Imagine you’re in the middle of a job interview. You’ve described your strengths and weaknesses, summarized your resume, and discussed your five-year plan. Now, the interviewer asks about a time in your career when you overcame a difficult challenge. You flash back to a period of serious overwhelm a job or two ago—the late nights, the constant exhaustion. You worked to the point of burnout. Should you say so now?
For decades, conventional wisdom has held that in a job interview, negativity of any kind is verboten—that candidates should find a way to give every aspect of their career trajectory an upbeat slant. Your “biggest weakness,” then, becomes “caring too much.” Your reason for leaving your current position? “I’m looking to expand my skills,” plays far better than “I’m convinced that my boss is a sociopath.” In other words, it’s incumbent upon interviewees to spin everything as positively as possible, lest any negativity make them seem unmotivated, prone to complaining, or unable to get along with their colleagues.
But after the near-universal plague of weariness caused by the pandemic, the subject of career burnout has become an almost ubiquitous subject. As October 10th marks World Mental Health Day, it seems as apt a time as ever to reexamine whether talking about burnout in an interview might be not only an acceptable move, but perhaps even a beneficial one.
How honest is too honest?
First, let’s dig deeper into the naysayers’ position, the crux of which is that even if burnout ought to be just fine to discuss with a potential employer, you simply can’t count on every hiring manager to be open-minded about the subject. For example, John Lara of Corpus Christi, Texas law firm Herrman and Herrman PLLC calls burnout “an uncomfortable interview topic” and says he worries that “discussing burnout may seem like an unnecessarily negative comment about a previous employer.” In other words, talking about burnout tacitly implies that your previous job was dysfunctional—another classic interview no-no.
Others worry that talking about burnout will indicate that they themselves were deficient in some way. “I have never brought up an early stint of burnout in job interviews,” says Dan Gallagher, VP of Operations at Aegle Nutrition. “I’ve been worried it would make me seem like an unreliable worker or someone who couldn’t be depended on long term.”
Some candidates approach the subject with some ambivalence, saying it’s fine to touch on burnout in interviews—but only with a clever bit of wordsmithing to avoid any stigma attached to the term. The euphemism of choice for Roland Foss, Senior Operations Manager of Bellhop Las Vegas Movers, is “I was ready for a change.” As he explains, the phrase “can encompass a lot of different motivations for leaving a job, including burnout, and I find that it’s a good fit for the experiences of a lot of people.” Meanwhile, Grace Baena, Director of Branded Content at upscale furniture resale site Kaiyo, says she would discuss the subject but only if it came up organically. “I haven’t brought it up in job interviews,” Baena explains, “but I also haven’t treated it like a secret. If it’s relevant to a question like ‘How have you addressed difficulties in your career?’ I might mention it, but it’s not necessarily something I volunteer.”
Asking the right questions
Rather than disclose past instances of burnout, some candidates use the experience to inform their vetting of a potential new job. Says Orlando, Florida Engineering Project Manager Dan Seidler, “I ask questions to see if the burnout will continue within the new position.” After a previous employer had Seidler working up to 80 hours a week with a whopping 16 direct reports, a few of whom he found unsatisfactory, he went to a job interview “framing the questions to see if the potential environment would fall in line with what I wanted my new position to be.” A few of those questions included: “How many hours a week are expected to be successful in this position? If the workload becomes too much for one person, is there a support system? Will I be involved with the hiring process? When working with underperforming employees, what does the company’s Performance Improvement Plan look like?” Knowing the answers helped Seidler determine whether he was headed into a repeat of his previous position.
Others are more convinced of the necessity—and even the potential benefit—of discussing burnout. Their advice? It’s all about the way you frame it. According to Natalie Fell of entrepreneurship consultancy Step by Step Business, “After experiencing significant career burnout, I decided to do a complete career change.” Naturally, this sparked questions from prospective employers about the reasons for her big leap, which Fell answered carefully. “I didn’t get into specific details on what caused the burnout or speak negatively about previous employers,” she says. “I put together a sort of ‘elevator pitch’ of how I was able to channel my burnout into finally following my passion.” Fell’s bottom line: “While I wouldn’t recommend going into detail or turning the interview into a vent session, burnout doesn’t always have to be a sad, stressful story, especially when it leads to new and exciting developments in your career journey.”
Using your burnout to your advantage
Many say that discussing burnout is a no-brainer opportunity to showcase your resilience, drive, and ability to course-correct when things get tough. “I myself experienced burnout, which affected my health and reduced my self-confidence,” says Andrew Taylor, Director of the U.K.-based legal services company Net Lawman. “But when I found the courage and became aware of the toxicity of my workplace, I took the plunge and left. I often mention that experience because I think it strengthened me.”
According to most of the people we spoke to, what really matters to an interviewer is evidence that you can recover after a setback, learn from your mistakes, and keep pushing when things get hectic. Talking about burnout—provided you emphasize how you overcame it—can be a brilliant means of expressing exactly this. Richard Brandenstein, founding partner at FBR Law in Woodbury, New York, puts it nicely: “Have burnout covered.” In other words, if you plan to bring it up, know how you’ll play it up to your advantage. Brandenstein continues, “If you can talk about how you overcame the issue, a skill you learned during this burnt-out period, or how you came out the other side as a better person, it can be vital to your success.”
A crucial bit of intel: many on the other side of the hiring equation echo this sentiment. Says Kimberley Tyler-Smith, VP of Strategy and Growth at jobseekers’ consultancy Resume Worded, “When I was interviewing an applicant for a job, I asked her if she’d ever experienced burnout. She said yes, and I was worried that the stress of a new position would be too much for her. But then she told me that she had learned from her previous job and was committed to avoiding it in the future. That made me feel better about hiring her because it showed that she was self-aware and knew what she needed to do to succeed.”
Check out more content related to Mental Health Awareness Month 2023 here.
Photo: Welcome to the Jungle
More inspiration: Healthy minds, happy careers
Explore mental health in the workplace with our 5-week series, covering job search, interviews, onboarding, daily work life, & career progression. Prioritize well-being & success!
Surviving the startup jungle: thriving in a fast-paced work environment
As Mental Health Awareness Month comes to an end, we take a look at how to build resilience in a fast-paced environment.
May 29, 2023
Ergophobia: the fear of work
In a society where our sense of self-worth is too often conflated with professional success, a deep-seated fear of work can be a terrible impairment
May 23, 2023
Navigating disclosure: talking about your mental health during onboarding
Learn how to navigate mental health disclosures during job onboarding for a supportive and successful start
May 22, 2023
Job interviews and mental health: to disclose or not to disclose?
Mental Health Awareness Month is in full swing, and it's the topic of many discussions. But should you bring it to your job interview?
May 11, 2023
Mindful job hunting: interview questions to safeguard your mental health at work
This Mental Health Awareness Month, learn what questions to ask in an interview to find a supportive work environment.
May 04, 2023
The newsletter that does the job
Want to keep up with the latest articles? Twice a week you can receive stories, jobs, and tips in your inbox.
Looking for your next job opportunity?
Over 200,000 people have found a job with Welcome to the Jungle.Explore jobs