Managing team burnout: before it’s too late

special report on burnout and stress from the APA discussed how American workers across the board saw heightened rates of burnout from 2020 to 2021. Based on their findings, 79% of employees experienced work-related stress in the month before the survey, and 3 in 5 employees felt the negative impacts of work-related stress, such as low interest, motivation, and energy.

The definition of burnout by LHH emphasizes that this condition happens when people are physically, mentally, and emotionally stressed over a prolonged period. True burnout often stems from factors such as feeling a lack of control, unclear job expectations, lack of autonomy and consistency on the job, or a mismatch of values. Although many people really enjoy their work, burnout can signal there are issues that need to be addressed. Something has to change so work becomes more satisfying and manageable.

Unfortunately, there is a chance that burnout can spread from one employee to the rest of the team. Widespread burnout can cause employees to be unproductive and unfulfilled in their roles. Here are three ways to be proactive in managing team burnout:

Address the problem at the source

Outwardly, we’ll see burnout as reduced productivity and uncharacteristic mistakes — but often there is an underlying cause to the problem. Emotional roots of burnout include cynicism, disillusionment, and feelings of unappreciation or not-belonging. Some organizations may fall prey to burnout due to heavy workloads, interpersonal frictions, or even unfair treatment. It could also be external factors like family or financial stress. To dispel negativity, managers should demonstrate they take any issue seriously.

In our article on ‘How to Resolve Team Conflict’, we advised managers to free up mental bandwidth so they can observe their team. By staying aware of their wellbeing, performance, and engagement, it’s easier to nip problems early on. Managers should apply emotional intelligence and avoid making assumptions. Invite team members to have one-on-one conversations and create an open environment so they can talk about what’s going on. Ask questions, but don’t push them if they’re not ready, and do let them know you’re always available when they need you.

Set a good example for mental health

According to research on NCBI titled the ‘Predictors of managers’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic’, managers tasked with making decisions and leading others are at a high risk for mental health issues. This is because they are under pressure to perform or handle illegitimate tasks related to the pandemic. It’s hard to help others with burnout when you’re not doing so well either, so it’s critical to take care of yourself too.

Self-care is not only an act of self-preservation, but also a form of behavior modeling for your team. After all, if you’re submitting to a culture of overwork in your organization, what kind of message does that send? Set a good example by filing for paid time-off and disconnecting from work on evenings and weekends, so your own team won’t feel guilty doing the same. You can even commit to self-care as a group by going on daily breaks together or eating lunch away from your desks.

Support your team through their concerns

Burnout is tough to overcome. It’s important to acknowledge that this can happen to anyone, and your employees are not to blame for their situation. We’re all imperfect, but we’re striving to do our best with the resources we have. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to convey this to other people. Insights on compassion by Penn State found that, when given the option, people often choose to avoid feeling compassion for others as it is mentally taxing.

If this is the case for you, you can start small by simply listening to your employees. Checking in with how they feel gives you options for supporting them. Should you move them between roles, or shuffle tasks around? Do they need more feedback or clarity with work priorities? It may be necessary to advocate for your team and ask your boss for a reprieve, especially if they wish to prevent diminishing returns.

Although it’s challenging to beat burnout, helping each other through it can make you a better manager for a stronger team.