Our team has been working hard on an extremely difficult project with an insanely short deadline. We aren't working 80-hour weeks, but the time we are working is stressful to say the least. Everyone is fatigued to some degree and one team member in particular is on the verge of cracking, saying his "heart's not in the project anymore" and his productivity and drive are dwindling rapidly. Unfortunately we can't get the job done without this person (who is definitely not a slacker or someone prone to this type of behavior) so if they or someone else finally breaks we may suffer a failure at a very critical moment. I've been doing my best to keep them (and myself) motivated, but there's only so much I can do before my own productivity begins to fade.

How can I help this one person specifically, and the team at large, to get through this rough time? There are very good things on the horizon if we succeed, but reminding everyone of that has lost its effectiveness in the face of such overwhelming stress.

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    You will get the project done faster if the entire team takes a full day off and then does not work any oevertime at all. Tired people take way longer to do tasks and make far more mistakes. This is all scientifically proven fact. If you want to meet that dealine, everyone should take the day off (since you are clerly into the exhaustion already), get some rest and then hit it fresh.
    – HLGEM
    Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 17:27
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    – HLGEM
    Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 17:27
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    It might be helpful if you could clarify whether you are a peer or a manager. Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 19:31
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    This sounds like a situation where the deadline has to slip. In many organizations people talk about deadlines like they are more important than the project itself and the well-being of everyone doing the work and that the sky will fall if the deadline slips. The sky might fall, but far more likely the worst thing that will happen is that upper management will have to explain to the stakeholders that some deliverables will be late-- big whoop it happens all the time.
    – teego1967
    Commented Jul 26, 2014 at 11:23
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    Treating the symptom vs. treating the cause is a useful distinction in the answers to this question. Commented Jul 27, 2014 at 15:15

7 Answers 7


Employees should not suffer from bad management, unrealistic deadlines or an understaffed environment.

Your team is probably suffering from this. Imagine if you had to build a pyramid and normally you're whipped 100 times a day but because the Pharaoh wants it to be ready very soon you have to spend twice the amount of time being bullied around and get whipped 200 times. Sooner or later the body collapses, in your case it's also the state of mind.

This person is the first one to burn-out, sooner than later the rest of the team will all burn out.

What to do about your burnt-out employee? Fix the work-environment he has to work in.

Decrease the hours

Decreasing the hours might increase performance. There comes a point when no further development will be done for the day (or the development that's made contains lots of bugs).

Having a fresh mind is way more important than overworking, and the employees are more likely to put effort into their work.

Offer free food

When overworking this much it can be helpful to provide lunch and dinner (if working exceed that time of the day), the employees may get the feeling that their overworking is appreciated.

Offer light-exercise during work hours

Hitting the gym, taking a run or a good walk is better than any pause you can take when it comes to clearing your mind. I exercise 2-5 times a week during work-time when the day is half-way through and I find that my productivity increases, a lot, afterwards.

Do something fun together

Throw parties or a gathering of some sort, preferably with some beverages and perhaps snacks and food of some sort. Bonding with the team, having fun and/or relaxing together might be a potential deal-breaker.


Your employee is not the problem, the work-environment is the problem. More will follow if the work-environment is not changed.

Best of luck.

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    It's a common statement (completely inaccurate on a literal sense, but pretty accurate on a conceptual level) "For every two hours you work your productivity drops 50%." The idea is your fist two hours are the most productive, by the time you creep up on 8 you're really running on fumes and as a dev you start doing more damage than benefit as fatigue sets in. You mention you're pushed really hard. Even if you aren't actually working 50 - 60 hours a day, if you're forcing yourself to do 60 hours of work in 40 it's effectively the same thing as far as mental fatigue. Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 16:19
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    I hope we're not counting the 2 wake-up hours at the beginning of the workday ;)
    – user17163
    Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 17:27
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    And address this to your boss or direct superior, urgently. It's good that you care about your colleagues, but it's not your responsibility.
    – user8036
    Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 18:02
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    so true .. "More will follow if the work-environment is not changed."
    – Atur
    Commented Jul 30, 2014 at 7:55
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    @RualStorge While this may be true often it definitely isn't in all cases. I for myself can definitely say that I need several hours of "warming up" and get really effective only after they have passed. Days spickled with lots of meetings (leaving only two hour intervals for my core work) are nearly completely lost days for me. See also the effect called "flow" which one can (and for some tasks must) reach. For most people that also isn't reachable in short periods of time.
    – Alfe
    Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 9:00

It seems that in every profession except software development people have got the message that working overtime will reduce your productivity. And not just the productivity per hour, but absolute productivity.

Of course the exact same thing happens in the software industry. Except that many managers, and unfortunately many employees, haven't got the message.

If your company needs to and wants to get the last bit of effort out of the teammate who is cracking first, then they need to take steps. Like reducing his workload as much as possible. Reducing his outside workload. Instead of him commuting to work, book him into a nice and quiet hotel two minutes from the office. Send someone to his home to fill out his tax returns if that needs doing, or fix his washing machine if it is broken down, because every hour he spends on that is an hour less that he can work. Hire people to take work away from him that someone else could do.

If the company isn't willing to do that, then his work isn't that important, so he should just take a few weeks off to recover. And it is kind of telling that you are asking this, being worried about your team mate, and not his boss.

  • If the company has money to throw at the problem, this is the best answer. Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 16:00
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    If the company has the money to help the employee out of the office... they probably should be hiring another person to split the work load in the first place. Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 16:22
  • The boss is a whole other issue, but believe me it's being dealt with. In the meantime we still have a project to deliver on. Unfortunately while the overall company that owns us has the money to do such things, they have no idea how to run a tech company to begin with so they don't care to be generous (part of the reason we're in this situation to begin with - the drive to be profitable and earn the freedom we need to run things our way).
    – thanby
    Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 16:33
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    @RualStorge, adding more developers to the project is not always the answer. As Fred Brooks so famously documented, adding more developers to a late project can easily make the project later.
    – alroc
    Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 17:27
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    FYI in the financial industry the idea is firmly entrenched that if you are working less than 50 hours a week, you're not working hard enough. It really is terrible. Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 18:49

Let's take your colleague at his word when he says his heart's not in the project anymore. That could definitely be because of the hours, but folks are often willing to work long hours for companies, projects, and people that they love. At least one of those things is no longer something that your colleague loves.

Perhaps the project is being managed poorly. Perhaps there are people on the team with whom he is having problems. Perhaps he is no longer interested in the company's vision.

Most of these things are beyond your control, though the wonderful folks here at Stack Exchange have provided some great advice on ways to address these. One thing that you can do is: If you like this guy, be a friend to him after work hours. Take him out for a drink and talk about something that does interest him. Chances are, if he's unhappy at work he'd love to talk about the kind of work that would make him happy-- and a conversation about that could, hopefully, turn into a conversation about things your current employer can do to make him happier there.

If something useful, something actionable, comes out of that conversation, then take it to your team lead and see if there's something that can be done. Your team needs him to help out in the short term, but if there's positive change in store for him afterward, that may provide sufficient motivation.

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    An excellent recommendation. I (being pretty good friends with him already) actually did that and found that he is in fact disillusioned with the company and his job, because they're not providing him the opportunities that were apparently promised him when he was hired, and he wants to switch to a job that will provide that. Here's the question: Now that I have this information, do I really approach the manager about it? It was after all told to me in confidence. I tried to convince him to do it himself but he's afraid it will get him fired (though I doubt that would happen).
    – thanby
    Commented Jul 28, 2014 at 11:49
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    @thanby, stay out of that. Meither management nor the emplyee will appreciate it if you bring up the issue of why he is unhappy. He is an adult. he can speak for himself if he wants to. It si his decision what to bring up not yours. You were told what you were told in confidence; it is best for your own reputation to keep those confidences.
    – HLGEM
    Commented Jul 28, 2014 at 13:02
  • @HLGEM great comment about taking a day off, you should submit it as an answer (if the burnout is bad, it may need to be a week, not a day, but the idea is really good).
    – bob
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 14:40

What can you do? Well that depends on your ability to control the project and the stress factors surrounding it. It's always going to be an uphill battle to affect someone else's productivity or "heart in a project" externally. There are factors to a person's morale that simply are beyond your (or anyone's really) control. Things to consider:

  1. What are the primary stress factors? Here are some of the most common ones:

    • Long Hours
    • Poor project requirements
    • Extreme expectations
    • Lack of faith in management
    • Lack of belief in success of the project
    • Changing targets, Differing contributions (is someone putting more into the project)
    • Boredom (face it, we all get bored with something after long enough
  2. How has this individual been expressing dissatisfaction? Is it very public, open and constant or are demonstrations private and only when asked?

  3. How is this person's current performance currently affecting those around him?

Once you identify why this person is unhappy you can begin to address it, even if all you can do is recognize it and sympathize. There is a lot you can't change. You obviously can't change targets or deadlines, those come from an external source. You also can't affect this individual's faith in management. The only thing you can do to help that is to address general concerns directly with management and let them know that their behaviors/choices are affecting the morale of the team itself.

Things you can directly control revolve around the hours and type of hours worked. You indicate your team is not working 80 hours but that the team is working "hard" hours. This individual is required for the project's success, but are there tasks not involved with the project that can be assigned to this individual during "slow" periods for him that might provide a break in the monotony of this particular project? Are there tasks in this project that this person would rather be doing?

Some of the simple things that you can affect directly with each team member revolve around how you treat them and how their work is received. It might be feasible for you to pick a week or a period of two weeks where on a day you decide to give one person a half day as a surprise. Do it often enough that everyone will know their half day is coming rather than "why does HE get a half day?", but do it infrequently enough that the project doesn't suffer and people don't come to expect it as a perk of their job.

Rotate each individual onto a non-project related task when the project can allow it just to give them something else to think about. One of the curses of long projects is that it's all you work on and all you think about. Give them some new thing to think or worry about. Nothing has really changed except their perspective.

Another small thing you can do possibly is rotate tasks as you can to get team members to try something new. Often we like to put our best people on tasks to make sure they get done fast and effectively, but sometimes people are looking for that opportunity to become better. If you have room, let the junior people take more senior tasks under direction/supervision from senior people. This will give the junior folks access to practical applications of new skills and senior people practice in leading/managing.

In the end, people want to feel valuable, and burnout is often a symptom of not feeling valuable. You can't mask this, but you can provide them a feeling of value by helping them grow themselves even if they feel what they're doing isn't growing the company.

  • IMHO if development is in a final stage (1-2 months remaining), rotating tasks will have the opposite effect. When the tasks are close to being completed it's best to focus on the most important things only and not burden important people with extra work. Introducing new material to learn would also make people burn out faster rather than bring more interest/fun into the job.
    – superM
    Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 16:05
  • @superM: As with all things it's about context. I'm not implying that you force them to learn new things they don't want to know, but in most career fields there is always something new that we as individuals want to learn. If an opportunity to learn those skills can be provided without hindering the project, it will be refreshing for the team member rather than distracting. I've used this technique in previous projects (software) to keep my team members from becoming bored with maintenance items and bug fixes. Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 16:11
  • This looks like a great answer content-wise but would be better if it were broken up into easy to parse sections or otherwise edited down a bit. I have a feeling this is a really good answer but it's a long read for busy Internet surfers (I skipped it the first time for this reason and honestly still haven't read it all). This isn't criticism btw, I'm just concerned that a good answer might not get the votes it deserves due to editing issues, and I'm trying to help. :)
    – bob
    Commented Jul 10, 2018 at 14:42

Adrenal fatigue and thyroid deficiency are the most common causes for burnout symptoms. Your colleague has probably a lower threshold than the rest, for medical reasons or whatever, but if you keep pushing or push harder you will all end up like that .. or worse.

Working overtime more than a month is just not healthy and nobody will recognize your efforts and even if they do it will hardly pay your medical bills when it ends in a heart attack or stroke.

Send your guy to a doc just to be sure and reduce your hours, everything else won't work in the long term. Take this from someone who's been there, done that and never will again.

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    Is adrenal fatigue something a doctor can treat, or is it just the thyroid issue? By the way, +1 for having a medically-grounded answer!
    – thanby
    Commented Jul 28, 2014 at 11:57
  • While they may or may not recognize your efforts, they'll likely fire you when your productivity drops because you are burned out. Even if your efforts are recognized, it is generally the manager that receives the best kudos, including getting promoted thanks to your killing yourself. Then when the new manager takes over all your previous effort is forgotten. Don't believe in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow like the OP apparently does, because it's just going to be a box of pyrite, if you are lucky. If you are a manager, then there just might be that pot-o-gold, not for developers.
    – Dunk
    Commented Jul 28, 2014 at 20:24
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    has probably a lower threshold than the rest -> The threshold is probably the same, given Average Joe. However, the buffer might be fuller than of his/her co-workers, because: Dad is just dying / Puts more energy into work / Has a 1 month old / Longer work travel / Has a real life / Does never slack / Has to handle more emails / Tasks are more complicated / Long time no holiday / 2nd crunch time in a row / Is introvert and ppl dishonor his/her quiet time / Is extrovert and ppl don't talk to him / whatever.
    – phresnel
    Commented Nov 3, 2015 at 16:46
  • @thanby adrenal fatigue is not an accepted medical term, and there is no definitive test for it. The idea of overwork lowering baseline stamina resonates with huge numbers of atheletes (physical overwork), those spending excessive time on mentally demanding tasks (mental overwork), or some combination of the two (such as having a serious illness but instead of resting, continuing to maintain normal mental workload). Many alternative practitioners will diagnose based on history, symptoms, and a series of cortisol tests, but even they don't agree on any treatment other than rest.
    – Lyrl
    Commented Jul 31, 2017 at 20:14

First of all, just make one thing clear, there's a big difference between burnout and unwillingness to sacrifice your private life for the sake of other people's wallets. You write you don't work 80 hours a week. It's almost a cynical way of diminishing the fact that you're working on extreme overhours. Everything over 45 hours a week are already the extreme overhours. In some countries, it's illegal. In Germany, the manager can face legal charges if the workers stay longer that 10 hours within 24 hours in the company.

Second thing to be clear, people are working to get money to fulfill their wishes after work. Working all the time makes absolute no sense, no matter how much money you get, because you have no time to fulfill your wishes, and therefore you don't need that money. Working for something you don't need makes no sense.

Third, your statement about "very good things on the horizon" is very worrying. In fact, in most cases, it's the alarm signal. Communistic propaganda was constantly saying about the "good things on the horizon" and the reality was the slave work of people living in poverty.

If your collegue is not wishing to work in overtime anymore, it's not a burnout, it's a healthy life-work balance and you everyone should do the same. However, he probably will have burnout, and you all are in such danger, if you'll continue doing what you are doing.

The last thing, you've described the situation yourself: "insanely short deadline". If the deadline is insane, the people who set such a deadline should take responsibility for it. If the project won't fail, they will get their bonuses and the signal to make the same in the future, and you will be left as the wrecks on the shore.


Do everything you can to proactively remove potential roadblocks, help the team to do what they need to do as efficiently as possible, and also track progress and completion - make it visible how much more is left, and what completion looks like (also make sure it does NOT change - if the management requests a change in the outcome, then you need to be very clear to them and re-set their expectations as far as any potential deadline)

As far as the specific individual, (and the team in general), ask them what particular aspects of it they are frustrated with (other than the time/effort required to meet the deadline) - perhaps they are being bombarded by e-mails or phone calls and constantly interrupted, or they need a day off to do X because it's on their mind, etc. - basically seek out any potential issues and solve them

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