Project Burnout – How To Spot It And How To Stop It

Carmen Campos

Being a project manager is a fast paced and highly demanding job. So, there’s no surprise that burnout can occur. Detecting signs of burnout is not something typically taught on a project managers training course but, nevertheless, it could be important.

Even if you are using a controlled approach to managing your projects and consider yourself to be a highly effective project manager with good experience and a proven track-record of successful projects, it is always possible that external factors beyond your control could contribute to a project that will cause burnout for you or your team members.

Burn out is a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion. If left unattended, it will impact on productivity, morale and can affect your personal life too. Burnout is usually a gradual process which can often go unnoticed until the symptoms are too severe to ignore any longer. Being able to identify them as early as possible is essential to help prevent a situation becoming unbearable. Three of the most obvious signs you might be close to burnout include: 

  1. Exhaustion – Having no energy, poor memory, bad sleep and getting sick are signs of exhaustion.
  2. Alienation – This is having a negative perspective, neglecting yourself, getting easily agitated and isolating yourself.
  3. Reduced performance – Missing deadlines, becoming less engaged, procrastination and the inability to concentrate.

What is Burnout?

Burnout occurs in a project where the pressure, stresses and other factors have reached such a level that the project team can no longer work effectively. They cannot complete the tasks they have been assigned to the required standard or in the expected time-frame. They cannot solve problems easily because the pressure they are under is so great they do not have the luxury of thinking time. They are exhausted, de-motivated, pessimistic and no longer think they can achieve their project goals.
And the problem with burnout is that it can creep up on you; it is often an accumulation of factors, sometimes unrelated to the current project, that on their own may not be too much cause for concern.
For instance, if the previous project was high profile and required maximum effort the team may have embarked on a new project with no time to recharge their batteries, and this type of high-intensity working environment, far from delivering more projects in as short a space of time as possible destroys creativity, energy and enthusiasm.
It can be hard to convince senior executives that quiet periods are not wasted time. They can be time to re-think strategies and review approaches to projects, maybe embark on some training. If there is no time to review the last project and learn from it then future projects will simply continue in the same way, making the same mistakes, putting teams under the same pressures until they reach breaking point.

Spotting Burnout

As a project manager you should take responsibility for detecting the signs of burnout. You may not be able to change the current project but you might (should) be able to influence future projects to ensure better future outcomes for your organisation and your people. The loss of creativity and enthusiasm that comes with fatigue will not, ultimately, benefit your organisation.
There are lots of little signs that individual team members may be starting to reach breaking point:

  • Excessive sick days
  • Silly mistakes
  • Increasingly argumentative behaviour
  • Lost sense of humour
  • Cancelling planned days off
  • Poor team relations
  • Excessive over-time
  • Working only minimal hours

If you start to see some or all of these signs then take the time to talk honestly and openly to the team, both individually and as a group, to get to the bottom of the real issues.

How To Combat Burnout

A project manager is in a position of influence (or should be) so use that power to the advantage of your projects, team and business. Don’t sit back and let a situation escalate; speak out but make sure you know how to influence those with the power to makes changes to actually make those changes. Constantly moaning about the pressures of work just becomes background noise that nobody will take any notice of.
Instead make a plan for how you can improve the situation; explain the downsides of not changing attitudes to how projects are run and perceived by senior management. This takes courage, persuasive skills, leadership and vision but these are all characteristics of a project manager’s personality that you should have or, at the very least be cultivating.

Have you noticed any signs of burnout like these? If you fear you’re facing burnout, the tips below could help you. It may be worth taking a look even if you’re not currently suffering any of the symptoms above, as they could help you avoid burnout.

Time Control

Gaining control over your time is crucial. As project managers, your time is just as valuable as any team members. Try scheduling meetings based on your availability and if there isn’t time in your schedule it can wait. Most projects will not be hugely hindered by waiting a couple of days for a less than critical meeting.

Taking a break

It may sound simple but make sure to take your breaks and preferably move away from your desk to do so. Take a quick walk around your work area and have lunch out of the office. This will give you those much-needed mental breaks.

Don’t go to work sick – and take your holidays

When you are sick, don’t go into work because you feel there is too much to do. Listen to your body, it is telling you to slow down and take a much-needed rest. Make sure to take your holidays throughout the year and not leave it till the end. Taking this time will improve your mental and physical health.

Create work/home boundaries

It is important to look at boundary lines between your work and personal life. This can be hard to accomplish when project managers are working long hours and want to be available for their team and clients. Whilst being available is important, there are times when you should not be. Family and social time is important, and so is time on your own.

Invest in yourself

One of the most important things we can do is to take care of our health. You can do so by getting a balanced diet and regular exercise, as well as ensuring you are getting the right amount of sleep. Another way to invest in yourself is in terms of updating skills that might provide techniques to help you manage your time and your projects more efficiently, such as time management.

Avoiding burnout is best, but if you’re already suffering, the tips above could help you come out the other side, and give you some insight into avoiding future episodes.

Recovering from Burnout

There probably isn’t a project manager out there who hasn’t experienced some level of stress or burnout on their projects no matter how much experience they have.

There are a huge number of things that could trigger this stress, for example an unreasonable client, a challenging team with a lack of clear organisational skills and the ability to manage their time effectively or even just a higher than normal level of technical complexity involved in the project. When the adrenalin levels caused by stress become out of control they can result in people working long hours and not just in the short term, this eventually leads to burnout.

In small bursts this stress can be very positive and push people to work better but when it goes on for a longer period of time it can be very detrimental to the health.

Unfortunately, this type of stress isn’t simply down to those external factors that can occur as a result of working on a project there is a possibility that it is linked to those habits that are deeply rooted in a person. Often those people who are suffering with chronic stress are completely unaware of it, although it is obvious to those around them.

The first steps

The first step to recovering from project management burnout is realising that the warning signs are there and being able to take them seriously enough to take positive action. You might be struggling with insomnia, have lower than normal levels of patience, fidget all the time and are unable to sit still, it is also highly likely that you will be unable to relax and enjoy social events or holidays.

Identifying these signs is the first step that you can make on your path to recovery from burnout.

Identify why it happened

Unfortunately, project management burnout doesn’t just go away once you realise you are suffering from it. Identify why it has happened and then you will have something to work with. The things that you can change, and relatively easily are the reasons why the burnout happened. A good way to identify them is to try keeping a stress diary, this will pinpoint those days when something happened that made you more stressed and help you narrow down the bigger issues.

Take some time for you

One of the best ways to help yourself on the path to recovery is to remove work and any related issues from your life. Time spent away from work should give you the space to mentally distance yourself, relax and destress. This won’t help the problem to go away but it will give you the strength to tackle the deeper issues.

Reassess your goals

If the reasons you are struggling with project management burnout could be helped with further training or a refresher course, then why not look into Parallel Project Training courses and see if there is something that might help you.

Final Thoughts…

On a more practical and pragmatic note, make sure your factor in some slack time in all your project schedules.
Let us know if you have any other ideas for preventing burnout in project teams or influencing strategies that have worked for you.

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