Burnout is everywhere in the work world, and it hurts morale, performance and ROI in both obvious and subtle ways. But burnout is a sensitive issue that can be tricky to discuss — and even harder to fix.
Many people are reluctant to admit that they are suffering from burnout, while others may not even realize it. They think the problem might be their own doing. Others know that burnout is affecting them, but they don’t see a way around it and feel trapped — until they quit, quietly or otherwise.
We recently polled the ProjectManagement.com community about burnout and its main causes, asking: If you’ve experienced burnout in the past year, what was the main cause?
More than 40 percent of almost 200 respondents said they were overwhelmed with too much work and too little time. About 20 percent are uninspired with no direction or sense of purpose. Another 20 percent feel unappreciated with little recognition or support. About 8 percent said they feel disconnected, lacking collaboration or a team bond. And a fortunate 12 percent said they had not experienced burnout in the past year.
It doesn’t help that far too many organizations and managers do not even acknowledge that burnout is an issue, so they don’t recognize (or simply ignore) its symptoms. As a result, they never actually reckon with the causes of burnout. But they certainly suffer the consequences, from turnover to turmoil that hinders execution and stifles innovation.
The latest episode of PMI’s Projectified podcast focuses on Overcoming Burnout and Change Fatigue, with guests Rose James, PMI-ACP, PMP, and Mary Tresa Gabriel, PMP, discussing how they are helping organizations and teams find healthier ways to deal with these issues. Project team leaders can benefit from their insights.
The first step in overcoming burnout is simply to talk about it. “This helps [team members] understand they are not alone in their journey. Everyone has gone through it,” Gabriel says. “Don’t treat is as a sign of weakness.”
And that kind of transparent communication can help to reduce burnout. “Because when our team members want to talk about burnout, it is more likely they are okay to show their vulnerable side, which comes only when they trust you and when they are open to share with you,” Gabriel says.
In addition to providing a safe, open environment to discuss burnout, project leaders have an ongoing responsibility to provide clear direction to team members. Without it, “they may feel lost, confused, and struggle to find the real meaning of what they are doing,” Gabriel says.
Likewise, project leaders need to protect their teams—and themselves—from excessive workload and unrealistic timelines, which was the leading cause of burnout, according to our PM.com poll.
“If they are constantly faced with unclear expectations and shifting priorities or lack of proper information about the changes, this itself can cause a lot of uncertainty within the team, which can cause burnout.”
Easier said than done, right? In the podcast, James highlights two interconnected “pieces” that project leaders should connect.
The mindset piece can be as straightforward as making sure to take frequent breaks from the work to help the mind relax and reduce stress. But just as important, James says, is “to reframe threats as challenges, because when you are in a burnout state, your mind tends to see challenges as threats, or little mishaps as huge threats. If you put too much pressure on the team to achieve the goal too fast or to implement the change too fast, or frequent changes, your team is going to crack.”
The behavior piece is even trickier, James says. It’s about teaching the team how to learn to say ‘no’ tactfully. How do you do that? James says that project leaders and team members must make the case —in reasonable, rational language—that adding more to their current list of initiatives is going to diminish the quality of output.
And if that doesn’t work? Well, when delivering value isn’t valued more than just delivering … when the talk of mental wellbeing is just, you know, talk … then burnout will continue. And everyone will lose.
So, make your case or make your move.