Building retirement security by avoiding job burnout: A Q&A with Kerry Hannon

Kerry Hannon

Kerry Hannon

If you are counting the days to retirement because you hate your job, career expert Kerry Hannon has a message for you: “Stick with it.”

Burnout is one of the biggest problems in the workplace, especially for older workers. An annual survey on retirement by the Employee Benefit Research Institute consistently finds that about half of workers retire earlier than they expected – and that job burnout is a key factor.

But sticking it out is important to retirement security, Hannon says in her new book Love Your Job: The New Rules for Career Happiness (Wiley, 2015). These are usually the highest-earning years of your career, she argues. And staying employed helps with everything from retirement account contributions to enabling a delayed filing for Social Security benefits.

In my Reuters Money column this week, I asked Hannon for her tips on how older workers can stay engaged and on the job. Here’s an expanded Q&A from that interview.

Q: Why is the idea of “falling in love with your job” important for older workers nearing retirement?

Love-your-job-book---hannonA: The people I interview have this palpable fear about outliving their money. They want to find work – full- or part-time. But even with the improved economy, if you’re over 50 and looking for work, it’s still hard – it takes almost 3 months longer to find a job than it does for younger people – ageism is still rampant. So, if you have a job, for gosh sakes, you should hang on to it. When I hear people complaining about their jobs, I say – “suck it up.” Unless  have something new to go to, you need to pump the brakes, think about what you do like about your job and concentrate on that. This is such a huge part of your life, and there’s no sense in being miserable. It really comes down to you – how you approach your job and work life.

Finding something new can be a three- to five-year process.

Q: But what if your job is really awful?

A: There still are things you can do to find some joy around the edges – to make the job come alive for you. But it might not be specific to the job. Then, if you really need to make a change, by all means do so, but don’t leave your current job until you have a new one.

Q: What are some examples of finding “joy around the edges?”

A: Perhaps you don’t love what you do, but you do really like your co-workers or the mission of the organization. It might be the challenge of learning something new, or working from home – the things that circle around the job itself.

Extracurriculars tied to the job are one good way to get re-engaged. Many companies offer the opportunity to do volunteer work right within the organization. If you can find a volunteer gig through your employer, that can help build relationships with co-workers and bonds across departments that you might never have had otherwise. And it gets you out of your own head and gives you perspective on the needs of others.

A couple examples that I mention in the book: The National Institutes of Health has its own orchestra that plays gigs at assisted living centers and hospices. Marsh & McLennan Companies Inc has an employee choir.

You might find it by telecommuting. Research shows that telecommuting employees are happier, more loyal and have fewer absences. If you don’t have a boss hovering over you, that can give you a sense of flexibility about getting your work done.

Q: How about learning to love the job itself?

A: Learning a new work-related skill can be key. When you learn something new, your brain shifts. If your employer sponsors workshops or skill-based learning, they may not think of offering it to you if you’re older than 50 – but you can raise your hand and ask for it.

Q: How do life values change as we get older, and how does that affect the way we relate to our jobs?

A: When we are younger, our work is our life on so many levels. In your twenties and thirties, your social friends usually are your work friends. Your identity is tied up in who you are and your job. And, we are establishing ourselves in our fields.

Q: What are the pitfalls that older workers tend to fall into that make them not love their jobs?

A: The biggest factor is boredom. When you reach a certain stage in your 50s or 60s, you’ve been doing the job a long time. There may not be much that lights your fire. I tell people to think of one thing that you can modify, that would make them happier. It’s your responsibility to remain relevant in your work.

Q: How does age discrimination factor into this?

A: The issue of being passed over for new opportunities- not being asked to attend a workshop or get involved in a new project – is a subtle way of alienating you and making you feel disenfranchised from your work. If you aren’t excited about asking questions and learning new things, you won’t be asked, and you’ll start feeling resentful. So, you have to face the agism question all the time. Do raise your hand, be up to speed on technology, understand the ways that  younger bosses communicate.

Below, Kerry discusses the role of mentoring:

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