16 Ways Event Planners Can Avoid Burnout

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There’s no magic cure for burnout. The best way to deal with burnout is to know how to identify it and intervene quickly. These tips can help you help yourself or help others.

Staff cuts, tight budgets, unreasonable stakeholders, travel industry upheavals, supplier unreliability, RFPs 30 pages long—no wonder event planners are feeling burnt out, and that’s not even factoring in the two+ years of chaos that Covid has wrought. “It’s always been a stressful job, even in the best of circumstances,” said Joan Eisenstodt, principal at Eisenstodt Associates LLC, who’s been organizing meetings and mentoring planners for decades. “But in this environment, with so many uncertainties, the cumulative stress is really taking its toll.”

In a PCMA poll of 399 planners and 181 suppliers, roughly one-third of both groups said they were anxious or burned out. The biggest trigger is a skewed work/life balance that may include long hours, lots of travel, a bigger workload because of staff cutbacks, and for many, a jarring transition to working from home that creates a blur between work and personal time.

The symptoms of burnout are unmistakable. Some are physical: chronic exhaustion, problems with sleep (too much or too little), panic attacks, and anxiety. Some are behavioral: irritability, cynicism, and apathy. Then there are cognitive symptoms; difficulty concentrating, inefficiency, and forgetfulness. Some people try desperately to hide their symptoms, ashamed that they can’t muscle through it. Some find it hard to admit they’re having trouble. Most are reluctant to ask for help, worried they’d be perceived as weak or unprofessional. Nearly all are victims of their own perfectionism.

Burnout can be so severe that it can affect job performance (never mind job satisfaction), disrupt personal relationships, and lead to more serious behavioral issues like depression and substance abuse.

What is the best cure? Prevention

There’s no magic cure for burnout. “It’s not a disease, even though the diagnosis is clear,” said industrial psychologist George Schofield, Ph.D. Sometimes it’s because of a mismatch between job demands and resources, he said, but it can also be about skewed emphasis—too much importance placed on work and not enough on personal relationships, your life’s meaning and purpose, and whatever brings you joy.

The best way to deal with burnout is to know how to identify it and intervene quickly, said Rebecca Schwartz, Ph.D. Schwartz, Associate Professor and Chief, Social Behavioral Sciences Department of Occupational Medicine, Epidemiology and Prevention at Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra-Northwell.

Schwartz is rolling out a resiliency-based Stress First Aid program, which applies to any occupational cohort. “We’re not training people to be mini-psychologists; we’re training them on how to recognize stress and how to know what to do to get someone the help that they need.”  

Here’s what Schwartz and other experts recommend:

  1. Learn to recognize stress. Stress manifests itself in various forms but recognizing when behaviors change because of stress is the first lesson.
  2. Learn how to respond to stress. It’s important to know what to do and what not to do when you realize someone is experiencing high stress levels.
  3. Know what tools you have available. Look out for resources that may be available either inside or outside of your work setting. Mental well-being is gaining more recognition within companies and in HR, so there may be more than you think.
  4. Do regular colleague check-ins. “We use a color-coded Stress Continuum to check in on staff,” said Northwell’s Schwartz. “Green—I’m feeling good, and can support others. Yellow—mild to moderate stress but coping. Orange—I’m feeling significant stress and need some support. Red—stress is so high that it’s preventing me from functioning, and I need to get some care. The colors create a common language that takes away a little of that stigma that comes from admitting directly how we’re feeling.” 
  5. Take advantage of any workplace health and wellness programs, which are often a combination of exercise, yoga, and personal health coaching. Some people find meditation helpful, and regular massages can be potent stress relievers. The idea is to oscillate between stress and recovery throughout the day.
  6. Schedule a daily pause. Schwartz recommends taking 5 minutes, sitting down with a group or on your own, and doing a mindfulness exercise. Consider incorporating this into your work schedule or taking a team break when acute situations occur.
  7. Take frequent breaks. It’s good for your body to get up from your desk, even if it’s only five minutes every hour. A walk during the workday also can help with problem-solving. Some people swear by “walking meetings,” when small groups take a stroll rather than sit around a conference table to discuss ideas and issues.
  8. Take vacations. Many companies are now making time off mandatory. Some planners do so by tacking a day or two onto a business trip to unwind after an event instead of rushing back home (or to the office). “Rest and renewal are inherent parts of performance, not just staying frantically busy. That’s especially important when you’re short-staffed and you’ve taken on more responsibility without the ability to delegate,” said Schofield. 
  9. Unplug. As tempting as it is to check work emails in the evening, give yourself a window when you aren’t thinking about your to-do list or the mountains of items facing you in the morning.
  10. Take care of your body. Exercise regularly, even if it’s only a 20-minute walk every day. And follow common-sense health advice: Eat well, drink in moderation and get enough sleep.
  11. Make your outside interests a priority. Focusing on whatever brings you pleasure, whether it’s a book club or a weekly pickleball game, or a hobby, to give yourself a break from thinking about work. 
  12. Keep organized. Use to-do lists and productivity tools to quantify what needs doing and avoid getting blindsided with surprise tasks you don’t have time or energy to complete.
  13. Reach out to colleagues. A sympathetic ear can ease stress, especially from someone who’s been in your shoes. And a network of experienced colleagues may be able to help with whatever is vexing.
  14. Stop being a martyr, and ask for help if you need it. Reach out to superiors to let them know you’re struggling with your workload before you are completely overwhelmed.
  15. Build your skills. It may seem counterintuitive to add more work when your workload is daunting, but feeling stuck in a job is one of the top five stressors at work, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. (The other four are low pay, lack of opportunity for advancement or growth, unrealistic job expectations, and long hours.) Learning new skills is a way to focus on yourself, delight in the mastery of new things, build confidence and keep up to speed with new technologies. 
  16. Spread your understanding of burnout and its effects. The PCMA survey found that four in ten planners have added workplace mental health and work/life balance content into their programs. Planners also have added more networking opportunities, chosen healthier F&B options, and incorporated more physical activity options.

Photo credit: Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash