Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
November 08, 2022 · 11 min read

The project manager’s guide to dealing with burnout

The project manager’s guide to dealing with burnout

It’s no longer a question of if you’ll suffer from burnout - but when. Nearly 75% of workers say they’ve experienced burnout during their career (with 40% of those saying they’ve experienced burnout specifically during the pandemic).

But burnout in project management is, in many ways, a paradox.

On the one hand, the speed, demand, and complexity of project work is the perfect breeding ground for burnout. On the other hand, by their very nature, project managers are go-getters that thrive in high-intensity environments.

Yet, while it might seem that the skills that make a great project manager also make us immune to burnout, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

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Left unchecked, burnt-out project managers are 63% more likely to take a sick day and cost their organization 34% of their salary due to losses in productivity.

While there’s no easy answer to solving the epidemic of project manager burnout, there are steps you can take today to protect yourself and your team from the worst of it. In this article, we’ll cover all things project manager burnout, including how to spot it (ideally before it’s too late), deal with it, and bounce back if you need some time to step away.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion that occurs from long-term stress at work. It’s most common when you have worked in a physically or emotionally demanding role for a sustained period.

While burnout isn’t new, the level of awareness, diagnosis, and support for burnout has increased exponentially in the past five years.

Since the start of the pandemic:

Burnout has increased since the pandemic

Yet, while the statistics paint a brutal picture of global burnout, rates are still most likely under-reported. That’s because it’s not always easy for individuals to recognize or accept that they’re burnt out.

76% of employees experienced burnout on the job at least sometimes

On the other end of the spectrum, people often downplay depression and other serious mental health issues as “just” burnout.

Unfortunately, there remains a stigma around mental illness that stops people from opening up about what they’re feeling out of fear of being judged or seen as incapable of doing their job.

But trying to “work through” depression doesn’t work. Ultimately, your health needs to come first.

As Dr. Rebecca Brendel, president of the American Psychiatric Association, explains in The New York Times:

“Burnout gets better when you step away from work. When you take vacation time, or a mental health day, you feel at least slightly recharged. But, depression doesn’t go away if you change your circumstances.”

There are resources available if you feel you need extra help.

Burnout, depression, and other mental health issues should never be seen as “part of your job.” If you’re feeling overwhelmed, constantly stressed, and seeing warning signs of serious mental health issues, seek help:

Burnout, depression, and other mental health issues should never be seen as “part of your job.”

What does burnout look like? 6 symptoms to watch out for

Stress is a part of everyone’s jobs — especially those managing projects or teams of developers. But there’s a boiling point where stress becomes burnout that we all need to be able to recognize.

Those suffering from burnout may experience any number of the following symptoms:

What does burnout look like? 6 symptoms to watch out for

Yet, even when looking at these symptoms, it’s hard to separate burnout from day-to-day stress. It’s a given that project managers will experience stressful days, but there are some fundamental differences between stress and burnout:

Stress Burnout
Temporary. Stress is situational and can appear and disappear depending on your workload or situation. Constant. Burnout stays with you at all times, impacting both your personal and work life.
Feeling tired. Acute stress is tiring, but you can bounce back by getting proper rest and taking breaks. Complete exhaustion. People who are burned out are tired and exhausted at all times.
Good Sleep. Oftentimes, people who are stressed don’t struggle to sleep and, in fact, feel better after a good night's sleep. No Sleep. When people approach burnout, it takes over their lives, with reduced sleep and insomnia the first telltale signs.
Support. Those who are stressed often look for support from others — whether an empathetic ear or spending time with people who make them happy. Alienation. As someone approaches burnout, they’ll often alienate themselves from others as they lose energy, desire, and hope.
Confidence. While stressed people are pushed out of their comfort zone, they often still perform well and believe they’ll come through it. Unconfident. One of the most upsetting differences with burnout is that people lose confidence in their ability with waves of self-doubt beginning to set in.

Burnout causes problems for organizations too. Burnt-out employees, and even employees approaching burnout, are 63% more likely to take a sick day and are 2.6x more likely to seek a new job.

Why project managers and teams are so vulnerable to burnout

Project management is a dynamic profession that’s prone to burnt-out employees. But what makes project team members so vulnerable to burnout?

Here are seven risk areas to consider when thinking about project manager burnout:

  1. Periods of high-intensity. Projects are cyclical, often with big peaks during testing, go-live, and handover phases. This intensity causes sustained stress, which can lead to burnout.
  2. Unclear job expectations. Organizations hire project managers because they’re problem solvers who can decode uncertainty. But after a while, that takes its toll on even the most resilient project professional.
  3. A lack of control over your work. Projects are highly changeable environments, leaving many project managers riding by the seat of their pants. That lack of control is unnerving and unsustainable in the long-term.
  4. Constantly changing priorities. A lack of control also translates to constant changes. While project managers are good at dealing with change, it can become too much after a while.
  5. Dealing with team members who are also burnt out. A big factor that’s often overlooked is that as a manager, the people you work with can affect your own energy. If others are struggling with burnout, it can spread across the team.
  6. Leadership isolation. While most project teams are collaborative places, leadership and management roles can sometimes be isolating. That isolation builds up over time, allowing burnout to creep in.
  7. Lack of social connection and support. Especially post-pandemic, when work is done remotely, a lack of social connection is damaging. When this damage builds up, it can lead to project managers feeling alienated in their home offices.

How to deal with burnout in project management

Even though project managers are more vulnerable to burnout, it’s not a lost cause. There are several techniques you can try to keep burnout at bay — both for you personally and for your team.

5 ways to prevent individual burnout

For project managers, preventing and avoiding burnout involves taking a step back from your daily work and rooting out the main issues that are causing you sustained stress.

Here are five things you can do for yourself to help deal with burnout:

1. Reset your priorities and stick to them

Burnout is often driven by project managers taking on (or being given) too much work. To overcome this, you need to decide which work is the priority and stick to it. While it’s easier said than done, there are some ways to do this.

How to put this tip into action:

2. Set boundaries on communication

Especially in a remote environment, it’s easy to be ‘always on’ thanks to our phones, computers, and tablets. As a project manager, you have to set communication boundaries to allow you to switch off and relax.

How to put this tip into action:

Use checklists and custom fields to help with reducing unnecessary communication

3. Step back, get context, and adapt your approach

As burnout begins to set in, project managers can lose perspective and believe the world will end if they don’t deliver their project. This is a dangerous state to be in as negativity starts to compound, leading to further isolation, fear, and helplessness.

How to put this tip into action:

4. Find your source of burnout and take back control

If you’re in the early stages of burnout, try to understand and fix the source before it’s too late. If you can address it early, you’ve got a better chance of getting it under control.

How to put this tip into action:

Ask yourself the following questions to identify your source of burnout:

Look at your answers and identify the root causes of your stress. Then, decide on measures you can put in place to take back control.

5. Ask for help and support from others

When so many people have faced burnout in their careers, there’s a range of support and advice you can draw on. The more you can speak up and share your experience with burnout, the more support you’ll find.

How to put this tip into action:

5 ways to help your team deal with burnout

Project managers are people managers. And if you’re dealing with burnout, there’s a good chance that someone on your team is as well.

5 ways to help your team deal with burnout

Here are five ways that you can help support your team and give them a healthier work-life balance:

1. Learn about burnout

As a project leader, take the time to continually learn about the signs, symptoms, and effects of burnout. This will help you spot when team members are approaching burnout and support them in making positive changes.

How to put this tip into action:

2. Clearly define roles & responsibilities

Project professionals tend to want to get the job done. While they mean well, it can quickly lead to others taking advantage, and dumping work on those willing to help. This is a fast-track road to burnout, and as a manager, you need to keep it under control.

How to put this tip into action:

Gantt chart showing workload of one team member

3. Practice workload management

While the primary objective of workload management is to utilize project resources effectively, it’s also there to protect team members from burnout.

How to put this tip into action:

4. More work time, less meetings

It often feels like working from home and too many meetings go hand-in-hand. And for many companies, the lack of visibility that comes from WFH compels leaders to book more face time. But more meetings equals less time to do actual work, leaving project team members working extra hours to catch up.

How to put this tip into action:

5. Become a servant leader

Servant leadership is a great way to reduce the burden of everyday working life. Not only does it help share the load evenly between the team, but it creates a strong sense of togetherness and boosts social interactions.

How to put this tip into action:

Both as individuals and leaders, it’s essential to spot the signs and symptoms of burnout so you can tackle it before it’s too late.

How to talk to your team about burnout

Despite the increased awareness around burnout, unfortunately, it’s still a taboo subject in many organizations. Especially in the go-getter project management environment, admitting you need to step back and slow down is hard.

Here are three things you and your teams can regularly do to create a more open, trusting culture to discuss burnout.

  1. Educate each other. As a project manager reading this article, ensure you share it with others so that everyone knows what burnout is, what causes it, and the effects it can have.
  2. Be open about stress. Don’t be afraid to discuss when you’re having a hard time or feeling under pressure. While it might seem strange at first, others will feel more comfortable talking about struggles once one person does it.
  3. Share and support. While it’s important to keep solid roles and responsibilities, encourage team members to support each other on tasks when appropriate. Not only does this help with workload management, but it also creates trust and cohesion across the team.

Prevent and avoid burnout before it takes over

Burnout affects an increasing number of people in the workplace — and project managers in high-intensity environments are at high risk.

Both as individuals and leaders, it’s essential to spot the signs and symptoms of burnout so you can tackle it before it’s too late.

Tools like Planio can help minimize many of the risk factors surrounding burnout. With features for managing tasks, boosting communication, and reporting on performance, project managers are empowered to manage workloads, prioritize the tasks that matter, and build a collaborative team culture that achieves the perfect work-life balance.

Lower stress, higher productivity, and better teamwork. Try Planio free for 30 days!