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It’s hard to tell yourself you’re burned out, and need to change your routines. It’s even harder to tell your boss.

You are, after all, admitting you are not up to scratch. You are announcing that your boss has a problem – a task we usually like to avoid – and that problem is you.

But, executive coach Ron Carucci says it’s important to overcome your fears and any denial about admitting burnout. “Your boss is in a unique position to help, and as uncomfortable as it might feel given the disproportionate influence they have over your work life, it’s critical that you tell them,” he writes in Harvard Business Review.

A first step will be to transcend your resistance to seeking help from anyone. Most professionals don’t want to admit they need help. Usually they see themselves as providing help to others. Asking for help may make you feel inadequate, weak or incapable.

If you’ve trained your boss to expect Herculean miracles from you, that may make you even more hesitant to admit you’re struggling. But Mr. Carucci argues you should trust that you’ve built up enough credibility to ask for help. “It’s more likely that they’ll respect the acknowledgment of your limitations rather than think less of you,” he says.

When you approach your boss it can be helpful to begin by acknowledging this is hard for you: “You know I wouldn’t bring this up if I didn’t feel it was important,” or, “I’m not used to asking for help, so this is difficult for me.” That can help set the stage for a productive conversation by helping your boss feel more empathy.

Be specific about the symptoms you’re experiencing. Generalizations like, “I’m just really stressed,” aren’t helpful. It’s more meaningful to say: “I’m feeling anxious about meeting all of these deadlines even though they’ve never bothered me before.” Or: “I’m feeling overwhelmed by the volume of projects on my plate.”

Try to indicate how things have changed from the past.

Take responsibility for your effect on others, such as the quality or timeliness of your work suffering or your demeanour becoming less than ideal. Prepare in advance to say something like, “I know I haven’t been myself lately, and I’m sorry if that’s had any negative impact on you or the team.”

At the same time, the coach emphasizes not apologizing for being burned out, but instead taking responsibility for letting its effects spill over onto your work or team.

Appeal to the boss but don’t vent or blame. “If your boss has been asking you for more work than usual, they might already feel guilty or defensive, and your heightened emotions will only inflame those feelings,” he warns. If you need time off, more flexible work arrangements or additional resources to meet increased demands, be specific and gracious in asking. “Being overly insistent may come across as entitlement,” he notes.

As you recover, or while monitoring the situation before going to the boss, keep these five tips in mind for overcoming mental exhaustion, from Alice Boyes, a former clinical psychologist turned author, in Psychology Today:

  • Spot small opportunities to rest your mind.
  • Reduce excess sensory input, or put yourself in a situation with primarily one sensory input, such as a massage.
  • Give yourself permission to relax.
  • Stop being unrealistic about how much you can get done.
  • Prioritize the types of work that are an investment, such as figuring out ways to be more productive.

One thing not to do, from leadership coach Dan Rockwell: Don’t tell yourself to relax. That only stirs up more negative emotion.

Quick hits

  • “Tell me something good.” That’s a standard opener for Kristin Hendrix, vice-president and head of research at Instagram, instead of asking, “How are you doing?”
  • Charlene Li, chief research officer at PA Consulting, recommends this three step gratitude practice: Write down something you’re grateful for, someone you’re grateful for, and, most importantly, something about yourself you are grateful for.
  • To understand buyers better, get them to tell you stories, advises consultant Paul Smith. Ask for a personal story, a story about their biggest problem, or a story about how their favourite supplier achieved that status so you can follow suit.
  • We are swayed by complexity when simplicity is the real mark of intelligence and understanding, notes Morgan Housel, a partner at Collaborative Fund venture capitalists.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and CanCom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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