I woke up feeling like I hadn’t slept at all.
It’s 7am. I lie in bed checking my emails and replying to messages that might have come in after I went to bed at 2am. I get dressed and head to work, all the while thinking about the million things on my to-do list. In my first morning meeting, I fight the urge to cry.
That was 2 years ago. Though I didn’t know it then, I was burnt out, and I wasn't alone. My colleagues were burnt out, my friends were burnt out - heck, my company’s managers were burnt out. As of May 2019, the World Health Organisation has even recognised burnout as a medical condition, with symptoms such as:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job
- Reduced professional efficacy
Companies should take burnout seriously. According to Harvard Business School, burnout has cost an estimated US$125 billion to US$190 billion a year in healthcare spending in the US. Millennials have been newly minted “The Burnout Generation”, and many publications saying that hyper-connectivity and hustle-culture are to blame.
But what can managers do when their team gets burnt out?
1. Lead by example
Managers are responsible for their team’s wellbeing. But that doesn’t mean giving people the day off or buying them healthy meals - it means taking care of your own well being first. According to Whitney Johnson, author of Build an A-Team: Play to Their Strengths and Lead Them Up the Learning Curve, your team can pick up on your stress and are affected by it. Employees often learn their workplace behaviours from their managers, so if you lead by example, and your team will do the same.
How managers can lead by example:
Leave work on time. Saying that your team can leave at 6 is one thing. Doing so is another. Inspire your team to finish all your work within office hours by doing the same.
Take your lunch break out of the office at a reasonable time. Forget about eating at your desk, and take your team out for meals.
Sharing your tension-management techniques and rituals with your team. Being open about your own stress and how you cope with it encourages your team to find what works for themselves.
Ask for help. Managers often feel like they need to hide the fact that they’re struggling, but truth is that the team can pick up on the stress. Being vulnerable about needing help gives others permission to do the same.
2. Get feedback
Before you take any steps, it’s important to first understand if the cause is systemic. Burnout can be exacerbated when employees feel they lack autonomy over their situation, or if there is too much on their plate. Allowing your team to vocalise their concerns is a healthy first step to tackle team burnout. The feedback can give a clear idea of whether the burnout is due to scheduling problems or a deeper cultural issue, and makes it easier to take steps to improve your team’s work situation.
Our Q&A tool provides anonymity, so your employees feel safe to raise those concerns without consequence.
What do you think are the biggest blockers to our success?
How could management make your job easier?
If you could change one thing about your day-to-day, what would it be?
3. Build a culture that cares about mental wellbeing
Taking a “mental health day” off is still taboo in many companies. Studies have reported that 26% of adults who took a day off work because of a mental health problem lied about why they were out of the office. However, employers lose as much as US$17 billion to US$44 billion each year to depression.
Address the elephant in the room. Start having conversations about team burnout, what it means to have mental wellbeing, and check in on your team. We wrote another article about how to create a positive mental health culture in the workplace, which are full of great tips.
4. Respecting work-life balance choices
I once spoke to my ex-manager about my desire to have better work-life balance. Her response? Asking me if I had children.
There is a widespread belief that work-life balance is not important unless you have commitments at home like children or ageing parents to care about. But work-life balance isn’t about tackling non-work to-do lists, it’s about having time to pursue personal interests and taking a break. Everyone’s definition of work-life balance is different, and managers can make a huge impact in preventing burnout by respecting their employees’ need to have a life outside of work.
Tip: Encourage your team to set non-negotiables.
Non-negotiables are blocks of time that cannot be touched. They may be work or non-work related, but are always personal and can’t be questioned. Encourage employees to set these non-negotiables, and then share them with the rest of their team. No meetings, no emails, and the employee has permission to be off the grid during that time.
Examples of non-negotiables:
An hour to read the news in the morning
Boxing classes after work hours
No meetings on Monday
Wednesday night dinner with family
No messages or emails on weekends
5. Don’t overload your high performers
While high-performers are great at the work they do, avoid giving them tasks that are not related to their work, however small they may be. As overachievers, they have a hard time saying no to these tasks, but they can often get overwhelmed by these little requests - a quick route to corporate burnout.
Instead of overloading high-performers with small tasks, team them up with other high performers and have them tackle high-priority work. Giving them more opportunities to make a bigger impact will give keep them motivated and also produce greater results for your company.
6. Visit the to-do list together
According to Buzzfeed News, millennial burnout manifests in “errand paralysis”, or a struggle to deal with seemingly high-effort, low-reward tasks. The never-ending to-do lists of work and life can cause people to feel overwhelmed.
Instead of letting your team tackle their work to-do lists themselves, come together as a team to tackle your to-do lists together. Get into a room, and have a solid hour or two to put all your tasks out on the table. A tool like Pigeonhole’s open-ended poll helps to act as a virtual whiteboard to put all the tasks, no matter how small, out in the open.
After getting all the tasks out, make a game plan together. Group high-effort, low-return tasks together and consider options like outsourcing or hiring. Then, prioritise the team’s tasks together. Sharing the mental load can help people feel supported, and even make tasks that have become difficult seem easier to do.
Tip: The “5 Whys” technique
When you get into the grind of day-to-day work, it is easy to disconnect from that source of motivation. The 5 Whys technique with your team is a great way to re-energize the team and get everyone excited to work towards a common goal.
Gather your team in a function room, and pair everyone up. Get them to pick who’s Person A and Person B.
Person A starts by asking the Person B a question. In this case, try: “Why is your job important to you?”
Person B answers the question, and Person A listens attentively.
When Person B is done, Person A simple asks: “Why?” Person B answers.
Repeat Step 4 another 3 more times.
Change over so Person B is now doing the asking.
When both are done, share your learnings with the group.
7. Reward laziness
Efficiency is intelligent laziness. By rewarding employees who find creative solutions to do less work with the same or higher results, employees will learn to de-prioritise long hours and overloading on work, reducing the likelihood of getting burnt out.
It also acts as a built-in coping mechanism for when times get tough. Instead of putting their heads down and churning out work, your team will know to pause think “how can this task be made easier?”
Burnout happens for many different reasons. But when your team is burnt out, it’s a good indication that communication and processes within the team can be improved. Most importantly, it’s a great opportunity to come together as a team and realign the team to the same goals. Challenge yourselves to find better and more sustainable ways to get results, and remind your team that they’re not alone.