How to Avoid Project Burnout
“Death march projects are the norm, not the exception.”

When Edward Yourdon made that statement in his book, Death March, many assumed it was a problem only present in the software industry. But since then, every industry seems to have adapted a similar mindset by embarking on only the most stressful projects.

Project ScramblingFrom construction to healthcare, more and more projects seem to be undertaken with the “death march” project philosophy.

Organisations are trying to keep up with their competition by launching projects with unrealistic goals and schedules. This results in project teams working overtime to meet these goals, many times with insufficient resources. This constant scramble can only lead to one conclusion; and it's rarely a well-executed project.

Most of these projects come to a crashing halt, the result of complete team and project burnout. In this burnout phase, productivity declines, the rate of absenteeism increases, teams struggle to accomplish assigned tasks leading to the team being unable to meet deadlines.

Even those who consider themselves highly effective and experienced project managers sometimes find that factors beyond their control can affect a project and lead to burnout for the entire team. What makes project burnouts so dangerous is how oblivious many managers are to it, who just don't seem to see it for what it is, often dismissing it as stress.

Unfortunately, this attitude can have serious consequences and result in severe cost repercussions for the organisation. The following are some signs of burnout that your team members may be exhibiting. Do any of them seem familiar?
  • Change in behaviour; team members may seem more contentious, argumentative etc.
  • Increasingly poor relations with other members of the team.
  • Marked decrease in productivity.
  • Change in attitude towards their job, marked by anger, irritability or indifference.

With team members exhibiting one or more of these, it's only a matter of time before the projects they are working on come to a screeching halt. While not every project burnout is triggered by death march projects, it's vital that the symptoms are spotted on time and acted on quickly to stop a complete breakdown. To help you prevent project burnouts, here are five tips you can implement today:

1) Break down the project into smaller sections

Whether it's writing code for a new app or designing a new healthcare service, all projects can feel overwhelming at first. The project seems to move at a snail's pace, especially on complex projects that have many moving parts. Regardless of how much work is done, it almost seems like nothing ever gets accomplished.

To counter the feeling of apathy that this can lead to, break down all projects into sections. With the workload broken into smaller chunks, it allows your team to stay motivated as they complete each section. One tool that helps project managers do this is the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). It is used for understanding project scope and helps you de-construct a team's work into manageable sections.

Break Down Tasks

2) Use agreed upon checkpoints

We've seen how breaking up the deliverables into smaller portions will help the team build confidence, but when does the project end? What does “finished” look like on your project? Every project is different, therefore it's important that you (and the team) know what the finished product looks like for each one.

One way to avoid the curse of the “seemingly endless” project is to set up checkpoints or milestones along your project plan. By scheduling these checkpoints in, the team will be able to realise the impact of their accomplishments in the project. These checkpoints can also be used as a point where the team can take a moment to breathe. These mini-breaks will help them reduce the risk of a burnout due to stress.

3) Learn to say "no"

Depending on the structure of the organisation, you may find that members of your team are also on other project teams within the organisation. While this shows that they are a skilled group, it's also the fastest way to a project burnout.

As a project lead, you should adopt the practice of turning down any additional tasks while you still have your plate full. Yes, you don't want to come across as shirking duties or turning down responsibilities, but have you considered the consequences and the impact of the extra workload on your staff?

The more tasks you take on, the thinner you spread your team, and the more you overburden them. Telling people a polite but firm "no" may ruffle some feathers at first, but you’ll gain their respect as you successfully complete the projects you've already started.

4) Stop hovering and take a step back

Have you ever thought that you may be the cause of stress? As the manager, it's your job to manage the project to completion within the constraints of time, scope and cost. But this cannot happen if you insist on micromanaging your team.

To avoid micromanaging and triggering burnout, learn to trust your staff and delegate work to them. Yes, you may worry that the work may not get done to your standards, but if you delegate effectively, all the tasks will get done and stress will be reduced among team members.

Effective delegation

5) Emphasise the results, not the hours worked

Does every member of your project team really need to be present at every meeting? Or are you just having them show up to impress the client? Remember that all the client wants to see is the finished result and not the amount of times your team were seen in the office.

To help your employees work more efficiently (and complete projects on time), consider the following:
  • If it will improve their productivity, implement flexible working hours for your team. You can also consider alternatives like using off-site, self-managed work teams.
  • Invest in quality equipment and training that allows the team work smarter instead of harder, thus increasing their efficiency.
  • Allow your staff to have some downtime by not scheduling any work for most weekends.

Anything you can do to help your employees better manage their workload will help them deliver more focused performance and prevent burnout.

Conclusion

The best way to fix a project burnout is to avoid it in the first place. Unfortunately, however, this is easier said than done.

Therefore it's important that more project managers understand and are aware of the effect that burnout can have on their team, their projects and the organisation itself. By being able to spot the signs of burnout, eliminating its causes and taking measures to prevent it, project managers can maintain an efficient team that continues to perform well.



What has been your experience with stress in the workplace? Has it affected any projects you were on?