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Ask Izzy: Combating burnout by focusing on ambitions outside the workplace

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Photo by Antoni Shkraba Production / Pexels
Photo by Antoni Shkraba Production / Pexels

Ask Izzy is an advice column about relationships, mental health, and sexuality. Written by Isabel Mata — a Seattle-based lifestyle writer, podcast host, and mental health advocate — Ask Izzy offers tangible expert advice so all readers can have stronger relationships, better sex, and healthier mindsets. Submit your question today by filling out this survey

Dear Izzy,

I've spent my adult life putting other people's needs ahead of mine, because I felt it was the right thing to do. In my current job, I've worked with company ownership to increase product quality and upgrade their social media outreach, and increased profit and customer relations to the point where they've offered me the only upper management position.

The catch? They don't want to change my schedule or offer a pay raise. I'm already working long, late hours without breaks, and I'm on call for various side projects, so this feels like a lateral move.

I'm working at a longtime neighborhood staple that's been on the rocks for a while, and I'd hate to see it close down, but I feel like my usefulness/burnout cycle is starting up again.

Is it right to leave and find another job with better management and better hours if it means this beloved neighborhood business won't make it another year? I know it's not all on my shoulders, but if I can carry the extra weight, shouldn't I try? If I keep getting punished for doing the right thing, at what point should I give up entirely?

— Puget Sound Paladin

Dear Paladin,

Your letter hits very close to home. Like you, I too have spent a majority of my life putting other people's needs before my own, because I either thought it was the right thing to do or I was too scared to potentially disrupt the peace and make others uncomfortable.

While people-pleasing, which you describe in your letter, is a behavior that can lead to burnout, it's actually just one of many. Surprisingly, my advice to you is not related to this behavior, although I do recommend finding a therapist with whom you can work through some of these internal narratives that you need to people-please.

In her recent Substack Culture Study, Anne Helen Petersen makes the argument that burnout is caused by three things: (1) problems on the societal level (lack of a social safety net, precarity, dealing with being a person in your particular body with your particular identity in the world); (2) problems at the level of the workplace (policies, norms, work culture, productivity expectations); and (3) problems on the level of the individual (self-value derived exclusively through work, inability to adhere to guardrails against overwork set by yourself and others, obsession with micromanagement).

While it's important to recognize your tendency to people-please and the importance of setting healthy boundaries, in this case, I believe your burnout is because of number 2, that is, exploitation in the workplace.

Like you mentioned, you could leave this job and find another, one that pays you more for the work you are doing and doesn't expect you to always go above and beyond. I think that is definitely a great place to start.

But the truth is, this is a temporary solution. Unless you change your mindset when it comes to work in general, it is unlikely you will find yourself in this same situation over and over again.

As Petersen writes, "We can try to change society to make it less burnout-inducing. We can and absolutely should vote and advocate and agitate for it. We can also do all of those things when it comes to our workplaces, whether through collective action or management training to make it less of a burnout factory. (You can also, of course, look for a workplace that's less of a burnout factory). But for people like me, with the sort of attitude towards work that I had — we have to do some personal work as well."

This personal work looks different for everyone, but usually includes a mix of therapy, prioritizing personal relationships outside of the home, and homing in on your ambitions outside of work, which some people call hobbies. The sooner you begin to live a life that doesn't center work and other people's needs, the sooner you will feel fulfilled in a way that takes the attention off of the workplace.

To learn more about how burnout is more systemic than personal, check out the article "How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation" on Buzzfeed News, and journal how it makes you feel.

Remember, it is absolutely okay to put your needs before anyone else's. I have said this many times and I will continue to say it forever: you cannot fill others' glasses from an empty cup.