If you’re feeling burned out at work, everything gets harder. You get overwhelmed more easily, it’s harder to stay motivated and be productive, you’re constantly stressed, and it feels like you can’t enjoy your work anymore. So when is it time to do something about it? When is it time to talk to your boss? And once you’re in that conversation, how do you go about it?
I’m a therapist and a burnout coach, so I love these questions! I have helped clients through these conversations many times, and over time developed a step-by-step based on what has most consistently helped my clients get what they need out of these conversations.
If your burnout is causing you to take sick days, miss deadlines, or not get your work done, it’s time to talk to your boss about it. This can be an honest and really helpful conversation, and your first step toward healing from burnout. It’s a really big first step! Even if your boss isn’t as understanding as you would want, thinking through these steps will help you advocate for yourself, your mental health, and your career.
Step 1: Ask yourself, what’s the goal of the conversation?
Think about the end goal. Are you hoping for your workload to change? Your schedule? Something to get taken off your plate? That’s what you want to tailor the conversation around. “I’m overwhelmed” is a start, but no boss will be able to know exactly what you need if that’s all you say. Don’t make her read your mind!
Let’s say that I’m really burned out, and I know it got worse when I started a particular Project. It’s difficult and time-consuming, and it’s keeping me from doing other tasks. My goal for my conversation with my boss is to take the Project off my plate.
Step 2: Make it concrete – how is burnout affecting your work?
Give your boss evidence. What are your burnout symptoms?
Burnout is typically categorized by these three factors: exhaustion and overwhelm, a sense of ineffectiveness, and cynicism.
You probably know if you’re exhausted and overwhelmed. No amount of sleep is enough, you can barely get out of bed, you’re not as social or active as you used to be.
If you’re feeling more ineffective, that could look like doubting yourself, feeling discouraged, believing that your work is meaningless, and being less productive than usual.
If you’re feeling cynical, you may be more irritable, more sarcastic, impatient, unable to deal with difficult people at work, and feeling like nothing is going to get better.
Tell your boss these three research-based factors of burnout and how they’re affecting you. Think about both your mental and physical health. It’s okay to be honest and human about how you’re feeling. Then, explain how this is affecting your work.
Again, give evidence! What tasks are more difficult? What is taking longer to get done? How has your performance changed? How has your attendance changed?
The reason it’s important to acknowledge how burnout has affected your work is because that’s where your boss can get invested. She likely wants you to perform your best, and therefore may be more motivated to help you address your burnout.
So for me and The Project, I would tell my boss how I’m experiencing exhaustion, overwhelm, cynicism, and a sense of ineffectiveness in both my work life and personal life. Then I would show her how it’s affecting my work: I’m unable to get Task X, Y, and Z done because of my Project overwhelm. I’m taking three days to get back to clients when I usually call them back in 24 hours. I had to take two sick days last month for burnout. Give as many concrete examples as you can.
Step 3: Ask for what you want
This is where you get to advocate for yourself! But just asking for stuff often doesn’t work. Here’s how to ask.
If you want to take an extra training and want your employer to pay for it, show why it will help you do your job better. If you want a different shift, show why you should get that shift (seniority, performance numbers, etc.).
Remember that my goal with my boss is to get The Project dropped. So I might show data like examples of how this Project isn’t in my skill set and was just assigned to me, and why a different department could do it better. I might track my time spent on each project for a couple weeks to show that 80% of my time is going to The Project when I have 10 other projects to work on. These kinds of examples will help you get a lot further with your boss.
Don’t give up asking! Sometimes supervisors are just busy, and stuff falls through the cracks. Make it your responsibility to keep bringing it up. If your boss pushes it off and says, “let’s talk about it Monday,” send her a calendar invite for Monday morning and remind her on Friday afternoon.
Ask for data in return.
Don’t take a “no” without a “why” for an answer. Your boss may legitimately not be able to grant your request, but you deserve to know why. Ask what the barriers are and see if there’s an alternate way around them. Ask about “next best” solutions. But don’t take a vague no.
Step 4: Bring solutions to the table
Don’t just complain; offer solutions! If I were to go into my boss’s office and say that I just wanted to drop my Thursday shift, she’d say no. Someone has to cover Thursday. But if I were to go in and say that I want to drop Thursday, pick up Friday, and have someone who has agreed to switch with me, my boss is much more likely to say yes. Why? Because I already have a solution. My boss no longer has to do the legwork.
Always brainstorm solutions for the thing you’re asking for. If it’s getting extra training, think about where the educational money could come from and who will cover your responsibilities while you’re at the training. Trying to switch a shift? Ask around to see who might switch with you before talking to your boss.
If I want my boss to take The Project off my plate, I might want to talk to my team and see if The Project fits into one of their skill sets better, and offer to trade something with them. I might show that The Project can be done at a later time after Tasks X and Y are completed, because those deadlines are first.
Whatever it is, be willing to contribute to a solution.
Step 5: Thank your boss and follow up
Thank your boss for taking the time to meet with you, and follow up a week or so later. Remember to stay focused on the goal you identified in Step 1, and the solutions you’ve offered in Step 4.
If you know that it’s time to talk to your boss about burnout, I hope these steps help you get through that conversation as smoothly as possible, and help you walk away with some practical solutions that can make your work life a little easier.