In my last article, I explored the ways that we all contribute to our own burnout experience as individuals. This time, I’d like to shift the focus onto the second major player in the burnout arena: organizations.
When you look at some of the most common root causes of burnout: workload, lack of recognition, unfair treatment, poor relationships, values mismatch, it is clear that organizations have a role to play in combating burnout1,2,3. But organizations don’t make decisions or create policies, leaders do. The culture of every organization is made up of the beliefs and behaviours of everyone working in it. As leaders of people and organizations, you have the opportunities and accountabilities to create a work culture where everyone can thrive.
Now, if you’re reading this, I assume that you are a leader who cares about the people you work with. Most leaders do not intentionally create a work environment that causes burnout. However, many leaders fail to recognize how they lead and work can impact their team’s well-being. If you’re observing some burnout symptoms amongst your team but you’re not sure what to do about it, here are 5 ideas for you to consider:
Model the Way
This is hands down the most important thing you can do as a leader to help combat burnout in your workplace. Every single leader I talk to struggles with this. They work 10-12 hours a day, often with little to no break in between. They make themselves available via instant messaging, text, or phone, whenever their team, colleague, or supervisors need them, often way beyond the official working hours. They try their best to not let anyone down or miss a deadline. They work and live as shiny models of commitment, accountability, and productivity. And they wonder why their team is burning out.
They don’t realize that their team is killing themselves to keep up with them and their pace of work. They can’t see that they’re sending a subtle yet crystal clear message that overworking is what it takes to get promoted and lead in the organization. They don’t understand that their team can see how much they’re doing as a leader; so their team works harder to give back as much, if not more than what they receive from their leader. Do you see how this vicious cycle of overworking keeps going simply because we care about each other?
So, take a break, stop responding to emails outside office hours, and let your team know that it’s okay for them to stop working as well. The ripple effect starts with you.
Create a safe space & check in frequently
It is important that you create a safe space where your team feels comfortable sharing how they truly feel. Having regular one-on-one meetings is a great way to do this. Start your one-on-ones with a check in on the person first, then shift to the work once you’ve made sure their personhood is attended to. Since “how are you?” is such a ubiquitous greeting, we rarely get an honest answer. I recommend that you ask again, “but truly, I want to know, how are you really doing today?” When you do that, you let the other person know that you care and that it’s okay to go into more sensitive topics.
Keep in mind that a strong rapport and trust must be built first before your team feels comfortable sharing. When appropriate, be open and vulnerable about what’s going on for you. Perhaps you can share that you’re feeling a bit worn out yourself and therefore you’re thinking about taking this Friday off to rest. Or maybe you can say that you are worried about how much you have going on as a team and you’re worried about the impact that has on the team’s well-being. Your team is always watching and listening to gauge how you feel about different issues. It’s much easier and safer for them to open up once they know that you’re likely on the same page.
Clarity priorities and expectations
When leaders observe symptoms of chronic stress and burnout amongst their team, many decide to take on some of their team’s workload. They mistakenly believe that by taking on the extra work, they’ll give their team the much-needed breathing room. But this does not truly address the issue, they’re just moving the workload and its associated stress around like a hot potato. Besides, even if your team recovers, their anxiety and stress will hit them again the moment they anticipate that workload is coming back. I’ve witnessed many clients who felt better after taking some time off work yet experienced full-on burnout symptoms again the week before they’re due back at work.
Since workload is a common root cause of burnout, it is important that you actually address the workload to make it feel manageable for the team. Have a discussion with your team so you understand what’s doable, what’s urgent, and the implications of pushing certain items back from their perspective. Then make some decisions about what should be pushed back and what cannot be dropped. This likely involves some advocacy with your senior leaders to make sure they understand and support your approach. If you do not get the support and understanding you need from your senior leaders, we need to have a conversation. Chances are you have a misalignment that needs to be addressed.
Recognition and appreciation
Another common reason for burnout is that people do not feel recognized and appreciated for what they do. When we put in a lot of effort and we do not get any feedback, whether they’re negative or positive, we start to wonder why. Is it because we’re not doing a good job? Is it because the work that we do doesn't matter that much? Does anybody even notice what we do?
People who do not get the recognition and appreciation they need start to believe that they’re terrible at their job and that their work has no meaning anymore. This in turn causes them to lose motivation at work, making their beliefs self-fulfilling prophecies.
What I find is that when leaders are overworking just to keep afloat, recognition and appreciation efforts often take the backseat. My advice is that you slow down and prioritize giving your team the recognition and appreciation that they deserve. Make sure you get to know their language of appreciation first so you can show it in ways that truly resonate with them.
Many years ago, I had a supervisor that wasn't the right fit for me. At first, I thought it was our different communication styles, or perhaps our different approaches to the work. So I read up on their MBTI type and spent time thinking about how I would frame every conversation. After 3 years of trying, I quit, completely burnt out and full of anger and resentment about how things unfolded.
What I’ve learnt since then was that there was a major misalignment in values between that supervisor and me. I now know that I could overcome differences in personalities, opinions, and communications styles, but not differences in values. Values are beliefs that are core to our identity. They are strongly tied to what we consider right or wrong. They guide our actions and influence our perspectives. Our opinions and preferences may change throughout our life, but rarely do our values.
I often compare working with a misalignment in values to swimming against the current. Unless you’re a salmon, it’s a really demoralizing place to be. You work extra hard yet have little to show for it. Every conversation needs to be calculated. Everything you say seems to be misunderstood. You don’t feel seen and heard. After a while, you start to wonder if perhaps you’re the problem.
If you’re dealing with misalignment, I strongly recommend you engage a coach. You need some support to regain your self-confidence and get some clarity about what is within your control so you can take steps to address the issue.
I hope this gives you some initial ideas on how to address burnout in your workplace. If you want to chat more about this topic, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. We love having conversations with leaders about what they’re observing in their teams and brainstorming strategies to support their team’s well-being and balance.