insight magazine

Leadership Matters | Winter 2021

Four Tips to Snuff Out Burnout

The post-pandemic rise of employee burnout should have savvy leaders taking these preventative steps to protect themselves and their teams.
Jon Lokhorst, CPA, CSP, PCC Leadership Coach, Your Best Leadership LLC

An increasing rate of employee burnout is among the far-reaching consequences of the global pandemic we’ve been weathering. According to the most recent Future of Benefits Pulse Survey from The Hartford, 61 percent of workers said they were experiencing burnout. Even more alarming, the burnout rate among women reached 68 percent, significantly higher than the 52 percent of men reporting burnout.

What is burnout? Although the term is widely used, it’s not always well-defined. The World Health Organization defines burnout as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It’s characterized by energy depletion, exhaustion, negativity, cynicism, and reduced professional efficacy.

The implications of burnout are enormous, including significant detrimental effects on physical and mental health. The business ramifications are monumental, too. Elevated rates of burnout increase the risk of employee turnover. In The Hartford study, 71 percent of workers who indicated they were likely to look for a new job within the next six months said they always or often feel burned out.

It’s your responsibility as a leader to address the risk of burnout, first for yourself and then for your team. Here are four tips to guide you.

Revisit Your Vision and Purpose

The best organizations have a clear vision—so do the best leaders. Vision answers the question, “Where are you going?” Now is an excellent time to revisit that question, refocusing on the compelling destination or state you want to reach at some point down the road. What will your life be like, personally and professionally, as you approach that destination? Looking forward will boost your optimism, lifting you above the forces that cause burnout.

As you refresh your vision, remind yourself of the purpose behind it. Purpose answers the question, “Why is this vision important?” Purpose reveals motivation and offers meaning. Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist who survived three years in Nazi concentration camps, once said, “Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.”

The pandemic has been a reminder that the road to your vision is full of twists and turns, not to mention potholes at inopportune places. There are countless detours and ways to veer off course. It’s tempting to give up. At times like these, you’ll lean on your purpose to keep going. What gets you up in the morning and makes it worthwhile to keep pursuing your vision? Find or create an image that serves as a visual reminder of your purpose.

Establish Healthy Boundaries

Pandemic-induced factors, along with current labor shortages, have elevated the volume and intensity of work for many leaders, especially those serving in “working management” roles. If you shifted to working remotely, there’s a good chance you replaced your commuting time with more working hours. The convenience of a home office may tempt you back into work mode more often than a traditional office you leave at the end of the day. Longer work hours carry an increased risk of burnout.

Regardless of your work environment, it’s essential to establish healthy boundaries between your work and life outside of work. When possible, create a clean break at the end of your workday, closing your office door and declaring that you’re finished working for the day. Consider setting blackout hours when you don’t check email or answer work-related calls. Prioritize your schedule and workload to avoid overcommitting to more projects or assignments than you and your team can handle. Coordinate these efforts with your boss and team members to navigate the tensions between meeting business needs and preventing burnout.

Double Down on Self-Care

You can’t draw water from an empty well. If you don’t prime the pump, the water stops flowing and the basin dries out. There’s no water left to refresh yourself or others. The same is true of self-care: If you neglect it, you invite burnout. When you’re burned out as a leader, it has a ripple effect on your team. Interestingly, a Predictive Index survey found that among the respondents who said their manager was burned out, 73 percent said their teammates also seemed burned out.

I often ask leaders about their go-to approaches to self-care during training and coaching sessions. Three staples show up nearly every time: eating right, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep. Other typical responses include sports, working on cars, cooking, baking, gardening, painting, playing music, and reading. Some more creative suggestions include salsa dancing, scuba diving, horseback riding, and solving puzzles.

Block time on your calendar, set reminders, or find an accountability partner. Do whatever it takes to keep yourself on track in your self-care practices.

Care for Your Team

As a leader, you carry an elevated responsibility for addressing the risk of burnout. It’s not just for yourself but your team members as well, so encourage them to refresh their vision and purpose, establish healthy boundaries, and double down on self-care as you provide a good example for them. Watch them for signs of burnout, like uncharacteristic tardiness, absenteeism, missed deadlines, disengagement from teammates, or irritability. Check in regularly with each team member individually. Consider a red-yellow-green scale to ask whether burnout factors are getting better or worse.

You need to be even more intentional if you lead in a remote work environment. You don’t have the subtle communication advantages of an in-person environment, like impromptu conversations in the hallway, over the cubicle wall, and at the coffee pot or water cooler. Replicate these informal, unstructured conversations with regularly scheduled check-ins or set reminders on your calendar to reach out to team members periodically.

Unfortunately, many employees say that their managers’ communication skills need work. The Predictive Index survey presented workers with a list of common management skills and asked them to identify those most lacking in their managers. The most frequent response was “effective communicator,” followed by “drives team morale”—both risks when trying to minimize the potential for burnout.

This is the time for leaders to step up, recognize the risks and warning signs of burnout, and take preventative measures to protect yourself and your team members from it.

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