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Understanding Burnout and Preventing It Among Your Project Team

written by: Linda Richter • edited by: Jean Scheid • updated: 11/17/2011

No matter how necessary it is to press on with the schedule of any given project, you’re going to have a hard time of it if your project team members start to burn out. How can you identify the symptoms of this intractable malady, and how do you fight it?

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    Recognizing Burnout for What It Is…

    Hidden emotions As a project manager, you must be aware that burnout is akin to stress but it is not the same thing. When people suffer from burnout, it affects all aspects of their work and even their personal lives. It’s a genuine psychological term that refers to a persistent fatigue and lack of interest or enthusiasm. Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger came up with the term way back in 1974 when he wrote in the Journal of Social Issues. However, the term was not widely known until the 1980s when he published Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement.

    Full burnout occurs when someone known as dependable and productive suffers “an extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.” Most helpfully, Freudenberger broke it down into 12 stages, described here. It’s important to remember that if someone is predisposed to burn out, he will do so eventually no matter what project he’s working on. It has more to do with the person than with the project. Still, when it happens to one person, it spreads malaise among all team members, so you're best off remaining vigilant for it at all stages of your project.

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    The 12 Stages of Burnout

    I'm the Busiest! 1. Manic Motivation

    Do you have someone on your team who jumps up with enthusiasm for every new project or raises his hand whenever you need a volunteer? This might be a person who comes in a little early or leaves a little late or cuts his lunch time short—even when you don’t really need him to. You’ll recognize him as the person who depends on his integration into the project to define his identity. He exhibits a compulsion that’s akin to codependency, meaning he relies on that job to reinforce who he is. You might think that he’s dying to prove to everyone just how wonderful he is, but the truth is he’s still trying to prove it to himself.

    2. Work, Work, Work!

    The next stage of burnout occurs when the person increases his effort. He’s dancing as fast as he can, because the more he takes on, the more he proves that he’s indispensable. In the meantime, people around him start to notice a frenetic burn to his energy, just like a light that gets a little brighter just before it flares out.

    3. No Time for Me

    If you ask the person what he’s doing over the weekend, he’ll describe his time off in terms of what it adds to the project. You have to stop him and gently rephrase your question before you can find out what he’s doing for recreation with his family or friends. Most likely he’s not doing anything for himself, because he’s so focused on being the best person he can be for everybody else.

    4. Frown Time

    Freudenberger called this stage the “displacement of conflicts.” It’s when the person burning out begins to feel the physiological effects of something “being off kilter” but he just doesn’t know what it is. He might begin to complain of stomachaches, insomnia, or other physical ailments at this time.

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    Oh, Yeah 5. Devaluation

    This stage is when the person begins to realize he finds value in very little aspects of life. Everything is for the job. While he becomes increasingly acerbic, he insists that everything is fine. But he has forgotten to stop and smell the flowers along the way. His work performance might begin to suffer.

    6. Cynical and Dissatisfied

    In the sixth stage, he begins to criticize others, particularly for lack of effort in comparison to himself. Other people just don’t do things as well as he does, according to him, while in reality all those other inefficient people are beginning to get really perturbed at our friend.

    7. Withdrawal From the Team

    Next, you’ll notice that while your team member continues to put forth every bit as much effort, he is more sullen. He shows up at every meeting, but he is not there when the team gathers for lunch or has the conversational breaks that are a natural part of office socialization. Because the person is beginning to feel seriously ill, he might see the doctor and get a prescription—and many people succumb to some kind of alcohol or drug abuse at this stage. Whatever his vice is, you’ll see him giving in to it.

    8. Undeniable Oddities

    This is the stage when people begin to ask the person what’s wrong. They will be talking to one another—“Wonder what’s eating him?”—or even “Why doesn’t somebody talk to him?” The person avoids others as much as possible, and if he is confronted he denies that anything is wrong. He will insist that he is doing a great job, something the supervisor will find difficulty in countering considering all the work he’s put in. Nevertheless, he’s just not the same anymore. He sees coworkers as doing far less than what he does. He doesn’t socialize.

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    Has Had Better Days 9. Nothing Matters But the Job

    The person is running on empty at this point. He moves from one responsibility to the next with neither joy nor enthusiasm. When he’s finished with job-related tasks and leaves to go home to his family, he fixates on other responsibilities. He can’t relax with his family; he assigns himself to do endless chores. There is no recreation.

    10. Joylessness

    Joylessness means the absence of joy, and that’s just where the person is at this stage. Instead of striving to fill empty time with something fun and rewarding, he will spend his extra time indulging in undesirable activities such as overeating, substance abuse, promiscuity, gambling, or other negative behaviors.

    11. Clinical Depression

    Now the person is officially depressed. There is no longer any pretense of enthusiasm for the job or for anything else. You’ll hear him sigh and make derogatory remarks about the assignments he has and the work he completes. He swings from apathy to agitation.

    12. Full-Fledged Burnout

    If your team member reaches this last stage of burnout, he is in danger of harming himself. He sees no reason for continuing such a meaningless life. He will blow up mentally or collapse physically. Make him see a doctor—now.

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    Yes, You Can Prevent Burnout!

    Get Them Moving Besides watching over the individual members of your project team, you can also protect the entire project. When weariness over a long-term or difficult project begins to spread from one individual to the next, it may not be genuine burnout, but it’s still important to avoid it for the sake of your project. Try these techniques to keep individuals as well as your whole team operating on a full tank of enthusiasm and creativity:

    Recreational Exercise. If there’s a company exercise room, make your team members spend at least fifteen minutes per day there,at least three days a week, even if they just cycle on a bike while they read a book. Exercise produces those feel-good endorphins that defeat stress.

    Wellness Sessions. Tell your people you want them to practice breathing exercises to help them unwind when they feel stressed. In fact, schedule a team meeting or a wellness session for the purpose of teaching them how to do this; you can even throw in some guided imagery. Pick other topics, like self-defense or cooking for two, that will interest them and schedule them regularly.

    Relaxation. No matter how much work has to be done, you need to ensure that your team members are taking their breaks. Of course you’ve got to monitor what’s going on so that people aren’t goofing off when they should be working, but everybody needs time to vent and decompress. Let silliness reign every once in a while.

    Discuss Burnout. Do the unthinkable and address the topic of burnout with them. When you schedule one of these teaching sessions, you gain the opportunity to confront burned-out team members without singling them out. Ask each person to consider what he likes best about his job and what he likes least. Don’t criticize if someone complains about an aspect that’s near and dear to your heart. Find ways to reward individual achievements.

    Collaborate and Communicate. Midway through the project, arrange for people to experience each other’s jobs. Set a day when everybody rotates through various pairings, or you can simply assign two people to work on something together. The team member who understands what the other person does develops an appreciation of that person’s skills. This promotes loyalty, patience and confidence in one another.

    Employee Assistance Program (EAP). If your company offers an EAP and you have someone who’s suffering from burnout, make him see the EAP counselor. The trend in today’s therapy is to go short and sweet; sessions focus on ways to make the person understand his power to change things. Even if he only gets two or three sessions according to the EAP plan, his participation will help him to refocus on where he’s going, in life and at work.

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    Monitoring Your Team

    It’s time to act if you’ve begun to notice any one team member who is absent or tardy too much. The same goes if you notice someone muttering a lot or complaining about the work of others. Make it your business to go through some or all of these steps to get the affected person back on track.

    What de-stressing techniques do you utilize at your firm? I’d love to hear from you in the comment box below—we can learn from one another.

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