Surviving burnout: a guide for leaders

The pandemic has created a fertile environment for burnout in everyone. While not having anywhere to go on holiday makes taking time off difficult, it’s an incredibly important part of staving off burnout. Leaders can protect their teams by establishing clear boundaries and listening to their people.

July 10, 2020 5 mins read

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 working are at risk of burnout. Many of us have enjoyed not having a daily commute. Yet, the commute acted as the transition into and out of our ‘work persona’. And, without this it has become far easier to overwork.

According to the WHO, burnout is the result of chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is marked by feelings of exhaustion, mental distancing, 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.

Burnout costs the US economy nearly $190 billion and the UK economy as much as £45 billion each year. But, perhaps one of the worst side effects is that it can create a toxic microculture within organizations that can spread to other microcultures and teams. With the current COVID-19 pandemic creating fertile conditions for burnout, team leaders need to be vigilant for the signs.

What happens to a team after burnout?

There are numerous articles on burnout and how to help people cope. However, 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 other people, and the feelings of burnout can spread quickly through a team as stress levels increase.

Teams with burned-out members may feel like they aren’t achieving anything because they’re confused about their assignments or objectives. They may feel micromanaged or unappreciated, as priorities shift due to erratic leader behaviour. As a result, collaboration decreases, communication breaks down, and team members get more stressed. Creativity effectively vanishes.

It’s about taking a break

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

This is a common complaint I’ve heard lately from employees and managers alike. With social distancing and strict travel rules in place, staycations are one of the few viable options. Understandably, it’s not appealing. Who wants to stay home for a holiday when you’ve already spent the last few months at home?

But, if there is one takeaway you get from reading this article on dealing with burnout, I want it to be this: it’s not about going on holiday, it’s about taking a break.

Taking a break provides the psychological freedom to wander into other things and out of your inbox. Like the restorative process of sleep, taking time off provides mental clarity and an increased ability to deal with stress. A change of pace boosts creativity by enabling time away to think about things differently. 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 takes care of their people. Today, that means establishing clear boundaries about how much people work. Work will always 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 protects 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.

Being a leader is about being human and finding out how your people are doing beyond the small talk. When we ask someone how they are, people tend to override the negative in their lives unless there is something catastrophic happening. Yet, by asking something as simple as “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.

If you believe someone is burning out, speak up. If they’re difficult to work with, they could be showing signs. Instead of reprimanding, take the time to find out what isn’t working for them.

What leaders can do after burnout

Burned out people need time away to recover — it’s not a three-day weekend cure. During this time, check in with them and help them review their bad work habits and what they can change to have a healthier approach to work. Recovery can take weeks, if not months. Therefore, it’s important to be flexible and plan how teams will adjust during this time.

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 their best self 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. Try to understand their difficulties. Don’t accept a simple “it’s fine” response. Probe deeper. Without their teammate or leader, this will likely be a difficult period. 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.

How Friday Pulse can help you and your team

During this pandemic period, my team and I are committed to helping businesses maintain and improve team morale, and prevent employee burnout. That’s why we are continuing to offer companies and teams (50 – 1,000 employees) free access to our Friday Pulse people platform for 12 weeks.

The Friday Pulse platform allows leaders to keep track of happiness scores across teams and identify the groups that may be approaching burnout. It can also monitor teams that are trying to work with recuperating individuals and help track their progress.

For more information on how we can help and support your organization through the crisis please contact my colleague Clive Steer at [email protected]