One of the hardest things when you’re experiencing burnout is knowing how to talk to your line manager about it. It can feel as if there’s a stigma attached to putting up our hands and letting people know that we’re struggling.
We’re conditioned to believe that we need to show how good we are at our jobs by managing everything seamlessly, without complaint, and making life easier for our line manager. But there comes the point when the conditions you are working in can become too much to handle.
You won’t do yourself or your colleagues any favours in the long-term if you let it escalate to the stage that you have compromised your health. So, how do you talk to your boss about burnout?
Please note I am not medically or legally trained, and this article does not constitute medical or legal advice. If you are experiencing a severe health condition, then you should consult a medical professional.
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Help your manager to understand what burnout is
If you are speaking to your boss without HR support, you may need to do some education around what burnout is. Not everyone is aware of burnout, and the toll it can take on an individual and in the workplace.
The World Health Organization classifies burnout as a ‘workplace phenomenon’, it currently doesn’t recognise it in the context of parental or other burnout. The WHO considers burnout to be a syndrome relating to “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” which doctors can now diagnose if their patient shows the following symptoms:
- feeling exhausted or lacking energy;
- feeling mentally distanced from or cynical about one’s job;
- and difficulty performing one’s job successfully.
When I burned out, this definition did not exist, and generally, a patient presenting with burnout would be diagnosed with depression, anxiety, or in my case – both.
An empathetic boss will try to put themselves in your shoes to understand how burnout is affecting you. A more process-minded manager may focus more on the practicalities of what you’re not able to do right now and what needs to happen next in terms of medical letters, time off or reduced responsibilities.
Consider how to express yourself clearly, especially if you feel vulnerable and emotional
When you are in the throes of burnout, it can be a very emotional time. You may find yourself crying without warning, or getting exceptionally angry for little to no reason. You may also be experiencing brain fog, which can make it challenging to concentrate.
Therefore, it’s understandable that many people who experience burnout do not feel emotionally strong enough to have a conversation and articulate themselves clearly.
In these moments, a strategy that can be very powerful is to write down what you would like to express to your manager. You can then take your time over it and even get someone neutral to the situation to look at it and give you their opinion as a fresh perspective; perhaps a partner or a friend.
Have the support of a third party
We know that it’s best practice to have conversations directly with our manager, rather than having someone speak on our behalf. In many ways, this is sensible because it gives you control over your message and you can deliver it in the way you would want to.
However, if you are experiencing severe burnout, you may not be mentally able to go into the office, speak to your boss, or even handle a phone conversation. This situation can be confusing – you’ve perhaps worked in that office for years and talked to your boss daily, and now suddenly that feels like an impossible hill to climb.
Your body is in a state of fight or flight. You’re associating your workplace with a source of danger, so every instinct is telling you to stay safe and keep away. I can remember being violently sick even when I tried to turn on my laptop and work through my emails when burnout hit me hard. I was physically shaking, and my vision was all over the place. It seemed irrational and frightening. I could no longer predict or trust my reactions to everyday situations.
If you have the support of an employee assistance line, an occupational health team at work, an HR business partner, or a medical professional, they will sometimes offer to help set up a line of communication that feels more do-able. Instead of speaking directly with your manager, you may be able to connect with someone who is medically trained who will then support your boss to understand what you are going through, and how they can best support you.
Reflect on why you have burnt out
One of the pitfalls with burnout recovery is to leap into the tactics of healing, without identifying the root cause. Yes, walks in the park, and some time off can ease some pressure and help us feel temporarily better, but we need a long-term fix.
Burnout researchers Christina Maslach and Michael Leitner produced a comprehensive study called “The Truth About Burnout”, which outlines the causes of job-related burnout, focussing on six key themes. The following list will help you to identify which of the burnout triggers could be your root cause of a work-related burnout:
- Lack of control. You have little ability to determine what happens in your workplace, or feel unable to control critical aspects of how you work. You may have little say on the work you focus on, how you organise your day and the direction the company is going in.
- Conflicted values. You feel that the organisation’s values compromise your values.
- Rewards out of line. You don’t feel adequately paid for the contribution you make to the organisation. You may feel underappreciated by your colleagues and taken for granted.
- Excessive workload. You have too much work to complete within the specified deadlines, or your workload is beyond your capabilities.
- Lack of fairness. Your organisation does not treat you fairly. Perhaps there are different rules for different people. Compensation and promotion decisions may not be transparent.
- Dysfunctional workplace dynamics (a lack of community). You lack support from co-workers and have no one you can trust to talk to, or who will guide you. Perhaps an office bully makes your life difficult, or your boss does not make time for you.
Once you have identified your burnout trigger, it’s a lot simpler to work out what you need to solve it for the long-term.
For example, suppose your trigger is a mismatch between your personal values and the company’s values. In that case, that’s potentially something that’s not going to be possible to change without moving to another organisation or part of the business. Ask yourself, ‘can I see a healthy future for myself here? What are my options?’
Suppose your root cause is an excessive workload caused by covering for colleagues who have left. In that case, you are entirely within your rights to outline to your manager and anyone else involved in your recovery process, what you need in place to return safely. This could be in the form of a list of responsibilities that you feel is viable to return to on a phased return.
An excessive workload is not your problem to fix once you have highlighted the issue.
Write a list of the things that you need as part of your recovery from burnout
Your boss is not a mind reader. If they have no personal or professional experience with burnout, you can’t expect them to know what they need to do to support you in your recovery, and ensure your return to work is sustainable.
Start by taking some time in a quiet place and make a list of the things you feel you need to gradually return to work in a way that feels more comfortable and doable for yourself. If you have the support of a therapist or a medical professional, they will help guide you to a realistic return to work timeframe. You may work with someone from your HR department or your manager to create a return to work plan.
If you haven’t taken time off as part of your recovery, that doesn’t mean your symptoms are any less important. You may be earlier in the cycle and now have the opportunity to make changes to avoid needing to take significant chunks of time out of work to recover.
Put yourself first
If you’re recovering from burnout, it’s time to put yourself first in every situation unapologetically. This can feel very uncomfortable if you’re used to being a high achiever who makes life easy for your boss or if you are a people pleaser who likes to make other people happy.
It’s critical to prioritise your mental health and well-being to recover quickly. Part of putting yourself first will involve having difficult conversations with colleagues and family members. It can be challenging to learn how to say no and put proper boundaries in place, but without those, you will return to the old habits or environments that led to burnout.
It’s like the analogy that we hear when we’re on a plane – we have to put our oxygen mask on before helping other people.
Set some time aside ideally each day to listen to what your body and your mind are telling you in terms of your recovery process. Are you becoming more tired, or more irritable, having cloudy thoughts or forgetting things? These are indications that you’re returning to work too quickly or taking on too much too soon.
These signs will help you to realign and communicate to your boss if things are getting too much again. If you don’t act now, then it’s likely that the issues will build and you’ll have to take a more prolonged period out of the office to get yourself better. Keep taking baby steps forward, listening to your body and readjusting along the way.
Have someone in your corner
We all need a friend or a trusted expert as we’re going through burnout – that person who we don’t have to put a front on with, who we can just be ourselves with, who we can let the emotions flow with.
We need to find a safe space to let those emotions out; otherwise, they stay in our body and make our recovery process all the more difficult.
In my case, I was very fortunate to have excellent company medical cover that allowed me to see a psychiatrist quickly and to go through cognitive behaviour therapy. However, that still left a significant gap in rebuilding my confidence and figuring out what I was going to do with my life after this major blow.
I knew I still had a lot to come to terms with and process, so I started working with a coach, which gave me the space to be myself and find my way outside of the medical treatment for my condition. This recovery stage can take time, requires patience and lots of celebrating for every baby step of progress.
Consider who can play that role for you.
If there’s no one in your network, or you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone who is close to your situation, consider whether investing in a coach or a therapist is the right option for you. If you’d like to explore working with me, check out how to work with me and my courses and resources.
One day you will look back on this time and realise how far you’ve come. In the meantime, borrow my confidence that you will get better, and you will recover.
Remember, you are worthy. You are enough. Together we will defeat burnout.
If this article spoke to you and you are struggling to deal with burnout, check out these additional resources for help:
- Work with me as your burnout coach
- Defeat Burnout courses and resources
- Join our mailing list
- YouTube Channel