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Is This Burnout or a Dead End? Know the Difference

It's important to know the difference between a dead end and burnout before you make any career decisions. A dead end represents a stronger incompatibility with career choices themselves. It is a feeling of emptiness in the contribution you are making in your professional life. Burnout might be a signal that something needs to change and you simply need to recharge.

The Great Resignation has been all over the news in recent months, and for good reason. An unprecedented 69 million Americans quit their jobs last year, prompted largely not by seeking more financial gain, but by feeling undervalued, disengaged, and perceiving few opportunities for growth or career development. 

The COVID-19 pandemic gave many workers a chance to reset their expectations when it comes to how much they give to their jobs, and what they expect to get back. It has been a watershed event for a nearly universal understanding that the lines between our work lives and our personal lives are blurring, and we are better off for it. 

Working for a paycheck is no longer enough. People want to feel motivated, inspired, and seen in their work, and they want their mental health and general wellbeing to be a priority to their employers. Burnout results when people are physically, mentally, and emotionally stressed over a prolonged period. Because of stigmas surrounding mental health issues, burning out can feel like failure, when in fact it has little to do with how effective someone can be in their work. 

The tables are turning, and it’s time to reframe this notion: It might not be burnout at all, but simply that employees feel they’ve hit a dead end, where there are no real opportunities for inspiring challenge and growth, or to thrive in your work. And if that’s the case, people are moving on—in droves. 

In a recent LinkedIn poll, we asked: Have you reached a dead-end in your career, seeing no opportunity, or are you burned out and need to recharge and reset? The results are divided: 37% report feeling burned out and needing to recharge; 24% feel they’ve hit a dead end. On a positive note, 26% say they feel good about their career, whereas 12% are undecided. 

True burnout stems from feeling a lack of control, unclear job expectations, lack of autonomy and consistency on the job, and a mismatch of values, among other factors. Burnout is real, but it is usually a signal that something needs to change. Sometimes, allowing time to recharge and reset gives you the ability to step back and assess. Often people recognize that they really do enjoy their work, but there are issues that need to be addressed to help make it more satisfying and manageable.

A dead end represents a stronger incompatibility with the career choices itself. It is a feeling of emptiness in the contribution you are making in your professional life, and when this happens, there are choices: pursue a different path or take a career timeout to figure out where you belong and what will better fulfill you. 

It’s important to recognize the difference between being burned out and feeling as if you’ve hit a dead end. So before making any rash decisions to leave a role because of issues that are fixable, here are some signs that you’re at a dead end and may want to pursue something new:

1/ Your place of work is not interested in your longer-term goals. Managers need to make time to recognize what makes individual employees click, to ensure they know and regard what career ambitions they have, what their general wellbeing is, and what it would take to help them thrive.

2/ You’re not challenged. For people to remain satisfied and happy in their jobs, challenge needs to appear in a form of growth and learning opportunities, rather than stress from overwork, unachievable expectations, and a lack of support.

3/ You’re not enthusiastic. If you feel dread whenever you begin your workday, there is something wrong. Particularly if you are no longer enjoying a job you used to feel excited about. If there’s no room to evolve and grow in your job to ensure your enthusiasm stays strong, you’ve hit a dead end. Another sign is a trend in hiring external candidates for promotion opportunities rather than offering internal talent a chance to grow.

Highly skilled talent has become scarce, and these employees are seeing much more opportunity in the labor market. It is increasingly understood that managers need to be better equipped to have conversations to help gain insight into the wellbeing of employees, address burnout, and help chart career paths, encouraging their people to stay and grow in the organization to avoid unnecessary turnover.