How to talk to my manager about burnout?

Over the past few years, we’ve gotten much better as a culture at recognizing burnout at work. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ve made the changes necessary to address the root causes of burnout, even simply being able to identify when we’ve reached that point (or are about to) has been a step in the right direction.

A couple of readers of Alison Green’s “Ask A Manager” describe their experiences:

“I’m tired all the time and grumpy. Worse, in the last couple weeks I seem to be losing the ability to think. I’ll read an email and be unable to make sense of the words, or unable to figure out what to do with it…”

"I work for a technology startup. The past year has been incredibly stressful, and I feel totally burned out. I don't want to come across as not a team player, but how can I talk to my manager about this?"

At the end of the day, having the job of your dreams shouldn’t come at the cost of your well-being. What we are here to tell you is that feeling burnt out does not mean you are incapable of doing your job. It does mean you need to ask for help and have a conversation with your manager. Admitting the need for help is a struggle for many professionals. For especially accomplished people who are used to being asked for help, being on the other side of the equation brings feelings of inadequacy, fears of being seen as weak or incapable, and concerns about being a burden to others. These fears are amplified when it comes to the risk of your manager thinking these things about you.

In this article, we’ll explore ways to have effective conversations about burnout with your team leader, and we’ll provide specific prompts to help you get started.

Here are some steps you can take to address and alleviate burnout:

Step 1: Clarify what you’re experiencing

Before you do anything, it's important to understand exactly why you are experiencing burnout. Burnout Index is a simple, science-based test you can do to know your burnout risk level (we build it, it's free, no sign-up required).

Step 2: Reach out to your manager

The most recurring definition of work engagement states it as “a positive, fulfilling, work-related affective- cognitive state of mind characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption” (SchaufeliWhen you’re ready to talk, it’s best to do it in person or via video call whenever possible, but getting it on your boss’s radar can start in writing with an email or Slack. Here are a few ways you can kick it off:

Step 3: Be open with your manager

When the day to talk comes, be open about the fact that you’re feeling the effects of burnout. Communicate the symptoms you have noticed – both physical and mental – and highlight some things you identified as needs for overcoming your current state.

Be specific about the symptoms you’re experiencing. You don’t have to disclose overly personal details, but generalizations like “I’m just really stressed,” or “I’m sick of this job” may not help them appreciate the situation.

Before sharing any solutions, ask for guidance on how to level up your time management skills, streamline tasks, and prioritize more effectively. If you and your manager decide to reassign any of your responsibilities, offer to help with the transition and provide regular guidance to whoever takes over. Finally, tell your manager if you want or need to take advantage of employee benefits such as mental health support or time-off.

Burnout is very real and pervasive in the software engineering community. Restoring balance in your work life might feel like a big to-do when you’re close to burnt out, but you don’t need to go it alone. Communicating your struggles to your boss is brave, bold, and the best way to get back on track. Last but not least, If opening up to your boss feels too risky, start with someone else. One of the dangerous byproducts of the pandemic is the increased isolation we feel from others. Social isolation intensifies burnout because, in the absence of sufficient community, most of the conversations we’re having about what we’re feeling are only in our heads. 


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