How leaders can help teams survive burnout

While the experience of work varies from one person to another, one thing is true: those that are overworked are at a risk of burning out.

Leaders Can Help Teams Survive Burnout

Since the beginning of the pandemic, little has changed — and that’s part of the problem. While the experience of work has varied from one person to another, one thing is true: those that are overworked are at a risk of burning out. Many of us have enjoyed not having the daily commute. Yet, the commute acted as the transition into and out of our ‘work persona’. Now, with the commute gone, it has become incredibly easy to over work.

Enter burnout.

Every year, burnout costs the US economy $125 to $190 billion and the UK economy upwards of £45 billion. The pandemic has created fertile conditions for burnout which means that team leaders need to be vigilant for its signs, in both themselves and their teams.

The consequences of burnout on a team

According to the WHO, burnout results from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by feelings of exhaustion, increased mental distance, feelings of negativity and reduced professional efficacy. It also brings with it a score of physical health problems including fatigue, headaches, heartburn, gastrointestinal issues and the potential for food, drug and alcohol abuse.

While there are a lot of articles that talk about burnout, what is often not discussed is the effect burnout has on the surviving team — especially if the burned-out person is the team leader. Humans are naturally good at picking up on the stress of others, and the feelings of burnout can spread quickly through a team as stress levels increase.

It can also create a toxic microculture within organizations which can spread to other microcultures and teams. Burned out teams will feel they aren’t achieving anything because they’re confused about assignments or objectives. They may feel micro-managed or unappreciated, as priorities shift due to erratic behaviour. As a result, collaboration decreases, communication breaks down, and team members get more stressed. Creativity effectively vanishes.

It’s not about going on holiday, it’s about taking a break

“It’s pointless to take a holiday because there’s nowhere we can go.”

This is a valid complaint, and one that many employees and managers use during this time. With social distancing and strict travel rules in place, staycations are one of the only viable options. Understandably, they’re not appealing. Who wants to stay home for a holiday when you’ve already spent the last few months at home?

If there is only one takeaway from this article it’s this: it’s not about going on holiday, it’s about taking a break.

Taking a break is about having the psychological freedom to wander into other things and not your inbox. It’s a restorative process that is similar to sleep. In the way dreams are a way of processing the day’s activities, taking a break provides mental clarity and the increased capacity to deal with stress down the line. A change of pace helps boost creativity too — mixing up your routine helps you see things differently and arrive at new solutions.

It can also improve productivity, enhance focus, provide balance and improve relationships. However, the key to getting these benefits is actually taking time off — unplugging completely without compulsively checking your phone or email.

Good leaders protect their team’s time

A leader’s role is to look out for their people, and that means establishing clear boundaries —including how much they work. It’s natural to take what people give, and work will take everything (and more) from an employee if they’re willing to give it. So, a leader must set clear boundaries about how much work is acceptable.

A good leader needs to protect time off by respecting it. Give people space — if they’re off from work, don’t expect them to respond to emails. The truth is, people will appreciate this and repay you with increased efforts if their holidays are respected.

Today, being a leader is about being human and finding out how your people are really doing beyond the small talk. People tend to override talking about the negative in their lives unless something catastrophic is happening. But, by asking, “How are you really doing?” you can encourage them to share their real thoughts and feelings. The pandemic is about leadership, not management. That means sharing a sympathetic ear.

Speak up if you believe that someone is burning out. If they’re being increasingly difficult, the mood change could have its origins in burnout. Instead of reprimanding, take time to find out what isn’t working for them.

What leaders can do in the wake of burnout

Burned out people need time away to recover — it’s not a three-day weekend cure. A leader can help by reassigning their workload until further notice. Recovery can take weeks, if not months. During this time, check in with them and review their bad work habits to help determine how they can adopt a healthier approach to work.

It’s just as important to be flexible and plan how teams will adjust. Here’s how you can support the survivors:

Listen to your team Your surviving team will probably be a little dysfunctional after a team member has burned out. They will have been coping with someone who hasn’t been at their best for some time and they may have mixed feelings — concern for their colleague coupled with a sense of relief that the situation is resolving.

One thing you can do to deescalate the situation is to listen to them. The goal is to understand their struggles and difficulties. Don’t accept a “it’s fine” response. It will likely be a difficult period for them without their teammate or leader, but it can also be an opportunity to reset as a team. Helping them do this should be the number one priority.

Empower, don’t abandon Re-establishing structure and procedures are some of the best things a leader can do. Determine reporting channels and help figure out a new process. Equally, It’s important to step back and give the team a chance to reflect and assess how best to collaborate again.

Model good behaviour It’s one thing to talk about taking time off, yet it’s another to put it into action. Leaders need to model good behaviour. When people see leaders practicing self-care, they are more likely to do it as well. So, book a week off and trust your colleagues to do just fine in your absence.

Positive microcultures When it’s time for the burned-out person to reintegrate into the team, give them time and space to adjust but keep communicating with the wider group. Ideally, in their absence, the team has grown and healed as well, creating a positive space for everyone. This can potentially be a delicate situation. However, it is also a genuine opportunity for the returning colleague to ensure that old bad habits don’t return. Ultimately, if this can’t be achieved that it is time to mix things up and reassign roles.