You know all about burnout. You’ve probably read articles about it (including on Fast Company) and seen people discuss it on social media—like this user, who was so surprised that his burnout-focused tweet went viral that he later remarked, “Damn how come y’all don’t retweet my dad jokes like this[?]”:
Everyone deserves a job that doesn't leave them so depleted at the end of the day that their whole life just becomes about working and preparing/resting for work.
— Anarcho-napitalist (@hermit_hwarang) May 1, 2018
The trouble is that much of the conversation around burnout focuses on what individuals can do to avoid or recover from it. People trade ideas on productivity and time management, handling stress, and setting good boundaries. This approach implicitly frames work-related burnout as a personal failure. While personal responsibility plays a role, it’s not the only factor, or even the biggest one.
In truth, every organization–indeed, every decent manager–has an obligation to protect their teams from burning out on the job. In a survey last year, U.S. HR leaders named employee burnout as the biggest workplace challenge they were grappling with, citing it as the reason for up to half of employee departures. With that in mind, here’s a closer look at the top risk factors for collective burnout, and what it takes to mitigate them at the team level–not just the individual one.
Burnout Factor No. 1: Too Much Change
But even if your team is comprised entirely of people who excel at those things (and it probably isn’t), there’s still a limit to how much uncertainty everyone can handle. When changes unfold in a conscious way on a reasonable timeline, employees have time to adjust; when, on the other hand, change becomes nonstop, there’s little even the most adaptable team member will struggle to absorb the impact. That makes it harder for individuals to pull together, collaborate effectively, and avoid burnout.
To the extent they’re able, leaders need to be judicious about which changes to make when: What’s absolutely necessary, and what’s incidental or can wait? A stressed-out team won’t be very effective at implementing the changes you need them to. When your team begins to burn out, you put the outcome of the change at risk, so try not to lose sight of that end goal. Be thoughtful about how much change you’re introducing at once, and be sure to support the emotional, mental, and physical well-being of your team–which is only as strong as its most stressed-out member.
Burnout Factor No. 2: Too Little Transparency
Managers know that whisper culture can devastate their teams’ morale and well-being, but it’s frequently less clear how to head it off. Some important decisions have to be made behind closed doors after all. But information sharing goes a long way. Abruptly announcing important changes can lead to gossip and mistrust at the times when you need your team’s support the most. Managers don’t always see this as a potential burnout issue, though.
When things are changing quickly, sharing the same amount of information as you’re used to can accelerate the emotional roller coaster your team is inevitably riding. You need to become more transparent during stressful periods. That includes sharing big decisions about hiring and revenue. Inviting employee representatives to attend executive meetings or to sit on your board can help, too.
If people feel like they have a say in decision making but actually don’t, there will be real emotional and psychological fallout. At the very minimum, be clear about which decisions your team members genuinely have a say in and which ones they don’t. Your employees will appreciate that you’re up front with them in setting the boundaries, and they’ll be less likely to suffer burnout simply due to that added transparency.
Burnout Factor No. 3: Imagining That Everyone Is Equally Stressed
Because some folks handle change and uncertainty better than others, not everyone on your team will be equally at risk of burnout–which creates the very real risk of assuming someone is rolling with the punches better than they actually are.
When we think of someone on the edge of burnout, we imagine them looking frazzled and irritated, or become more vocal about their complaints. That’s not usually the case, though. It’s not always the person who’s working the hardest or speaking up the most; sometimes the person most in danger of burning out is the quiet contributor who doesn’t say much. They may feel lonely or isolated, untethered to a support system despite being a crucial player on your team. Maybe they’re the only project manager on the team, for instance. Or perhaps they’re just different socially or personality-wise. Trying to fit in when you feel like you stick out or you have no one to confide in is incredibly exhausting. That emotional exhaustion leads to burnout.
So while you’re keeping a lookout for the members of your team who find it easy to speak up, reach out to those who tend to be quiet, too. Burnout is a tricky thing: It’s highly contagious, but symptoms may vary. For managers looking to preserve the mental and psychological health of their teams, the best medicine is often communication paired with more than a little emotional intelligence.