How to Deal With a Burned Out Boss

You know the importance of managing your energy and priorities to stave off burnout. But what happens when your boss is the one who's struggling, and you're left feeling the pain of it? Modern Mentor shares her favorite tips for helping your boss see and manage their burnout.

Rachel Cooke
5-minute read
Episode #683
The Quick And Dirty

Helping your boss to see—and overcome—their own burnout comes down to these simple but effective best practices:

  1. Lead with empathy
  2. Check in with an ask
  3. Name the impact
  4. Offer to partner
Know how many Google search results there are for the phrase “manage burnout?” Over 39 million! It seems the struggle is still so real for so many. Luckily, there's no shortage of tips on how to manage your own burnout
But what if yours is feeling managed…and now it seems your boss may be the one who’s struggling? Like second-hand smoke, your boss’s burnout may still present risks to your own sense of wellbeing.
If you suspect your boss may be suffering from burnout (and you, in turn, are feeling the pain) then let’s talk about what you can do to turn things around—for both of you.

What boss burnout might look like

My friend Jay needed some advice last month. His team has developed a new product that they’ll be bringing to market shortly. Jay has cleared out a bunch of other priorities to ensure his team has all the time and space they need to make this product a win.
Things were going well until Jay’s boss Clara took a keen interest in the product. She’s been popping into meetings, micromanaging, showing uncontrolled anger when she doesn’t like an idea, and throwing to-dos onto people’s plates that aren’t aligned with the priorities Jay has set. “This behavior is so unlike the Clara I’ve known for nearly a decade! I have no idea what’s going on with her,” he shared.
I asked whether it was possible Clara had too much on her plate, and he laughed. “She can’t even find the plate under everything that’s on it,” he said.
I explained to Jay that what he (and his team) may be experiencing is Clara’s stress response—the side of us that can be triggered when faced with burnout.
“It’s time for you to have a chat with her,” I told him.
This can feel like an uncomfortable conversation to have. So we talked through some best practices sure to set him up for success.

How to address your boss’s burnout

Lead with empathy

If your boss is showing up in ways that are stressing you out, start by imagining what they must be carrying. Consider all their priorities, their stakeholders, their own need to impress and to get it all done. 
When I pressed Jay to consider Clara’s experience, I watched his face begin to soften. He was able to step—for a moment—out of his frustration to recognize that she’s working nearly non-stop, barely taking breaks, and sitting under loads of pressure. 
And by imagining all the responsibilities she’s shouldering, he was able to understand why her stress response may be emerging. This is one of the many dark sides of burnout.
Empathy does not excuse bad behavior—it simply allows you to understand it, and address it from a more supportive place. 
So begin with empathy before you gear up to have that conversation with your boss.

Check in with an ask

Jay scheduled a check-in with Clara. And armed with empathy, his goal wasn’t to attack Clara or make her feel bad about how she was showing up. He was prepared simply to test his hypothesis that she was indeed burned out.
Telling someone they’re burned out will likely put them on the defensive. It will feel like an attack, an accusation.
But beginning with empathy (“Clara, I’ve noticed how many projects you’re overseeing and how much stress that might be creating for you”) and then asking rather than telling (“I’m wondering how the workload is feeling for you—any chance you might be experiencing a bit of burnout?”) is likely to trigger an honest reflection.
Burnout is sometimes easier to recognize in others than it is to see our own experience of it. 
If you’re in a similar position to Jay, be bold, be kind, and put that idea out there.

Name the impact

Once the suggestion of burnout has been named, it’s essential to describe the impact it’s having on others.
In Jay’s case, we wanted Clara to feel cared for, but equally to recognize that Jay’s concern wasn’t just for her. It was for him and his team as well.
In an unaccusing way, Jay needed to help Clara see the cause-and-effect of her potential burnout. Jay needed a lot from his team in this moment—their energy, their willingness to experiment, their enthusiasm for the new product. And Clara’s presence was hindering these outcomes. So, he gently explained.
Here are some of the key points he prepared before heading into their conversation.
  • He needed his team’s enthusiasm to infect customers with the same. But Clara’s micromanaging was creating anxiety which was tempering their enthusiasm.
  • His team’s spirit of experimentation was being hampered by Clara’s quickness to anger. Their fear of her temper was pushing them to make only safe (boring) choices—not the bold ones he needed.
  • He was striving to empower his team to make decisions. But Clara’s micromanagement was encouraging them to “check” every decision with him—which was exhausting and inefficient.
By laying out his points this way, Clara was able to focus on the business impacts at stake. And this ultimately invited Clara to solve a business problem, not a personal one.

Offer to partner

By this point, you’ve helped your boss (a) recognize their potential burnout and (b) understand its implications on you and the business. You’ve already delivered value.
But if you want to go the extra mile (and if you’re listening to this, I think you do), why not offer to be part of the solution?
If your boss is open to a little bit of help, here are some ways you might be of service:
  • Offer to be an extra set of eyes on the full list of their priorities—maybe you can help them cross a few items off or postpone something for a month.
  • Spot a piece of work on their list that you have the capacity and skill to take on, and offer to do so.
  • Share a few of your favorite rest-and-recharge strategies - maybe your boss needs a reminder of the importance of taking quick breaks throughout the day.
  • Ask if there’s anything you can do differently to help minimize their stress or anxiety. Would a brief, daily update email from you offer assurances that all is on track? 
I hope these strategies have resonated with you. Feeling inspired to go check in with your stressed-out boss? Don’t forget to let me know how it goes! 

About the Author

Rachel Cooke

Rachel Cooke is a leadership and workplace expert who holds her M.A. in Organizational Psychology from Columbia University. Founder of Lead Above Noise, she has been named a top 100 Leadership Speaker by Inc. Magazine and has been featured in Fast Company, The Huffington Post, and many more.