Photo courtesy of Pim Chu
Managers always need to keep an eye on employee burnout, particularly when current events impact the way they interact with both work and home. The COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example: Essential workers are overworked, non-essential workers are cooped up at home where they can throw themselves into work too often, and many parents are juggling child care with no support. At the same time, the anxiety of a recession, rising unemployment, and civil unrest mean employees are grappling with a wash of emotions all the time. It is a lot.
So, no pressure, dear manager, but you are in charge. If that feels overwhelming, remember—you are not in charge of people’s lives, just the work environment. Focus on your sphere of influence.
The typical triggers of job burnout include unreasonable deadlines, lack of communication and support from a manager, lack of role clarity, unmanageable workload, and unfair or uneven treatment of staff. Stay on top of these issues to boost resilience in individual employees and your overall team.
First, recognize how burnout reveals itself in the workplace:
Difficulty with focus and a decrease in productivity
Cynical attitude and loss of passion for the work
Irritability and personality clashes within the team
Uncharacteristic verbal outbursts or facial expressions
Depression that shows up as lack of confidence, worry, or withdrawal
Spike in sick days and illness, or refusing to take vacation or sick days
Self-reported exhaustion and insomnia
Difficulty describing life outside work
According to the Mayo Clinic, the physical and emotional exhaustion of job burnout distorts people’s sense of identity and accomplishment. It increases peoples' vulnerability to illness, diabetes, heart disease, alcohol abuse, and more. Pretty serious stuff, right? Not something to ignore and hope it goes away.
Here are five tactics for supporting your team.
Sort yourself out first
Cultivating a resilient team takes perspective and objectivity. That is hard to do if you feel like a hot mess yourself. So step one is to practice what you preach. Assemble a personal support team of work peers (not subordinates!), friends, and family members. Use this trusted network to vent work frustrations and fears in safe confidentiality, and to brainstorm through thorny problems. Ask them to help keep you on track with mental and physical self-care.
Model compassion and empathy as core values
Employees crave supportive connections with their bosses and to be valued for their work contributions. So the best way for managers to both supercharge and bomb-proof your team is to invest in them with authentic interest, compassion, and empathy.
Improve communication by spending more time with individual employees and your team as a whole. Boost employee engagement through one-on-one conversations, informal social chatting, and meetings that include mutual sharing on a personal level.
Praise and encourage the relationships team members have with each other and support identity as a team.
Listen. Deeply. Fully. Without immediately going into fix-it mode. Sometimes just verbalizing stress helps. There is incredible, rejuvenating power in the simple act of validating someone's feelings.
Ask what your employee needs to feel less stressed and more able to work productively.
Research resources available to help your employee cope better with stressors outside work (and beyond your control). Reassure the employee you support them in taking advantage of help to be happier.
Encourage people to take a break even on the busiest days. Even just a brief pause helps to calm our minds and bodies.
Reinforce belonging and team support
Burnout makes employees feel isolated and less confident. Some people cope with feelings of anxiousness and inadequacy by withdrawing from coworkers. Don’t leave anyone to sink or swim in a soup of burnout loneliness. As a manager, you have the opportunity to reinforce employees' sense of belonging to something meaningful. Encourage a "we're in this together" orientation to work and problem-solving. Ask questions about what is going well and where barriers are holding back progress. Then encourage team members to think creatively about how to support one another.
Celebrate resilience even when it all goes wrong
Sometimes, despite our best work and intentions, things go awry. The internet abounds with hilarious examples of this, such as the cat crashing a live weather broadcast, interrupting toddlers, and epic Zoom fails. How you deal with this as a manager sets the tone for your team. The most productive and resilient individuals and groups don’t fear or catastrophize failures. Encourage employees to recover from missteps with calm efficiency. Then discuss and explicitly value the learning that comes from such mistakes. And make time for the team to laugh and support each other with grace and good humor. Check out this great read on practicing compassionate leadership in a crisis.
Read more: What I Do When I Feel Like a Failure at Work
Stay in your lane, but be honest
Being an empathetic leader means sharing information about yourself with employees. That said, managers walk a fine line between being “part of the team” and being the person responsible for performance assessment, disciplinary actions, and toeing the company line. It is human nature to vent about upper management leadership and decisions—but as a manager, save those discussions for peers and your network. Be conscious about what is appropriate to share with employees (and when)—particularly if the information will stoke uncertainty and anxiety. Tap into human resources professionals' expertise to plan information disclosure in ways that are sensitive to employees and the employer, ethical, and honest.