Has Your Dream Job Become Your Worst Nightmare?

Leaky boundaries lead to burnout, but burnout isn’t a diagnosis: it’s a symptom of something bigger. Reclaim your space by checking out our top tips.

Does your CV look like a revolving door of job titles? Maybe you’re in the “two year itch” club, seemingly unable to stick at any one job longer than two years no matter how hard you try. 

Gone are the days of the “job for life” from generations before us, which seems to suit the younger generations just fine! In modern times we’re free to follow the opportunities that present to us, even if that means changing jobs every two years.

But have you ever wondered what’s behind it? There seems to be some common themes:

  • “The job wasn’t what they said it was”
  • “I chewed the job up and spat it out, there was nothing left for me”
  • “I achieved everything I wanted and got bored”
  • “The only way to get promoted and get a pay rise is to get a new job”
  • “It was okay at first but the vibe went off; it ended up being toxic”
  • “There’s too much to do and not enough resources – I’m worn out”

Burnout is to blame

I thought I had solved the real answer behind the two-year itch: unwillingly participating in a burnout cycle. Organisations seem to pile on more and more pressure – it seems the better you are at your job the more you’re expected to do. 

But I was wrong (partly).

Burnout is a symptom, not a diagnosis.

Poor boundaries erode workplace happiness

Can you relate to this story below?
You’ve done it, you’ve finally landed your dream job. You’ve done your due diligence and your research and you’ve even dug deep into yourself thinking about your values and what role will give you your ikigai (image below).

Everything is going great, it’s a real pinch yourself moment and it feels like you’re in a happy bubble. You want to ride the train as long as you can. You promise yourself this is finally the opportunity where you can stay somewhere longer than two years.

And then it happens. The hours start to creep up, the demands increase, staffing numbers decrease, promises that were made turn out to be smoke and mirrors and you find yourself in a bigger hole than ever before.

How did the dream job turn into a nightmare?

If you’re like me, you have probably listened to oodles of TedTalks and read all the articles in the world about finding your dream job. Finding a role that makes your heart sing and aligns with your values should lead to ultimate job satisfaction – and in many cases it does. But increasingly I’m finding people who relate to my well-trodden journey.

What happens?

Here’s a hot take on what’s going on psychologically when you land your dream job:

  1. You care. But perhaps a little too much, this is loaded from day one but you can’t always see it.
  1. This leads to responsibility assumption, where you assume everything that crops up in the day is your responsibility to take care of. You can read more on this here.
  1. Organisations are neutral entities designed to get as much out of you as they can. This is not personal but because we are caring humans and take our jobs seriously, we put our whole selves into our work.
  1. Every time you work late, do that thing that you really shouldn’t, or commit to deadlines that leave you and your staff stretched, you are resetting the base-level expectation of what your output will be. It’s not the exception: it’s your new norm.
  1. You now have porous boundaries that are so thin you’re walking around with a flashing neon saying “give it to me, I’ll do it”.

What are healthy boundaries?

Boundaries are the physical, emotional and mental limits you create to protect yourself from overcommitting, being used or becoming unhealthy in any way.  With the increase of working from home, we are forced to live with disrupted patterns and routines. We’re more vulnerable than ever to scope creep. Maintaining boundaries should be the number one priority for managing your mental health.

Worried you’ve got leaky boundaries?

Here are some tips for how to start reclaiming your space:

  • Check your workload and your tasks, how are you filling up your day and how does this compare to the job you’re meant to be doing?
  • Be critical of meetings. What do you really need to attend? What is your role in all these meetings? Can you share meeting attendance with someone else and you divide and conquer?
  • What hours are you working, and when are you working when you’re not at work? For example watching a movie and thinking about work, or going for a walk and thinking of work. Try to quantify how much this forms part of your day or week.
  • Now you have some mental clarity, it’s time to undertake a prioritisation exercise and talk to your boss. One great technique is “I understand x,y,z are priorities but what would you like me to complete first”. If new work comes in “What would you like me to stop doing and de-prioritise in order to make room for this new task?”.
  • Set reminders and alarms on your phone to manage your time and check out your productivity and organisational skills.
  • Think about your top two priorities for the day and keep these in mind. Try to achieve these first. Anything from there on out is a bonus!
  • Use your emotions as a signpost to stop and take a break. The best thing to do is to figure out what your circuit breakers are. Whether it’s taking a walk outside, talking to a friend, or scrolling through reels for a laugh. Stop, feel, acknowledge yourself, take a break and come back focused and with a plan for how to deal with the situation at hand.

What does maintaining healthy boundaries look like?

Some examples of maintaining your boundaries:

  • State your work patterns and hours in your email signature and ask not to be contacted outside of these hours. If someone contacts you, do not respond.
  • Say no to tasks when you have a full workload.
  • Manage up,  Manage your boss’s expectations and your stakeholders. For example, review your workstreams and articulate where you add value. They will want you across everything. Bring the conversation back to the core function of your team and where your team adds value. It’s a stronger narrative than just saying “no”.
  • Plan your response to different situations. I don’t like anything that looks remotely like conflict, so I often have a line prepared for different situations.

Maintaining boundaries can be hard, especially if you’ve got yourself into a pickle! Climbing out of the hole takes clarity and focus, but it can be done. Sometimes there may only be one option and that’s to look for a new role. A new job is an opportunity to hit the ground running and keep your eye on your new strong boundaries.

What is your experience with boundary setting? Do you have any examples where you’ve successfully turned the tide? What did you do to change your work environment? Let us know in the comments below.