Careers expert Zena Everett is an executive coach, author and an in-demand speaker on career management and productivity. Here she talks about how to spot and stop burnout in your teams – and yourself.
Don’t wait for a sickness note or resignation for proof of burnout in your teams. Here’s some warning signs to look out for and some prevention strategies.
Burnout is defined as a ‘state of vital exhaustion’. How do you know if you are genuinely exhausted with work rather than depressed? A depressed person will take their black dog with them wherever they go. Burnout, on the other hand, is confined to work. Get away from your desk (and your boss) and up a mountain, on a beach, or wherever you go to decompress, and your energy and mood will be restored.
To state the obvious, people should NOT burn out, take a break, return to work and repeat the pattern (although I know some who do). That’s bonkers from any angle: career, psychological, physical or family.
Your job as a manager is to ensure that your team members are happy, engaged and productive (all three feed into the other). Burned-out colleagues are none of these. What are the warning behaviours? Here’s two canaries in the coalmine I look for when coaching:
Burnout Sign #1: Reduced productivity.
Your high performing, perfectionist, people-pleasing, nothing-is-ever-good-enough-for-me, piece of expensive Talent ceases to deliver. They work even longer hours but the standard of their tasks tails off. Talk to them about it. Say that you have noticed the changes and ask what they think is going on. It could be that they are just bored and need more responsibilities. Or they could be overwhelmed by their workload and their own relentless drive to excel. Those are predictors of burnout. Coach them to manage the demands of their role and the pressure they put on themselves.
Burnout Sign #2: Cynicism.
This varies from an increasingly apathetic approach to the job, when people fall prey to office and digital distractions, to downright pessimism about the impact of their work. You’ll hear previously positive people make snidey comments about the customers, other team members, other departments, or senior management. ‘What’s the point anyway, nothing changes around here,’ ‘I don’t mind teaching, it’s just the parents and the children that spoil it’, ‘not him again, what does he want this time?’ etc. It’s sort of funny in the moment, but it’s not actually. Negativity and disengagement will drive more motivated team members away. It’s certainly not enabling a collaborative culture that screams service, success and energy.
What can you do to prevent burnout happening and restore resilience? Step up to the plate and actively help your people to do their best work in a healthier way.
Restore the boundaries.
Employees are happiest and most motivated when they make daily, incremental progress towards their goals.* That’s all it takes! Allow them to get their meaningful work done – with clear role descriptions, targets, performance metrics, deadlines, training and all the resources they need.
Then get out of their way.
When I meet stressed-out people they are often overloaded with pointless projects, routine administration, complicated reporting systems, badly-thought out management initiatives and lengthy meeting schedules. All of these are obstacles to real work. Be brave. Re-evaluate the output you expect from people and clarify how they can achieve it. Then cut out everything else that takes up their time. They’ll thank you for asking some hard questions and challenging fatty work cultures that inhibit productivity. ‘Why are we doing this? Is there a better, more efficient way of achieving the same result?’
Walk the talk.
You are a role model for high and healthy performance. If you are rushing from one meeting to another, snapping at people, over-promising and under-delivering and working stupid hours, then you’ve no time to step back, listen, think strategically and nip problems in the bud before they escalate.
Delegate, manage upwards, push back, re-negotiate and say No.
All of these are crucial yet basic leadership skills. Don’t send out of hours emails (save them in your draft folder or use the timed sending facility if you really must write them), or finesse tasks that don’t need finessing (that power-point deck is just fine). I hear of so many managers who CREATE stress.
- Get proper training on the granular details of managing work-flow.
- Only hold meetings that are absolutely necessary, keep to an agenda and don’t let anyone waffle.
- Be on time.
- Look like you can cope with more responsibility, not that you are about to combust.
Disconnect and build real connections.
No one can be ON all the time. Do less but think more: you’ll be more valuable that way. You rarely get your best ideas in the office.
- Encourage your people to take their holidays.
- Exercise. Breathe.
- Find a hobby or a challenge outside work that nourishes you.
- Take a real lunch break and eat with your team.
- Talk, don’t email.
Someone said at one of my recent Crazy Busy™ sessions that the only creative thing their Creative Director did was create email chains.
Reward results, not presenteeism.
Flexible working is a no-brainer. Trust people with the freedom to do their work in the most appropriate place and don’t be petty about checking up on them. There is no correlation between long hours cultures and productivity, quite the opposite. A sense of control over where and how we do our best work is a crucial aspect to motivation.
Build co-worker support systems.
Eating together, talking about how to improve processes, doing pre- and post-mortems, building in planning time, asking for support and advice. I’m not sure that hackneyed team-bonding initiatives like away days are as effective as regular, shorter team pow-wows when you can really communicate, allow everyone’s voice to be heard and get solutions from the people at the front line. Problems don’t get solved by paint-balling.
*Conclusion of a reassuring three-year study by Teresa Amabile of Harvard Business School on how to create forward momentum with clear goals, autonomy and a genuinely respectful culture. It confirms what your management instincts have been trying to tell you: HR interventions that work are lean, honest and relatively obvious. Read her book with Steven Kramer, The Progress Principle: Using small wins to ignite job, engagement and creativity at work.
I hope that’s helpful and I’d love your feedback and experiences. As ever, please feel free to share with anyone you think would benefit.
Pick up the phone if I can help build resilience and coping strategies with my executive coaching or if you need a lively, practical speaker on career management or productivity topics at your next conference.
Phone: +44 20 3287 9505 | Mobile: +44 (0) 7968 424650
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Here’s my short animation on how to stop our brains getting so frazzled
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