Recognizing and Avoiding Project Team Burnout

“Death march projects are the norm, not the exception,” says Edward Yourdon, the author of the Death March, a book about surviving highly stressful, irrational projects in the software industry. Many organizations promote “death march” projects – those with unrealistic goals and schedules – to keep up with the competition in their respective industries. As a result, project teams work overtime to meet unrealistic goals and schedules, sometimes with insufficient resources, only to reach the burnout phase. The productivity declines, the absenteeism rate increases, and the team is unable to meet requirements. A burnout team means that the employees’ job satisfaction diminishes and that they cannot perform their tasks and meet deadlines. The consequence is a failed current project and a high probability of failure of the next project.

Recognizing team burnout and taking steps toward avoiding it are essential for avoiding cost repercussions for the organization.

“Burnout can be defined as feelings of exhaustion, a cynical attitude toward the job and people involved in the job and through a reduced personal accomplishment or work efficiency,” according to a dieBerater report.

Many things can trigger team burnout besides death march projects. These include poor project planning (cost, time, and resources), customer changes, micromanagement, high workload, time pressures, insufficient project manager support, as well as insufficient training and decision-making opportunities.

Exhausted teams tend to focus on achieving the results by working harder rather than smarter. The team members fail to use creativity to develop efficient solutions, so they become frustrated, communicate less, and work inefficiently.

People and teams can take months or years to recover from burnout, if they recover at all. To avoid team burnout, the project manager can implement several measures, besides properly planning the project and ensuring realistic deliverables and schedules. These measures include:

  • Limiting or eliminating overtime. If the organization allows for an unlimited number of paid overtime, the employees can be motivated to work more hours to earn more in the detriment of their productivity. If the organization does not offer paid overtime, the project manager should limit or eliminate after-hours work.
  • Emphasizing the results, not the hours worked. Allowing for flexible working hours can help.
  • Breaking up the deliverables in smaller bits to help the team build confidence.
  • Investing in quality equipment and training so that the team can confidently use the latest techniques in their field. This means they work smarter, rather than harder, to achieve the requirements, which increases efficiency.
  • Addressing issues in real time to prevent low team morale.
  • Promoting team communication and collaboration to ensure problems are addressed as they arise.

The best way to fix team burnout is to avoid it. To do this, project managers should be aware of the seriousness of team burnout and its effects on the people, the project, and the organization. Taking measures to prevent team burnout, or eliminating its causes immediately after recognizing its symptoms, helps project managers get an efficient team that continues to perform well.

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  1. [...] stakeholders. Also, a project completed on time and within budget can be a failure if it leads to team burnout, for example. It is clear that more than just balancing the iron triangle contributes to a [...]