A Project Manager’s Look at How to Identify and Prevent the Problem of Burnout

Anne Helen Peterson opens her 2020 book “Can’t Even: How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation” with a story from her personal life about a time when her boss at BuzzFeed came to her and suggested she may be suffering from burnout. Her reflexive reaction was to insist that her boss had it all wrong. In fact, she was mildly insulted by the suggestion, and she claimed that her real problem was simply lacking subject matter on which to create her next story. However, it turned out that the manager was right, and Peterson needed to take some time away from the projects she was working on to recognize this fact. Her book has become quite popular because so many people can relate, regardless of if they are part of the Millennial generation or not.

Burnout has become a society-wide epidemic, and it is worth acknowledging and studying. Many view burnout through a negative lens and attach stereotypes to a person who experiences burnout. They are assumed to be an entitled individual who is perhaps just not working hard enough to earn their income and continue churning forward. The prescription that society often writes for people who are “burnouts” is to simply “work harder”. Unfortunately, this idea often misses the nature of what burnout really is, and how it can best be identified, avoided, and treated when necessary.

Project Burnout

When assigned lengthy projects at work, it is only natural that those put on the project may experience burnout at some point. Human beings are not designed to work endlessly long hours for indeterminate periods. We may be able to put in the occasional late night or two, but putting in excessive hours week after week is a surefire way to achieve burnout. Project managers should make every attempt to identify project burnout both in the people who are working on these projects and also within themselves.

Kissflow.com emphasizes how important it is for people working on a project to take breaks from time to time to reclaim some of their productivity and to avoid burnout:

One of the biggest causes of burnout is working constantly without taking sufficient breaks. Only 28 percent of American employees max out their vacation days. While project managers would want to finish the work as soon as possible, working consistently without some much-needed time off can affect the quality of work.

Employees who are encouraged to take vacations and breaks from their work often perform far better than those who are left steeped in endless piles of work. Additionally, other concerns are frequently brought up by those experiencing some level of burnout while working on a project. These concerns include:

  • Below-average compensation
  • Excessive overtime
  • Unreasonable expectations
  • Deadlines that are too demanding
  • Negativity that corrupts the project

No one wants to work in an environment where they are treated as though they don’t have true value. The quality of their work will suffer, and many will simply leave the job or the project before it is completed. Even small doses of burnout in one employee can have ripple effects on the others working on the project. Therefore, it is best to catch it early and attempt to reverse course.

Row of Burnt Matches

Early Signs Of Burnout

If you keep your eyes and ears open, your employees will exhibit signs of burnout early enough that you can notice those signs and try to implement changes right away. So, what are some of the things to be on the lookout for?

Mental Fatigue

There are true cognitive signs of burnout that are exhibited by those suffering from it. When anyone is subjected to a “pedal to the metal” lifestyle for too long, they will eventually break down. Healthline.com explains that this mental fatigue can be brought on by stress and pressure in virtually any part of one’s life:

The terms mental exhaustion and burnout are often used to refer to being overworked or related to stress in the workplace, but mental exhaustion can be caused by a long period of persistent stress in any area of your life.

This means that outside influences on an employee’s life can compile on top of the additional stress that they are experiencing at work and cause them to be off their game mentally. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the employee will experience a complete mental breakdown, but they may start to show signs of mental fogginess or a lack of clarity in how they are processing information. They should be pulled off the project for some time and asked to rest and relax to try to help them recover from this form of burnout.

Missed Deadlines

One of the easier to identify signs of burnout is missed deadlines. When a project is hitting its stride, there should not be any issue with missed deadlines. A single missed deadline is not the end of the world, but when a pattern of missed deadlines develops, it is worth checking into precisely what is happening. If the team does not have a strong explanation for why so many deadlines are passing them by, then it may be time to explore the idea that they may be suffering from some issues of burnout. Perhaps it is time to lengthy out the time allotted for the project, or to scale it back entirely so that the team can meet their deadlines and have reasonable expectations set for them.

Low-Quality Work

Is the work that is showing up for the project less than stellar? It might be a problem with a lack of motivation on the part of the project team. It could be that they are simply bad employees and that other people need to be assigned to the project, but the more likely culprit is that they are having trouble creating stronger work because they are burnt out and lacking motivation. It could be a sign that they need to be given some to recoup and to rethink the strategy for this project going forward.

How to Repair Burnt Out Employees

There is no magic wand to wave to get every burnt-out employee back to their full productive form again, but some rest and relaxation to help recharge employees who have been working on a project for far too long is an ideal starting place. Already, companies are experimenting with a 4-day work week to help employees regain some of their work-life balance. The entire island nation of Iceland has moved to a 4-day standard workweek, and the results have been outstanding there! Thus, there is both real-world and scientific evidence to back up the idea that burnout is real, and that it needs to be addressed. Leaders of all stripes should pay attention to these facts and use the powers that they have to help those who labor for them to get the reset that they need.