We’ve seen a lot over the last year-plus about how people are increasingly burned out and fed up. We’ve also seen a lot about how people are quitting in droves, in some sectors, anyway. OK, but then what?
Think about it. While I would certainly love to throw on a brightly patterned caftan and pursue a life of leisure, most of us still need to work. But just pausing or stopping something damaging (like your job) just means it’s not going to do any more damage (probably). But it doesn’t address the damage already done.
Few people can afford to just hang out or jet off to a beach in the Caribbean until they recover. And we have this idea that a new job will just… make it all better. Even if there’s no healing or recovery time between ending the bad one and starting anew. A different boss, a different title, maybe a raise. Huzzah…?
Companies think similarly. That they will hire and the person will just hit the ground running. They’ll need to learn about the role and the organization, of course, but the best person for the job will be smart, savvy, experienced and motivated. Firing on all cylinders. (And by the time they hire, the company’s probably kind of desperate, so they need that.)
Companies have had the luxury of looking at those they hire more or less as blank slates, though good HR people and hiring managers hopefully look at things a little more holistically than that. Obviously as a baseline you want to ensure that candidates have the skills and experience they claim, and that they’ve never stolen stuff or punched out a co-worker.
But it hasn’t really been the hiring company’s concern if the candidate was leaving behind their work spouse who helped keep them sane, if they’ve just come off stress leave, or they’re leaving in the middle of a huge project.
Men in Black don’t show up on your last day at a job and flash a bright light that wipes your memory and experiences from the job and company you’re leaving. At least some of it goes with you, and in part that is what makes us valuable.
These days, too, there’s also the consideration that the world is tagging along. The pandemic is still here and still affecting pretty much everything. But we still have to clock in.
You know the advice that the best time to look for a job is when you have one? You can take your time looking and dwindling savings isn’t your primary motivator. You can weigh the pros and cons better, and rule out options where you would have to settle too much.
It’s also a good time to look for a job when you’re not teetering at the edge of burnout. The benefits are similar and you’re also going to be a better employee for the company that hires you.
Being asked in an interview why you’re looking to change jobs isn’t an uncommon question, though it’s unlikely someone would straight-out admit to being burned out. There are things you can say that could be clues that that is what’s going on. Maybe it was excessive overtime requirements, not having vacated roles refilled, or an inflexible work schedule.
Just saying it was time for a change could be a crumb of a clue. It could mean you weren’t being challenged but also didn’t have support or a path to career growth. It could mean you hadn’t received a raise in five years. Or it could mean you were crying in the washroom every day.
If there’s a suspicion of burnout or it’s straight-up admitted, there’s also the question of what’s causing it. Certainly, over the last couple of years, you could pretty much just wave your hands vaguely and it would be relatable.
But what if the core of the issue is the candidate themselves? What if they’re the one who won’t stop working, despite clear direction otherwise? What if they never take their vacation time even though they lose it? Odds are someone like that is going to bring the same habits to their next job, to similar effect. Should that be the new employer’s problem?
While a company works on hiring, there is usually plenty of work for that role still needing to be done. There is a good chance that the most critical parts are being covered by someone who already has a job and would like to offload the additional work as soon as possible. They need someone in the role, ramped up and performing pretty much yesterday.
But being a new hire who’s burned out or close to it is not going to help that process. The hiring manager doesn’t need someone they have to babysit. Who’s perhaps forgetful and mercurial and makes mistakes (right when you’re ostensibly trying to prove yourself). Or who suddenly needs a lengthy medical leave when their mind and/or body finally forces them to slow down.
It’s harsh to think of human beings this way, especially since these are the results of service to an organization, but no one wants to inherit an expensive problem created at a previous company. And until people have the “luxury” of actually recovering, the cycle will just continue.
By the way, for a not-small number of people, real recovery would require dismantling workplace racism, sexism, classism, ageism, homo- and transphobia, and, hell, capitalism itself. So expect the walking wounded for the foreseeable future…
There are questions an interviewer can’t ask, but there are ways to get a clearer idea of the candidate as a whole beyond skills, experience, and general personality. Asking about previous experience and roles and listening to how the person talks about the company, co-workers, projects, and the current or former job. If it sounds like the person was carrying everything or like everyone else was lazy or incompetent, those are red flags.
If asking about problem-solving or self-management or company culture, see what the person has to say about previous experiences, expectations, struggles or wish lists. Or even just asking what drew them to this job posting or company could be very illuminating.
If a candidate seems a whole lot more excited about your flex-time, childcare accommodations, or training budget than the salary, that could tell you a lot about what they’ve been missing.
Sometimes when people get hired, arrangements are made for a delay in the new hire’s start time – giving longer notice, an interim vacation planned.
But to date, I don’t think it’s very common to see if the new hire just wants or needs a bit of time to decompress before their start date. Or, hell, just mandating it. Time to get their head out of the space of their old company, culture and role. To take care of themselves so they’re not bone tired and unable to focus. So that once they do start they’re actually enthusiastic about the new job and can think. So they’re better off than “exhausted but relieved.”
Many people wouldn’t be able to afford to do that on their own. Some people, psychologically, would fight the idea. And perhaps part of what would help them recover might be physically and mentally being in a new place, thinking new things and doing different work.
But imagine starting a new job and being told your first responsibility is… nothing. Your first assignment is a couple of weeks (or a month!) to stay home or go somewhere (pandemic depending) and not work. You’re on payroll, but you won’t be doing orientation or taking required security training. That comes later.
When you actually do start working, you’ve had some time to breathe. To clear your head. To start thinking forward. And you didn’t have to worry about paying your bills or childcare or what have you.
Imagine what a message that would send to prospective hires about what the company considers important. About how much the company values its people. We need you to be on your game, and we’re going to invest in you to ensure you’re as well off as we can make you, because we recognize that no one’s a blank slate.
I bet a company like that wouldn’t have much of a burnout problem.
M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org