I’ve been working for a very dynamic manager who gives me lots of opportunities for advancement. I’ve learned a lot, but I think I blew it. The last three months have been very stressful and two days ago I quit. I left my boss in the lurch — I quit without notice. I was just burned out and didn’t know where to turn. He’s a great guy, but he just kept piling on the work and I got to the point where I couldn’t keep my head above water. Some tasks really required someone higher-level than me, but I managed to get them done, working till after midnight at home and on weekends. My husband and kids just learned to live without me for a while.

How do I explain my sudden departure to future employers? I do not just leave jobs, but I just didn’t feel capable any more. I know it was poor judgment to not give notice. Please help.

Nick’s Reply

quit without noticeSometimes stress pushes us to our limits. Sometimes it pushes us beyond. You’re right, you shouldn’t have quit without notice — or without first discussing your problems candidly with your boss. You will never know whether he might have adjusted your work load.

There are two things you should do.

Quit without notice: Fess up

First, you should go back to your employer, apologize, and offer to cover the job while he finds a replacement. That would be hard, I know. He may not even want to talk to you. Fessing up is the only way I know to try and salvage the relationship and your self-respect.

Second, face up to what happened when you interview with another employer. Whether or not your boss was being reasonable in piling on all that work, the bottom line is that the job and the company were not for you. You have to be able to explain, very briefly, why that’s so. Even if not speaking up was your error, your employer is at least as much to blame. Try something like this:

How to Say It

“I love my work, and I want to work in a better company where I am free to do my job effectively.”

If they ask you what the problem was with your recent employer, be honest:

“I’m looking for a good job with a good company, but I never disparage anyone I’ve ever worked with… I came to you because your company seems to be one of the shining lights in this industry, and I’d like to show you how I will be a profitable hire…”

Focus on the company you’re meeting with, not on your past or your old company. Be ready talk about what you can do for the new employer. That’s what matters. (See Stand Out: How to be the profitable hire.)

Lack of skills or too much work?

I’ve seen this burn-out syndrome before and it concerns me. You say you didn’t feel capable in the position you were in. I take that to mean you either weren’t skilled to do the job, or it was just too much work for you even if you could do it. Don’t let that get to your ego. There are jobs we can do, and others we can’t. Problems arise when we don’t know the difference, and when we can’t say stop before a disaster occurs.

I’ve known a number of talented people who have dug themselves into a hole they could not escape, except the way you did. It’s a vicious cycle.

Snapped and quit without notice

Sara was a very smart and dedicated worker who enjoyed great success at her company for three years. But she failed to recognize that the work became more than she could handle. The harder she worked, the more responsibility the boss gave her. Bosses are guilty of making this situation worse, because they often take advantage of this kind of worker.

Sara got deeper into the hole. She became physically ill. But she was afraid to turn any work away. Finally, she snapped. Late on a Friday she slipped a one-line resignation letter under her boss’s door and disappeared. She couldn’t face him, her co-workers, or herself. Her self-confidence was shattered.

Is this job for you?

This is what happens when someone takes on more than they can honestly handle. The truth is, the job is not for them, and burning themselves out trying to do it hurts everyone.

This message is not just for workers. It’s for bosses, too. If a job is too much for someone, stop and face the problem. Don’t create more problems by ignoring it till it’s too late.

My advice to you: find a job you want to do and that you can do well. Be honest with the interviewer, and focus on what you can do for the business. Interview your future boss thoroughly. Ask to meet other team members and inquire about the boss’s management style when there’s a crunch. Don’t ignore warning signs.

If you take the job, grow your career slowly and carefully, and base your success on the new skills you build – not on how much work you’re willing to take on to prove something. Let your boss know when the work gets to be too much. There’s a difference between “not doing your job” and “having too much job to do”.

I wish you the best.

Have you ever burned out and quit your job without notice to your boss? What precipitated it? What was the outcome? Do you believe it was your own fault, or your employer’s? What should this reader tell other employers?

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  1. This one is tough. Every promotion or increase in responsibility that I have accepted seemed almost more than I could handle at the time. However, in every case I learned the required skills, developed ways of handling the responsibility, and grow into the job. However, that usually took a good 6 months. During that initial phase I had to work very hard and was somewhat stressed out; I eventually developed competence and confidence.

    I would expect some challenges and adversity in a new position. However, if after 12 months the challenges haven’t eased up then it is probably time for that conversation.

  2. Nick, how should she approach her former employer? Call her direct report directly? Try to set up a meeting? I’d recommend that it not be in the office–it might bring up bad feelings. Also, how much time has passed is critical.

    She will also need to brace herself for some anger directed her way as bosses tend to turn the feelings out (it’s the other’s fault) versus taking responsibility. How can she best handle this? I believe she needs some points for that meeting.

  3. To the letter writer. You did the right thing to leave the job. The boss sincerely didn’t care you were working 100 hours a week. Don’t go back. If you need to say anything tell them you took a sabbatical.

  4. Another issue here is that in one year, we’ve gone from an abundance of jobs in our skilled/management areas to a shortage and layoffs. To have this conversation of ‘I’m overwhelmed’ correctly, effectively, and politely, so that your boss doesn’t feel blamed and get defensive (and perhaps retaliate by putting you on a layoff list a/k/a PIP), has to be done ever so carefully in the full knowledge that you may be setting yourself up for the heave-ho. How to do that without that outcome, and also to gauge whether or not you should be looking because your boss won’t help?

    1) Assess if your boss is even capable of that conversation. I’ve worked for at least one boss who routinely drove staff over the cliff, and my only solution was a fortunate changing of reporting line.
    2) Never blame them but also be direct in describing the situation
    3) State clearly that ‘I’m measuring my own effectiveness and I know I could be more effective in my quality and time performance’ Reaffirm that you like the job and you like him or her.
    4) Propose your own program for help–and then ask for assistance in executing.
    5) Then after that conversation, follow up with a written document. Essentially your own development plan.
    6) If the boss is not responsive, then it’s time to ankle.

    • This is the top comment , wish i could upvote this. also it depends if you are primary income earner or if your income is even needed for your household. your actions on how you proceed take this into consideration. only someone who didnt need the money would quit in a lurch. and it seems like women are the ones who internalize and just heads down get the work done until its too much and then scream i quit. in the past it was the guys who did this , now seems like its the ladies who are afraid of speaking up?

      • Thank you, Alex. Eddie and Autistic Among You below had very sharp comments about how to handle it when it happens. ‘Just Say No’ can prevent a lot of overload at once. Another method that AAY brings up is the status report. I’ve done this on jobs for at least two decades. It’s more work but a weekly status report on Excel of projects by name, start date, progress date, current status, and next steps can 1) keep you on track, 2) be a tool to record the load and 3) be a weekly discussion tool with the boss.

  5. To the letter writer. It doesn’t sound to me that the boss was giving your more responsibility, but instead was giving you more work. More responsibility usually comes with staff to help you.

  6. I was in a similar situation many years ago. I played electric company, did a lot of load dropping of tasks to be picked up later. Gave him a choice of getting nothing done or doing it in a realistic time frame. We’re going down together. Had periodic head-on collisions, made sure it was mutual assured damage. The CEO intervened and re-assigned both of us. The company closed 2 years later

  7. It’s a sad story. laced with missed opportunities. and absent of some useful context, e.g. company & department size, boss’s experience, kind of work.

    As noted, what stand outs most is failure to communicate. When I joined my new boss in a new job, one of the 1st things he told me was “don’t BS me”. Don’t wing it. If you don’t know something, tell me you don’t know. That’s useful information. If you don’t tell me, I’ll assume you do know & I’ll act on it & get us both in trouble.”

    What he didn’t tell me, is “if you’re going to hit overload, tell me. Something I learned later in my 1st management job.

    I kept handing tasks to one guy on my team til one day he politely refused. Not a petulant “No!” but an assessment NO. He told me he’d reached his overload threshold. Useful information. From which I learned something. Not to assume anything, but ask if that new task, role, assignment etc would work for the person. And to let everyone else know that I wasn’t a mind reader, and ding me if I’m pushing too hard, too fast or pushing them outside a comfort zone. Otherwise I’m going to assume they are OK with what they are charged to do & keep doing it. This person knew more about being managed, then I knew about managing. Thanks to him I learned to do it better. And to be clear about priorities.

    In this scenario the boss didn’t ask about impact, and the writer didn’t let that boss know it was sucking the life out of them, and they both lost something. A lose-lose.

    Later, in another company, I was on the receiving end. Mostly self afficted. It was a startup situation and I kept taking on more work, as did my boss & colleagues. Since inception, I was the budgeting guy among a number of other roles and that piece of the project consumed a growing piece of my time fueled by endless demands from ahigh. Plus I didn’t particularly like the work. The only way out, was to hire my way out, briefed my boss and she sought & got approval to hire an assistant for me. Someone who loved that stuff.

  8. What you described is a common management shortcoming that can be called negative consequences for outstanding performance. You do the work, you don’t complain, you are dependable and relatively drama free. The next time something needs to get done, your enthusiastic but clueless manager looks around and says, “Who else would we give this to, if not the LW?”

    It might not have started that way, but as your job evolved and expanded it broke. That happens sometimes. Jobs break. What’s worse is when the employees forced to do those jobs also break.

    And that’s how I would deal with it in an interview. “I would never disparage a former employer. Let’s just say the job was broken. And when it became clear that they either couldn’t or wouldn’t recognize that, I did the only thing that was left to do.“ And then pivot immediately into Nick’s advice on demonstrating how you would tackle your new job profitably.

    Good luck.

  9. If it’s only been two days, I’d call my boss and ask to talk. I’d explain what was in this post, apologize for breaking down and leaving due to the overwhelm, and ask if they would like to fix the situation together.

    They need you, and presumably you need a job, so why not see if you can repair the mess you BOTH made?

    You need to figure out how to say “no”, and they need to figure out how to delegate appropriately, and/or how to fix their broken staffing!

    At a minimum, you need to have a protected, set time every week to give and get status updates from your boss! If that had been happening, the boss would have known you were about to snap and could have prevented it by offloading some of your work.

    There is no shame in saying “I’m at my limit now and simply can’t take on anything else.” Or “I’m working on/responsible for A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, and J right now. Which of those things should I stop doing to make time to do this new assignment?”

  10. I was in a kind of parallel situation. I very much needed work and joined this company where a friend was working, not expecting to stay there very long. (The elevator pitch he gave me was “the owner is a slave-driver, and your boss will be a workaholic”.)

    Fast-forward ten years… it turned out that my boss’s management style of “delegate and hold accountable for results” worked really well with me. So it was ten years of increased responsibility, excellent reviews, promotions and the rewards that come with all that.

    Then health issues finally forced my boss to retire.

    After that, I lasted maybe two years directly reporting to the owner of the company. The last six months, I was so unhappy that I took a letter of resignation to work with me every day. (Every weekend, I updated it with a new end-date.)

    Finally, one day I went out to lunch with the owner’s #1 advisor. We got talking and I told him how unhappy I was, and perhaps it was time for me to part ways with the company. He says, “no, no, I’m working to improve things, give it a little time.” I agree and we go back to the office.

    The next afternoon I’m called into the owner’s office. He spends a half hour telling me how unhappy he is with me. At a pause, I take out the letter of resignation – I had brought it with me – sign it, and hand it to him.

    He is dumbfounded for a bit, and then asks if I’m sure. I can only reply that I’m sorry he is dissatisfied with me and that he deserves to have people working for him who will make him happy.

    The next day I’m writing up some notes for knowledge transfer and just before lunch I get a meeting request for 2pm. Hmm. Then as I’m heading out, my most senior direct-report comes and tells me he and my other two senior reports got a meeting request from the owner for 2:30, and he noticed I wasn’t included. Ok, now I know.

    A bit before 2, I take the little box with the last of my personal belongings out to my car – I had mostly cleaned out my office a few weeks prior – and go to the owner’s office. While I’m waiting nearby for him to get back from lunch, I notice our HR person is also waiting, with some documents. I take my building keys off of my key ring and attach them to the lanyard for my company ID badge.

    The owner returns, we go into his office, sit down at the conference table, and I slide my badge and keys over to the HR person. A pause. “You know?” “Yes.”

    They did pay me severance through my resignation date, which I did and do appreciate.

    A thing that was a bit awkward was that my team was having an off-site that afternoon to celebrate our recent product release. Only the three people in the 2:30 meeting knew it was the last time they would be seeing me.

    While I have regrets about leaving, I still believe it was necessary and do not regret triggering it.

    • , “no, no, I’m working to improve things, give it a little time.”
      A good response and perhaps helpful advice to him is a seemingly apropos
      saying “Don’t try to teach a pig to sing, it wastes your time and annoys the pig”

      • Yes – I, personally, knew better than to expect that the owner was going to change after thirty years of running the business.
        I also knew better than to believe him when he said that.
        After that lunch, he immediately went to the owner and told him I was unhappy, leading to the rest.
        I’d cry out “I don’t know what else I should have expected!?!”, but really, I *did* know that he’d throw anyone under the bus without hesitation to maintain his status with the owner. So even though I wouldn’t admit it to myself at the time, subconsciously “enough was enough”, and I triggered my departure.

  11. Thank you for sharing the story. what an odd turn of events!