Photo by Will Shaddock Photography 5 Oct 2015 View image

You're working on a big project, you're giving it all you've got, literally, and then it happens – you get BURNOUT! It is that time when you've expended all the energy you can and you have nothing left to give. It can make you ill but there are ways you can avoid it.

What does it feel like to be burned out?

Occupational burnout is a type of psychological stress coined by Herbert Freudenberger in the early 70’s. It’s characterised by exhaustion, lack of enthusiasm and motivation, feelings of ineffectiveness, frustration and maybe even cynicism.

Have you been there? I definitely have.

I was not really interested by anything in the working world until I started project work. The pace, diversity, dynamic, competitive nature, conflict ridden environment of projects woke me up and I was hooked. There is a serious downside to working like that for any length of time and its burnout.

Science Direct did a study published in 2013, that also found that women tend to experience emotional exhaustion to a greater extent than men.


In my experience, it’s because project work is personal. Over the years my nearest and dearest have told me I get too close, give too much of myself, more distance is required but it’s just not easy. If you are a good Project Leader you give yourself to the project and everyone in it and women are more prone to this than men (generalisation, I know, but again, in my experience its true).

Do you have to give yourself?

I don’t think it’s a question of having to, you want to. Typically you believe in what you are being asked to deliver. It's change, so you know not everyone will want it in the same way you do but that’s OK, you’ll convince them.

You know that if you don’t keep everyone together people will go off track. You want everyone to be happy, even if that’s at your expense. The stakeholders don’t always have time to read what you have done and will make snap judgements if you don’t talk to them and keep them connected. So will the finance team, who can make your project sound great or risky with a couple of numbers and one line of disconnect text.

It’s on you if it goes wrong. You celebrate as a team when it goes well. Yes, you have to give yourself.

How do you avoid burnout then?

Burnout is psychological stress, so you have to look after your mental health; a healthy head is a happy head no matter how much is thrown at it. Here are my top 5 tips:

  1. Be yourself at work. Don’t be afraid to show your personality, talk about your values and beliefs and how they fit into the work you are doing. If you are working on something you don’t agree for whatever reason, it will eat away at you. If you can’t relax and enjoy your work it will become stressful. 
  2. Get to know the people around you, properly. What is important to them, how do they like to work, what makes then happy and most important what frustrates them. Making a human connection will help prevent some tough times and definitely make the others easier to deal with when they happen.
  3. Establish your support roles on the project; Sponsor, Mentor, Coach, ensure those people understand how you want to work with them and how they need to be there for you. You might not have access to all 3, at the very least ensure there is someone you can go to and download, make sure they understand that’s in confidence and for you to let off frustration.
  4. Practise distributed leadership. You may be the Project Leader but others will want to show what they can do, give them their moment in the sun; share the positioning and the delivery without shirking responsibility.
  5. Invest in you, eat well, sleep well and exercise. There is a time and place for 18 hour days and it’s not every week. You need to keep your head clear and have something else to talk about other than the project!  

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