Cracking the Burnout Code

A leader’s guide to managing people away from burnout.

As summer comes to a close and we head back to work after two-and-a-half years of pandemic living, an off-kilter work-life balance and scarce vacations, a topic that deserves our attention is: burnout. You too may have noticed friends or family members struggling more than usual at work. The figures are alarming: studies show that the pandemic has taken its toll on the workforce, with 3 in 5 employees at risk of burnout.

Burnout is a complex problem and preventing it is a shared responsibility between leaders and employees. This article explores what you can do as a leader to manage employees away from burnout. Check out the corresponding article to understand how to prevent burnout as an employee.

Burnout: mental health problem or workplace issue?

It is widely believed that burnout is a mental health problem, however, it is not. In 2019, the World Health Organization classified burnout as “a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Recent research confirms this: burnout is not an employee problem, but a workplace one.

Yet when employees show signs of burnout, we observe that leaders often still point to an individual’s personal situation or personality to find the root cause, citing work as a contributing factor. And while personal factors can contribute to burnout, by citing these as root causes leaders put the responsibility for burnout squarely back on the shoulders of the individual, and in doing so largely absolve their managers and organisations. The result? Often a perfunctory reflection on the impact of company culture, team environment or workload as possible root causes of the person’s burnout. Only when the burnout problem becomes endemic in certain teams are leaders willing to critically reflect on what’s going wrong in their organisation.

Preventing burnout is a shared responsibility

Burnout is a complex problem and preventing it is a shared responsibility between leader and employee. As a leader, it starts with the following:

Understand what causes burnout

A burnout can have several causes: a workload that is too high for too long, a mismatch between an employee’s personal values and those of the company, or social pressures such as a high need to please people and inability to set sufficient boundaries for fear of upsetting people.

Answering “no” to any of these questions is a red flag for burnout:

  • Can the person bring his/her whole self to work?
  • Are their personal values aligned with those of the company?
  • Is there trust between the employee and his/her manager?
  • Is their role clear to them and do they have autonomy?
  • Is their workload realistic and sustainable?
  • Does their manager give them clear direction and sufficient support?
  • Do they have healthy relationships with the people they work with?
  • Do they feel recognized and rewarded?

Don’t ignore the warning signs
Psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North developed the 12-stage model of burnout. Below are the stages the scientists outline. Which behaviors do you recognise in the employee(s) you are concerned about?

  1. The compulsion to prove oneself: demonstrating worth obsessively; tends to hit the best employees, those with enthusiasm who accept responsibility readily.
  2. Working harder: an inability to switch off.
  3. Neglecting needs: erratic sleeping, eating disrupted, lack of social interaction.
  4. Displacement of conflicts: problems are dismissed; we may feel threatened, panicky, and jittery.
  5. Revision of values: values are skewed, friends and family dismissed, hobbies seen as irrelevant. Work is the only focus.
  6. Denial of emerging problems: intolerance; perceiving collaborators as stupid, lazy, demanding, or undisciplined; social contacts harder; cynicism, aggression; problems are viewed as caused by time pressure and work, not because of life changes.
  7. Withdrawal: social life small or nonexistent, need to feel relief from stress, alcohol/drugs.
  8. Odd behavioral changes: changes in behavior obvious; friends and family concerned.
  9. Depersonalisation: seeing neither self nor others as valuable, and no longer perceive own needs.
  10. Inner emptiness: feeling empty inside and to overcome this, look for activity such as overeating, sex, alcohol, or drugs; activities are often exaggerated.
  11. Depression: feeling lost and unsure, exhausted, future feels bleak and dark.
  12. Burnout syndrome: can include total mental and physical collapse; time for full medical attention.

The list is sobering. Does this mean that everyone who displays some signs of burnout will progress to stage twelve? Luckily not. But it is easier to course-correct if symptoms are addressed early on, so don’t shrug off initial warning signs.

What leaders can do to help prevent burn-out.

With privilege comes responsibility. Apart from the responsibility to deliver business results, leaders are also responsible for safeguarding the wellbeing of employees. Here’s how you can help prevent burnout in people:

  • Be human first, a leader second. Be authentic and vulnerable. Drop the “I’m fine” façade and have the courage to be open about your own struggles and journey if it can be useful to your team. Role-model healthy behaviors: show that unplugging and resting are important to you too.
    • Protect your team. If workload is too high for too long, or you notice the team struggling, it is your duty to reshuffle priorities or reset expectations to protect your team. (A pitfall for leaders is point 1 on the burnout scale mentioned above: always wanting to prove their value to the business, often at the cost of their team. As leader it is important to notice when you go into overdrive and learn to manage that behavior in yourself.)
    • Communicate about more than just goals and results. Normalise the fact that ‘peak performance’ doesn’t look the same on all days. Tell people they should prioritise self-care too. Stress the importance of setting boundaries. Teach your team to discuss their needs and boundaries and agree on ways of working that balance the needs of everyone.
    • Implement workplace flexibility. Managing your team with a “one size fits all” approach will not only make the team less effective, it will also increase stress in people. Research shows that employees who have flexibility over where, when and how they work are more productive and engaged than those who don’t.
    • Harness people’s strengths instead of managing their weaknesses. It is a myth that our greatest potential for growth lies in our weaknesses. Focus on developing people’s strengths and think of how you can bring these into the benefit of the team more often, instead of asking them to work on their weaknesses. This way, people will feel valued, be more engaged and feel more motivated.
    • stress curve your employees are spending most of their time. If it is on the upper half, it is your responsibility to manage them back into the optimal zone by adjusting workload, setting priorities, or reassigning tasks that do not play to their strengths.

The bottom line is this: burnout symptoms won’t go away magically by themselves. We all have a role to play in ensuring that our work environments don’t become breeding grounds for unhealthy mindsets and behaviors that contribute to burnout. Leaders, managers, and employees need to work together to role model, build and safeguard a healthy workplace culture. Because as the saying goes: “You can run a sprint, or you can run a marathon, but you can’t sprint a marathon.”

Author: Sabine Clappaert is a Managing Director and works in our People & Transformation team in the Brussels office.

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