How to prevent workplace burnout on your team

With burnout now classified as a medical condition by the World Health Organization, how should you better support your team?

June 5, 2019Yellow Squiggle
Illustration of employee at desk experiencing burnout

The World Health Organization officially recognized “burnout” as a chronic medical condition, defining “QD85” as follows:

Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

This is the first time burnout has been classified as a medical condition by any official health body.

Workplace burnout and stress have been on the rise

Work-related stress has been an issue increasingly discussed in the past few years. Making sure your people are not excessively stressed is crucially important. Low levels of stress are a core element of high-functioning teams. Who works effectively when they’re exhausted and on edge?

Groupon actually commissioned a study on work stress a few years ago, with some notable results:

  • 20% of respondents said they worked 10 hours/day
  • 60% of respondents said there wasn’t enough time in the day to do everything
  • 50% said workload was preventing them from achieving a healthy work-life balance
  • 53% said they still had significant financial concerns
  • On a 1-10 scale, stress at home averaged a 5; at work, it averaged a 6.4

Trello blogged about work burnout in 2017, and one comment, while a bit snarky, hits home on a major issue:

The problem is that our economy and its rewards are dependent on the maximization of labor efforts. With employees taking sabbaticals and getting paid maternity leave and mental health days and not answering Friday 8 PM emails Mr. CEO is not going to see the kinds of returns that will make the board award him a bonus juicy enough to bail and take a trip around the world. In a word “burnout” is just the normal effect of capitalist production on knowledge workers.

“Capitalist production on knowledge workers” is certainly one issue here, as is a general overachiever/perfectionist attitude around work; personal accomplishment is important to all of us. So, what can organizations do to make sure their people aren’t experiencing mental fatigue, emotional exhaustion, and suffering from burnout syndrome?

5 quick ideas to prevent burnout

Here are five ways to overcome and prevent work burnout (and risk of burnout) that you can start implementing immediately:

  1. Don’t heap work on those you perceive as “A-Players:” This creates a kind of a “top performer curse,” where the only reward for doing good work seems to be the addition of more work. You’re putting these team members on the road to burnout.
  2. Embrace flexibility: If people have children and need to leave work earlier, or need to take care of loved ones, or whatever the case may be, let them be flexible in their hours in-office. If the work is not getting done once you offer flexibility, have a conversation with them. Granting this flexibility will promote greater self-care, lower stress levels, and create a healthier work environment.
  3. Model from the top: If executives and leaders in the business are sending emails at 11 PM, that bolsters the idea that everyone needs to be doing the same to be successful. Log off. Aside from truly urgent matters, try conducting most communication within standard business hours.
  4. Offer work from home one day per week: We do this at Range on Wednesdays, and now it’s every day. Demonstrate to employees and team members that their time, well-being, and mental health are valuable and valued by the organization. Demonstrate to employees and team members that their time, well-being, and mental health are valuable and valued by the organization.
  5. Check-in with your people: Ask them how things are going, what they think of the work they’re doing, what might be stressing them out in their personal life, and how you can help. You can do that as their manager or just as their colleague.

The groove, the edge, and the home

The suggestions shared above are just a few of the ways you and your team can take action and prevent burnout at work in the short-term. They’re ideas you can start doing today or which you can at least have rough plans in place in a week’s time. However, preventing burnout and the effects of burnout aren’t concerns that require addressing only once. It can easily surface again in the future if the right plans and practices aren’t established.

We’ve previously mentioned the idea of edge, home, and groove in a post on operational cadence, but to recap:

  • The edge represents the aspirations and goals of teams and individuals.
  • The home is the central community or the hub of trust and [psychological safety.
  • The groove is the practices used by the team to strengthen the home and support people as they move towards the edge.

If you look at technology companies and other progressive industries, you’ll often see a strong “home,” and by definition, they work on complex problems that promote the “edge.” But they often lack a true “groove,” in part because they’re fearful of throwing too many processes at something. This fear is validated: a fast-moving young tech company suddenly creates a boatload of processes, and it feels like a slippery slope from there to hierarchy and bureaucracy, right? Because “groove” can be associated with “processes,” this is the one element of the three above that is often missing, especially in early-stage companies.

You need processes (or call them “mechanisms” like Hulu’s Jason Kilar does). Processes allow you to scale — that’s the common argument for them — but they also help organize and contextualize competing priorities. Competing priorities can often lead to burnout (think of being told in the morning that 12 things are urgent). When you reduce competing priorities down to 2-3 things that truly matter, you reduce burnout and mental exhaustion.

We call this operational cadence because when you see companies do it right, it’s akin to watching an amazing drummer. There is a beat that underscores everything being done.

People are aligned. They know what to expect. They know what’s coming down the pike. They understand the broader strategy. They can determine what’s important without a middle manager telling them 15 different things are crucial.

An operational cadence reduces work-related stress and contributes to the prevention of the symptoms of burnout, and it’s not hard to accomplish. It comes from a mix of:

  • Bookends: Monday and Friday touchpoints on the work being done and the work to be done.
  • Choreographed communication: Up (to your manager, etc.), out (peer teams and stakeholders) and down (direct reports, others below you in structure) are your three big areas. Start with bi-weekly memos as opposed to an over-focus on email — which people traditionally don’t manage well, hence the rise of tools like Slack — and docs — ditto. Docs and emails pile up, stress people out, and confuse them as to where they need to go to get basic stuff done.
  • Planning: This is the holy grail in some ways, and many companies of all shapes, sizes, and verticals are not yet great at this. How and when are objectives and goals defined and communicated? How do people know what to focus on and when to change focus mid-stream?

Some of these questions are resolved with a deeper focus on OKRs, and an understanding that OKRs aren’t an individual metric but a team one.

Horizontal rule

Burnout is a growing problem of modern business. But preventing burnout isn’t as difficult as brain surgery, nor is it that expensive to implement. It’s much more about recognizing the signs of burnout, establishing rhythms and priorities around work and the way it gets done, and also respecting that your team and co-workers have lives and interests outside of the work being completed.

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How to prevent workplace burnout on your team
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