7 min. read

August 04, 2020

How to Discuss Burnout With Your Manager

From dealing with touchy manager relationships to needing advice on what to do when you hate writing tests - you asked your questions and Neil from neilonsoftware.com has some answers.

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Neil Green, Author of neilonsoftware.com

"I'm on the verge of burnout but I don't know how to manage my workload anymore or tell my manager. How should I go about this?"

The World Health Organization (WHO) gives burnout a specific definition:

"Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed."

Combining your question with the WHO definition, we can find two separate issues:

  1. How can I persuade my manager to reduce the chronic workplace stress that is leading to my burnout?

  2. How can I successfully manage my workload such that I am not subject to burnout?

Note my substitution of "persuade" rather than "tell." Merely telling your manager that you are about to be burned out can have undesirable consequences:

  • They may perceive you as whining.

  • They may avoid giving you challenging work, limiting your opportunities to grow.

  • They may pass you up for a promotion because they believe you are bad at stress management, and the new role has added stress.

If we state your goal as: "I want less chronic stress," your manager becomes a means to that end. To get your manager to help you reach your goal, they need to be persuaded that the circumstances under which you are working need to be changed. Persuasion is required as they may not believe that any changes are necessary as they have created, allowed, or currently support the environment that has caused your burnout.

Try to understand your manager’s perspective

Let's explore some valid reasons why your manager might think nothing is wrong with the circumstances under which you are working:

  • No one has complained.

  • Only a few have complained.

  • Complaints that have been made have been chalked up to whining, and deemed invalid.

  • They assume that the level of stress is normal, and therefore not a problem.

  • They place accountability on the employee to deal with their level of stress, denying all liability.

  • They see stress as a reflection of inexperience and believe that employees will become resistant to pressure over time.

  • They perceive workplace stress as "good-stress" (e.g., the stress caused by trying to win a game) instead of "bad-stress" (e.g., the stress of needing to pay a bill when you have no money.)

  • They see their staff as working under circumstances of their own choosing (such as with self-organized teams) and believe the workplace pressure to be self-induced and, as a result, not their problem.

A key aspect of persuasion is understanding the other person's perspective. Therefore, you must work to convince yourself of the validity of your manager's perspective, regardless of how distasteful it might seem. Once you embrace that your manager has valid reasons to allow chronic workplace stress to persist, you can then work to change their opinion on what types of stress is, or is not acceptable. 

At this point, you can choose what you want to persuade your manager of:

  • Persuade them that they need to change the work circumstances for everyone, which can be very hard.

  • Persuade them that they need to change the work circumstances for you, which can be much easier.

Persuading a superior is hard enough, so for the sake of setting you up for maximum success, let's focus on improving the circumstances just for you. Besides, if you are motivated to change the work circumstances for everyone, the most effective approach is to be promoted into a managerial position, which is a separate topic.

Understand what “good stress” and “bad stress” look like for you 

To persuade your manager to change your work circumstances to reduce your chronic work stress, you should identify which aspects of your job cause you the most stress. As everyone is different, I can't know which stressors affect you the most, but I can use myself as an illustrative example:

Over the course of my career, I have discovered that the following situations only cause me "good stress":

  • Tight deadlines.

  • Long work hours.

  • Difficult tasks.

  • Vague requirements.

  • Previous poor decisions.

I have also discovered the following situations cause me no end of "bad stress":

  • Being disturbed while I am engrossed in my work.

  • Frequent ineffective and unnecessary meetings.

  • Lazy and incompetent coworkers.

  • Being judged on anything other than the speed, completeness, and quality of my work.

  • Poor decisions being made after better options have been presented and ignored.

Note that "good stress" can still burn you out - such as if you played your favorite video game non-stop for months at a time - but at a much slower rate than "bad stress." For example, you might work hard to complete a project on time for weeks without burning out, but repeated negative encounters with disrespectful colleagues can create a similar level of burnout in days.

Examining my two lists should strike you that these lists are unique to me, in that they don't represent what generally stresses everyone out. When you identify your list, you can then persuade your manager to change only the items that matter to you.

What happened when I persuaded my managers in the past?

Here are some examples of changes I have persuaded my managers to make to limit the amount of chronic work stress I experience:

  • I persuaded my manager to allow me to work remotely, or work in an isolated location within the office (i.e., not in an open-office layout).

  • I persuaded my manager that I only needed to attend a limited number of specific meetings.

  • I persuaded my manager to remove opportunities for me to collaborate with lazy and incompetent coworkers.

  • I persuaded my manager to allow me to demo my own work to a broad audience of stakeholders so that I could guarantee that the speed, completeness, and quality of my work was recognized.

  • I persuaded my manager to leave me out of the decision-making process if I felt powerless to prevent a bad decision.

My success in persuading management has had the following impacts:

  • I have been accused by my colleagues (primarily behind my back) that I get special treatment from management - an accurate observation. I would add that when colleagues have approached me directly and asked how I got special treatment, I taught them the skills they needed to advocate for themselves just as I had.

  • I typically produce the most critical work on the project the fastest with extremely high quality and accuracy - this is why management continued to grant me special treatment. If I was not able to do this consistently, I would not have been afforded special treatment. Paradoxically, my drive to be a top-performer by subjecting myself to constant "good stress" directly stemmed from my desire to avoid chronic "bad stress."

  • I achieved and maintained a work-life balance over very long periods of time, the cost being a few colleagues complaining that I got special treatment - a result of my advocating for my own mental health where they did not. 

As with all things in life, there are tradeoffs. I choose my long-term mental health - such as preventing burnout - over avoiding the accusations of my colleagues. After all, people will always gossip about their coworkers as a weak form of social bonding, and since it can't be stopped, I see no advantage in worrying about it. 

Persuading your manager didn’t work? Here’s what you can do for yourself

If you are unable to persuade your manager to improve your work circumstances, you still have quite a few options to help manage your own level of stress:

  • Learn how to get 7-9 hours of high-quality sleep every night and commit to doing so. The book Why We Sleep explains why this is so critical.

  • Learn how to work while in the flow state. The book Deep Work provides tips on how to do this.

  • Try to get managerial permission to disconnect your work email from your personal phone, as well as permission to reply to work email only during work hours. Emails form a 24/7 link to work, never allowing you to enjoy leisure time.

  • Create a routine of leisure activities where you either do nothing or do what you enjoy.

  • Develop a habit of "slow mornings," where you wake up early specifically to do whatever you want to do - including doing nothing.

  • At the start of every work-day, create a "Top-3" list of items you have to get done and give yourself permission to feel fine if that's all you get done.

  • Learn how to set realistic goals for yourself, which is a tough skill to master as we all are terrible at estimating how long things will take to complete.

  • Avoid interacting with colleagues who frustrate you by any means necessary if you cannot find ways to tolerate them. 

  • Try to eliminate or drastically reduce your use of social media, but if you cannot, avoid the all-too-common habit of "doomscrolling." Doomscrolling is the practice of obsessively consuming news and social media, primarily to stay up-to-date with the bad things that are happening in the world.

Ultimately, the best strategy is to persuade your manager to reduce your chronic work stress while also developing personal strategies for managing your stress level. Though this may seem self-evident, many people try only one or the other approach, as they are afraid of a confrontation with their manager or believe they have no control over their response to stressful situations.

However, effective persuasion does not require conflict, and we all have more control over ourselves that we often choose to believe. Remember that your mental health is worth fighting for, and no job is so good that it is worth suffering from chronic stress.


Neil writes a lot more about the softer side of software development over at neilonsoftware.com. Check it out!