What You’re Getting Wrong About Burnout

The burnout crisis is here, but many managers are failing to address the root causes of stress for employees.

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Have you ever come back from vacation feeling rested and reenergized, only to find yourself feeling fried again just a few days later?

That’s because a week off usually doesn’t address the fundamental issues that make burnout a consistent problem in the workplace.

As an expert on emotions at work and head of content at Humu, a company focused on workplace behavioral change, I help leaders and managers improve well-being within their teams. Over the past year, burnout has become a top concern within organizations, and for good reason. In 2020, 71% of employees experienced burnout at least once. Across Humu’s enterprise customers, 62% of employees have reported feeling overwhelmed by work responsibilities, and 32% have said they are emotionally drained. And research from Qualtrics shows that stress and burnout are the main reasons people are thinking of leaving their jobs in the coming months and year — a time economists have already dubbed “The Great Resignation.”

In response, many leaders have started offering additional vacation time, established “no meeting” blocks on the calendar to give employees a break from back-to-back video calls, and encouraged people to take breaks throughout the day.

These are all helpful measures, but on their own, they’re usually not enough to turn things around for exhausted employees. That’s because work overload is only one cause of burnout. Too often, organizations fail to acknowledge — let alone address — other dimensions. The Maslach Burnout Inventory, the first clinically based measure of burnout, also measures cynicism and feeling ineffective at your job. And our research at Humu shows that lacking a sense of meaning and not receiving the emotional support you need to thrive are also strongly related to feeling stretched too thin.

As many teams transition from fully remote to hybrid work environments in the months to come, the turbulence and uncertainty that characterized the early months of the pandemic are fast becoming a reality of the new normal as well. Organizations that don’t help their people feel a sense of purpose, belonging, and progress amid these forces will see burnout persist — or worsen. Here are seven specific steps leaders and managers can take to create a healthier work environment for employees.

1. Acknowledge what your people are going through. Almost every team I’ve spoken with over the past six months acknowledged that while they offered one another emotional support at the beginning of the pandemic, they became more focused on just getting their work done as time went on.

But employees’ level of uncertainty hasn’t changed; the delta variant of the coronavirus has called all return-to-work (and school) plans into question, with some organizations shuttering their offices again until at least February 2022. As a manager, make it a priority to recognize that things may be stressful. Ask questions like, “What kind of flexibility do you need right now?” and “How are you really doing?” Listen to what your people share and try to support them as best you can. Even just saying something like, “I know a lot is changing, and that can be stressful, but I’m here to support you,” can go a long way.

2. Avoid causing unnecessary anxiety. The next time you’re about to send an email, take a few extra moments to emotionally proofread what you wrote. Firing off a note at 6 p.m. that says, “Let’s talk tomorrow,” when you mean, “Great presentation today; I have a couple comments I’d love to chat through tomorrow,” can ruin someone’s night. And if you drop an unexpected one-on-one meeting on an employee’s calendar to talk about an upcoming project, let them know right away what the call will be about. Burnout is often the result of chronic stress, so thinking through how your actions and words might be received can prevent you from piling unneeded anxiety onto your team.

3. Set clear goals and celebrate mini-milestones. When we don’t have clear goals, we either become stuck because we’re unsure where to invest our energy, or we frantically churn out a bunch of work in the hope that some of it will be valuable to the team. We never feel confident that we’re doing a good job, because there’s no clearly delineated finish line to cross.

Your people will feel better — and be more likely to take needed breaks — if they know they’re moving forward on the right things. At the beginning of every month, help each person on your team come up with five goals that connect to the team’s shared mission. That might mean explicitly de-prioritizing some tasks or projects. In weekly one-on-ones, revisit the list to check in on progress and remove any barriers that may be holding people back.

4. Don’t micromanage. A lack of autonomy puts people on a fast track to burnout. On the flip side, when employees get to make more decisions for themselves, they feel more engaged in their roles and more motivated to do great work. Once you’ve outlined clear priorities and expectations, let people figure out how to reach those finish lines. Be available to answer questions or offer feedback along the way — consider having “office hours” where employees can come and discuss any challenges they’re facing. But avoid inserting yourself into every action they take.

5. Create learning opportunities. When we acquire and practice new skills, we’re better able to recharge and manage job-related stress. To avoid disengagement and unnecessary turnover, make learning a priority for your teams.

Ask your reports, “What would you like to learn over the next few months?” and then try to assign tasks accordingly. You can also encourage team members to set up “skills swaps” — 30-minute meetings where they teach each other something new. For example, I once helped a colleague learn how to use Adobe Illustrator, and he then walked me through his top email marketing tips.

6. Facilitate connections within your team. Surveys show that employees who feel connected to their colleagues are three times as likely to report that they maintained pre-pandemic levels of productivity. To create a sense of belonging for your people, be sure to recognize unique ideas or perspectives on the team, build stronger ties by setting up one-on-ones between team members who don’t often interact, and set up time for everyone to have fun together as a group. At Humu, we’ve designed and played team trivia, organized group check-ins where people share a personal challenge and accomplishment, and hosted virtual tea tastings. These activities bring teams closer and give people a way to get to know each other a bit better.

7. Keep asking questions — and then take action. If you’re not sure which of the above steps you should prioritize, ask your team. You don’t have to wait for employee engagement survey results to learn where your people might need more support. In your next set of one-on-ones, gauge how your employees are feeling with these questions:

  • What one thing can I do to better support you? (“What one thing … ?” solicits more specific responses than “Is there anything I can do?”)
  • Is anything unclear or blocking your work?
  • How does your workload feel right now?
  • What parts of your work do you enjoy most?
  • Did you get everything you needed today?

Based on what you hear, commit to taking one specific step this week to support each person on your team. If someone is exhausted because they’re pulling long hours, help them better prioritize their tasks and see if there’s any work they can put on hold for the time being. If it seems like they don’t find their day-to-day activities meaningful, help them see how their work positively impacts others by sharing a customer story or connecting their tasks to the company mission.

Time off can absolutely improve mental well-being. But without taking additional steps to combat stress, organizations are unlikely to make meaningful improvements when it comes to the battle against burnout.

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