Management can't lead by example if they're burned out

Team leaders are just as exhausted and demoralized as their employees

Management can't lead by example if they're burned out

By Jesse Murray, SVP Employee Experience at Rightpoint

The Great Resignation is decimating the ranks of middle management, warns Visier’s report, The Burnout Epidemic. Should business leaders be worried? Absolutely. No one wants to see an employee burnout and leave, but the impact of managers burning out can be much further reaching. Why? According to research, good managers are actively involved with their employees, acknowledging good work, and when that happens, their workers are “5x more likely to stay at the company.” Another 90% said they’re more likely to stay at a company that acts on their feedback.

What’s more, research shows that highly effective managers drive nearly 50% more profit for their organizations. In other words, there’s a strong business imperative to solve the burnout problem among managers.

The first step in addressing a problem like burnout is recognizing its existence. If managers can’t recognize burnout in themselves, they can’t recognize it in teams and therefore are incapable of helping either themselves or their employees, leading to disruption and instability for an organization’s operations.

Understanding Burnout

There is no universal definition of what it means to be burned out as each individual experiences their job, stress and impact differently making burnout uniquely personal. Burnout is a sign that an employee’s job simply isn’t working for him or her anymore. Employees who are burned out are in crisis mode, though they may not recognize that fact. Historically high performing employees who now struggle to get their work done may not perceive or accept the fact they are probably burned out and may see it as an individual failure to perform. Equipping managers with training on how to recognize burnout and how to have open and empathetic communication with their teams on the subject is critical to supporting employee well-being.

In a recent piece, Robyne Hanley-Dafoe discusses the confusion of strength with toughness and highlights the importance of emotional strength in helping us navigate these challenges. I’m reminded of one of our family favorite Pixar movies, Inside-Out, that sometimes it’s a different emotion (Sadness over Joy) that’s needed to help solve a problem and even something as simple as recognizing a different approach is needed can help.

Organizations must learn how to recognize burnout signs, create open lines of communication, and equip managers and employees alike with the strategies and support needed to begin the recovery process. There are indicators that may predict when someone is starting to burnout allowing for better more timely mitigation strategies..

Feelings of isolation, a loss of the ability to set clear boundaries between work and life, or in inability to disconnect with work infringing into personal time are all indicators of burnout. The past two plus years have taken a toll mentally on everyone, considering the fundamental change to how we work, disruptions to school and life schedules, the overall pandemic and on and on; employees are just plain exhausted.

Sources of Burnout

The reasons for burnout aren’t particularly surprising. Microsoft research proves what we’ve sensed all along: too many meetings and too many emails are huge distractions that prevent us from getting our real work done. We get stressed out when we feel like we can’t keep up, and all we see is a mountain of work still left to do.

The data on this front is alarming. Otter.ai research shows that 67% of all employees, not just managers, say that meetings take up too much time, and that the only way to complete their tasks is to work long days. According to Microsoft research of work life, long and large meetings (meetings with 25 or more people) are particularly detrimental to productivity, making the mountain of unfinished work even more insurmountable.

Mid-level managers suffer the most in an organization, spending 35% to 50% of their days in meetings. As managers work after hours, their employees come to believe they should as well, thus compounding the problem. It is sadly predictable to find managers spending as much as 80% of their workday in meetings.

I empathize with managers who find themselves “burning the midnight oil”. I think it’s fair to say most managers and senior leaders did not gain their experience while managing a remote workforce and organizations have not provided the guidance and support needed to help them be more effective. Disruption and change have become the norm and even seemingly good guidance at one point (e.g. make sure to have your video enabled during meetings) can end up having unforeseen negative consequences and require ongoing refinement and communication.

Suffering from a lack of control over their work load and a lack of empowerment to change, schedules are easily overwhelmed. Why is anyone surprised to find managers are burning out and reconsidering their very desire to be a manager? According to Microsoft research, 53% of employees across the globe are more likely to prioritize their health and wellbeing over work than they were before the pandemic.

Strategies for Preventing Burnout

HR plays a critical role in equipping managers. By combining employee engagement surveys and behavioral insights they can glean insights into its pervasiveness and severity and offer managers recommended actions on those insights. Specifically, they can use that data to pinpoint behaviors that indicate burnout, and then use that insight to create changes that can help others who are at risk.

An obvious strategy is to limit meetings, but that’s easier said than done. Asking a single employee to control their schedule is like asking a single drop of water to move up the waterfall, there is just too much resistance to be effective. Managers and employees alike need to feel empowered to decline meetings with support and buy-in from leadership. Running effective meetings is not a new topic, with training and literature aplenty organizations need to review those recommendations and establish new standards and norms for effective and engaging meetings that support today's work style.

With travel constraints having potentially limited the length of time off taken over the past couple years now is a good time to review personal time off with managers and their teams. Ensuring people take their time off and encouraging breaks to support mental health days could go a long way in stemming burnout. A word of caution as well, the value of time off to recover can be immediately lost when employees return to the same structural issues that caused the burnout in the first place.

But my best advice is this: embrace vulnerability, create a situation where it’s okay for all employees to talk about burnout, admit when they struggle with it and allow that openness to be part of the process of recovery. For far too long and especially for managers and leaders, we’ve looked at vulnerability as a sign of weakness, when in fact, it’s simply a sign that things aren’t right and need adjusting.

Embrace the Good in the Bad

The Great Resignation has been devastating to every affected organization’s operations, but as they say, it’s a shame to waste a crisis. The one good outcome from the 47.4 million people who resigned in 2021 is that it allowed us to open up a dialogue on a topic long considered taboo. We’re all human after all, it’s okay to act like it at work too.

Jesse Murray brings over 20 years of diverse experiences combining business management, public speaking and technical acumen. Jesse has successfully managed national books of business, established new geographies, developed digital workspace IP and successful international partnerships.

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