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How to explain to interviewers that you left a job due to burnout

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You've probably heard of the horror stories of job burnout. Recently, news has come to light where one company in the US had junior bankers completing 95-hour work weeks filled with unrealistic deadlines and short sleep. Many of the workers warned their superiors if things did not change for the better then they would leave en masse.

It makes you wonder how a 95-hour work week was even approved. It's a symptom of the modern burnout culture where it's normal to prioritize work performance over all else. Moreover, you had to work hard not just to do well, but you also had to be better than the competition.

When you are in this type of toxic work environment, your declining health and social life may eventually prompt you to leave the job altogether. And when you do, you can't deny the feeling that a weight has been lifted off your shoulders, despite the loss of your income stream. In the meantime, you focus on picking up the neglected pieces of your life and let your mental and physical health recover.

But once you decide you're ready to jump back into working, you realize that you'll have to field the inevitable interview questions about your career gap. You wonder how you'll explain it when you have spent your time doing the things that you have always wanted to but didn't due to work. Many workers are apprehensive to tell prospective employees that they left their job aid due to. If this is you just know you are not alone.

I left my job due to burnout.

You would be surprised at the number of people who will readily empathize with your plight. More and more employees are experiencing work burnout to the point that quitting seemed to be the only choice left for them. Yet, they were also able to bounce back and successfully get a new job.

Still, your reluctance to say that "I quit my dream job due to burnout" is not unfounded. There are several myths that continue to surround burnout, creating a stigma that no one wants to touch upon.

The biggest myth is that people who suffer from job burnout are not strong or not committed. Ironically, you may have tried to prove otherwise by continuing to work until you burn out. Why is it somehow cool to put work above your physical and mental health?

The truth is, burnout can affect anyone, especially when you feel too overwhelmed by your work and your coping strategies for stress are not enough. This can happen even for those who loved their job. No matter how happy you were in your previous role, if the job stress was too much, you would have burned out nonetheless.

What further worsens the situation is when you keep your worries to yourself. Everyone wants to be seen as cool and competent, so the conversations about burnout are kept to a minimum. And yet, asking for support is something that you need as you struggle with burnout. Reaching out to colleagues and opening up to your manager allows you to find solutions that you may not have tried otherwise.

Burnout is not easily solved by a day away from work. Although stress levels can decrease during a short break, they can just rise back up when you get back to work. More people need to understand that job burnout does not happen overnight, and neither will it disappear over a mere day off.

You are not the problem.

All these myths are the manifestations of a larger issue, the toxic work culture. The main problem is not the fact that employees suffer from burnout; rather, it is the toxic workplace that allowed it to happen in the first place. When employers reward workers who burn the midnight oil, who go above and beyond, others will strive to follow suit which will lead to more incidences of burnout.

What's more, burnout especially affects a certain demographic: women. One study found that female workers reported higher levels of burnout, tied to feelings of less satisfaction in the workplace. It's not surprising as women are placed in a toxic work environment that manifests the prevalent "bro culture" of overly competitive male employees who value success over respect for colleagues.

Bro culture is a common facet of industries where women are underrepresented. So when women don't try to fit in with bro culture, they are pressured by others who do, placing women under a lot of stress.

Eventually, the pressure is redirected inward and women start thinking that they are the problem for not fitting in. In addition, bro culture perpetuates workplace gender issues such as harassment, gender pay gap, and glass ceilings, leading women to feel frustration and experience burnout.

Therefore, burnout, as we have found, is a valid reason for leaving work. And you can dispel the myths to interviewers by laying out an undeniable fact: I care enough about my mental health to treat burnout seriously, even if it meant having to quit my dream job.

Defeating the stigma.

Interviews are a tricky situation when it comes to explaining your previous job experiences. We don't want to cover up our actions with lies but it is in our best interests not to overshare. To do this right, we have to prepare our answers before the interview.

The best response would be to emphasize three things:

  • That your previous job did have positive aspects
  • That you left because you were not prepared for the challenges that felt too overwhelming
  • That now, you are applying for a job because you are ready to face them

With this, you were able to frame your situation so that your interviewer understands how you took control and made assessments of your situation and you didn't just quit right away.

End your explanation by highlighting the reason you've chosen now as the right time and why you think the company, you're applying for is the best place for you to restart your career. Clearly state that your temporary break has fulfilled its purpose and that you can apply what you've learned and experienced to the new job.

Work burnout is a very real issue that we should address more openly and frequently. While work is a significant aspect of our lives, we cannot neglect our mental and physical health over it. It's not a question of which is more important, but rather, work and health are equally so because one cannot function without the other. 

Half the Sky's mission is to supply the tools that can give every woman the ability to build a successful career and be fully prepared for the future of work. So, that they can lead a healthy, prosperous and more balanced/blended lifestyle of their choosing.  By building your confidence, you’re setting foundations to empower yourself and your career.  The world is your oyster, and it starts with you. 

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half the sky (HTS) is a career platform for women connecting you to career opportunities at companies that care. Providing you with information, tips and strategies to navigate the rapidly changing workplace.

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