We asked dozens of leaders and mental health professionals, and the conclusion is clear:
You can’t afford to ignore the signs of project manager burnout.
Burnout is defined as a state of physical, mental, or emotional exhaustion due to chronic workplace stress. The symptoms can be similar to depression.
In plain language, it’s the point when your employee hits the wall. Work takes way more effort and they run out of energy a lot faster.
Burnout is expensive. On average, a burnt out employee costs 34% of their salary.
Unfortunately, it is a common phenomenon. A study of 7,500 employees by Gallup found two-thirds of the workforce experience burnout at some point. Dr. Myra Altman, VP of Clinical Care at Modern Health, claims up to 75% of full-time employees experience “moderate to high levels of stress.”
In fact, burnout is so prevalent that the WHO now recognizes it as an official disease.
When your project managers experience burnout, everyone suffers. They face a laundry list of potential health problems, and your business faces some hefty costs: the average burned out employee costs their employer 34% of their annual salary.
Project manager burnout is not a normal part of the job. If your team is burnt out, that’s a sign that something needs to change.
Keep your team and your business healthy by recognizing the early warning signs of burnout and addressing the problem early.
What are the signs of project management burnout?
Project management is a demanding job. You trust your project managers to balance a huge set of responsibilities while keeping everyone else on track.
When a project manager starts to burn out, the entire team struggles.
Try to recognize and address burnout-related issues before they derail projects. Here are some things to watch for:
1: A drop in performance
If you notice that a project manager is completing projects late, turning in lower quality work, or misunderstanding requirements more frequently, those could all signal the beginning of burnout.
Problems like these are especially frustrating because they multiply.
Burnout starts to cause performance issues, and as your project manager tries to catch up, they deal with even more stress and exhaustion that creates more problems.
That’s why it’s so important that you offer help as early as possible. Stay alert for performance-related warning signs like these:
Poor mental function
Burnout makes it harder to think.
Project managers who are dealing with burnout often have trouble remembering everything. They may also make poor decisions and struggle with critical thinking.
Watch for signs of frustration in situations that require quick thinking or hard decisions.
What happens when your rock solid project manager starts missing their goals?
Executive and career coach Terry B. McDougall says, “If you are noticing that a project manager that is usually reliable is starting to make mistakes or miss deadlines, it may be a sign that they are burning out.”
If you notice that your PM is making avoidable mistakes or giving you excuses when that’s not the norm, that’s a sign that you should offer support.
Scrambling to catch up
Falling behind due to burnout looks like this:
Your project manager no longer anticipates challenges. Instead, they spend more time reacting to issues that they’d normally spot ahead of time.
This can be a more subtle symptom.
Pay attention to the way your project manager reacts to things. If they’re constantly playing catch-up instead of planning ahead, they’re at risk of burnout.
Some people can power through for a long time before burnout starts to affect their work performance.
Don’t wait until your project manager’s condition starts to affect your bottom line. If they’re experiencing symptoms of burnout and you encourage them to keep working at an unsustainable level, it will severely impact both their health and your business.
Be alert to signs of physical and mental exhaustion.
One of the most striking signs of burnout is tiredness. Often, this is the result of the stress causing insomnia.
Lack of sleep can also cause irritability, difficulty concentrating, and drowsiness. It’s not just people dozing off in meetings — a team member who has trouble controlling their mood might not be sleeping well.
Mental and physical exhaustion take a toll on the immune system. A burned out project manager is more likely to call out when they’re sick. Worse, they might get sick and come to work anyway, putting the rest of the workforce’s health at risk.
“Chronic activation of the stress response leads to symptoms such as increases in blood pressure and heart rate, shortness of breath or chest tightness, headache, and gastrointestinal pain,” says Dr. Myra Altman. “You might even notice that you have less of an appetite or that you are getting sick more frequently.”
Employees might not feel comfortable discussing their health concerns with you, and that’s okay. Notice if your PM starts getting sick more frequently and look for other signs of burnout.
Project managers experiencing the above symptoms are likely to lack passion for their work. This will be plain in their reduced proactivity, enthusiasm, and attendance.
It’s hard to stay engaged in your job when you feel worn out and overwhelmed, isn’t it?
An employee who used to be a top performer probably isn’t demotivated because of the type of person they are. If they’re struggling to find the energy and motivation to get the job done, they’re probably burnt out.
3: Increasingly alienated
Burnout isn’t just about how an employee acts towards you. It also affects how your project manager works with the rest of the team.
Keep an eye on the interactions between employees. Strained relationships, uncharacteristic irritability, and increased distance are all warning signs.
One obvious indicator is a negative attitude. Specifically, if the person is quicker to anger and more argumentative than usual, they’re probably dealing with burnout. This is an especially concerning problem because it affects everyone on the team.
A less obvious sign is the need to always be “on” at work. Here’s how it happens:
Your project manager can’t seem to find time for anything but work. They no longer interact with people socially, and their poor attitude increases the alienation. To make up for it, they throw themselves even more strenuously into their work, and the cycle continues to get worse.
Ty Stewart, CEO and president of Simple Life Insure, says: “You may start to notice the PM seems to answer emails and Slack messages at all hours, from 6 a.m. till 11 p.m. That’s fine if a project is in crunch time, but unhealthy when it’s evergreen.”
How to fight the burnout
Now you understand how burnout can affect your project managers and your business, it is time to put workplace policies in place to ease it.
With the help of mental health professionals and successful business leaders, we recommend five steps to fight project manager burnout.
Step 1: Schedule regular wellbeing meetings
The best way to catch burnout early is by talking with your project manager regularly, and not just about their job.
Schedule wellbeing meetings with all of your team members. Focus the discussion on mental and physical health, not work.
Project managers are used to meetings, but this one should differ from the rest. Do not discuss project work, except to understand if they are happy with their workload or not.
For these meetings to be effective, you must establish a company culture of open and honest communication.
At first, you’ll need to guide the conversation carefully and build trust to get honest feedback. Over time, you and your team members will become more comfortable and get better at having these open conversations.
“The key is not to criticize the employee,” explains Susana Branum, inbound marketing manager at RFP360, “but to work together to discuss the symptom of burnout and address the actual cause.”
Step 2: Promote self-care
Everyone should take responsibility for their own mental health. But as the employer, you can help your team learn how to improve their self-care routines. Create the right conditions so that your employees can look after themselves.
That might mean offering a wellness program, or you may need to take more direct action.
For example, if the burnout is severe enough, Mollie Newton, founder of Pet Me Twice, suggests giving your project manager some time off. “The one thing your project manager needs is rest, and that’s exactly what you should give by letting him/her take the day off. Your business will survive for a day, trust me.”
They should use that time to reset their work-life balance. Get some good sleep, exercise, eat healthier, and do things they enjoy with people they love.
Michael Levitt, founder & Chief Burnout Officer of The Breakfast Leadership Network, suggests project managers use their work calendars to their advantage.
He advises PMs to create a list of the things they enjoy. They should then schedule two or three items in their work calendar and prioritize them as high as a meeting with their superior. Make sure that the time is blocked off on the shared calendar so that coworkers don’t try to interrupt.
In the long-term, your project managers should form habits to do these things frequently. You can help by sending occasional company notices with recommended diet plans or exercise routines, too.
Step 3: Review and revise goals
When Susana Branum suffered burnout, she sat down with her manager to discuss her excessive workload.
“We worked together to reassign some responsibilities to other teams temporarily. My manager also took it a step further and reset expectations with senior leadership.”
Revisiting goals often will allow you to catch concerns before they become a problem. It is better to reassign a task than to miss a milestone.
Be careful of your project managers telling you what they think you want to hear. Push them to be as honest as possible by asking probing questions. Explain that reassigning some work won’t reflect negatively on them, and make sure to remind them how much you appreciate the (reasonable amount of) work they do.
Step 4: Enforce boundaries
Most project managers work long days because of the high demands of the job. A small subset also work overtime or avoid using their vacation time simply because they think the business expects this of them.
Both approaches lead to burnout.
Ty Stewart recommends protecting staff by discouraging overtime or forbidding it altogether.
“You may want to set firm expectations that no team member is allowed to send or respond to messages after, say, 7 p.m., unless it’s for an absolute emergency.”
Similarly, make it a policy that any worker who comes into the office sick must go home. Vacation days not used or scheduled by a certain date can be scheduled automatically.
Often, project managers hesitate to take time off because they’ll have to put in extra work to catch up when they come back. It’s not exactly relaxing to spend your days off worrying about everything that isn’t getting done.
Help your team actually relax by making sure their work is covered while they’re out of office.
Step 5: Bring in professionals
As we have mentioned, burnout is an officially recognized disease. You don’t have to manage it alone, and nobody on your team should have to, either.
Instead, create an internal team of wellbeing professionals to design policies to fight stress and burnout. This is especially useful for large organizations.
Alternatively, bring in outside help. Shelley Gawith, a functional nutritional specialist, recommends having “a wellness person come in and talk to your PMs. There are simple things they could be doing in their daily routine that they can implement that would bring down their stress load on their bodies, while improving productivity.”
Streamline project management to reduce stress
In summary, the best way to tackle burnout is with proactive, preventative measures. It is important to:
- Know the symptoms and educate employees.
- Encourage a culture of honest communication and one where it is not taboo to prioritize one’s health and personal life.
- Create the conditions for your project managers to enact self-care measures.
The other way to reduce stress in your project managers is to streamline their duties as much as possible.
By using the right tools to streamline project management, such as Hubstaff Tasks, and by enacting the latest productivity guidance and management advice, your project managers can eliminate repetitive or inefficient tasks and optimize their working day. And when your project managers are productive, so is the rest of your workforce!
For more advice on strategies to improve workplace productivity, subscribe to our blog. In the meantime, here are some other resources you might find useful:
- How to Communicate Project Delays
- How to Manage Your Team’s Workload
- How to Manage Multiple Projects Effectively