Author: Mike Scaletti
It's not uncommon to feel overwhelmed by your job on occasion, but if that feeling is persistent it is likely that you are facing burnout, and if you are, it's almost certainly your employer's fault.
A study done by Christina Maslach of the University of California, Berkeley, Susan E. Jackson of Rutgers, and Michael Leiter of Deakin University, suggests that burnout has six major contributing factors:
Perceived lack of control
Insufficient rewards for effort
Lack of a supportive community
Lack of fairness
Mismatched values and skills
The reality is that almost all of us have run into at least some of these issues in the workplace in the past. Sometimes employers just aren't aware, or even worse, don't care, that they are leaving their employees stressed, unhappy, and frustrated. It can even feel like some employers prefer it that way. The challenge, of course, is that once you are in a company with a toxic, burnout prone culture, it can be hard to get out. As anyone who has ever been in an abusive relationship of any type can tell you, they can be hard to leave.
The obvious truth, then, is that the easiest time to leave a toxic workplace is before you ever get into one. This is maybe easier said than done, but here are some things to look for that can help you avoid getting sucked into a burnout prone workplace.
Job Listing Red Flags
Sometimes employers will make it easy on candidates and put the signs that they have a toxic burnout culture right in their job listings. Not everyone one of these correlates to a bad employer 100% of the time, but if you see these phrases in the job listing you should be wary.
High-speed culture: Some people might enjoy an environment where deadlines come fast and furious, but even those people typically need a support structure to make it work. If an employer is saying that they have a "high speed culture", what they are likely saying is that everyone is busy at all times, and so chances to decompress and support each other are few and far between.
Ability to perform under pressure: Any employer that suggests that performing under pressure is going to be a standard part of the job is likely one you want to avoid unless you are literally saving people from burning buildings or something like that. It's even worse if they talk about "handling stress" right there in the job listing. Pressure can be a part of any job, but for most jobs it should be the exception, not the norm. Phrasing like this indicates that the company already knows they are burning out their employees, they just don't care.
Ability to wear many hats: It is more than likely that the company is telling you they are not willing to staff themselves adequately and that you are going to have to perform the jobs of multiple people. Hard pass.
Seeking a "Rock Star": What does this even mean? It's certainly an unclear way to describe either job requirements, duties, or expectations. When a company says this, what they probably mean is that they are seeking someone they can take advantage of.
...to join our work family: Families often lack boundaries. They also don't typically pay you. I'm not saying you can't become close to your coworkers, but one of the best ways to avoid burnout is to establish and maintain healthy boundaries between your work and the rest of your life, and if your employer is expecting you to treat them like family, those boundaries can quickly be eroded.
Not listing the salary: It's 2023. If a company is not willing to tell you what they are paying in the job listing this is a GIANT red flag, as there are only three reasons to do so. Either they want a chance to lowball candidates, they don't want their current employees seeing it, which means they are not an open and fair workplace, or they expect you to show up for "more than just a paycheck". Whichever of those it is, it's toxic.
Stay Aware During the Hiring Process
Look, if a company posts that they are seeking a graphic design rock star comfortable wearing many hats in a high pressure environment to join our family, congrats. You've found a job listing that you should avoid at all costs. The reality though is that it's rarely that obvious. That's why you need to be diligent during the hiring process.
The first step is checking Glassdoor to research the company. If there are issues with management or which the company culture, someone will likely have mentioned it. A bad review or two on Glassdoor doesn't mean you should avoid the company, necessarily, but it might be something you want to investigate further, either via email leading up to an interview, or in an interview itself.
Also, pay attention to the tone and content of communication. Companies and hiring managers should be clear, consistent, and polite when communicating with candidates. If they are not that can be an indicator that they are disorganized, disrespectful, or disgruntled, and that means that if you join up you are likely to get burned out quick.
Ask The Right Questions
Once you've made it to the interview, you have a chance to really dig into the work environment and figure out if you'd fit right in. When you head to the interview and walk into the office for the first time (assuming it takes place in an office, and isn't a video interview), be sure to check out the overall vibe. If employees seem miserable or desperate to leave, you may not want to stick around yourself.
Some workplaces can make pretty much everyone miserable, but its usually not that simple. Even if the current staff of a company loves working there, the job might be a nightmare for you. So, during the interview, make sure to ask questions that tackle your main worries. Remember: You're interviewing them as much as they're interviewing you.
Ask questions focused on those six burnout triggers we identified earlier, like, "What's a typical workday like? Do people have to clock in on weekends often?" If their answers are super vague, don't be shy about asking for real-life examples.
Even if a question feels awkward, like, "How do you deal with mistakes on the team?" go ahead and ask, and then listen carefully to their responses. If you notice signs of dodging, impatience, or dishonesty, get out of there.
If you're asking straightforward questions of your interviewer like, "How does the team communicate when under pressure?" - it shouldn't be a curveball for them. But if you do manage to stump your interviewer, expect a polite, "I'll check on that and get back to you." Just make sure they follow through later with a decent answer.
The reality is that no job is perfect. But with a quick vibe check before you start you can avoid the getting sucked into a culture of toxicity and burnout. If the vibes are rancid, the company is toxic.