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I am mostly able to do my tasks for now, but my performance has suffered significantly and I really want to leave, even if it means having no job for a while. I fear I might freeze up eventually and be unable to work on the tasks even if faced with fear and urgency (I guess that's the definition of burnout in a way). It's pretty much unclear, even to myself, how/if the burnout will develop in the coming months, otherwise the right decision would clearly be to resign since the work would be left undone eventually. I realize this is the crux of the question but it's hard to give you a clear description of my mental state.

We have very important projects coming up whose dates are set in stone. I don't have a genuinely crucial role like a technical employee would have, but if I were to give my two weeks they would probably be unable to find and train someone fast enough and it would give people a lot of extra work to do in an already a stressful moment.

My problems are that

  1. I don't want to punish fellow workers who have done nothing wrong

  2. While I have no such concerns with the management team (as they had a strong role to play in the burnout), I don't want to burn bridges with an employer who is very well-connected in my medium-sized city, which resigning now is almost certain to achieve.

  3. I very sincerely doubt, based on reading the room, that "burn out" will be accepted as a non-bridge-burning reason for quitting in the midst of a big project. Whether or not that is fair in the big picture doesn't matter, as the end result is the problem in 2) most likely. Heck, if the positions were reversed I would be skeptical too, since I always appear cheerful at work and hide it well.

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    "I don't want to punish fellow workers who have done nothing wrong" Are you responsible for ensuring that there's enough coverage if people get ran over by a bus? If not, it's not your problem, and not you doing it to anyone.
    – Aida Paul
    Sep 26, 2023 at 18:36
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    If you have genuine burnout you’ll be eligible for sick leave in any country with proper health care system. I know people who have been on paid sick leave for months because they were simply unable to work.
    – Michael
    Sep 27, 2023 at 6:51
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    In my first job, I was a bit in the same state you are describing. I forced through the burnout because of my teammates (and because I had a very nice salary). Now I have four scars on my belly and lost an organ. Let's be clear : Not worth it at all.
    – Mouke
    Sep 27, 2023 at 8:02
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    Talk to a doctor, now. It is much better to deal with this while you are able to articulate it than in a few months when you are completely overwhelmed. Sep 27, 2023 at 13:35
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    If you died this morning, your company would be advertising on LinkedIn for your position by this afternoon. Love yourself first, and prioritize your needs. You can't fix the situation for your colleagues.
    – Xavier J
    Sep 27, 2023 at 17:02

11 Answers 11

116

I think I recognize the mental state of a young knowledge worker around the time when they leave their first job. I think this feeling is pretty common.

Observation: In my career I've been incredibly surprised at how much power you receive when you simply say no. I find that the level of respect and desirability you get from others suddenly spikes upward. I'll bet that you making a clear and professionally-communicated decision to leave will make your managers and coworkers respect you more, rather than less. This puts you in the class of worker who can see the big picture, prioritize wisely, make tough decisions, and take decisive action when needed.

If you need to leave for your mental and physical health then that takes precedence above any other concern, full stop. I'd say trust your gut on that. I've left a job with no other job lined up, and it worked out okay. Make a smart decision about whether your position and finances can support that for a while.

You don't have to blame it on "burnout". You can say you need personal time, or self-care, or time to look for the next step in your career, or time with your family (that's quite common). I think I said I wanted a full summer off, and time to work on personal projects.

If you take the burden of the whole company on your shoulders (esp. when you're a junior staff member), then there will never be any end to it. There will always be some form of emergency or just-barely-making-it situation. Prioritize yourself over the business, and you shouldn't suffer an ounce of guilt about that.

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    Thanks, all of the responses here were very helpful but yours made it "click" the most. And yes you were spot on that this was my first job.
    – Qwokker
    Sep 27, 2023 at 1:45
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    Something to add to the last point: if you take that burden and fail (e.g. due to simple exhaustion), the failure will be partially your own (it will especially feel that way). This exacerbates the problem even more. Knowing and keeping your limits will also help the company in the long run, not least because the burnout could be averted.
    – Chieron
    Sep 27, 2023 at 7:46
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    You may want to ask your manager if you can be placed on a related different task; maybe something with less demanding schedule. For example, I program embedded systems. A related task is writing PC programs for test fixtures. I often switch between the two, so I don't burn out on one of them. Sep 27, 2023 at 15:53
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    I'd suggest that one thing which you can usefully do is explain to your managers that you have a significant problem and (whether this is part of resignation or not) that you need to spend a substantial amount of time writing up the procedures etc. that you feel are indispensable to your colleagues. If they accept this it will be to your advantage. If they don't accept it you can leave with a clear conscience. Sep 28, 2023 at 7:19
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    Just to reinforce the point: Learning to say 'no' is an important part of 'taking ownership' of your job, which is another things companies want from their employees.
    – j4nd3r53n
    Sep 28, 2023 at 8:50
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When the question is "should I do X, where X is necessary in order to protect my health?", the answer is always "yes, you should do X"; your (mental) health is more important than just about anything else.

With regards to your points:

  • You are not in any way "punishing" your coworkers by resigning; that your management has not ensured there would be sufficient cover if someone leaves (or is run over by a bus, or whatever) is entirely 100% on your management, not on you.
  • If your management won't accept your assessment of your health as valid, there's probably nothing you can do to convince them of it. You may burn bridges, but again I come back to the fact that it is more important to protect yourself than worry about what other people might say about you - you can overcome what they might say about you given time, you might not be able to regain your health.

The other option here is to walk into your manager's office, say that you're struggling and that you need changes to be made. Really only you can judge what effect that might have, but it at least establishes the narrative that there is a problem that needs to be addressed rather than going straight to a resignation.

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    You're responsible for your work when you're here. Managers are responsible when you're not. When you leave, it is 100% the responsibility of the managers to hire someone else and properly distribute the workload. In short, managers should be making plans for when people leave.
    – Nelson
    Sep 27, 2023 at 0:56
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    This is bad advice for any civilized country with commons sense laws to protect workers. The proper way to handle burnout is to take sick leave, as long as it takes and talk to a doctor, not quite your job. Sep 27, 2023 at 8:14
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    +1, with a note that sometimes food on the table and roof over your head needs to take precedence over mental health, because hungry homeless usually don't have great mental health anyway. But that's like the only reason not to quit a job that hurts your health.
    – Mołot
    Sep 28, 2023 at 9:33
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I don't want to punish fellow workers who have done nothing wrong

Not your problem or your fault. People leave all the time for all sorts of reason and management needs to plan for it. If they don't, it's their fault.

.. I don't want to burn bridges with an employer who is very well-connected in my medium-sized city, which resigning now is almost certain to achieve.

This is partially out of your control. Some managers/companies take that personal, others do not. There isn't really a whole lot you can do to impact that other than given notice as required (or is customary) and serve your notice period well.

I very sincerely doubt, based on reading the room, that "burn out" will be accepted as a non-bridge-burning reason for quitting ...

The reason WHY you quit is actually no one's business. Your employer has absolutely zero right to this information. They probably will ask, but there is no requirement for you to answer. "For personal reasons" is always an acceptable reason even if you don't elaborate any further.

You should prepare for the the question "What can we do to keep you here?". If there are specific changes that could be implemented, now is the time to ask or them. Maybe part time? Reduced hours ? Different roles and responsibilities ?

... in the midst of a big project ...

There is never a good time to resign. That's not yours but your manager's problem to deal with.

and hide it well.

Maybe hide it less? If you hide it, it will never be addressed. Managers can only tackle problems they actually know about. I have no idea whether they would do something if the knew, but they certainly can't do something if they don't know.

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  • "responsibility" might be a better word than "fault" for some of these phrases, although possibly not as well since telling someone it's not their fault can absolutely be useful for them to hear. But replacing a departing worker is neither the worker's fault nor responsibility. Sep 27, 2023 at 18:35
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    "There is never a good time to resign. " - this is a very important point. Frequently, preparation for one project overlaps with implementation of the previous one (and very frequently it does). If if not, there's almost never nothing you're needed to do. If there was nothing for you to do, even briefly, then why are they paying you? They'll find something. My rule of thumb for when you choose to end something (relationships, jobs, cellphone contracts) is that afterwards you'll wish you did it sooner. Sep 28, 2023 at 12:43
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Selflessness is a commendable quality, but there are times in life when one needs to be completely selfish. Burnout is one of those times. You need to do what is right for you so that you can recover from this episode as soon as possible, rather than exacerbating the problem (for others as well as yourself) by trying to "stick it out".

Please, for everyone's sake, do the right thing and the smart thing and take proper care of yourself.

I don't want to punish fellow workers who have done nothing wrong

You aren't punishing anyone, except yourself. It's your employer's responsibility to handle contingencies such as these, not yours. Unless your coworkers are psychopaths, they are unlikely to be particularly upset about having to take on some of your workload for a while. I think you'll find, if you actually talk to them as just opposed to imagining the worst-case scenario, that they'll be very understanding.

While I have no such concerns with the management team (as they had a strong role to play in the burnout), I don't want to burn bridges with an employer who is very well-connected in my medium-sized city, which resigning now is almost certain to achieve.

Employees resign all the time for all sorts of reasons; it's an employer's responsibility to ensure that such resignations don't adversely affect their projects. If it does then that's on the employer's management, not the resigning employee.

Will there be sour grapes? Probably. But if your work until this point has been of good quality, that's going to be a much more relevant barometer for future career prospects going forward.

I very sincerely doubt, based on reading the room, that "burn out" will be accepted as a non-bridge-burning reason for quitting in the midst of a big project. Whether or not that is fair in the big picture doesn't matter, as the end result is the problem in 2) most likely.

The problem is that you're not reading the room accurately, because your adverse mental state has poisoned your ability to do so. That is yet another reason why you need to step aside as soon as possible, because your judgement is seriously impaired and affecting the others working on this project.

Heck, if the positions were reversed I would be skeptical too, since I always appear cheerful at work and hide it well.

Completely and utterly irrelevant. Again, this is not about others, it's about you, and you're the one who knows how you're feeling - not them.

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I don't have a genuinely crucial role like a technical employee would have

Don't overestimate your importance or worry about this. It isn't your problem and in my experience, crucial, hard to replace people aren't really that hard to fill in for.

it would give people a lot of extra work to do in an already a stressful moment.

This just means more $$ to many people, stressful moments are just a state of mind. I was always happy to see colleagues leave when pressure is on, it gave me a lot of leverage to get myself ahead with. How much trouble it gave the hierarchy and the company meant little to me. If your colleagues are professionals they will view it the same way.

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You have more options than just carrying on as you are or resigning. You need to work out what exactly is driving your burnout (not enough time off at the weekend, competing priorities etc etc). Once you have that clear in your mind you need to sit down with your Manager and agree an action plan to address it - this could be deferring certain activies, ensuring you get at least one day off each week, getting someone to support you.

If that meeting is not succesful then you can consider resigning but first seek medical advice and see if you can be signed off work, this will depend on local culture, legislation etc.

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  • This is the way. In addition, asking your manager for a shift in your duties may alleviate a fair bit of the burnout. Telling your manager "I am burning out, can I shift away from X and Y, and towards A and B" may be enough to get through this. They probably don't want to lose a useful knowledgeable resource right now either.
    – arp
    Sep 30, 2023 at 2:35
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Others have already answered the main question adequately: your mental health should be most important to you, and it's not your problem to protect the company and your colleagues. I just have one thing to add that I don't think anyone has said.

It seems like you've recognized the problem early, and you may not be in danger of immediate failure. So if you don't think your employer can find a replacement in 2 weeks, maybe give them a little more time. Since you were seriously considering staying on, perhaps you can last a month.

This might even help you. You're feeling guilty about leaving the company in a lurch, this will assuage some of that guilt. Meanwhile, you'll know for sure when you'll be out of this situation -- certainty and a feeling of control is good for mental health. You might be able to use the extra time for additional knowledge transfer or to help recruit your replacement -- this may be less pressure than your current responsibilities (but since the problem is burnout, don't allow this to be added to your responsibilities).

Another possibility is what I did the last time I left a job. I was the SME for one of our services. I was able to arrange a couple of days when I came back to give training sessions to the people who would be back-filling until a full-time replacement was in place. I used some of my notice period to write the slides for this.

I'm not a psychologist, this is just my lay opinion.

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I started writing this as a comment to @barmar's answer, but it got a bit long:

Depending on locale - if you are already at the point where you are happy to resign, you could instead state you need urgent sick leave. In Europe for instance, you can take long-term medical leave (multiple months potentially), paying somewhere between 0 and 100% of your salary. But you remain employed, don't quit, retain benefits such as health insurance, potentially burn less bridges and, notionally at least, have a job to go back to. You also have some degree of protection - your employer can't fire you while you are out for example. It may be illegal to discriminate, or even discuss in a reference, any such medical leave episodes, whereas gaps in CV are more obvious. If you interview elsewhere, you have the leverage of a job you could go back to.

Furthermore, while quitting can happen for many reasons, some of which could burn your bridges, it's hard to argue with requesting medical leave - especially nowadays, with burnout and mental health better recognised as important.

Worst case is they say no, and you have a very strong reason to leave (hence less smouldering bridges). If they say yes, worst case is you have an option to go back and time to get your headspace, with no salary - kind of no worse than quitting. In that time you may find the clarity to figure out precisely what you want to do, whether your current job is salvageable or where to go afterwards.

Good luck!

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I really want to leave

For the purpose of this answer I'll take it that your goal is to leave, and the question is how. As others have said, though, you might have other ways to deal with ill-health than quitting your job. If you can, speak to a doctor. Stress can be treated/managed short of giving up work entirely (in fact for manageable stress I believe often the advice is not to stop work entirely, because work itself provides structure and goals). You ideally don't want to get to the point where you need to be signed off work entirely, but if you do get to that point then you want and need it to happen as soon as it's recognised. Avoiding that point might take some concessions from your employer (limited working time etc) as well as help from your doctor (advice or treatment).

I fear I might freeze up eventually and be unable to work on the tasks even if faced with fear and urgency (I guess that's the definition of burnout in a way)

Suppose that happens. It's extremely bad for you of course. It's not really any worse for your employer than if you won the lottery. So just bear in mind it's your own problems you need to solve here, not anyone else's.

I don't want to punish fellow workers who have done nothing wrong

That's how they get you. Employees feel empathy and loyalty to one another. Perhaps even without realising, employers can weaponise this as a means of manipulation.

Your responsibility to your colleagues begins when you join the company, and pretty much ends when you leave it (of course after you leave they are still people you know, but they are no longer colleagues and you no longer have any responsibility to them to help them with their job).

You cannot "punish" someone by leaving, because leaving is something you're free to do at any time for your own reasons. Even if it happens to inconvenience them it's not a punishment. Even if you did it because of something they did (which doesn't seem to be the case), it's still not a punishment because you're not doing anything to them.

I don't want to burn bridges with an employer who is very well-connected in my medium-sized city

If this is a "one-factory town", where they are the only employer (or the only one in your industry), then basically leaving the company means you're going to have to leave the town to find work. Is that doable for you? If it's not doable for you, then you should recognise this as a very strong piece of leverage which your employer can, and is, using to manipulate you.

Switching jobs can be scary, but your former employer almost certainly has a lot less influence over your next employer than you imagine. Usually, when you leave a job, that's it. Its effect on your life ends immediately and permanently.

You also might have observed at work that management grumble about previous leavers having let them down. If you have not observed this, then congratulations! There's little chance they'll do it about you when you leave. If you have observed it, think also about whether this grumbling has ever actually affected the person who left in any material way.

It is worth thinking, before you leave, whether you are going to want use any of your colleagues as an individual reference (i.e. not just the corporate, "we confirm X worked here from Y to Z"). If so then maintain that relationship. Don't just quit and run from them, then hit them up for a reference out of the blue later.

I very sincerely doubt, based on reading the room, that "burn out" will be accepted as a non-bridge-burning reason for quitting

Keep in mind that you don't need your employer's permission to leave, and you don't even have to explain why you're leaving. Of course you know this, but you may not be keeping it high enough in mind!

You just need to pick a narrative, whether it's "I have another opportunity" (technically true: the opportunity to watch daytime TV), or "I need a break", or "I have some options but I can't do anything about them while I'm working full-time". Or if you really feel uncomfortable with that kind of narrative, maybe it's because it's not really what you want to do yourself. Do you have a realistic prospect of finding some project or work to go into, perhaps temporary and/or as a freelancer, that means you can avoid burnout in this job without being unemployed? Doesn't have to be your long-term plan. It would mean you can give the standard answer to the question "why are you leaving": "I've found another job".

Bridge-burning in any case is not all-or-nothing. Just because someone thinks you shouldn't have left, doesn't necessarily mean they'll never get over it, or that you should expect any particular problems with them if you encounter them again professionally in future. They will have an overall impression of you as a former colleague, and your time and manner of leaving is one part of that. If they do hold grudges to a pathological degree, then of course that's bad, but probably the best way to deal with it is not to just continue working for them until they retire and no longer care what you do...

if I were to give my two weeks they would probably be unable to find and train someone fast enough

That's a choice your employers made when they decided what terms to offer you employment. If they felt they needed more than two weeks to replace you, then they could have written you a contract in which you were entitled to more than two weeks notice and (although the term many not actually be enforceable in law), they encouraged you to give them more than two weeks notice in return. They chose not to do this. They prefer the consequences of that to the consequences of a general agreement that more notice is preferable. You can quite reasonably conduct business with them on the terms they chose: so give them two weeks.

That said, you have the option to offer them a longer notice period if you want to. You can do what you like. So, if you go to them today and say, "I will be leaving at the end of December", they have a choice. They can require that you leave sooner, on grounds that anyone on the way out is dead to them. In which case it's them exacerbating any problems there might be for your colleagues. Or they can gratefully accept that they have three months to find your replacement. They even have the opportunity to call on you to help train your replacement. If you decide this is what you want to do, just make sure you're mentally prepared that they could give either answer. And, for that matter, be prepared for them to walk you out the door direct from their office, do not return to your desk. As long as you're quitting when you're ready to go, then you'll be able to accept any answer they give.

I don't suggest this because I think you have any obligation to give a long notice. You don't, but it might help you leave in a way that's softer for you in terms of making new plans, and/or dealing with your feelings that you're abandoning them. It's also a lot easier to decline unreasonable overtime once you have your exit date written down, so it might directly help with the burnout.

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  • FWIW when I left my first job, instead of immediately looking for work I spent time unemployed learning C++ properly, and laying the groundwork for the majority of my Stack Overflow rep points. I'm not saying that needs to be done full-time or that it was necessarily time well-spent from a financial point of view. But at the time I felt I needed a break anyway, and self-education was a pretty straightforward way to do something productive with it. It's also nice (IMO) to have the experience of not working to contrast with working, and a privilege to be able to do that without being broke. Sep 28, 2023 at 13:08
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If you have decided to leave now even without another job opportunity, then you have nothing to lose by talking openly to the management team.

Ask them for a professional mentor/coach/therapist to guide you.

Burn-out is a common and well-defined stress disease, and experts can help you recover quickly.

Expect suggestions like these

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Another take that I didn't see:

If the job is stressing you out this much, there is every chance that you are not doing very well at it, to the point that your management is already considering a PIP (which will stress you out even more) or termination.

I have been in multiple high-stress situations, and in all cases the stress was due to my not succeeding.

Find a new job, pronto.

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