Team burnout: 9 ways project managers can prevent it (before it’s too late)

Team burnout and how project managers can prevents it

Team burnout is more present than ever. A terrifying 68% of tech workers feel more burned out in a remote setting than they did in an office. And who can blame them? The “always-on” culture eats away at the most resilient of us. 

Burnout comes in many different forms. It could mean feeling extreme mental and physical exhaustion and making mistakes on the job. It might translate into team members repeatedly calling in sick, doing the bare minimum (a.k.a. quiet quitting), or, worse, actively applying for other jobs. 

Before we go into how you can prevent team burnout, let’s take a closer look at what it is and the actual cost of not managing your team’s health and well-being.

What does burnout actually mean? 

We’ve all had the Monday blues or Friday fatigue. Burnout is different—and it’s dangerous. 

The Mayo Clinic defines it as “job burnout is a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”

In short, you’re stressed to the point where you’re no longer able to perform your job to the standard you normally would–if at all. But it might not even feel like stress. That’s why it can sometimes be hard to catch the signs of burnout early. It reveals itself in many forms, such as:

  • Being critical or cynical 
  • Feeling more irritable
  • Bad sleep habits
  • Consistent lack of energy 
  • Lack of inspiration and motivation
  • Trouble concentrating during the day
  • Turning to food or alcohol for comfort
  • Headaches, stomach pains, or other physical complaints

The worst part? Employee burnout is being underreported as burnt-out employees are less likely to take part in surveys or even speak up about it.

So what’s behind it all? Let’s look at the cause behind the effect.

What’s causing burnout?

When we think about burnout, we often think about “just” being overworked. But it’s much more complex than that. And in recent years, the move to remote and async work environments has added additional layers to the “traditional” burnout. An employee burnout report by Indeed yielded frightening results. They found that over half (52%) of survey respondents were experiencing burnout in 2021. The previous year, that number was 43%.

Ultimately, remote workers are the ones at the highest risk of burnout as they:

  • Struggle with work-life balance
  • Feel like they can’t unplug
  • Experience a lack of control
  • Have concerns about job security
  • Deal with perceptions of unfairness

All of the above can contribute to burnout. If we don’t know how to spot signs early and are able to remove (or at least manage) contributing factors, companies are looking at a hefty price tag.

The real cost of team burnout

Team burnout is a spectrum of emotions and experiences with serious consequences for employees, projects, and companies. If we’re talking money, this means annual damages of $225.8 billion in absenteeism and up to $190 billion in healthcare costs.

Phwoar. That’s a pretty penny.

Not surprising that in 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) identified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” that negatively impacts employees. Soon after, burnout became the driving force behind the Great Resignation as employees chose work-life balance over toxic workplaces. 

So, as a project manager, is it all just doom and gloom when you hear the B word? Not really. There are ways to resolve and prevent team burnout. The first step is to acknowledge the telltale signs—low engagement, missed deadlines, lower quality work, and a general withdrawal from work. 

Keep in mind, though, that there isn’t a fixed set of signs to sound off alarm bells, so you need to constantly be in tune with how your team is feeling. Then, work on a consistent plan to provide support, manage workloads, and improve productivity with better planning and scheduling

So let’s take a look at what you can do to prevent burnout before it’s too late.

How you can help your team with burnout

From creating a healthy work environment to managing schedules and leading by example, here’s how you can prevent your team from burnout.

1. Promote a team culture of psychological safety

Psychological safety is paramount to dealing with team burnout and the overall health of your team. Simply put, when employees feel their concerns will be heard without repercussions, they will be more open and communicative about their experience.  

And yet, not every team member will feel comfortable telling you they are burned out—after all, admitting you need help is hard. Plus, many people fear it will make them seem incapable or weak. 

One survey revealed that only 51% of employees feel safe discussing their mental health at work, which means we need to work harder to remove the stigma attached to it. This is especially true of women and minorities, who are likely to experience higher levels of burnout but hesitate to open up at their workplaces because they feel invisible.  

To make psychological safety more than a footnote in your company handbook, be open-minded and empathetic when teammates pour their hearts out. This can be tough, especially if feedback concerns your own decisions and processes as a manager. But research suggests effective leaders practice active listening, minimize barriers between themselves and the team, and maintain an openness to different viewpoints.

Assure your teams that they can speak their minds without fear, and more importantly, let them. Remind them that your job is to help them do their best work, not to excuse or defend bad resource management decisions

But most importantly, don’t wait until you see the first signs of burnout to build trusted relationships with your team. Psychological safety isn’t fostered overnight. It’s when times are good that team members are most receptive to building a rapport, not when they’re already reeling under pressure. 

2. Build downtime into team workloads

As a project manager, you have a not-so-secret weapon to keep burnout at bay—the power to manage your team’s workloads. Workload management is a proactive way to protect your employees’ mental health and keep your projects on track, and it has a far deeper impact than any wellness stipend or fitness membership.

Over 9 out of 10 organizations worldwide offer a wellness initiative of some kind. And yet, team burnout is on the rise, even in 2022. This means that wellness programs, while useful, are a reaction—not the resolution—to employee burnout. Research states that unreasonable workloads and “always being on call” are among the real causes of burnout. 

Managing workloads isn’t as simple as waving a magic wand over an overallocated employee’s schedule. But it can come pretty close if you lean on the right software to monitor utilization rates and build buffer time into schedules so that employees have time not just to rest and recharge but also for professional development and administrative tasks. With a resource management tool, you have complete visibility into workloads and schedules, so you only pull in team members who have the hours to spare, not the ones who are fully booked (or overbooked). 

Employees are humans, not robots, and they need vacations and downtime. But that’s not all—if you schedule every available minute on an employee’s calendar, whether it’s for major projects, weekly meetings, or small tasks, they’re bound to feel “on call” all the time.

Your employees can’t function at 100% capacity every single minute of their workday. Our brains are wired for about 4-5 hours of deep focus work in a day; this is when we are most productive. If your capacity planning doesn’t leave room for the less focused hours, you’re setting your team up for failure—and burnout.

Instead, use a resource management tool to build rest time into an employee’s work day, giving them time to take coffee breaks, answer emails, catch up on administrative tasks, or even go out for lunch.  

3. Differentiate between urgent and important tasks

A big part of team burnout stems from ongoing, invisible stressors, like the continuous pressure to perform, a constant sense of urgency, and always struggling to stay on top of workloads. Project deadlines are important, but if your team operates on a false sense of urgency all the time, it’s time to recalibrate and reset the work culture. 

If your team is already feeling burned out, slow down and take a collective “deep breath” with your team. Help your team prioritize their tasks into “urgent” and “important” categories. Then focus on what they can realistically accomplish. Adjust deadlines and expectations and revisit them periodically.

For instance, it might be urgent to communicate with a customer about the status of a task, so that’s an opportunity to coach a struggling team member to recognize its urgency. But a brainstorming session could fall into the “important” bucket and can likely be pushed to the next day, or you may need to pull in another teammate to help out. 

It’s not that your team members don’t know what the priority items are, but if they’re overwhelmed, your “permission” to shuffle things around can ease some of their stress. Ultimately, your decisions should help teams feel a sense of relief and support, so they feel like they have a chance for a comeback instead of spiraling down the burnout path. 

4. Make time-off conversations a part of your check-ins

The best managers are those who are genuinely invested in helping their teams schedule and enjoy their paid time off without worrying about work. This means regularly reminding your team that vacations are a part of their compensation package and that they have a right to take a break. Include time-off conversations in your one-on-one check-in agenda—you’ll build trust with your direct reports, and you get to discuss a fun topic like vacation.

Keep in mind that a week or two of vacation does not resolve burnout. But it can help team members get mental distance and come back with a fresh perspective on tasks and a creative solution to a problem. Especially if they haven’t taken time off in the past several months, it’s likely a big factor in feeling burnt out. Your job is to find out whether their workloads felt so heavy that they couldn’t take time off without putting a project in jeopardy or if they need to be reminded to take breaks.

If it’s the first scenario, there’s an issue with capacity planning and leave management. When you sign on new customers and forecast project needs, you also need to factor in vacations and potential sick days and plan project milestones accordingly. If you offer an unlimited or flexible time-off policy, encourage them to take a minimum of 3-4 weeks every year.

When your team knows that time off is recorded and workloads are planned accordingly, it makes taking vacations a breeze and coming back to work less stressful. 

5. Introduce self-help measures to promote mental and physical health 

Team burnout can also come from feeling a lack of control. Self-help tactics, like meditation, yoga, or scheduled times for a walk around the neighborhood, can guide your co-workers to stay calm and develop focus. Encourage your team to prioritize their mental and physical health and discuss how they can fit at least one wellness initiative into their day. 

For example, mindfulness meditation can greatly reduce burnout and stress over a period of time and can increase job satisfaction and emotional well-being. Introduce short meditation sessions if you co-work together as remote teams, or begin your team standup with a few minutes of breathing exercises.

There might be team members who resist new ideas or won’t accept solutions, especially if they’re feeling demoralized. Focus on activities or solutions that lead them in a positive direction, and then give them the option to choose and the space to heal. But also let them know you’re there to listen and take active measures to help them come out stronger.

6. Prevent burnout by shifting to flexible schedules (and focus on outcomes)

When teams are anxious and burnt out, they may seek their own ways to cope, like pursuing a passion or spending more time with loved ones. Locking them into fixed hours will only increase the stress. Instead, focus on outcomes and let them know that as a team, the quality and timeliness of deliverables are what matter, not the working hours. Employees have different commitments in their personal life too, and a flexible schedule helps them manage those obligations without feeling stressed out.

Plus, as a rule, nobody likes a micromanager, and keeping close tabs can sink your team’s performance even further. Recognize that people have different chronotypes and may do their best work at different times during the day. Unless there is a need for synchronous work, offer flexible schedules and put employees in control of the work-life balance they crave. 

7. Provide mental health resources to help your team

Team burnout is a plea for help, and meditation may not be enough to combat its ill effects. As a project manager, you can help employees fulfill their mental health needs by highlighting resources and benefits the company offers, like mental health days or free access to therapists. 

In addition, give your staff resources at work—connect them with an expert within the company who can help them complete a task, a quick learning course that might teach them a valuable skill, or a peer partnership where they can open up about their struggles.

If your company doesn’t offer mental health benefits, it’s time to advocate for your team and make suggestions to the C-suite in this regard. Especially considering that research points to the huge gap in how employers and employees perceive mental health benefits. 

This way, your team will see that you take their concerns seriously and are an active player in improving the employee experience. 

8. Lean on productivity hacks to spark new ideas

Introducing productivity hacks like time blocking can also shepherd a team out of the burnout zone. New ways of working won’t be a silver bullet that’ll magically improve efficiency, but getting top performers to share their productivity tips can spark new motivation and ideas. 

Remote work has given birth to new methods of productivity, like time blocking (setting aside time for specific tasks), listening to deep-focus music, and taking short breaks every couple of hours. Open up communication among team members and encourage them to exchange ideas about working smarter, not harder. At the end of the day, your goal is to lower stress levels while hitting project milestones. 

As a project manager, an integrated group calendar gives you visibility into schedules and helps you avoid scheduling over time blocks or recharge time, which your team members will appreciate. 

9. Take the temperature on burnout in your team (and do it often)

The more you normalize talking about burnout, the easier it becomes to get past it as a team—and possibly head it off before it begins. 

Checking in with your team doesn’t mean you need a burnout score from them every day. Instead, ask leading questions like “What is something fun you did this weekend?” “What are you looking forward to this month?” or “Who do you follow on [social media platform] or in real life for inspiration?” 

Your goal is to open up conversations about life outside of work and be more human. 

Lead by example to prevent team burnout

Workplace burnout isn’t your fault, but you’re responsible for supporting your team when it does happen. And if you’re burnt out too, you’ve got nothing to give. 

To support your team, you need to model the same behaviors and lead by example. Take your vacations, practice work-life balance, and show how you draw boundaries to protect your personal time.   

The pandemic forced managers everywhere to step up their game and support their teams through a difficult time. This left leaders, especially middle managers, depleted and tired. If you’re feeling symptoms of burnout, it’s time to evaluate your own work processes and whether you’re in a position to steer your team when they need you the most.

Preventing burnout really starts with taking control of employee schedules and workloads, allowing employees to work in a way that works for them, and discussing openly what you can do to spot early signs of burnout and be proactive in managing them.

And let’s remember that, sure, burnout is bad for business—but it’s really the individuals that pay the price.

Prevent team burnout by managing team schedules, utilization, and workloads with a resource management tool like Resource Guru. Try it free for 30 days.


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