to be known as “Quiet Quitting.” It can be a healthy exercise. If your job offers little upward mobility or low recognition and compensation, it’s fine to match your energies to your paycheck. (This is especially true if it doesn’t compromise your sense of self. Some people suffer if they’re not giving 100%.) However, I would advise against Quiet Quitting if:

  1. your efforts are leading to a higher position in the organization, and

  2. you and your manager are aligned on how and when this promotion would be granted.

Clear Communication

The reason I just mentioned that alignment between you and your manager is because you have to talk about these sticky topics out loud. It’s not enough to work hard for a promotion; you have to tell someone that you want that promotion. You have to clarify what steps will be required to attain that promotion. Most work conflict arises from ambiguity. If no one knows where the line is, they’re far more likely to cross it. If you don’t have a job description to reflect on (as mentioned above), then sit down with your manager (and maybe the rest of your team too) and discuss what is required for you to succeed at your job. This enables you to pursue your ambitions with a clear plan. It also keeps your boss from losing employees due to miscommunication or unrealistic expectation of advancement.

Doing Less

You know your work capacity better than anyone else, so it’s up to you to set your limits. If your boss asks you to meet an unrealistic deadline, explain how much work you can get done by that time and then ask how to proceed. Should you extend that deadline or get additional help to finish on time? If you have a team around you, lean on them for support. If your impulse is to work until 9 p.m. every night to get that work done, ask: “To meet that deadline I’ll have to work late every night this week. Does that sound okay?” You’ll often find that your unrealistic expectations of yourself are not shared by your team or boss!

Agency and Empowerment

The final and most powerful tool to combat burnout is to remember that you are powerful. Maybe that sounds hokey, but almost every victim of burnout that I coach seems to feel powerless, at the mercy of their organization or boss. When we feel trapped and unhappy, it’s tempting to wallow in that feeling instead of taking action to fix it. Resist temptation! Instead, get clear on your own goals. Ask yourself, “What do I want?” Then decide if your current job is aligned with those goals. If it is, great! Work with a trusted mentor or friend to make a plan for attaining those goals. If your current job isn’t the right place for you, you may be able to find what you need in a new job right away. (I hope that’s the case!) However, as an example, when I found myself stagnating in a job, I had to spend a year or two preparing for a transition. I read books and went to free workshops online to build up the skills my new career would need. I found a new mentor and an online community of people who were already doing that job. By the time I left my employer, I felt capable and well-connected.

It’s hard to be successful if you don’t feel empowered. If you are burnt out or you’re seeing those symptoms among the team you lead, take the time to clarify the causes and decide how to get that empowerment back. Decide what you want, find the job that will enable you to pursue it, and build up the skills and network you need to be the best possible hire.

To misquote Carrie Fisher in When Harry Met Sally, “The right [job] for you might be out there right now, and if you don't grab [it] someone else will, and you'll have to spend the rest of your life knowing that someone else is married to your [job].”

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