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A step-by-step guide for talking to your boss about burnout without negative consequences.
Reducing the symptoms of burnout often requires changes at the source: our workplace. In this article, you’ll learn tips for effective conversations with managers, supervisors, and bosses. By reminding employers of your value to the company and presenting a compelling argument for the need for change, you can manage the symptoms of your vocational burnout at the source.
Finding the right time to have this conversation is essential, and often can shape the kind of response or support that you get.
For instance, cornering your boss to talk about how stressed out you are probably won’t go well the week after a poor financial report lands on their desk. Timed poorly, your concerns might be ignored or perhaps even result in negative consequences.
Instead, watch for the right moment. When your monthly sales figures are higher than usual or you’ve just been recognized for exceptional work on a project, now’s the time to jump.
Try to time the conversation with your boss about burnout while it is very clear that you are an asset to the business.
Try booking an appointment and communicate your concerns clearly. Don’t spring the issue on your boss, instead inform your supervisor’s secretary or personal assistant in advance. You want to give your boss or manager a chance to understand the nature of the meeting rather than blindsiding them with an unexpected conversation about employee mental health.
Avoid scheduling a meeting to talk about burnout on a predictably hectic day. As a hard-working employee, you likely have a sense of what days are busy due to certain reports being due or other scheduling trends.
If you can wait until after the company has positive news to celebrate, do so. Bosses are more likely to respond positively to concerns about burnout when they have the resources to invest in sustainable talent.
One way to make difficult conversations easier is to practice them in low-stress environments.
When I was in training to be a mental health counselor, I had a professor who insisted that the entire class pair up and do suicide assessments on each other – multiple times a semester! These awkward conversations actually built the “muscle memory” we needed for high-stress conversations with clients having a mental health crisis.
There’s a good chance that one of your close friends has also struggled with burnout at work.
Ask if they will pretend to be your boss while you bring up the topic of burnout and the symptoms you have been experiencing related to work. If you don’t have a friend you can role-play this conversation with, there’s never been a better time to reach out to a therapist than when you feel like you are burning out.
Here’s one thing you can probably count on: if you’re stressed out at work, your coworkers probably are feeling the pangs of burnout too. Before you have a conversation with your boss about the burnout you are experiencing, talk to a few trusted coworkers.
Talking with others about how you feel not only is the kind of stress relief in itself, but you can swap tips and resources for talking to your boss about burnout.
In 2019, only 60% of respondents indicated that they had talked to anyone at work about their mental health1, however when Harvard Business Review researchers repeated this survey in 2021, that number jumps to 66%2
Talking with coworkers can help, but remember that everyone response to stress differently. Overworking, overscheduling, and a lack of resources affect different people in different ways.
It goes without saying, that talking about work-related stress is a delicate topic – especially with bosses, managers, and supervisors. To avoid being perceived negatively, it’s important to highlight the value you bring to your organization, be clear about your needs, and be confident.
The workers you speak to in the step above can also help you choose words. If the way you plan on framing the conversation doesn’t feel accurate to someone else who has a similar job in your company, they can provide feedback to help you rephrase your words for talking to your boss about burnout.
Don’t frame a conversation with your boss as:
❌ “I’m burning out, I need space to recover.”
Instead, pitch it as:
✔️ “I need some resources to remain productive.”
As a trained employee in your organization, you are an asset.
You earn the company money and you make your boss’s life easier.
Your boss doesn’t want you to burn out, and even in the most toxic company, supervisors dread having to hire and train a new employee. When you approach your boss about burnout, phrase it as a way to save them time and money. In doing so, you’re more likely to get the support, or time off, that you need.
There’s a good chance that if you are burned out, your boss is also experiencing similar workplace stress. When we are highly stressed at work, it’s difficult to think of creative solutions.
If you are able, present a plan to your boss for reducing your symptoms of burnout. If you are clear about what you need and present your boss with a list of changes that can reduce your stress at work, it means your boss only has to sign off on your proposed plan.
For many bosses, this is much easier than troubleshooting the issue, brainstorming solutions, and implementing them.
There’s a time and a place for the catharsis of complaining- but it’s not in a meeting with your boss about burnout.
Though we’re increasingly resisting the dysfunction of it, we function in a capitalist system. Capitalist organizations respond to productivity, value, and money.
Instead of complaining to your boss about what is wrong and the ways in which you’re stressed out, focus on presenting solutions that create a sustainably productive workplace. Remember, you want to seem convincing, not angry. Simply venting your frustrations on your boss may have negative consequences at work.
It may be tempting to stride into your boss’s office, tell them just how hard you work, and demand change. Often, this simply will not be a convincing argument.
💡 Show your work. Instead of telling your boss how much work you do beyond a standard shift, spend a month tracking every minute you spend answering work emails or phone calls when you should be off duty.
💡 Rather than insisting you are more productive or committed than coworkers, have stats to prove it. Show your sales figures, your successfully completed projects, or other metrics that demonstrate your value to the company, and show your boss why it’s in the company’s best interest to make changes to support your continued employment.
💡 Be evidence-based. Google Scholar makes it easy to pull up countless research studies on burnout, workplace dynamics, and productivity simply by searching with a keyword. When your request for a more supportive workplace or changes to compensation is supported by peer-reviewed research, it’s much harder for a boss to dismiss burnout complaints.
What is your boss’s communication style? how formal or informal is your workplace? These conversations can inform the best way to talk to your boss about what you are experiencing at work.
For some bosses, this might mean a meeting across from each other at a giant executive desk in a c-suite office. For other bosses, effective conversations might happen over a beer after work. You can get a sense of how your boss likes to handle conversations like this by asking other employees or just asking your boss directly.
Often, an executive’s personal assistant is the key to a productive meeting with the head honcho at work. Secretaries and personal assistants know their boss’s communication style, moods, strengths, and weaknesses. Chatting, even briefly, with your boss’s personal assistant can help you adapt your conversation structure to complement their communication style.
When you feel like you have role-played sufficiently and prepared for the meeting, initiate the conversation with your boss. Keep the conversation to 10 or 15 minutes, and try to:
With these tips for talking to supervisors about the symptoms of burnout, you are more equipped to have a productive, effective conversation with your boss about what you need to thrive at work long-term. However, not every boss will be receptive. If your boss is unreasonable, and your symptoms of burnout are disrupting your life, it’s a sign that it may be time to seek another job at an organization more invested in preventing burnout.
Not every boss understands the repercussions of workplace stress. Sadly, many bosses have normalized an unhealthy work/life balance and expect the same from employees. With practice at communicating your needs in the workplace, however, you are more equipped to know exactly what you are looking for in your next job and, how to better communicate your needs to future bosses.