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How to Avoid Project Burnout

~ By Kenneth Darter

Exhausted businessman resting on a pile of paperwork with tongue hanging out from overwork

Resources on projects can be susceptible to burning out before the project is finished. Here are a few ideas to prevent burnout in project teams.

Burnout is best described as that state wherein the job one is performing no longer seems to matter very much. When people stop caring about what they are doing (assuming they ever cared in the first place!) and only want to go home and collapse, then they might be burned out on the job. Of course, there could be other causes, but burnout is very common on large projects that are full of tight timelines and a lot of pressure to produce. Burnout happens when someone works past their endurance and mentally or physically collapses. They may continue to put in a minimum amount of work, but they are no longer being effective in their position. Project managers should be on the watch for burnout, but more importantly, they should be striving to prevent it before it happens.

Timeouts

Parents know the value of a timeout. They use it to defuse angry situations, calm down kids, and sometimes just to provide silence in order to think. While I am not suggesting that the project manager put his team members into a timeout, it can be helpful to provide regular breaks in order to defuse situations and provide time to think. Whether the timeout is in the form of a long weekend or a midweek long lunch, sometimes there can be more value in not working then in working. This break in work allows the team to relax their muscles before getting back to the grind of execution.

Stress Busting

The stress bust is somewhat similar to the timeout, but in this case, the cause of the stress and burnout is particularly targeted by the project manager. If there is a problem on the project, then it should be busted wide open by the project manager and not allowed to linger until it causes burnout on the project. For example, if a deadline is unrealistic and the team keeps working toward it with no hope of meeting it, that situation needs to be resolved by whatever means necessary - whether by moving the deadline or lowering the scope or assigning the resources that can get it done on time.

Checkpoints

Regular checkpoints with the team throughout the project will help everyone take a breath and relax before moving on to the next phase or task. The timeout is used as needed, but a checkpoint should be built into the schedule, perhaps at reaching a major milestone or finishing a phase of work. The checkpoint will allow the project team to have a break from the work and reflect on what has been done so far. The project manager can assess what has been working and what has not been working and make adjustments going forward.

Realistic Expectations

Above all else, the resources on the project should be treated with respect and that includes having realistic expectations for the work they can do. Expecting people to put in sixty or seventy hours a week and meet deadlines that are enforced arbitrarily and are unrealistic will lead to a burned out team no matter how many checkpoints or timeouts the project manager does. The best way to keep a team from burning out is to ensure that they are given the keys to their own success; people burn out when they feel like there is no way for them to succeed, which is why realistic expectations are important.


Comments (4)

Topic: How to Avoid Project Burnout
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24th August 2016 5:15pm
John Tichaona Muhonde (Harare) says...
Burnout to me is the evidence of total collapse of a system due to prolonged strain, which goes unchecked for a long time. Teamwork, delegation, incentives, motivation and correct systems put in place greatly help and take people places.
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2nd August 2015 5:11pm
Tomislav (Zagreb) says...
If you experience burnout, do anything to change your current situation (forget about deadlines, or just work as normally as you can), if you cannot do it, it is better to quit this job and relax for a month or four :)
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30th August 2014 11:24am
Miranda (Amsterdam) says...
I really support the idea of prevention in this article. All too often I hear of project managers who completely collapse, have to stay at home for a while in order to find new ways of working that also keep in mind their own health.

Is there a way to make this a collective matter? Individual burn out and individual solutions are good, but we all still have to deal with an environment of extremely high pressure and unrealistic demands, that we create collectively. How to create a balance between high performance and healthy performance?

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