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Beating Job Search Burnout

How to deal with the stress of finding that perfect job

By Jennifer Bobrow Burns

As any job seeker can attest, searching for a position can be a full-time task. If you're doing it right, the process will take up most of your time. And to make matters worse, it doesn't have the benefit of a paycheck at the end of the week to make it all worthwhile. It can be hard not to get discouraged as you wait for the phone to ring, check your email every hour, or run home to find no new messages on your answering machine.

When you start to feel like you just can't send one more resume, write another cover letter, or charm your way through your next interview, don't despair. Every job seeker faces burnout at some point during the process. But the more you manage your stress level, the easier it will be for you to stay focused and not feel overwhelmed.

According to Mary Jane Miller, executive director of Career Development at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., good planning may be the best way to begin.

"The job search is like any other research project or assignment you have to complete for school," she says. "You need to clarify your goals in advance, have a deadline, and put it on your calendar." Miller advises that by planning ahead and breaking the process down into steps and "mini-goals," such as a week for research and a week for networking, it will make the process seem more manageable and the goals more attainable.

Beverly Smallwood, Ph.D., a psychologist and career coach in Hattiesburg, Miss., who runs, a consulting company that helps people deal with stress in the workplace, agrees. She maintains that managing your expectations and being patient is crucial in reducing stress. "Job searches take time," she states. "In addition to your preparation and investigation, you have to contact, interview, and wait for responses from companies you are most interested in. If you expect it to happen overnight, you'll stay stressed and frustrated."

So, how can you retain both your sanity and your motivation during this challenging time? Following are some effective tips for how to beat job search burnout.

Anticipate Rejection

While no one likes to get rejected, try not to take it personally. No matter how qualified you are, so are many other candidates. Getting passed over for a job is not really about you, but about the staffing needs of the organization. Keep in mind that the decision is not a reflection of who you are as a person.

As a stress reliever, Miller suggests going into the process accepting that there will be some negative outcomes. "Realize from the get-go that you will get many nos before you get a yes," she says. "If you always have Plan B, there is always something on the backburner, and the next thing to look forward to if Plan A falls through."

Dr. Smallwood further emphasizes this point. "Learn the power of the four-letter word: NEXT!" she advises. "Look to the future. Is there something you would do differently or more effectively next time? What's the next opportunity, and how can you make the most of it?"

Take Breaks

Everyone deserves a day off now and then, even from a job search. Don't feel guilty about taking an hour, a day, or even a week off to do something fun for yourself. Time off will help you recharge your battery. You'll come back to your job search with a fresh perspective and renewed motivation.

Your ideal vacation might be to fly to Cancun, but in reality you don't need to spend a lot of money or leave town to get a break from the grind. For example, a professional massage is a great way to reduce stress. But if a fancy day spa doesn't fit into your budget, many massage therapy schools offer very low rates.

Assess Your Skills

The job search process is especially stressful if you are still unclear about what type of job you want. Until you've honestly examined your interests, skills and values, you're not likely to land to the right job. "When you have a clear idea of your strengths and talents, as well as the types of environments in which you will or won't thrive, it narrows down your task," says Dr. Smallwood.

Knowing yourself and the type of job you seek will help you to stay focused. By researching your field and setting clear goals, it will enable you to submit targeted resumes and letters. It will also enhance your networking efforts and interview performance. Additionally, it will prevent you from wasting time and energy on positions that aren't the right fit for you.

Reward Yourself

Take pride in your accomplishments, and reward yourself as you achieve each small goal you've set for yourself. While you can't control the number of interviews you are offered, you can control the number of networking phone calls you make, resumes you send out, and hours you spend conducting research. Treat yourself when you meet the goals that are up to you, and you will feel energized to keep working.

Rewards can be anything that gives you incentive to keep plugging away. Clearly, since you're still unemployed, you must keep your budget in mind. How about an afternoon browsing at the mall with a friend? Or maybe catch a matinee of a film you've wanted to see? Or even just a nap can help improve your mood. Remember, improved spirits can result in more effective job searching.

Get Organized

Think about how you'd feel if an employer calls and you can't find a pencil or paper to take down information about an upcoming interview. What if you oversleep and miss an appointment because you forget the date? Disorder can cause added stress. However, being organized allows you to take charge of your job search.

As a way to be systematic, "put your goals in writing," recommends Miller. Whether you prefer an Excel spreadsheet, electronic organizer such as a Palm Pilot, or an old-fashioned calendar or bulletin board doesn't matter. What matters is that you keep your schedule easily accessible and your workspace clutter free.

Seek Support

Although you may feel alone, there are many others who share your same situation. By joining a support group, you will be able to trade tips and bounce ideas off of other job seekers.

You'll get to hear about effective strategies and techniques, as well as what hasn't worked. Furthermore, it will give you a forum to vent your frustrations to an audience who understands.

In addition to spending time with other job seekers, don't shut out family and friends who want to help. Talk to them about what's been going on and accept their assistance when offered. If you find that the job search is really getting you down and your stress level is too much to handle, seek professional help. There are many career counselors, social workers and psychologists who are trained in helping people deal with the emotional aspects of the job search in addition to the more concrete tasks.

Find an "Office"

It can be depressing to spend your day at home in your pajamas, especially when everyone else has somewhere to go each morning. For this reason, it's important for you to "go to work" as well. Find a location such as your local library, career center or coffee shop, where you can spend several hours each day dedicated to your job search. Bring a laptop or make sure they have the computer capabilities that will meet your needs such as Internet access, email and/or a printer. Also, a cell phone will enable you to check your messages, as well as make any necessary calls.

Spending time in a public place can also help keep you focused and calm. Although there are more distractions, it will also make you feel that you need to accomplish goals before you can go home. That way, you will see home as a retreat and not the stressful job search headquarters that you want to escape.

Revamp Your Finances

A major source of job search stress can come from money, or lack thereof. Consider your options for savings. Is it possible for you to live with your parents or other family until you find a job and save enough to move out? Can you cut costs in your daily expenses, such as eating out and entertainment? Try not to get discouraged as you plot out a budget and think of these cutbacks as temporary.

Also, you might want to think about working part-time or temping while you continue to look for full-time work. Not only will this meet your expenses, but it will also help to boost your morale. Furthermore, even if the temporary job is not in your field, it will still put you in contact with the working world and can be beneficial for networking and job leads.

Stay Positive

The job search isn't all bad. It's merely a time of uncertainty, which can be exciting. At any moment, the phone could ring and you might be offered a job that takes you around the world or enables you to do what you love. Get comfortable with ambiguity by remembering that your next big break is right around the corner.

Stress-Busting Ideas

Dr. Smallwood offers these simple suggestions as low-cost, every day ways to keep your anxiety level down:

  • Exercise-This is a free or low-cost method that's proven to reduce stress, give you energy, and make you healthier.

  • Breathe-Several times a day, take about three slow, deep breaths. Inhaling slowly, holding it a few seconds, then exhaling slowly. This rushes oxygen throughout the cells in the body, producing relaxation.

  • Laugh-Look for the humor in stressful situations. Spend time with people who laugh a lot. Laughter releases tension and produces endorphins, the pleasure chemicals in the brain.

Jennifer Bobrow Burns is the former associate director of career development at Columbia University. Currently, she is a free-lance career consultant and writer living in Connecticut.

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