How to Work for a Boss Who Is Burned Out

*Burnout* seems to be the word of the year. For many organizations, the shift to virtual work, an onslaught of urgent changes, and the ominous shadow of an uncertain future have contributed to a workforce that is exhausted.

Much of what has been written about burnout is directed at managers. How to give employees praise, offer flex-time, keep morale high, etc.

But what happens when it’s your boss who is missing deadlines, raining on parades, and falling asleep during meetings?

Working for a burned-out boss can quickly lead to being burned out yourself. The mood of the leader has an outsized impact on the team. But all hope is not lost.

A burned-out boss is not unrecoverable, when managed well, it can actually lead to more opportunities for you to take initiative, develop your leadership skills, and lead without formal authority.

Here are four tips to help you deal with a burned-out boss:

1.    Clarify expectations. And then, do it again.

A tell-tale sign of burnout is forgetfulness. If you believe your boss is experiencing burnout, continue to revisit expectations.

This continued recalibration does a few things for you:

  • Outcomes will not be a surprise (because you’ve confirmed them many times)
  • If changes are made, you will know about them (vs someone forgetting to tell you)
  • If something goes wrong, you have a paper trail (of trying to do what was asked of you)

All of those things also benefit your burned-out boss, who may be struggling to remember plans, see things in context, or anticipate obstacles. Most workplace challenges are the result of unclear expectations.

2.    Take on some of the emotional labor

A core function of leadership is to manage the emotional center of the team. If a leader is off-center themselves (i.e. burned out) that task becomes almost impossible. You cannot pour from an empty cup.
If your boss is emotionally drained, you can step up to the plate by offering to kick off a meeting, welcome a new teammate, or reach out to another department.

Now, be forewarned, this is (most of the time) a thankless task, but it is of crucial importance. Being able to get a team in a good mood is a huge service to the entire organization. Managing the emotions helps people become engaged, think creatively, and work effectively as a team.

3.    Show them why the work matters
When someone is burned out, “work” becomes an overwhelming blur of the crowded inbox and endless to-do lists. We lose our tether to the point of it all. If your boss is experiencing burnout, you can help by showing them why your work matters.

Tell a story about how your company made a difference to a customer. It doesn’t have to be long or elaborate.  Just a true story about the impact of your work.  Help your boss see the meaning behind all of the things that are making them tired.

4.    Be realistic about the outcome

If your boss has faced deep tragedy over the last year, or if their burnout has been present for months, be realistic about how much change you can make (and how long it will take).

In the meantime, it will save your own sanity to seek out support from other avenues. Finding a mentor, connecting with your peers, even tying into online groups can help you feel supported when your boss might be falling short.

Working for a burned-out boss does not sentence you to 8 hours of low-energy zoom calls.
Taking on (some) of the expectation setting, emotional labor, and inspiration recalibrates you, your team, and maybe even your very tired boss.

P.S. When writing this article, I googled ‘Is it correct to say “I’m burnt out” or “I’m burned out”?
Here’s the answer (which I found slightly humorous and also depressing):
Both are correct and nearly synonymous.
“Burnt” suggests that the intensity has passed