How Project Managers Can Avoid Burnout at Work

Posted in: Project Management

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Last month, I had the privilege of attending Bureau of Digital’s Digital PM Summit, a conference devoted entirely to digital project managers. Each keynote, breakout, and interactive session was tailored to the pain points specific to not just project managers (PMs), but those who manage digital projects. There were PMs from across the world with varying experience, education, and personality traits. No matter the project manager, from detailed and actionable to collaborative and social, there was one quality we all shared: we have all struggled with burnout.

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A few decades ago, when the workday ended, people stopped working and went home. For the most part, people didn’t feel the need to get work done until they were back in the office the next morning. Instead, they spent time with their families and practiced self-care. Now that we have cell phones, laptops, and email, it seems nearly impossible to disconnect. And, for certain people and certain positions, having to be “always on” can easily cause burnout.

Generally speaking, PMs don’t have loads of time to stop, reflect, and carve out time for self-care. The nature of our work is that it never ends. We’re busy juggling the ever-changing plans of our days and weeks and projects. We’re pulled in multiple directions from clients and colleagues alike. While projects may wrap up when they launch, there’s likely another project on its heels. It’s easy to feel like if you work through lunch, reply to a few more emails before leaving, or plan strategy after your kids are in bed, then you’ll be able to catch up or even get ahead. In my experience, that never works, and I’m more tired the next day.

So, now that we know the problem, how do we fix it?

Request Balance

Talk to your colleagues at other agencies and inquire about their work-life balance – what are their employers doing to facilitate downtime and what can you bring back to your organization? Chances are, we can push for more balance from our own employers if it’s not already there. Here are some ways your employer can help you maintain an adequate work-life balance.

  1. Ask to work from home part of the week. You might think that good project managers are all, or mostly, extroverted. At the DPM Summit, I was surprised to learn that the introverted/extroverted split was roughly down the middle. As an “extroverted introvert” myself, I love our work from home schedule. Working at home two days a week allows for that uninterrupted time to think critically about my projects, recharge in the quiet, and throw in a load of laundry at lunch.
  2. Ask for professional development opportunities. At Go Fish, we are encouraged to seek out learning opportunities. Whether it’s an online course, a local meet up, or a multi-day conference in another state, taking some time away from your projects provides perspective and makes room for growth.
  3. Ask for adequate sick and vacation policies. If you feel like you have to work through your fever and full-blown body aches, it’s time to ask why. Is that self-imposed, is there a cultural issue? Similarly, if you don’t feel like you can step away from your email and take a vacation, get to the root of the reason and work to solve it with your leadership team. (Tip: Asking “why” five times is a fantastic exercise to dig deep and identify the true root of the problem.)

Take Back Your Time

We are the only ones in charge of our time and there’s a finite number of hours in the day. Block off time on your calendar and don’t let anyone schedule on top of it. I will add “meetings” to my calendar to indicate to others that I’m not available – it’s one way I ensure I can accomplish priority tasks. These work blocks are only beneficial if you don’t continually move them or let others schedule meetings at the same time.

In that same vein, schedule meetings when it’s convenient for you. As PMs, we often schedule meetings when it’s most convenient for others, neglecting our own calendars. I’ve found myself squeezing a meeting in between others because it worked for team members, but that wasn’t helpful to me in the long run. It’s important to respect your time and take your schedule into account because it matters just as much as other people’s.

During one of the sessions at the DPM Summit, we were encouraged to look within and identify our “features” and “bugs.” Then we paired up with an accountability partner to ensure we’re taking steps to fix our defects. My defect is that I often work through lunch, so I’m taking steps to ensure that I step away from that habit and enjoy a nice meal and mental break. (Shoutout to GW for the lunchtime check-ins!)

Take Care of Yourself

Work-life balance is always shifting. What works one month might not the next. Seasons of life (like the birth of a baby or a big move) will impact that balance, as will evolving project priorities (like a compressed timeline or period of organizational growth). At a minimum, you should be addressing the basic survival stuff like getting enough sleep, drinking and eating well, etc. But, in your work life, there are ways to address your survival needs that aren’t so straightforward.

  1. Don’t leave your vacation days unused. Your vacation days don’t have to be used all at once on one elaborate weeks-long trip abroad. In fact, it’s likely a better use of your vacation days to spread them throughout the year. Even if you have nowhere to go, spending a Friday at home catching up on a new Netflix show (or more likely, re-watching The Office for the 37th time), will help you return to work refreshed and ready.
  2. Work in a positive environment. There’s a lot we can’t control about our work environment, but it’s important to take the time to connect with your colleagues. Buy a coffee for someone on your team and ask them about their upcoming weekend. Try to laugh through project problems and always make time to lend an ear. Enjoying the people you work with is, to me, as important as enjoying the work.


You can’t change everything all at once. It’s been said that your success rate of adopting a new habit grows smaller and smaller the more habits you try to build simultaneously. So, start small. What’s one thing you can do for yourself to help prevent (or tackle existing) burnout? I’ll go first.

At least one day each week, I will aim to eat lunch away from my desk. I will spend 20-30 minutes enjoying my food, without worrying about spilling sauce on my keyboard. The work will be there when I’m done.

Your turn. What will you make a priority? What’s one small thing you can change to avoid burnout? Let me know down in the comments. Also, let me know if you need an accountability buddy!

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