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

Paul Naybour Paul Naybour

Published: 12th January 2015

IT project managementEven 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.

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.

Stopping 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.
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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