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How to Prevent Burnout When You're the Boss (and Why You'll Want To)

Mar 08, 2021

Image of a succesful casual business man using laptop during meeting Dealing with burnout is often seen as the employee's problem—and maybe in part, it is.

Yet when you look at the research on how to prevent burnout and deal with existing burnout, you find it's often the result of what goes on at the company or department level.

That's the part of the workplace-burnout conversation that needs to change—and I am by no means the first to point this out. Unless you take steps as a manager to prevent and treat burnout, you may end up with frustrated employees who gather just enough strength to leave. 

Managers who instead embrace their role in preventing burnout end up with employees who are more communicative, more engaged, and more willing to stay (sans burnout) and help grow your organization. Which in turn makes your company more competitive.

What is workplace burnout?

Workplace burnout is job stress that doesn't get better—left unaddressed, it only grows messier and harder to solve. Whereas job stress can pass quickly (for example, with a good night's rest), workplace burnout is much more stubborn. 

Unlike mere job stress, workplace burnout is exhausting—not just physically and emotionally but existentially. It often involves a loss of meaning, control or sense of justice.

Here are some of the ways workplace burnout can take a toll on your team: 

  • Ambition
  • Confidence
  • Caring about one's work and the quality of that work
  • Productivity
  • Coping and problem-solving
  • Patience
  • Sense of optimism and hope
  • Identity
  • Self-worth

As a manager, you don't have to manage your team's emotions. But if workplace dynamics are the common thread among your team's exhaustion, it's probably time to pay closer attention.

Take a look at your entire team, but especially your most self-motivated, highest-performing employees. If they're burned out, that is a sure sign that something needs to change quickly. 

Employee burnout is expensive

According to the latest statistics by Gallup, burnout is highly correlated with reduced confidence, more sick days, and more trips to the emergency room. None of these spells "competitive." Taken together, they spell disaster. And they are just some of the many problems caused or made worse by workplace burnout. 

Employee disengagement: a multibillion-dollar problem

While doing research for my new online company-culture course, I found that employee disengagement costs U.S. companies approximately $150 billion per year—which translates into overpaying disengaged employees by approximately 30 percent.

Employee engagement is just one of burnout's casualties. But when you resolve burnout—not just individually but systemically—employees are much more likely to show up, step up and treat clients and customers in ways you'll be proud of. In ways that keep those clients and customers coming back.

Let's talk about work from home

For millions of people, what started as a part-time perk has now become an endless obligation—one that brings its own set of challenges. (Hint: Having Zoom "happy hours" probably won't help, and might even add to the problem. People are zoomed out.)  

No one is blaming the boss for the pandemic or keeping themselves and their people safe—safety is one of the factors that reduces burnout. But the work-from-home dynamic of get to vs. have to is something to be aware of and make allowances for.

For example, how are you encouraging employees to take care of themselves while working from home? Simple activities such as a daily walk, or a ritual to signify the end of the workday can reduce burnout and restore a sense of joy.

Signs of burnout at work 

You as the owner/manager might not be the cause of these signs, but you're likely experiencing a great many of the consequences. With that in mind, here are common signs of burnout at work: 

  • Cynicism
  • Sarcasm
  • Listlessness
  • Underperformance
  • Lack of participation at meetings and other team initiatives
  • Gossip
  • Apathy (e.g., routinely showing up late, being slow to follow through)
  • Overreacting
  • Resentment
  • Unexplained physical symptoms, such as a pit in one's stomach

Which of these (if any) hit home for you? What else would you add to this list?

What causes burnout? 

Your team is no doubt dealing with a whole set of stressors outside of work—but here are some of the sources of burnout at work, as reported by Jennifer Moss in Harvard Business Review:

  1. Unsustainable workload
  2. Perceived lack of control
  3. Insufficient rewards for effort
  4. Lack of a supportive community
  5. Lack of fairness
  6. Mismatched values and skills

I would add: 

  1. Lack of communication, especially around goals and vision
  2. Assuming everyone is as enthused about the vision as you are
  3. Poor decisions, or delayed decisions
  4. Lack of caring
  5. Lack of trust/respect

How would your team respond if they saw either or both of these lists? What would happen if you used them to launch one or more group conversations? You might get an earful. But isn't that better than having all of that negativity go underground? Experience tells me yes

Preventing workplace burnout 

While solutions might not happen overnight, here is a set of guiding principles to get your entire team headed in the right direction: 

  • Ask the tough questions. Something as simple as, "What would help you do your work more effectively, with less stress?" can alleviate stress and jump-start productivity.
  • Don't assume you know what your team needs or wants. For example, not all your employees want or have time for social activities, especially if they happen on Zoom. Maybe instead of free pizza, what the team really wants is better Wi-Fi. Asking and listening are key.
  • Give your team a voice in decisions that affect them. This doesn't mean a vote—as author Max De Pree pointed out, a company is not a democracy. But you can still keep your team in the loop and solicit their input when it's helpful and appropriate.
  • Make the hard decisions when they need to be made. Nothing fuels burnout like a toxic situation that the boss refuses to handle. 
  • Show your team appreciation more often than you think is necessary. Don't wait for special occasions.
  • Look for ways to lighten the workload, as opposed to merely granting time off. 

Lastly, pay attention to your own needs, especially for for a life outside of work. Even the most hard-driving entrepreneurs I know need a healthy sense of enjoyment, independent of their business. The ones who are wisest and happiest make this a priority—and everyone around them benefits. 

Got burnout? I can help.

Whether it's talking to your team in small groups, delivering interactive training, or 1:1 coaching, I can help you transform your company culture—and/or help you transform you. Ready? Please reach out to me today.  


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