How to Talk to Your Manager About Burnout

According to the Harvard Business Review, fifty percent of the US workforce reports chronic exhaustion. A million people miss work every day due to stress. The result is a significant percentage of the workforce is at risk of burnout.

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What is burnout?

Burnout is a state of chronic stress, causing physical and emotional exhaustion, a generalized lack of accomplishment, cynicism, and feelings of detachment. People suffering from burnout may experience insomnia, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, and difficulty concentrating. Left unaddressed, the stress responsible for burnout can result in cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, substance abuse, and depression.

Causes of burnout

A number of work-related factors contribute to burnout, including overwork, unclear or changing job requirements, insufficient compensation or recognition, unpleasant workplace relationships, and unreasonable amount of overtime. Highly engaged employees are at the highest risk of burnout.

Burnout does not happen overnight. The effects of workplace stress are incremental, slowly and imperceptibly building up over time. Few people realize they’re at risk until the symptoms of burnout are well-established.

How to deal with burnout at work

Burnout rarely goes away on its own unless steps are taken to mitigate stress. The first–and most intimidating–step is to explain the situation to your boss.

Even if you know how to communicate with your boss effectively, this is a unnerving step to take. Employees suffering from burnout are often afraid of admitting there’s a problem. They often feel they should be able to handle the pressure or should just “tough it out.” Many worry if they admit they need help, their employer will simply replace them with someone who can do the job. 

As a general rule, most managers and business owners would prefer employees speak up when something prevents them from operating at peak performance. Employee retention is less expensive than hiring and training a new employee to perform in a job which has a proven history of burnout.

Each manager is different, of course, but if you approach yours with a clear idea of why you’re burned out, and practical suggestions to resolve the issue, your manager will likely be willing to work with you to resolve burnout issues.

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Even so, you might balk at the idea of talking to your boss about how to deal with burnout at work. To prepare for the meeting, ask a close friend or trusted coworker to help you evaluate your workload and identify factors that need to to change.

Describe your work duties to your confidant. This helps identify which tasks that cause you the most stress, and helps you evaluate whether or not your workload is reasonable. Identify any problem areas so you can clearly communicate them to your supervisor. Questions to ask include:

  • Is the amount of work assigned excessive?
  • Am I assigned work I am qualified to complete?
  • Did I take on too many additional tasks out of a sense of ambition or obligation?
  • Are workplace dynamics dysfunctional, and if so, how do they affect my work?
  • Is my workload well-structured, or do assignments, tasks, and deadlines need reviewing?

Compare your current job responsibilities to your job description. Are you’re being tasked with work outside your area of expertise, or are you working above and beyond what is expected of you.

With this information in hand, brainstorm out possible burnout solutions. These may range from taking time away from work or re-assigning tasks to other employees. When you do meet with your boss, you’ll be able to make proactive suggestions to help resolve the problem.

How to communicate with your boss effectively

At the start of your meeting with your boss, make it clear you’re dedicated to the company’s mission, but pursuing that mission has led to you feeling overwhelmed and burned out. Ask your boss for guidance on how to resolve the issue, and propose your own solutions.

If you suggest task reassignment, explore which tasks can be put on hold or reassigned to coworkers. Offer to touch base by email with coworkers who take on tasks.

If your job offers paid time off, explain you need to take some time to recharge. This does not necessarily mean taking a long vacation. Social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson believes regular long weekends are more beneficial than longer periods of time off work. Be clear (to yourself as well as your boss) that while off work you won’t be using your phone or computer for work purposes. The “always on call” nature of modern work is considered a major contributor to burnout.

Emphasize you pushed yourself beyond your limits in service to the company, and you’re concerned you’ve reached the point where you can not longer perform at peak capacity. Given the fact fifty percent of employee turnover is related to burnout, it’s in your boss’ best interests to work with you to help you recover. It’s a win-win situation: you get the help you need, while the company retains a talented employee (and doesn’t have to go through the hassle and expense of hiring and training a replacement).

Realistically, some bosses aren’t willing to compromise or budge on work duties. They may see burnout as an excuse or an admission of weakness. Discovering your boss thinks this way this isn’t pleasant, but makes it quite clear where you stand.

If your boss refuses to help, your hace several alternatives. Your may need to approach HR with a formal complaint. If you’re unionized, talk to your union representative about how to proceed. If all else fails, it may be time to consider other job options. Most bosses, however, understand burnout is a growing problem in the modern workforce, and are willing to help you recover and return to a more reasonable workload.

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