How to Tell Your Boss You’re Burned Out

Learn how to tell your boss you're burned out. Talking to your boss can help resolve workplace distress — and may even lead to increased productivity.

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by Melissa A. Kay

Published on July 15, 2022 · Updated on July 19, 2022

Reviewed by Tracey Burrell, Ph.D.

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How to Tell Your Boss You’re Burned Out
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According to the World Health Organization, burnout is a "syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed."

Burnout can stem from a lack of boundaries, an overbearing — or underwhelming — workload, or an unhealthy, unreasonable, or unproductive work atmosphere.

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As a society, we emphasize work and career as valuable indicators of identity and self-worth. When one's job isn't satisfying or fulfilling, it may lead to burnout. Contributors to burnout can include a poor work culture, an unsatisfactory work-life balance, or feelings of being overworked or undervalued.

Burnout often results in unhealthy physical and/or psychological consequences.

The American Psychological Association shares some eye-opening findings related to burnout in its 2021 Work and Well-being Survey.

Of the 1,501 U.S. adult workers surveyed, 79% of employees reported experiencing work-related stress in the month before the survey.

About 25% of this group described lack of interest, motivation, and energy. Other symptoms included lack of effort at work, fatigue, and exhaustion.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, pressure and panic have exacerbated chronic stress leading to burnout.

If you're feeling burned out at work, you aren't alone. A 2018 Gallup study of 7,500 full-time employees found that 23% said they experience burnout very often or always, and another 44% say they feel burned out sometimes.

Talking to your boss about burnout can benefit your well-being. It is a way to open the door to constructive conversations that can help get you back on track and feel better about work. With support, this may improve your job gratification and overall performance.

Symptoms of Burnout

  • Constant tiredness: Fatigue can be due to sleep disturbances caused by ongoing stress. Being overworked or feeling unsupported in the workplace can be exhausting.
  • Dreading going to work, skipping work: Negative, cynical feelings toward work can make every day challenging. Feelings of boredom and unfulfillment can lead to absenteeism.
  • Lack of motivation: Feeling of hopelessness and helplessness can be discouraging. Without an incentive, interest may decline.
  • Mood swings: Changes in mood or behavior can be signs of burnout. Withdrawal from co-workers, struggles in personal relationships, and lowered self-esteem or depression can manifest.
  • Failure to meet obligations/expectations: Reduced productivity due to lack of care or concentration can lead to poor performance.
  • Disappointment: Feelings of defeat, regret, dissatisfaction, frustration, and failure can hinder productive output.

The Importance of Telling Your Boss

"If you were to blow up a balloon with everyday stress without ever letting the air out, eventually the balloon will pop," says clinical psychologist Matthew Morand, Psy.D., of Intelitalk LLC and Farmingdale Psychotherapy and Counseling Clinic. Naturally, someone experiencing burnout won't literally "pop," but internalizing these feelings can become incredibly taxing.

"Honesty takes strength, which should be considered valuable as one's boss can prepare for the employee's impending need for time off or restructuring of the position. Clear communication is a must in the workplace," Morand says.

Workplace satisfaction is a two-way street.

Those in leadership roles should create a "psychologically safe" workplace, according to Barry Granek, a licensed mental health counselor. "Psychologically safe workplaces are reciprocal, where both employers and employees exchange taking initiative. Employees are likewise responsible for contributing to the social norms by speaking freely and soliciting attention."

This comradery can foster an atmosphere of empathy and understanding.

If you are experiencing burnout, getting it off your chest is beneficial to alleviate your own distress. Your honesty will also benefit your boss since burnout may hinder your job performance.

Prepping for the Conversation

Before bringing it up to your boss, be sure it's actually burnout. Can the issue(s) you are experiencing be addressed? Is there something your boss can do about it or help with? Approaching your boss may feel daunting, but the better prepared you are, the more doable it will be.

1. Compile a list of reasons you feel burned out and how they affect your job and career. Start with the issues that are causing the greatest distress and disruption.

2. Identify your goals. If your needs are met, how will you be a better employee? Do you have suggestions for your boss? Don't rely on your boss to have all the solutions. This conversation should be a collaborative effort.

3. What changes do you want to see? More or less responsibility? A stronger support system? More time off or flexibility? Remember, you may not get everything you want, but cooperation and consideration go a long way.

4. Send your boss an email to request a meeting about your burnout concerns. Lay out some of the main points that are contributing to your burnout. This will provide a heads-up regarding your requests and recommendations.

Consider an email introduction similar to this sample:

"I would appreciate some time with you face-to-face (virtually or in-person) to discuss my job performance. I am experiencing burnout, preventing me from performing at the level expected."

Continue with a handful of clear examples of what may be leading to your burnout and how it affects your work efficiency. Be as specific as possible so your boss can prepare for your meeting.

John F. Tholen, Ph.D. and author of "Focused Positivity: The Path to Success and Peace of Mind," says, "The best way to communicate any information that might be disappointing is by honest, straightforward, and empathic self-assertion. Assertiveness falls in the sweet spot between passivity and aggression."

5. Await their reply and gear up for the meeting. If your boss isn't responsive within an acceptable time frame, you may want to enlist the aid of your company's human resources department.

Having the Conversation

Explain in clear terms what you believe is leading to burnout. Examples include unreasonable deadlines, unfair treatment, and unclear expectations. Morand recommends reminding your boss that you value your job and are being honest in an effort to resolve the burnout.

"Speak slowly and rationally about how the work condition is affecting you professionally and personally," says Janice Litvin, a speaker on burnout in the workplace and author of "Banish Burnout Toolkit." "Make a business case for ways in which your productivity is actually waning due to overwork and exhaustion (or other symptoms of burnout). Describe how your work situation is actually causing less output."

Stay on point so you don't get distracted or distanced from your needs and goals. Allow your boss time to process what you are saying, and don't expect an immediate solution. Be ready to answer any questions or address your boss's concerns about your performance.

Refrain from blaming co-workers for your burnout. Keep things focused on yourself and your experiences.

After the Conversation

Hopefully, the conversation goes well, and your boss agrees to give you some time to recuperate along with tips and tools to help you over this hurdle. As you evaluate your priorities and preferences, rediscover what makes you feel fulfilled.

"Taking a break will help you reassess where you want to put your energy while at work," says Melissa S. Kaekel, a licensed professional counselor and certified corporate trainer at the Morgan Hill Institute.

If your boss doesn't react well, it may be a sign you're ready for a new job. You will need to weigh the pros and cons.

Granek suggests asking yourself, "What is the cost of not pursuing your needs?" Think about any financial barriers, your ability to find another job, and how long that may take.

Schedule a follow-up meeting to discuss your progress and what else can be done to alleviate your burnout.

Frequently Asked Questions About Burnout at Work

Can you get fired for burnout?

You cannot be fired for burnout per se. However, the effects from burnout can impact your job performance, which may lead to your termination. You may feel ineffective, disconnected, discouraged, or unmotivated to work. These feelings can lead to underperformance, lack of focus and productivity, and absenteeism, which can be legitimate reasons to fire an employee.

Ideally, as Litvin describes, "an effective boss will notice that you are beginning to burn out. A good boss will be staying in touch with you and know you well enough to be able to observe when your behavior is aberrant."

How do you explain leaving a job due to burnout?

If you are interviewing for a new job and are questioned about why you've left your previous position, you can be truthful without revealing every detail of your departure. Describe a few of the reasons why the job was no longer a good fit for you and why you wanted to make a change.

Speak positively about leaving the job, how it was a learning experience for you, how it helped you see your strengths, and how the time in between jobs was both mentally and physically reinvigorating. Let the interviewer know you are up for the challenge, perhaps in a whole new career.

How is burnout different from stress?

While stress and burnout go hand-in-hand, compounding stressors can result in significant complications. According to Indeed, "Burnout is a state of chronic physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion resulting from prolonged stress."

Stress is the body's natural response to a threat, one that is real or perceived. Left unchecked, unmanaged, or unresolved, symptoms such as persistent disdain, anxiety, or apathy regarding going into work, along with lethargy, insomnia, and increased anger and frustration can lead to burnout.

Morand questions the cause-and-effect element of stress leading to burnout,

"One could argue that it is a question of the 'chicken or the egg' as to which came first. Does the stress cause burnout or does the burnout contribute to the stress?" That said, burnout could have significant repercussions on your livelihood. "It (burnout) can affect your executive functioning. Decisions you may make could be impacted more by your desire to avoid work than from what work ultimately provides financially."

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