4 October, 2021

Project Team Burnout: Do You Know How to Prevent Employee Burnout?

Projects can create a stressful environment for you and your colleagues. So, there is a real risk of employee burnout among your project team. This is a crucial risk to be aware or, to understand, and – most importantly – to have ways to prevent it

Whilst I have written extensively about Stress Management(and this is a related topic), employee burnout is not my area of expertise. So, I have turned to Saviom, who understands this well. Saviom is a leading global provider of Enterprise Resource Management and Workforce Planning solutions. Their software helps businesses optimize productivity and utilization while balancing the conflicts that can cause employee burnout. 

Founded by Project managers and with Project Portfolio Management tools in their suite, Saviom’s clients include Siemens, Fujitsu, DHL, Honeywell, and many other multinationals from over 50 countries.

So, over to Mahendra Gupta, PMP, to tell us how to prevent employee burnout on your projects.

The Employee Burnout Problem

Did you know… 

According to Deloitte’s Workplace Burnout Surveymore than three-quarters (77%) of employees have experienced burnout at their current job, and more than half have experienced it more than once.

And there is an exponential increase of these numbers. Therefore, the pressure to address this growing concern has become so intense that the World Health Organization (WHO) declared burnout an occupational phenomenon in the 11th revision of the international classification of diseases. 

Team Member Burnout in Projects

Burnout in projects can stem from a wide range of factors, from overworking to meet project deadlines to unfair treatment by the project managers. However, if not addressed on time, it can severely impact the mental and physical well-being of the workforce, which will eventually lower their productivity and cause unplanned absenteeism

These repercussions can have a catastrophic effect on your team’s overall effectiveness and your project’s progress. This means it can negatively affect your organization’s bottom line. Thus, the onus is on the Project Managers to do right by your team members. You must ensure they have a conducive work environment and culture that will enable them to be at their productive best. 

Project Team Burnout: Do You Know How to Prevent Employee Burnout?

Answering Your Questions

The burning question here is, what can you do to avoid burnout? 

How will you eliminate the most likely causes of burnout? This article answers these queries in detail, along with an in-depth description of the causes and consequences of employee burnout. 

Let’s start with addressing the most important question, 

What is Employee Burnout in Project Management?

The World Health Organization (WHO) has given a precise definition of employee burnout.

Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

World Health Organization
11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11)

Burnout can be categorized into three different dimensions. 

  1. The first one shows feelings of exhaustion
  2. The second one depicts the elevated emotions of negativity or increased mental distance from the job
  3. And the last is characterized by reduced professional efficacy. Here, lack of professional efficacy implies questioning one’s own ability to accomplish a given task. 

Project Managers will notice the early signs of employee burnout within their team when 

  • task quality gradually deteriorates
  • team members take unplanned leave
  • there are delays in meeting deadlines

This is because the project team starts exhibiting one or more of the three burnout dimensions, above. 

Susan David, the author of emotional agility, states that Burnout — as opposed to more run-of-the-mill stress…

…can cause you to feel utterly depleted. It can permeate all aspects of your life. You are overtired and under-exercised; you’re not attentive to food and nutrition, and you’re disconnected from relationships.

Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, 
Susan David, 2016

As mentioned earlier, a myriad of aspects can contribute to employee burnout. Below is a list of some of the most pertinent ones.

Understand the Causes of Employee Burnout in Project Management

The business world is changing at a dynamic rate, and it’s challenging to keep up with this pace. Thus, it is a no-brainer that employee burnout is a symptom of ever-evolving, fast-paced, and complex organizations. Adding to this are the wonders of technology that have substantially blurred the line between personal and professional lives. 

And, of course, project teams are at the forefront of these changes. We are not just experiencing them… We are creating those changes – and often under pressure to do so at an ever-increasing pace.

Here is a curated list of the causes of burnout among project team members. 

Burnout from Unrealistic Project Deadlines

Let’s say a team member’s standard working hours are 40 hours a week. But they are working on a project that demands more than 50 hours a week and has a stringent deadline. 

In this scenario, you are asking them to work for more than the standard working hours to accomplish the task in time and reach the target. This will lead to excessive work stress and pressure, which will eventually burn out the employee. 

Such cases where employers or managers set unrealistic deadlines, unattainable goals, or unmanageable expectations are one of the primary causes of burnout. In fact, a Deloitte burnout survey suggests that unrealistic deadlines or expectations drive 30% of burnout. 

[Mike adds: ‘I hope things have changed at Deloitte. When I was there, long working hours were part of the culture!’]

Burnout from Uneven Distribution of Project Workload

Often, project managers assign multiple assignments to high-performers or experienced personnel and give minor work to the freshers or low-performers. This is a situation of uneven distribution of workload. While you believe high-performers can do justice to the project tasks, they start feeling the pressure of expectations. 

At the same time, they will start resenting that they are doing more, logging in more hours than their peers. This uneven workload distribution will make them feel distant from the workplace, which is one of the three dimensions of burnout. 

And of course, this also misses the opportunity to offer newer or less-experienced team members an opportunity to develop their skills.

The Communication Gap between Project Managers and Team Members can cause Burnout

Employees need to clearly know their client’s and employer’s expectations and strategic goals. These give people a sense of purpose. If project managers fail to convey these objectives and the project’s mission with clarity and transparency, team members will lack direction and often feel frustrated. 

These inconsistencies of information can leave employees wondering and fretting about what the managers or higher-ups really want. These communication gaps will add to stress levels and lead to a lack of professional efficacy…  the third dimension of burnout. 

Burnout from Lack of Support and Guidance from Project Managers 

Imagine you are left to drive a car with no prior training or driving lessons. How would you feel? Naturally, you are distressed and concerned not to get into an accident. 

In the same way, if employees are left on their own without prior support and guidance from their project managers, they will feel uninformed, alienated, and exposed. 

Moreover, a team will look up to their leader for support and consideration. If project managers do not back their team members when they make mistakes or help them get it right, employees will feel extreme pressure. In addition, they will constantly be worried about the consequences if the task goes wrong, which will lead to chronic stress and exhaustion. 

The same Deloitte survey ranks lack of support from leadership as the first driver for burnout. 

Burnout from Unfair Treatment in the Workplace

Discriminatory or unfair treatment from certain managers and executives is the harsh reality of some workplaces. This can be in the form of sexism, racism, favoritism, and sometimes outright mistreatment from peers. 

For instance, consider two employees with the same skillset and experience at a firm. One of them belongs to an underrepresented community and doesn’t get the project for that reason. This is discrimination in the workplace. It is illegal in many countries, immoral in all places, and potentially wasteful of good skills in your project.

When employees encounter these situations, they are 2.3 times more likely to experience a high level of burnout. That is because they will constantly have to fight for their rights, position, and at the same time, bear with the emotional turmoil. 

Take a look at these two videos:

What are the Effects of Employee Burnout on Projects?

Now, we need to understand the consequences of burnout caused by the factors we’ve seen in the previous section. 

Naturally, when employees are overworked or burned out, it will cause physical and mental stress, and so impact their performance. Not just that, it can have a domino effect on the overall team’s performance and progress. This implies that employee burnout can have severe repercussions if you do not take care of it. 

The following section illustrates this with five major impacts. 

Burnout Causes Delays in Meeting Project Milestones and Deadlines

When employees are juggling tight deadlines and their schedules are stretched thinly, they exhibit the symptoms of burnout. These symptoms can vary between the range of physical ailments to mental exhaustion and more. 

All these signs will eventually lower their productivity, which means the rate at which they complete tasks will drop, leading to delays in meeting project deadlines. 

Deterioration in Project Quality from Employee Burnout

Your workforce needs to be mentally and physically sound to provide their undivided attention to the task at hand. If, let’s say, chronic stress or excessive work pressure is taking a toll on them, it will hamper their ability to think clearly or have a structured thought process. This will make them more prone to errors, which will have a cascading effect on the entire project. The impact will be a reduction in the quality of your team’s work. 

survey reveals that 91% of the workforce say that unmanageable stress or frustration impacts the quality of their work. 

Burnout Reduces Client Satisfaction

This is a direct consequence of the previous two burnout effects. Clients prefer to work with a firm that can meet its timeline and maintain the quality of the project. 

If both of these expectations are unmet, it will, of course, reduce their level of satisfaction. Eventually, they will look for vendors who can perform better. Thus, employee burnout is not limited to an individual level; it can also impact the broader picture. 

The Decline in Employee Performance and Productivity from Burnout

The notion that longer working hours implies greater productivity has done more damage than good to the workplace. 

Team members end up working harder and unknowingly push themselves to the point of exhaustion. This exhaustion then takes various forms like:

  • increased frustration
  • depression
  • illness
  • …and more

All of this eventually lowers productivity and performance. 

Increase in Unplanned Staff Attrition and a Resulting Skills Gap

As mentioned earlier, employee burnout can stem from a lack of recognition and support from managers or an inconducive work environment. In such cases, the employees will start seeking opportunities elsewhere to feel valued and have a sense of belonging. This increases unplanned attrition, leading to a widened skills gap. Usually, the best people will be the first to leave. 

How Can You Prevent Burnout of Your Project Team Members?

After a discussion on the reasons and repercussions of employee burnout, it’s time to find ways to prevent its occurrence completely. 

Note that burnout can happen to the team members, but at the same time, can profoundly affect the project leaders. So, the following sections will cover ways to combat it in both cases separately. Let’s start with your team members.

Project managers can take a number to help team members avoid employee burnout. You want your team to be at their best and perform to an optimum level without feeling exhausted. Here is a list of the most tried and tested ways: 

Uniformly Distribute Schedules to Avoid Overutilization

The previous sections shed light on how uneven workload distribution can lead to overutilization, generate resentment, and make employees feel alienated within the workplace. To prevent this, project managers must apply work allocations and schedules evenly for each employee in the resource pool. It will allow you to ensure that no resource is the source of undue risk. 

This requires careful planning, delegation, strategy, and review. Start by answering pressing questions like:

  • What are you trying to achieve? 
  • What are the tasks involved? 
  • Who is good at specific tasks?
  • Who needs more training or help? 

Formulating a plan after diligent strategizing will help you build a capacity for the long run and prevent one part of your team from doing all the work. 

Embed Employee Well-being in Your Work Culture

Thriving businesses today embrace an employee-centric culture that includes catering to the holistic development of the workforce. 

Employee well-being encapsulates five significant facets:

  • Career
  • Social
  • Financial
  • Community
  • Physical. 

Furthermore, these five elements are interrelated. That is, if one aspect is elevated, it will have the knock-on effect on others. Likewise, if one goes downhill, you will witness a cascading result.

In the project context, the onus is on project managers to ensure you create (or lobby for) a work environment that takes care of these five elements. Some ways to do it include:

  • Building a physically healthy atmosphere for work
  • Introducing wellness programs like monthly gym subscriptions
  • Free counselling 

These initiatives and a positive work culture will propel productivity and alleviate burnout. 

Promote Work-life Balance

This is an arena where a Project Manager has a lot of influence. Because it’s you who set the schedule.

All work and no play are a recipe for disaster. Your mind needs some time off to recuperate and start the next day afresh. Thus, striking a healthy work-life balance is imperative to do justice to both personal and professional lives. 

Employers and project managers can promote work-life balance by things like:

  • Encouraging employees to utilize their paid time-off
  • Providing flexible work schedules
  • Organizing events and retreats

The advent of remote work after the global outbreak of COVID-19 has contributed to the increased awareness about work-life balance. The greater flexibility in work schedules gives leeway to employees to focus on work and fulfill their personal obligations. When they can make the best of both worlds, their satisfaction levels increase, thus reducing the chances of burnout. 

Convey Project Goals and Expectations with Utmost Transparency

For your workforce to stay dedicated and work with optimum levels of engagement, they require clear goals and expectations. Or else, they will slowly lose interest in their job and feel pressured to accomplish the tasks given to them. Therefore, project managers must make it a point to constantly convey the project’s goals and expectations to their team. 

When the employees are aware of what they are working towards or how their work adds value to the larger picture, they are less likely to get burned out. But, again, getting a paycheck is not the end goal; doing something meaningful is. 

Julie Morgenstern, the productivity expert, says that ‘Continually stating the objectives you’re trying to achieve as well as emphasizing the level of effort and engagement you expect helps focus the team.’

Implement Best Resource Management Practices to Empower Employees

Managing a team spread across geographical boundaries makes it arduous to track each resource’s utilization level in real-time. Thus, it’s a wise choice to benefit from technological advancements and invest in resource management software. It will enable you to maintain a single version of the truth and get real-time updates of various resource metrics. 

For instance, if you notice a particular employee is consistently logging in for extra hours, you can take remedial action in time to prevent burnout. Moreover, project managers can stay aware of team members’ schedules and ensure that none of the employees are overbooked. 

Another beneficial feature is allowing the resources to select tasks based on their areas of interest. These resource management practices facilitate you to prevent burnout due to excessive workload or overutilization. 

Use Real-time Resource Metric Reports to Enhance Performance

An organization is only as good as its workforce. And a Project s only as good as its team.

After all, they are responsible for bringing your mission and ideas to fruition. Thus, project managers must evaluate the employees’ performance at regular intervals and understand if it’s aligning with their expectations. 

If not, they can conduct remedial feedback and fill the gaps by providing individual development plans (IDPs), tailored training programs, and so on. Implementing resource management software to gauge the performance using tailored metrics reports procured using business intelligence.

For more on Performance Feedback in projects:

At the same time, the workforce deserves a platform that lets them share their creative ideas and add value to the firm. You never know which one of these can become a potentially marketable product down the line. 

Therefore, coupling performance management with innovation will make your employees feel valued and give them a sense of belonging. In addition, this will provide them with a comfortable environment to grow professionally and decline the chances of burnout substantially. 

What about You? How Can Project Managers Avoid Burnout?

However, taking the measures in the previous section is only possible when you are not over-stressed or burning yourself out. So, here are some tips you can leverage to prevent burnout on a personal level. 

To support your employees through the tough times and ascertain their well-being, you must be at your productive best too. Following these tips will help you balance your work schedule and keep you from getting burned out. 

Learn the Art of Delegation to Avoid Burnout

Project managers play multiple roles while managing projects. For example, they:

However, fulfilling these responsibilities for one person can be exhausting and is a clear-cut burnout threat. Thus, project managers must learn the art of delegation and divide the duties fairly amongst competent team members and departments. 

When you have only a handful of tasks to focus on, it will reduce your stress and, at the same time, elevate the tasks’ quality. 

More about delegation:

Ace Your Personal Time Management Skills

Personal time management is at the heart of an effective project management process. If you don’t ace your time management skills, chances are you will end up spending more time on specific tasks than you should, which is the first step towards hitting the burnout mark. Thus, it is necessary to design your schedule for the day meticulously and reserve time for every task. 

For example, you can minimize your time spent on meetings by sending an agenda to the team beforehand. It will keep you and your team focused and will reduce unnecessary discussions. 

More about personal time management:

Prioritize the Projects and Subsequent Tasks to Avoid Overload and Burnout

Project management demands attention to detail. This implies you cannot overlook a task’s progress or performance. However, sometimes you might have more than one project to manage, which makes this monitoring process daunting. 

In such situations, task prioritization becomes necessary. Therefore, project managers should evaluate and prioritize the projects and their subsequent tasks based on criticality. 

This step will let you focus on the tasks and projects that take precedence over others, thereby reducing your work overload.

More about Managing Multiple Projects:

Ensure Forward Resource Planning to Avoid Last-minute Hassle

Unforeseen roadblocks are the worst nightmares for project managers. These can occur due to a lack of prior planning of the project pipeline. As a result, they cause excessive distress for the project managers. To prevent this ordeal, all managers need to keep themselves aware of the pipeline of projects and their consecutive resource demand. 

This will allow them to expedite the resource requisition process using their resource management tools. And also to procure additional resources before a project begins, to avoid last-minute fire-fighting. 

Draw Boundaries between Personal and Professional Life

Managers and leaders often feel obliged to stay available for their team, clients, and stakeholders around the clock. The advent of remote working, instant messaging, and social media has undoubtedly blurred these lines even more. 

This can disturb the work-life balance and lead to mental distress, amongst other things. To avoid this predicament, it is essential to start setting some boundaries. 

You can start by setting definite hours for work and meetings and turning off notifications when spending time with your family or friends. 

Look after Yourself and Set an Example for Your Team

Team members look up to their leaders and like to follow in their footsteps. This leaves leaders with a priority to set a good example for their team. In the context of employee burnout, the project leaders and managers must take time off and go on vacations when they need it. 

It will leave the employees with an impression that you look after yourself and prioritize your mental and physical well-being. Once you set this example and foster the culture of wellness, employees will follow suit. 

Advocate for You and Your Team to Avoid Unmanageable Deadlines

Upper management or the PMO often can set unexpected deadlines for project delivery, putting a project leader and their team under pressure. But, as mentioned earlier, project managers must stay on top of their health and help their team to do so. Thus, you need to gather the courage to advocate for yourself and for your team. 

Conveying the consequences of burnout respectfully but firmly will help the higher-ups set appropriate deadlines and targets. 

Summary – 7 Principles to Prevent Employee Burnout in Your Projects

  1. Project managers should foster and reinforce a value blueprint that embeds employee wellness in the project management framework. 
  2. They must create a system that values productivity and project quality over the number of logged-in hours.
  3. Always dedicate some time to formulate a project resource schedule and delegation strategy. 
  4. Promote brainstorming sessions to work together, to 
    1. solve complex project-related issues
    1. integrate innovation
    1. reward the deserving employees
  5. Offer wellness retreats, conduct weekly cool-off meetings, or organize social events, to stay connected with your team. 
  6. Practice compassion and inclusion to provide a safe and welcoming workspace for all employees. 
  7. It’s imperative for project managers to remember the thin line between regular check-ins and micromanagement. Regular check-ins let you provide the necessary support to your project team. 

What is Your Perspective on Team Member and Employee Burnout?

How do these issues affect you? And, how do you tackle burnout on your projects? Please let us know in the comments below.

Learn More

About Stress

About Teams

About Saviom

Saviom is a pioneer and leading global provider of Enterprise Project Resource Management Software. Our client-centric culture has enabled us to help several fortune 500 companies across 50+ countries enhance their profitability / organizational efficiency. Some notable clients include Siemens, Fujitsu, Global Wind Services, DHL, Honeywell, and more.

Several years ahead of the market, the advanced features of our tool allow businesses to improve employee productivity, minimize unplanned attrition, and increase business efficiency. Moreover, it will cater to all your resource management challenges and ensure the successful delivery of every project”

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Mahendra Gupta

About the Author...

Mahendra Gupta is PMP certified with 20+ years of expertise in resource management & Planning. Presently working as Project Consultant at Saviom Software where his experience has enabled multinational businesses around the globe to diversify their project portfolio.
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