Burnout – Leading when you are exhausted.

At a time when it feels as though the whole world is tired, leaders have an enormous responsibility of keeping themselves, and their teams, safe, motivated, and well.  Despite the vaccine shining a light at the end of the dark tunnel, the home stretch will be long and perhaps take a greater toll on levels of resilience.

There is little doubt that employee burnout has and will become even more prevalent during the pandemic.  The complexities of Covid have exacerbated competing demands and expectations on all of us. Finding the energy to support others when we are at our limit is tough.

When does burnout occur?

Burnout occurs when people do not have enough time to disconnect, rest and focus on other aspects of life to recharge.  It diminishes personal motivation along with the desire to learn and grow.  Instead of thriving, people focus their energy on survival.

Of course, a level of stress is inevitable in the workplace and in life.  But burnout takes stress to an unhealthy, extreme level.  It has lasting and detrimental impacts on both the individual and the organisation.

What is burnout?

The Mayo Clinic defines it as a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and value of your work.  Burnout is now officially recognised by the World Health Organisation and acknowledged that the responsibility for managing it has shifted from the individual to the organisation instead.

What contributes to burnout?

A recent Gallup survey of 7,500 employees found the top reasons for burnout are:

  1. Unmanageable workload
  2. Unfair treatment at work
  3. Lack of role clarity
  4. Lack of communication and support from their manager
  5. Unreasonable time pressure

How can we help prevent burnout in our team?

  1. Prioritise our own health.

Before we can help others manage their levels of stress, we must manage and prioritise our own health and wellbeing.  That means eating healthy, getting enough sleep and getting regular exercise. Taking care of ourselves is not indulgent, it is essential.

  1. Focus on workload and not the person.

Unreasonable workloads account for over a third of the root cause of burnout. Despite agile ways of working and technology platforms, leaders do not always have visibility of what their direct reports are working on or fully understand their overall workload.

The tendency is that we want to fix the person and often adopt the approach that the person must be at fault for being unable to cope. But this approach results in a blame culture and undermines trust and engagement.

Regular check-ins with employees to understand what they are working on and helping them if needs be to prioritise workload, can be insightful and help with support strategies.

  1. Cultivate balance and fairness.

It is often the strong performers within the organisation that are most at risk of burnout. These are often people who regularly go above and beyond, who volunteer to undertake additional work or who may be juggling a multitude of responsibilities both personally and professionally. As with workload above, ensure that your people are not over stretched and create opportunities for others to grow and develop.

  1. Identify and reduce the stressors.

Whilst leaders cannot eliminate all stress at work, they have a duty of care to identify and understand what contributes towards their people feeling stressed.  Once the stressors have been identified, leaders must implement helpful strategies to support their people.  It is also becoming more prevalent since the start of the pandemic, for organisations to capture stress and burnout in organisational risk registers.

  1. Set the example.

If you are serious about creating a culture of wellness, you have to be conscious of your behaviours first to set an example to others. If you are always ‘on’ and seldom take a break, the expectation you create, is that your people must always prioritise work. Encouraging people to take regular breaks, acknowledging when they may be feeling over-whelmed and refraining from sending emails late at night, will give them permission to rest and recover.

  1. Recognise and thank people.

When our energy levels are depleted and work demands are frantic, people start feeling that they are not good enough and motivation declines.  Recognising and noticing people for their personal contributions and steering away from only talking about ‘getting things done’ in conversations, will reduce anxiety and build a sense of community and support.

Burnout is preventable. But it requires compassionate leadership, good organisational hygiene and a focus on the health and wellbeing of our people.  Ultimately, it is about realising that when our people are happy, healthy and motivated, they are more likely to be productive and will take better care of the organisation and its customers.