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Dealing with job burnout February 9, 2011

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Business practices, Work-related injuries.

One of the best translators I know called me yesterday to ask if I could help her with a big job she was working on. I have been doing the OCRing and layout work for her on this 90+-page job and had been lined up to proofread her work. She has been sick for the last week and has asked for and received an extension, but is unsure if she can meet the new deadline without help. As we were talking she confided in me that she is so burnt out that she is seriously thinking about taking down her shingle and doing something else. This would be a HUGE LOSS to the industry, but you have to do what you have to do. I assured her perhaps she just needs a well-deserved vacation and some sunshine (which we are seriously lacking in Cleveland in February), but I wonder if she might be right and is well and truly burned out. I know another German to English translator who completely fell off the face of the Earth in the last year or so for the very same reason. She literally worked 18 to 20 hours a day, only pausing to sleep. No one can function like that long-term, so I wasn’t at all surprised that she disappeared. Since our job is so often in our head, it is so easy to burn out.

According to Helpguide.org:

“Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place. Burnout reduces your productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give.”

You may be on the road to burnout if:

  • Every day is a bad day.
  • Caring about your work or home life seems like a total waste of energy.
  • You’re exhausted all the time.
  • The majority of your day is spent on tasks you find either mind-numbingly dull or overwhelming.
  • You feel like nothing you do makes a difference or is appreciated.

Everyone feels burned out every once in a while. If you reread yesterday’s post, I think I was suffering from burnout over the last two weeks based on the symptoms listed in the Helpguide.org article (it is definitely worth a read). This is why we take vacations. However, when it leads to chronic illness and starts affecting your relationships with others you should think about combating it and perhaps even getting professional help. One of the best ways to combat burnout is to take a break and don’t let yourself get stressed. Helpguide.org’s suggestions include starting the day with a relaxing ritual, adopting healthy eating, exercise and sleep habits, setting boundaries (aka saying no when necessary), taking a break from technology every day, nourishing your creative side and managing stress. I know I have harped on work/life balance here a lot, but it is so crucial in our job to ensure you don’t burn out.

According to the Mayo Clinic:

Job burnout can result from various factors, including:

  • Lack of control. An inability to influence decisions that affect your job — such as your schedule, assignments or workload — could lead to job burnout. So could a lack of necessary resources to do your work.
  • Unclear job expectations. If you’re unclear about the degree of authority you have or what your supervisor or others expect from you, you’re not likely to feel comfortable at work.
  • Dysfunctional workplace dynamics. Perhaps you work with an office bully, you feel undermined by colleagues or your boss micromanages your work. These and related situations can contribute to job stress.
  • Mismatch in values. If your values differ from the way your employer does business or handles grievances, the mismatch may eventually take a toll.
  • Poor job fit. If your job doesn’t fit your interests and skills, it may become increasingly stressful over time.
  • Extremes of activity. When a job is always monotonous or chaotic, you need constant energy to remain focused — which can lead to fatigue and job burnout.

Even the most perfect translator who is passionate about their job and loves the fact that every day brings a new opportunity to learn gets burned out. We don’t have office politics to pull us down, but sitting at home alone staring at the computer with no one to talk to gets old too. We wouldn’t be human if we didn’t occasionally experience job burnout. One good test to see if you are suffering from burnout can be found here at Mindtools.com.

I can’t imagine the industry without this person in it. I urged her to take a vacation and if that didn’t help to seriously think about seeing a therapist. If you think you may be experiencing job burnout, don’t ignore your symptoms. Consult your doctor or a mental health provider to identify or rule out any underlying health conditions.



1. Corinne McKay - February 9, 2011

What a great and necessary post Jill! All freelancers should read it, seriously! A few tips from the trenches:
-If you really have 10+ hours of work a day, you’re either working inefficiently or charging too little. Think about raising your rates until work volume drops (seriously).
-Honestly, honestly, nothing horrific will happen if you take a break. I took a big leap this year and signed up for a ski class that required me to take 6 Tuesdays in a row off. And guess what: my income went *up*.
-The French are on to something. Lots of studies show that people who work 35ish hours per week enjoy their work more *and* are more productive than people who work 45 or more hours per week. At about 55 hours per week, most people are no more productive than if they worked 10-15 fewer hours per week.
-I wholeheartedly agree with giving yourself a sanity routine. I go to 6AM yoga 3 times a week and I drag myself there even if I feel like death warmed over, because I really need the mental break and the physical activity.
-My husband taught me this one: think of what it would take to make you happier, and get as close as you can to that situation. If you want regular hours, why not work regular hours as a freelancer? If you want to be free of clients calling and e-mailing, shut your modem off on weekends.
-Be open about your desire for a life outside work. I recently received an e-mail from a colleague who said “I’m going on vacation next week and I’m throwing the cell phone off the ski lift on the first ride up. I’ll respond to you on Monday.” I found it refreshing!

2. Kevin Lossner - February 9, 2011

Very familiar territory. I spent nearly two years covering for someone who burned out after a few decades of nearly non-stop, around the clock work. Doing so nearly pushed me over the edge of burnout, but fortunately she recovered and sent me on my way, so now life has returned to a more-or-less proper rhythm. I’m looking forward to lots of sensible breaks like I took years ago. Of course, the local boars are hoping that I’ll team up with another workaholic soon 😉

There was an interesting link that Ed Gandia sent out on Twitter a day or two ago (http://www.winwithoutpitching.com/why-i-charge-more). It’s a badly written post (I hate the tone), but the point is quite correct as far as the kind of relations we need with our clients and how such relationships protect the real interests of all parties as price discussions fade away. This is also, I think, an important factor relating to burnout. Like Corinne said, if you’re running 20 hours a day and overloaded, it’s time to raise your rates… and smile most of the time when you miss a price-sensitive project. I lost one the other day, and thought “Thank God! Another unsatisfactory relationship avoided!” If you get the feeling that you are being treated like cheap typing fingers for hire, you can bet that the burnout ditch is close by the road you’re on. Look for rewarding relationships that will keep you motivated and inspire you to do your best, even if you are “doing” less often.

3. Corinne McKay - February 9, 2011

Also (sorry to chime in again, I just couldn’t resist the topic!) I think that many translators overlook the fact that if you charge more per word/hour, you can work a lot less and make the same amount of money. If you’re charging 10-12 cents a word, you really have to be working all the time in order to make a living. However if your rates are even 15-20 cents per word, you do not have to churn through that same volume to make the same amount of money or even more.

Jill (@bonnjill) - February 9, 2011

That really wasn’t the case with my friend who was translating 18-20 hours a day. She was actually getting a very high rate. She simply wanted to earn as much as possible. Her goal was to buy a house outright in cash. She was earning six figures easily.

4. Caitilin Walsh - February 9, 2011

Thank so much for this post! I watched a fascinating TED lecture on this very subject a couple of days, and was delighted to realize that I had achieved the kind of balance I had been looking for. Gone are the 10-hour days, replaced by a healthy dose of delicious, mundane family time to balance out the brainiac work. My income is on the uptick too!

Here’s the talk:


5. Zachary Overline - February 9, 2011

I think I was experiencing something similar to this a while back. For me, the telltale signs were:

– Looking at my ever-growing list of tasks and not knowing AT ALL where to begin, and opting to do nothing instead of addressing them one at a time.

– Getting home from work and feeling absolutely exhausted, unwilling to even go out, or even get out of bed.

Apparently, if you’re in a healthy mental and physical state, you’re not supposed to feel tired after work. Or so I’ve heard. I still haven’t figured out a way to combat this, though, other than the proverbial “suck it up, and keep on going.”

Probably not the best way to deal with burnout, though :-\

6. Tess Whitty - February 14, 2011

Excellent topic! I have always tried to follow the advice “Time is money”. You cannot live a fulfilling life if all you do is work. When setting goals and how much to earn, you should also calculate how much you want to work, and set the rates accordingly. I hope your friend recovers Jill. All the best!

7. RobinB - March 9, 2011

Apologies for the very late reply on this topic: it’s been a pretty brutal annual report season this year for a number of reasons (all outside our control).

Burnout isn’t something I can personally recommend: two ambulance rides to our university hospital ER within the space of four weeks was possibly an exaggeration, though I can’t actually remember a thing in any case. 2x 24 hours of my life are basically a black hole. Batteries of tests and scans indicated all the conditions I *don’t* have, resulting in the comforting medical diagnosis of “We don’t really know. Try to avoid stress and eat more fruit.”

What’s also interesting is that, when I started talking about it (on the GLD list, you’ll remember), so many people replied openly and privately that they’d also had burnout-type experiences. I do think it’s something we (collectively) need to talk about openly and frankly a lot more.

As far as your colleague is concerned, all I can do is pass on some suggestions from a fellow sufferer. First, pace yourself. Even if you’re facing a 12-hour working day (or more, as is the case with me at the moment), that doesn’t mean you have to work 12 hours without a break. I normally have a nap either in the afternoon (summer) or the early evening (winter), and this allows me to take the dog for a walk (the other *really* important thing) while it’s still light. Jill – as you know yourself, a dog can be a life-saver.

The other thing that’s important to remember is that many (but of course not all) customer deadlines are, in fact, elastic. This is more the case with direct clients, because many agencies simply don’t care about translator overload. I’m convinced we often add to our own stress by getting manic about deadlines that our own clients are much more relaxed about. Communication is the key here.

If your colleague would like to talk to somebody who’s already peered over the void (and came back), she’s more than welcome to get in touch with me directly.

8. saraipahla - March 17, 2014

Hi! I’m actually in the process of writing a post on burnout myself and came across yours – great advice, and also great points from the responders. I’ll be linking to your post in mine.
Thanks a lot!

9. Ioanna Daskalopoulou - September 4, 2017

So true! One of the cons of free lancing is definitely the over midnight burnout!!

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