How to Talk to Your Boss About Burnout, According to an HR Exec

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The pressures at work can feel extra overwhelming at times. Most people want to succeed in their jobs and have the incentive to meet goals. And now, since we have our phones with us at all times, we might feel even more pressure to work outside of the 9-to-5. Depending on the job and company culture, some workplaces might even require you to be on call 24/7. Even if your company doesn't require that, you might push yourself to respond to emails on the weekends and early hours of the morning, or put in extra work to impress your manager or compete with other co-workers for a promotion or raise.

All of these demands and pressures can really take a toll on you. The stress can disrupt your health and lifestyle, and you might experience burnout.

We've previously discussed how burnout is so real that even the World Health Organization classified it as an "occupational phenomenon" in May 2019. And we've talked about the scary health effects of burnout if left untreated. But actually managing your stress or burnout in the workplace can be a tricky thing to navigate. How you do it ultimately depends on your company's culture, but to start, I tapped THE/THIRTY and Who What Wear's executive director of people and organization, Brandon Chreene, to get some advice on how to approach your boss or human resources department professionally. Consider these options below, but keep your own company's policies and the environment in mind before moving forward with any of these. It's not a one-size-fits-all type of scenario.

How to Manage Burnout on Your Own

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You might be stressed, rundown, or unmotivated, but you're not quite sure what those feelings mean. Is it just an overwhelming amount of stress? Is it actual burnout? The World Health Organization defines burnout as "a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." When you're experiencing burnout, you might feel completely exhausted, detached from work, have negative or cynical thoughts about your job, and inefficient. 

Knowing what burnout or stress means for you is key to managing it, Chreene says, because then you can see if it's something you can improve on your own or if you need to escalate it to the powers that be. "To some people, it means 'I've worked five 10-hour days in a row, and I'm exhausted, and I want to call out on Friday because I feel like I'm entitled to it, and I've worked so many hours.' Okay, that's an easy discussion," he says. "But if the person is saying, 'I'm burned-out because I'm doing the same work over and over again. I hate the work I'm doing at this point because I'm seeing the same thing day in and day out. I need something new,' well, now we're talking about maybe looking into a completely different role for you."

If, after doing some thinking, you find that you want to try to manage it on your own, Chreene has these suggestions:

You might be in a position where you have meetings scheduled all day long, and if someone sees an opening in your calendar, they'll drop by your desk or office, which can disrupt your productivity and make your work pile up even more, causing you to feel overwhelmed.

"Speaking from personal experience, it's really helpful to say, 'Okay, you know what, from 8 to noon, no one can talk to me because that's the time that I'm going to flesh out everything. That's the time where I'm going to work on things, start to finish, and just make it happen,'" Chreene says. "Suddenly you're getting things done; and when you get things done, you get this sense of accomplishment, and it actually carries you through. It kind of snowballs into this feeling of motivation."

2. Set Boundaries With Email

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If you can set some limits, go for it. "When you're not at work, turn off the email to your phone," Chreene recommends. "Don't accept work calls after hours for some days. Give yourself a goal: Don't think about work-related things when you're not at work, because how productive is it actually going to be to worry about it when you can't control it?" Of course, some people might not be in the position to do this, so use your own discretion with this one.

3. Ask Yourself Some Questions

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It also helps to take a step back and think about your role and the company overall. Maybe the reason you're burned-out is that you feel unfulfilled or not challenged enough, you're not meshing with the company culture, or you haven't really gotten to know the company's mission or goal.

"If you do get to a point where you realize your bigger, better skills are atrophying because you're really not utilizing them, that's a conversation to have with your manager," Chreene suggests.

When it comes to company culture and goals, it helps to be aligned with them because it can help you stay motivated. Ideally, you want to be passionate about what you're doing. Chreene recommends asking yourself questions such as "What is the goal of the company?" "What are the values of the company?" "Does the company believe in the same kind of thing I believe in?"

Another part of company culture is who you work with. Have you gotten the chance to know them? You don't have to be best friends, but understanding and being familiar with who you work with can help make your 9-to-5 so much more enjoyable.

After all of this, you might not find you're a fit with your role and the company after all. And that's okay. It just gives you more incentive to find out what kind of workplace will make you feel fulfilled and happy.

4. Go to Your Co-workers for Help

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Your colleagues can be a support system for you, but there's a thin line here that can turn toxic. Personally, I've been in previous situations at other jobs where I've gone to my co-workers to discuss issues in the office, and it turns into an all-out complaint fest about every single thing wrong with the company. Those normally left me even angrier and less unmotivated. That got me nowhere. Thanks a lot, mob mentality.

Instead, Chreene advises keeping it productive. Ask your colleagues for help, and do the favor for them, too. And if the conversation turns sour, take a step back. "Let's say you have these co-workers who are just as angry and tired and burned-out as you are," he says. "That's a problem. You have to rise above it. You can't give into it. Ask yourself, 'Is there going to be anything produced out of the conversation I'm having right now?'"

Maybe you're not fortunate enough to have supportive colleagues. Chreene says that might be an issue you have to discuss with your boss.

5. Think About What You Do Outside of Work

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I know what you're thinking: "Outside of work?" What's that?" When you're drowning in your office responsibilities, it's hard to realize there is life separate from it. Achieving work-life balance is easier said than done, but making sure you're doing things you love can help a lot. "How are you approaching it every day?" Chreene recommends asking yourself. "Are you going home and leaving your work at the office? Are you enjoying a nice dinner? Are you watching your favorite TV show? Are you making time to do the very tiny things that make you happy in what free time you have available? If you're not, you should start there because that will make you roll into the next day at least a little bit more refreshed."

How you're spending your free time can make a big difference, too. Are you going out too much on the weekends and effectively wasting your Saturday and Sunday hungover? Not to shame anyone who goes out (and I've had such weekends of my own), but is that helping you manage your stress?

"I think how you spend your free time really is an indicator for you on whether you're going to have a good week or a bad week," Chreene says. "Stress is so real, but it is even more real if you haven't had any time away from it. And stress is not just caused by work. It's caused by what you put in your body; it's caused by who you talk to."

It's helpful to think of healthy ways to contain your stress levels, such as working out, eating right, meditating, or talking to a therapist, and trying to incorporate those things into your lifestyle—with the occasional night out, of course.

How to Approach Your Boss About Burnout

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Maybe you've tried all of the above and none of it is making you feel better, or you feel your situation is beyond that. Whatever the case, it might be time to go to your manager or HR department for help. While your style of approach really depends on your specific workplace, Chreene outlined a few general ideas:

1. Know Your Audience

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Chreene says the environment that you're working in will dictate how you escalate the situation. "If you're comfortable with your manager, talk to them," he advises. "If you're afraid of your manager, talk to HR instead." With the manager route, if you have a regular touch-base or check-in, that would be a good time to bring up your situation.

Now, when it comes to how you voice your feelings, this is where knowing your manager's communication style will help. For instance, your boss could prefer succinct, quick conversations—for that, you might have to come prepared with a couple of quick talking points.

However, if you're rehearsing what you're going to say so much that it's creating even more anxiety for you, Chreene suggests a helpful exercise. "Whenever you're worried or nervous about something, write down every single word that goes through your head," he says. "Then, you should read all of it to yourself, and then get rid of it. Take it, ball it up, put it in the trash can, and walk into that conversation with the person right after with nothing on your mind, and have a natural chat with the person because that mental chatter will ruin your conversation. It'll be unproductive, and it'd be unnatural and manufactured."

2. Email, Phone Call, or in Person?

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Again, this one depends on the communication style of your workplace, but also keep in mind that by putting something in writing, it becomes more official. "What you put in writing, whether it's through email, through Slack or any other instant message, through text, it's recoverable," explains Chreene. "And what that means, in a legal sense, is that it can almost incriminate you. If you send an email that says, 'I am burned-out, and I'm stressed out with my job. I'm not sure that this is a fit for me, but I want to talk through this with you,' your manager has to now treat you in a different way. Managers have a responsibility at that point to professionally address and respond in a timely manner, and it can actually protect you. So if you're ready for that kind of interaction, document it."

You might not be at that point and would rather just have a natural, casual conversation with your boss about your workload. For that, it could be best to bring it up during a check-in.

Think about the severity of your situation and how far you want to escalate it.

3. If You Know You're Going to Be Emotional

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You know yourself, so if you're pretty sure you're going to cry, you're going to want to be prepared. "It's a personal thing to cry. It's also a very human thing to cry," Chreene says. "But don't be surprised if your manager or your HR person kindly wraps up the conversation and asks if you can have it later when maybe the air is easier to breathe in."

He suggests, if appropriate, to ask your manager if they can go on a walk with you or get coffee outside of the office. Getting some fresh air can help clear your head, and if you're out in public, you might be less likely to cry.

4. If You Work Remotely

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Nowadays, many more people are working remotely, but that doesn't mean they won't experience burnout. In fact, sometimes, working away from the office can be isolating and lonely

To prevent burnout as a remote worker, Chreene recommends having as many video calls as possible instead of phone calls. "If you can see a human being on the other side of the screen, that is so much more effective for you to feel like you're a part of a team," he says.

And if you're already experiencing burnout, have that video chat with your manager. It might help you express yourself better and gauge their reactions.

5. Find a Mentor

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"If you don't have the relationship with your direct supervisor or maybe you don't see them enough, who is their manager? Who is their supervisor? Could you maybe feel more comfortable talking to them?" Chreene suggests. "Is there a more senior person in your office who doesn't even work in your department that maybe you could look to as a mentor? There's nothing wrong with having an open dialogue, so really remember there are more humans available to you than even just HR or your manager."

6. If You Need Further Help

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It also helps to research your company's mental health policies and your own state's labor laws, even before you speak to someone. Take a look at your benefits package—a lot of companies have employee assistance hotlines or other mental health programs. Keep track of your vacation policies and consider taking a long weekend to reset.

Chreene also suggests speaking to the most senior HR person you can find or the HR lead assigned to your department. They can help you figure out any short-term leave options or state-mandated resources if you're at the point where you need to take some time off. If you're going to do the research on your own, he advises trusting information from dot-gov websites rather than message boards or Wikipedia.

Ultimately, burnout is a real, personal thing. You'll have to do some soul-searching and research to manage it. Take your time, and know you're not alone. It might be helpful to seek professional help outside of your work. You can also call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration for referrals or more information at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Next up: The Scary Health Effects of Burnout and What to Do About It