How to Tell Your Boss You’re Experiencing Burnout

Understanding the cause of your exhaustion will help you ask for the right support
Avery Francis, founder of Bloom (photo: Erin Leydon)

Welcome to CB’s work-advice column, Ask Avery, featuring Avery Francis, founder of workplace design consultancy Bloom. Each month, Francis will answer reader questions on topics that affect our ability to thrive in our jobs, and she’ll offer her real-world insights on how to handle even the most rock-and-a-hard-place conundrums. Have a work-related question? Send it to [email protected] with the subject line “Ask Avery.”

If you’re feeling work-related burnout, you’re not alone. Burnout worsened last year thanks to the pandemic, and it only seems to be getting worse due to the current layoffs in the tech sector and fears of a looming recession. It’s a problem with on-the-job consequences: Burnout can affect performance, cause employees to withdraw from co-workers and even lead to quitting

Feeling burnout is one thing, but how do you tell your boss that you’re experiencing it? And, more specifically, how do you tell them in a way that actually gets you the support you need? I’ve learned that preparation is key. The process of communicating you’re dealing with burnout involves a bit of work from you beforehand, and can happen in three distinct steps. Here’s what it looks like.

Step 1: Confirm you’re experiencing true burnout

We often use the term burnout very casually, so it’s important to check with yourself to see if you’re actually experiencing it. A big part of burnout compared to other issues—like dealing with a narcissistic boss—is a distinct change in your “normal.” For example, if you once loved your job but are now indifferent, and no significant events have occurred that might cause your perspective to change, such as getting a new boss, you might be feeling burnout. On the other hand, if you never liked your job to begin with and now like it even less, chances are that’s something else, like boredom.

Still not sure? The World Health Organization, or WHO, defines burnout as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress. According to the WHO, it comes with three distinct symptoms: feelings of exhaustion or having no energy; negative feelings toward your career or feeling distanced from your job; and reduced overall productivity. If you’re nodding your head and realizing you’re feeling all three, there’s a high chance you’re dealing with burnout.

Step 2: Identify what’s causing your burnout

If you’ve determined it’s burnout you’re experiencing, the next step is identifying contributing factors. This is important because understanding what is causing your exhaustion will allow you to ask your boss for the right support to combat it. 

The goal of this entire process is to eliminate—or manage—the factors or stressors that caused your burnout in the first place. This is not about getting out of your work or commitments, but instead finding a way to make work more manageable and enjoyable. 

Here are some questions to ask yourself to help determine what’s behind your burnout:

  • Have you communicated your boundaries in the past, and if so, were they respected?
  • Have any changes happened to your job description or regular work day? If so, name the part(s) that led to your decrease in energy and productivity or an increase in negativity toward your job
  • Do you have specific needs, like picking up your kids from daycare or managing anxiety, that you didn’t communicate to your boss (or that weren’t respected) in the past?

With this information, you can then self-advocate for the changes you need—which takes us to step three. 

Step 3: Figure out what you need—and ask for it

Once you know what’s causing your stress, make note of it and request a meeting with your boss or HR. It’s important to get the support you need, mitigate or eliminate the root causes of your burnout, and get back on track so you can feel more productive. In order to effectively communicate with your higher-up, you’ll want to come prepared. 

Start the conversation by sharing that you will be asking for a change, for example your job responsibilities, or will be requesting more support. Then, explain that you are experiencing burnout and have investigated what’s caused or contributed to the issue. Share what causes you have identified—and be as specific as possible. For example, certain tasks, the environment, or an increased workload. 

Make it clear that you want to get back to a place of productivity and wish to enjoy your work like you once did, but need support to make it happen. Tell your boss what solutions you believe will help address the causes of your burnout, like reducing workload or adjusting your daily schedule, and be open to their thoughts, too. The goal is to find a solution that works for everyone. 

If you’re feeling unsure about solutions, there are some simple changes that can help with burnout, including breaking up monotony in your work—for instance more flexibility in work location or hours—or reducing how often you’re distracted by co-workers by booking deep work time each day with a strict no-meetings policy. And if your burnout is caused by too much work, removing some responsibility off your plate by asking for additional support, like a freelancer, can help.

Moving past burnout

Feeling burnout is not a badge of honour or a stain on your reputation—it’s simply what happens when issues that cause exhaustion aren’t addressed over a long period of time. Navigating burnout requires continued effort and will change based on your capacity, life and work circumstances. And unfortunately, not all employers or bosses will be supportive of your request for support. If that’s the situation you’re in after making a clear ask and seeing no improvement after a month or two, it might be time to look for a new job. 

Going through burnout is tough, but the experience can help you spot the warning signs in the future, and hopefully prevent you from dealing with it again. Identifying causes is an ongoing journey of self-awareness, self-care and self-advocacy—but the effort is worth it. Spotting the signs of burnout and mitigating them quickly will save you a lot of anguish and help you develop healthier work-life balance.