Beating the Burnout Beast
Don't Get Fried by Too Much Work; Get Recharged—and Bounce Back
BY ASHLEY BISHEL ILLUSTRATION BY JUAN BERNABEU
Engagement is a good thing … right?
New research suggests the answer may not be so black and white. When researchers at Yale University's Center for Emotional Intelligence this year examined both the engagement and burnout levels in more than 1,000 people, they found that 1 in 5 employees reported both high engagement and high burnout. These “engaged-exhausted workers” had high skill acquisition and were passionate about their work, but they also were shouldering immense stress and frustration and were more likely to be looking for a new gig.
And beyond the top performers, organizations seem to be facing a full-on burnout crisis: A 2018 Gallup survey found that 44 percent of employees felt fried at least sometimes, with 23 percent reporting burnout very often or always. For project managers—who might juggle multiple competing initiatives or move from one all-consuming project immediately to the next—the risk of burnout is certainly real.
“But no matter how engaging you find a project, no human being is capable of going full-tilt on anything forever,” says Tom Tsongas, PMP, senior project manager, Symantec, Orlando, Florida, USA. “We all need to recharge from time to time.” And knowing how to prevent burnout—or bounce back from it—can improve both project outcomes and career progression.
—Tom Tsongas, PMP, Symantec, Orlando, Florida, USA
3 Ways to Escape the Always-On Workplace
The line between work and home life has never been blurrier. An August Totaljobs survey of more than 6,700 people in the U.K., for instance, found that employees work an average of 7 hours and 49 minutes a week from home—in addition to their typical time in the office. Employer expectations for an immediate response prompted France in 2017 to pass a law requiring companies with more than 50 employees to set guidelines on how to deal with after-hours communications. And in April, a councilman in New York, New York, USA proposed similar legislation. Until the law—and cultural norms—spread everywhere, here's how to break the always-on mindset:
Establish team expectations
“Have set work hours and stick to them as much as possible,” says Paul Ajayi, PMI-PBA, PMI-RMP, PMP, project manager, Paradigm Consulting Group, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Let the project team know upfront that an 8 p.m. email won't get answered until the morning—and how to escalate an issue if there's a true emergency. Then stick to the schedule and actually stay offline. “Even if you're not responding to email, constantly scanning your inbox drains your energy,” he says.
Thinking about work while at home isn't relaxing, and being preoccupied with personal problems while on the job is distracting. “You have to make a conscious decision to be fully present in each domain,” says Darline Giraud, project manager, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, Austria. “As a working parent, that means not working while I am on a family vacation, and having a personal support team in place that I can count on when work demands more of my time.”
—Darline Giraud, International Atomic Energy Agency, Vienna, Austria
When time gets tight, it's tempting to let work crowd out exercise—but that's a mistake, Mr. Ajayi says. “Make it a must-do, not a should-do.” Hitting the gym helps his stress levels and energy, but that doesn't work if he's multitasking by reading emails or taking conference calls while working out. For that time period, focus on health—the work can wait.
SPOT THE SIGNALS
The warning signs for burnout can be everywhere: status updates sent out riddled with typos. A project started with a sloppy work-breakdown structure. Project close-out templates seeming rushed and incomplete. “When project managers who are normally on top of their game are just working to get tasks off their plate, those small, rushed slip-ups are a sign I've noticed that they're burnt out,” says Tracy Parker, PMP, IT project manager, Nvidia, Santa Clara, California, USA.
The clock can be another, objective measure. Project managers who find themselves playing catch-up outside of business hours should consider how sustainable that work habit is. “More and more late-night or weekend emails means that the project manager is not getting enough time to recover,” says Santhosh Nair, PMP, portfolio manager, Ramsay Health Care, Sydney, Australia. That might be necessary during a project's crunch time or if an initiative has a compressed schedule. But if it's an ongoing habit, burnout is likely inevitable.
Making It Through
Project and program managers can't wave a wand and cure burnout for an entire team—but they can find ways to help a resource-strapped team band together and push through to the finish line.
It's natural to want to stay upbeat, but there's no need to pretend a 60-hour workweek is normal. “When honesty and transparency are lacking, there can be no trust,” says Paul Ajayi, PMI-PBA, PMI-RMP, PMP, project manager, Paradigm Consulting Group, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Acknowledge the long work hours and signpost which milestones are ahead so the team knows the workload is noted—and temporary.
“The most common burnout issue is irritation among team members,” says Tom Tsongas, PMP, senior project manager, Symantec, Orlando, Florida, USA. And if the team is spending more hours than usual together, that irritation has even more opportunity to escalate. Maintain regular check-ins to course-correct if team dynamics go haywire, and consider whether telecommuting for at least some of the hours might make sense.
When the project team is logging long hours, it can feel as if nothing matters but the project deadline. But take time to celebrate those milestones and stage gates along the way. “Share good news and make noise about successes,” says Mr. Ajayi. Those wins can revive flagging energy and remind everyone of the real momentum the team is making—both great safeguards against widespread burnout.
Addressing the overload is imperative, because the burnout consequences can stretch far beyond one sloppy status update or a mangled team meeting. Left unchecked, it can tank a career: Burned out employees have significantly lower confidence in their job performance, according to Gallup, and are 63 percent more likely to take a sick day compared to their non-fried co-workers.
Finding a solution to burnout isn't some secret only available to HR professionals, says Sandeep Mathur, PMP, PgMP, program manager, Transport for NSW, Sydney, Australia. Instead, approach the situation with the project management triple constraint in mind: “Reducing the scope, getting additional resources and extending the delivery timeline are all tools to address the burnout.”
Powering through a project on depleted batteries affects productivity and quality—but projects can't grind to a halt and, sometimes, schedules are set in stone, says Mr. Nair. If that's the case, “reach out to your manager or other project managers for short-term support,” he says. Also revisit how tasks are divided among individual team members and whether any tasks on the project manager's to-do list can be delegated to a team member going forward.
If it feels uncomfortable to ask for an assist, keep in mind: “Burnout tends to affect the top performers in any organization, since they're taking on the lion's share of the more complex workload,” says Mr. Tsongas. “So don't be afraid to speak up when you feel burnout creeping in.”
—Tom Tsongas, PMP
PLAN FOR PREVENTION
Once the burnout has passed—and batteries are recharged—project professionals should commit to safeguards for future projects, says Mr. Mathur. “A great project manager must hold the line if the demands are unrealistic and cannot be met without burning the candle at both ends.”
—Sandeep Mathur, PMP, PgMP, Transport for NSW, Sydney, Australia
Rather than jumping in with a can-do spirit on fast-tracked, tightly resourced projects, project managers must put new initiatives under the microscope and consider how feasible the schedule, budget and scope truly are. Asking tough, measured questions upfront should be welcomed as part of the planning process, he says.
And, Ms. Parker notes, don't think of burnout only as a project-by-project issue. It's often the practitioners who haven't taken an extended vacation in years who are the most susceptible to feeling fried. For some, time off seems to be a to-do item that slips to the bottom of their list. A 2018 U.S. survey by Project: Time Off, for instance, found that more than half of full-time workers didn't take all of the paid vacation days they earned last year. “Schedule time away to recharge,” she says. When vacation is over, burnout will be a distant memory. PM