How to Tell Your Boss You’re Burned Out
Almost half of U.S. workers report feeling burned out as a result of pandemic-related factors, such as remote work and longer hours, fear of unsafe working conditions, and concerns about job security. Many people experiencing this kind of burnout report having done nothing about it. Health experts agree that untreated burnout can put your mental and physical health in jeopardy, and the feelings and symptoms won’t just go away on their own. After taking the first step of admitting you’re experiencing burnout, follow these steps to prepare to have an honest, productive conversation about it with your boss — they’re in a unique position to help you.
A few weeks ago, while sitting in on my client’s virtual leadership team meeting as the team’s coach, I noticed that one of his team members, Evan, was unusually quiet and distracted. The few times he spoke, it was short and curt. His behavior seemed inconsistent with the typical energetic engagement I had previously observed from him.
I set up time to talk to him after the meeting. After offering the customary dismissive responses to my inquiries about how he was doing (“I’m fine, just a little tired,” and “No really, I’m just distracted today; too many emails”), I shared my concerns about things I’d noticed from him over the past month — low energy, irritability, uncharacteristic pessimism — and he finally nervously admitted, “I think I’m burned out.”
Evan described many of the classic symptoms of pandemic burnout: feeling overwhelmed, anxious, resentful about his increased workload, exhausted, and hopeless. When I asked if he’d told his boss what was going on, he reacted with sharp incredulity. “Are you crazy? There’s no way I could tell him about this!” He went on to explain his fear of being seen as needy, or worse, that he would lose his “go-to guy” status and his boss might rely on him less.
Evan isn’t alone. The pandemic has subjected many of us to protracted seasons of intensified stress. A recent survey found that 41% of workers feel burned out due to factors like working remotely, working longer hours, juggling family demands, threatened job security, and fear of unsafe working environments. These have led to chronic feelings of sadness and anxiety, a lack of motivation, and an inability to concentrate. Most telling is that 37% of respondents reported having done nothing to cope with these feelings. For high performers like Evan, who typically thrive under pressure and relish the chance to heroically bring in the big idea or rally the troops, burnout can be especially debilitating.
If you’re feeling the symptoms of burnout, it’s important that you take them seriously — don’t assume they’re temporary and will go away in time. Health experts agree that burnout really does put your physical and mental health in jeopardy, and if left untreated could lead to more significant consequences. The good news is that there are plenty of proven strategies for dealing with it.
The first thing to do is stop denying that it’s a problem. Your boss is in a unique position to help, and as uncomfortable as it might feel given the disproportionate influence they have over your work life, it’s critical that you tell them. Here are some ways to prepare for that conversation.
Confront your flawed “help narrative.” Admitting the need for help is a struggle for many professionals. For especially accomplished people who are used to being asked for help, being on the other side of the equation brings feelings of inadequacy, fears of being seen as weak or incapable, and concerns about being a burden to others. These fears are amplified when it comes to the risk of your boss thinking these things about you.
If you’ve trained your boss to expect Herculean miracles from you, then trust that you’ve built up enough credibility to ask for help. It’s more likely that they’ll respect the acknowledgment of your limitations rather than think less of you. In Evan’s case, his boss was relieved when he came forward. He’d noticed the same symptoms I had, but understandably feared Evan wouldn’t be open to his offer of help. Chances are your boss has already detected that something’s amiss. Give them the chance to come through for you the way you’ve come through for them.
Clarify what you’re experiencing. Make sure your approach sets the stage for a productive conversation. It can be helpful to begin by acknowledging that this is hard for you: “You know I wouldn’t bring this up if I didn’t feel it was important,” or “I’m not used to asking for help, so this is difficult for me” can help your boss feel more empathy and therefore be more attuned to what you say.
Be specific about the symptoms you’re experiencing. You don’t have to disclose overly personal details, but generalizations like “I’m just really stressed,” or “I’m sick of this job” may not help them appreciate the situation. Instead, offer specifics like, “I’m feeling overwhelmed by the volume of projects on my plate,” or “I’m feeling really anxious about meeting all of these deadlines, but they’ve never bothered me before.” Helping your boss see what’s changed for you is important. You want them to conclude that it’s not just you that has changed, but that things about your work have also changed.
Take responsibility for your effect on others. Things like the quality or timeliness of your work, team or personal relationships, or flagging demeanor have likely been visible messengers of your stress. Plan to acknowledge this in the conversation with your boss with a statement like, “Look, I know I haven’t been myself lately, and I’m sorry if that’s had any negative impact on you or the team.” Be very clear what you’re taking responsibility for. Don’t apologize for being burned out, but do take responsibility for letting its effects spill over onto your work or team. Evan’s boss genuinely appreciated his acknowledgement of the few deadlines he’d missed, which made his appeal more sympathetic.
Start with a colleague or friend. One of the dangerous byproducts of the pandemic is the increased isolation we feel from others. Social isolation intensifies burnout, because in the absence of sufficient community, most of the conversations we’re having about what we’re feeling are in our head. Unfortunately, these internal conversations tend to yield unreliable conclusions about ourselves, our boss, our job, and the world around us.
If opening up to your boss feels too risky, start with someone else. Establish a standing set of virtual connections with friends, close colleagues, or even a coach or therapist. Having a few trusted sounding boards you can calibrate your feelings with — and maybe even rehearse this conversation with — can change your outlook significantly. Evan and I were able to outline clear points he would cover and practice some of them in advance.
Appeal, don’t complain. Preparing for your conversation can ensure it doesn’t come across as venting — or worse, blaming. To a boss who isn’t naturally empathic, “I’m burned out” may unintentionally sound like “You’re burning me out.”
To avoid any hint of blame, have the conversation when you aren’t feeling frayed or fed up. While those emotions may help motivate you to finally talk to your boss, they won’t help while you’re actually having the conversation. For example, if your boss has been asking you for more work than usual, they might already feel guilty or defensive, and your heightened emotions will only inflame those feelings.
Make it clear that you’re asking for help and want to be part of the solution. For many, the pandemic has blurred the natural boundaries between work, our social and family life, and our self-care, making it feel impossible to attend to any of them well. That means we have to insert sharper delineations between where work stops and starts. If you need time off, more flexible work arrangements, or additional resources to meet increased demands, be specific and gracious in your ask. Being overly insistent may come across as entitlement and signal, “I’m burned out and you owe me.”
Take time to soul-search. One of the dangerous aspects of burnout is the insidious way it distorts perspectives. You need time away to separate fact from fiction as you reflect. For some, the pandemic has caused burnout, whereas for others, it’s revealed burnout that was already there. Maybe you fell out of love with your job months or even years ago, but it took these extreme conditions for you to actually feel it.
If you can take some time off, a little distance from your job can help you sort out if your feelings are circumstantial and can be helped with better self-care routines, or whether they’re telling you that it’s time to consider the next chapter of your career.
Don’t get complacent. The relief you may feel from talking with your boss can provide a momentary increase in energy. During your time off, you may start getting better sleep and more exercise, and you might even sense the return of a more hopeful outlook. These early signals can tempt you to declare premature victory and start to blur the healthy boundaries you set, answering a few emails you don’t need to or “checking in” on projects your boss temporarily shifted to others.
But remember, self-care is a long game, and you need to stick with it. See these early positive signs as evidence that the plan is working, not evidence that you’ve completed it.
Sadly, not every boss will navigate this conversation as graciously as you might want — it’s possible they’re just as overwhelmed as you are — but most bosses do want to be helpful. Rather than continuing to simmer in unhealthy conditions, for the sake of your mental and physical well-being, consider giving yours a chance to help you.