Career Advice

The Burnout-Busting Case for Embracing the Career Nap

Graphic: W+G Creative
Earlier this year, as I was beginning to feel burnt out by work, I happened upon an Instagram post from wellness practitioner Kelsey Patel that resonated with me. Patel, author of Burning Bright: Rituals, Reiki, and Self-Care to Heal Burnout, Anxiety, and Stress, described taking what she called "a career nap," or "a rest without worry that taking a break means I’m doomed to fail." Basically, it's giving yourself permission to take your foot off the gas pedal of your work situation, and to pull into a rest stop while having faith in yourself that doing so won't compromise your ability to reach the final destination of whatever success looks like to you.

For Patel, this nap concept meant decreasing her energy output to work to, say, 75 percent instead of 150 percent—aka doing enough rather than *the most.* But a career nap can also look like a proper career sabbatical, says Melody Miles, life and career coach and founder of wellness-focused sabbatical-planning company Soulcation. A career nap can also be a time between jobs when you do not work in order to rest, reset, and maybe rethink your career or life trajectory. Either way, the goal is rejuvenation, whether to recover from burnout (a state of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion brought on by excessive or prolonged stress), to prevent burnout, to revaluate your career path, or to give your body and mind a break.

It seems Patel and I are not alone in feeling apt to take a career nap. According to research gathered earlier this year, more than four in 10 employees feel more burnt out than they did a year prior. And, you've likely heard of "the great resignation," which describes the phenomenon of people quitting their jobs in rising numbers during the pandemic. The confluence of these realities in the workforce highlight that for many, working during the pandemic disrupted the status quo, and many people are unsure if they can or want to continue on as if it hadn't.

But who, exactly, is a career nap meant for? And, what do you actually do during your time "off" in order for it to be effective and rejuvenating? Plus, without a safety net of savings, how realistic is it to actually take any form of a break from work? Whether it involves coasting for a bit, asking your manager for a month-long sabbatical, or quitting and taking a break to figure out what you want to do with your life, experts have advice for devising a plan for your career nap that sets you up to emerge from it refreshed.

Who might benefit from a career nap

For most people, the feeling of needing a break is intuitive, but there are a few specific warning signs: feeling more negative in your workspace than positive, experiencing burnout, or hitting a career peak (after a tough climb up the ladder) and needing a breather. Those are all times when a career nap might be appropriate. Patel adds that anyone who is caught up in equating their productivity with their worth or earning their sense of self-worth through work is probably ripe for a career nap, too. Miles agrees, and notes that what Patel's referring to is internalized capitalism.

Instead of defaulting to self care in the face of burnout, many folks continue pushing through because they don't see another option, says Erin Falconer, life coach and author of How To Get Sh*T Done: Why Women Need to Stop Doing Everything so They Can Achieve Anything. This causes them to drift further and further away from positive change. "When you're in push-through mode, you're not really in touch with anything to do with yourself—it's almost survival mode," she says. "The longer you do that, the farther you get separated from yourself, which is why career naps can be important, just to get you reconnected with who you really are and what you really want and need."

Sometimes, though, folks confuse being burnt out with being "bored out," says Erin Hatzikostas, corporate CEO turned career coach and founder of coaching consultancy b Authentic inc, who adds that burnout tends to manifest physically, whereas boredom often shows up as a lack of enthusiasm. To differentiate between the two for yourself, she recommends trying a few strategies before entertaining a career nap: Volunteer for a new project at your current job; start connecting and networking with others outside your office; and invest in things that might advance your career, like conferences or coaching programs. See how these small shifts may (or may not) change your outlook before deciding how to proceed.

"We can't think about our [whole] careers as [just] the first part of a roller-coaster…once you get to the top of that first hill, the ride should be much more like the rest of the roller-coaster." —Erin Hatzikostas, life coach

A career nap may be a good choice for you even if you're not necessarily in a a bad or negative place at work. Falconer, Patel, and Hatzikostas all agree that at a certain point in your career, you can likely afford to coast a bit more than you could at others, so as to allow yourself a time-out to check in with yourself. And it's also very possible that you could be feeling burnt out in general without it being a result of your job. The overwhelm of living through the events of the past nearly two years may make you a candidate for a sabbatical. Career coach Ariel Lopez suggests working through what you're feeling with a mental health professional in order to truly discern between work dissatisfaction and general exhaustion.

"We can't think about our [whole] careers as [just] the first part of a roller-coaster—just click, click, click, click upwards," says Hatzikostas. "It's got to happen in the beginning—you've got to do a bit of a hustle—but once you get to the top of that first hill, the ride should be much more like the rest of the roller-coaster." In other words, once you've made it through the "prove yourself" years, you shouldn't feel as though you're indefinitely "white-knuckle driving at 100 miles per hour," as Falconer puts it. Instead, you should have periods when you push, and periods when you coast: career naps.

3 possibilities for what a career nap might look like in practice

1. Taking a proper sabbatical, or quitting one job and taking a break before the next

When Miles quit her high-powered job at the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation with no plan for what would come next (besides some form of rest), she made a list of activities that bring her happiness and joy. During the months-long sabbatical that followed, she then focused on doing them. She also took time for introspection that her previously overbooked life hadn't allowed for. "It was amazing what I experienced in my nap," Miles says. "I faced and processed my emotions. It was this transformative experience that clarified what I really wanted."

Now, Miles runs a company aimed at helping other folks take similar breaks. Typically, she recommends a sabbatical duration of around three months, with the first month being dedicated to doing nothing—don't look for a new job or mull career options. Instead, focus on play and rest and, you know, doing that whole elusive "enjoying life" thing.

The second month is for exploring, so she recommends meeting with as many people as you can to collect ideas and inspiration for life and work changes you might want to make post-sabbatical. The third phase is then about introspection around what you've learned about yourself and other paths, and figuring out if there's something you could be doing with your career that is in better alignment with your nature, so that you don't return to a place of burnout. During this final phase, you might start to apply for jobs, launch your own business or consulting endeavor, or enroll in school or training.

2. Taking a sabbatical without quitting your job

If you aren't looking to quit your job but need a longer break than what is covered by your benefits package, you may have more options than you think. These options will vary based on your employer, the state you live in, and perhaps the amount of time you've been with the company and your specific job duties.

Some companies offer sabbatical leave as a benefit, including Coinbase, Whole Foods, Dropbox, Rent the Runway, Clear, theSkimm, Casper, Salesforce, eBay, Stubhub, Airbnb, Thredup, Ford, Etsy, LiveNation, and more. If your company doesn't offer sabbatical leave, you may be able to take medical leave on the basis of your mental health. This option is available under the Family Medical Leave Act, but you have to have been employed at your current job for at least 12 months (non-consecutive is okay) in order to apply for it. Some states also require offering short-term disability leave, like California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island, which requires proof of a medical condition, and the duration of the benefit and pay varies between state. Some companies that aren't located in those states, though, do choose to provide a similar benefit.

Your company may have other leave-of-absence options available, too. For more information about such policies, consult your manager or your human resources department.

3. Keeping your current job, but giving it less than your usual 100 (or, for many of us, 150) percent

Of course, for some of us, any time off—let alone three whole months—remains a pipe dream. If temporarily dialing back your hustle within the scope of your current role feels like the right move instead, Patel recommends considering what you can shift or edit in your daily, weekly, or yearly schedule to demonstrate a greater trust in yourself to be able to accomplish what you need with energy output.

A lot boils down to setting boundaries with yourself and your employer, too. For instance, can you stop attending unnecessary meetings, or work to shave an hour off your too-long workday while still accomplishing what you need to do? Can you ask your employer to give you notice of certain changes or assignments, and set hard boundaries for emailing after a certain hour?

"The essence of what people want on vacation, they can find in their everyday life." —Melody Miles, Soulcation founder

In addition to setting boundaries, Miles says you can incorporate other components of a nap into your life with this dialed-back-at work approach. She often asks clients what they would do on vacation, and then encourages them to incorporate those activities into their regular routine. "Lots of people tell me they like things like taking a bath every night, not setting an alarm in the morning, being in nature, and having a slow leisurely meal," she says. "The essence of what people want on vacation, they can find in their everyday life."

Similarly, Lopez reminds that even if you can't physically take a break from work, you can work to do so mentally. She recommends therapy for everyone who can afford it and suggests also trying free exercises, such as meditation, journaling, and fitness as ways to give your brain mini breaks.

And while you may be "stuck" in your current employment at the moment, that doesn't mean you have to be resigned to it forever. Morgan Bullock, a small-business HR consultant and personal-development coach, encourages evaluating whether or not there's a different version of your career that might allow you more peace of mind or flexibility. For instance, if you're a burnt-out writer, could you explore what being an editor would look like? Could you train as a bartender, or even as a manager, so as to stop being a server for now? Could you pick up some shifts stocking merchandise instead of interfacing daily with customers, or vice versa? Could you do what you do full-time now as a consultant instead, allowing for greater flexibility? Or, vice versa for greater stability?

And, remember, this is a nap, not a great sleep. With that in mind, whatever path you take toward a reset, spiritual teacher and integrated wellness expert Sue Huntauthor of Transitory Nature: Breaking Binaries for Integrated Beings, says that setting intentions for your career nap ahead of time is important for making meaningful change. "It's great to hustle hard and take a rest, but in doing so, we're not really addressing why we're so addicted to the hustle to begin with," she says. "So then we might just pop back into the person that we were prior to the break if we don't address how we got to this point, and how we want our lives to look differently moving forward."

How to take a career nap, financially speaking

To make her sabbatical happen, Miles worked with a financial planner. "I would really encourage you to make [a break] tangible—look at your actual savings, look at your must-have bills, and try to simulate what it would look like to take a three- or six- or 12-month break," Miles says.

Of course, not everyone is able to commission a financial planner, but Cathy Derus, CPA, offers some general advice applicable to almost anyone who wants to see a significant break from work on the horizon. For starters, the eventuality of needing a sabbatical is one of the big reasons she encourages all folks to build up an emergency savings fund. For this, Derus says you need to save three to six months worth of expenses saved. And to build it over time, she recommends auto-transferring a set amount of money each time you get paid to a high-interest savings account.

Derus adds that it's important to consider the possibility that finding work post-nap might take a few months (if you are not taking an employer-sanctioned sabbatical, that is), so you'll want to build some cushion around your projected financial needs for that possibility, too. "It might be, say, two more months between sending out résumés, interviewing, background checks, etcetera, and you want to make sure you've got a little buffer," she says.

Many folks, though, including the millions who live paycheck to paycheck simply won't be able to build up such a robust emergency savings funds—especially without taking on additional work in an effort to boost their income, which comes as antithetical to the purpose of the career nap in the first place. Systems are in place stopping so many people from generating savings, namely the federal minimum wage of $7.25 not even constituting a living wage for meeting basic needs. While this remains the case, the concept of a career nap in any form is only accessible to those who have certain privileges, whether it be personal savings or support, or specific employer benefits, which crucially do not apply to all people. And since all people are certainly at risk for experiencing occupational burnout, being able to take some form of a break shouldn't be a privilege, but a right.

Inequities notwithstanding, checking in with yourself, even when your career is thriving, is important, says Falconer. Maybe you're succeeding, but you're not fulfilled, or what you're doing in work no longer aligns with your values. Or maybe you just need a "life is short" moment to think about what else you've always wanted to do, before it's too late to explore other possibilities. You owe it to yourself to consider a career nap, in any form, so you don't run the risk of sleeping on the joys of life.

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