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How to tell your boss you’re feeling burned out

Here’s why you need to talk about how you’re feeling—and what to say.

How to tell your boss you’re feeling burned out
[Source photo: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash]
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If you’re feeling burned out, you’re not alone. Working remotely has put many of us on a “work, eat, sleep, repeat” cycle, with family responsibilities thrown in to make things interesting. In fact, Greg McKeown, author of Effortless: Make It Easier to Do What Matters Most, says there are two kinds of people today: “people who are burned out and people who know they are burned out.”

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“It’s an achievement to get into the second category,” he says. “Research has shown that the more burned out you are, the less you are to be aware of it. The nature of burnout is that it clouds your judgment and clarity, including your self-awareness.”

After 16 months of the same cycle, it’s time to find a different way of doing and being.

“Assume you’re burned out, then look for the evidence,” says McKeown. “One litmus test is when any request pinches you. Your child may come in and ask for you to brush their hair. It’s not a huge thing, but with so little space everything costs more, emotionally.”

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Burnout is a significant agenda item for many organizations right now, says Rhiannon Staples, chief marketing officer of the people management platform Hibob. “The toll that the last year has taken on top of the stress we were all feeling before the pandemic has added a significant amount of stress on employees, impacting them in a much greater way than what we’ve seen historically,” she says. “Fortunately, we’re seeing more companies putting well-being and mental health to the forefront on the executive agenda.”

Telling Your Boss and Others

You may assume that your manager knows how burned out you feel, but this is probably an inaccurate assumption, says Staples. “Speaking up is absolutely critical,” she says. “When approaching the conversation with your manager, it’s really important to come to that discussion with insights on how he or she can best support you. Everybody has different requirements, and what you need could be very different than your colleagues.”

For example, you may want clearer boundaries around your working hours. You may need a more flexible schedule, especially if you’re juggling a full-time job and homeschooling your children or caring for elders. You may need paid time off to pursue passion projects or to travel. Or you may want to continue to work remotely full or part time when the office reopens.

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“Asking for what’s specific to your circumstances is what’s most important,” says Staples. “And it’s okay to have conversations about what’s imperative today and what’s imperative for the next two to three months.”

If You’re the Boss

Ideally, managers should be starting these conversations, says McKeown. “They have a responsibility to talk about it,” he says. “Ask if an employee is feeling burned out, but don’t leave them with it. Lead by admitting that you’re struggling. You have an obligation in the hiring social hierarchy to make it safe for everybody else.”

Staples recommends asking employees how you can best support them. “You’re not a mind reader, and you may not understand what each individual employee needs,” she says. “It’s fair as a manager to say, ‘I want to help you. I will be as flexible as I can in addressing whatever requirements you might have, but help me understand what will work for you specifically.'”

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Giving your team space to breathe is essential, says Staples, who recommends instituting mental wellness days or programs. “Some companies are offering webinars for employees on how to manage time or practice mindfulness,” she says. “These programs can help.”

After the Conversation

Asking for support is one thing; acting on it is another. Overachievers tend to think they can solve burnout by powering through it, says McKeown. “The irony is as they approach burnout, they do more of the things that led them to being in burnout,” he says.

If you need greater separation between work and home life, you’ll need to set boundaries, says McKeown. “Before the pandemic, there were geographical boundaries,” he says. “The physical office and home were not the same place, and the commute was the transition. Now this is gone.”

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McKeown recommends writing a “done for the day” list. Instead of endless to-do lists that can literally never stop, write a list of things that will make you feel satisfied if you finish them. When you’re done with the list, you’re done for the day.

Another way to circumvent burnout is to set a concrete quitting time. The catch is that you need accountability around it. “For me, I stop at 5 p.m.,” says McKeown. “I come out of my office and yell out the time like a town crier. The whole home knows it, and it’s a fun way to stop.”

Building self-care rituals into your day can also help. McKeown suggests making a list of 20 things that relax you. “You have to have self-awareness to know what these are,” he says. “Many overachievers don’t know how to relax. It can feel awkward and uncomfortable, and they’d rather get back to email.”

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Relaxing rituals are the building blocks of joy, says McKeown. For example, take a bath with Epsom salt and lavender, read fiction, drink herbal tea, do a 10-minute meditation, a three-minute dance, take a 15-minute nap, or plant in the garden.

“Of course, we are all burned out,” says McKeown. “Give yourself permission to admit it. And then take the steps to do something about it. Managers are under an obligation to talk about it. But don’t stop there. We can all make different choices and find an easier path to doing what is essential. If we do what matters most, we can achieve great results without burning out.”