Paying Attention to Burnout

Four Strategies to Improve Self-Care and Manage Team Burnout

It is normal to experience increased stress at work occasionally, however prolonged stress can be a sign that you're experiencing job burnout.  Burnout can often affect your relationships, physical and mental well-being, work performance, and health.  It’s easy to pour yourself into work and “grind” for what may seem like a short period of time, which means taking time to reflect and engage in self-care is important.

At iF we partner with former executives and senior leaders to enhance the value we can create for our clients.  We asked some of our partners to share what they learned along the way to notice and tend to burnout.

1. Check Your Team’s Pulse 

It’s important to come back to the basics: recognize that it’s happening, connect with and listen to the team and make sure people take a break, including yourself. Leaders need to model it. 

Always prioritize direct report 1:1s over everything else to make sure you’re keeping a pulse. This time on your calendar should be sacred.

Also, if you sense burnout is surfacing it’s not the time to schedule extra team building activities (unless people want this). That can put more pressure on work piling up. People might need time out of work to take care of personal needs, so be okay with that. 

Lastly, time off can be really helpful as long as there isn’t a push to ‘get it all done’ before people are off. Flex timelines and deliverables so the “before and after” time away doesn’t add more stress.

A portrait of Christine McHugh smiling. To her left is text that reads, "Connect with and listen to your team and make sure people take a break, including yourself. Leaders need to model it." Underneath is text attribution, reading "- Christine McHugh, Former Executive, Starbucks".

2. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

Burnout often comes on the heels of change.  In addition to acknowledging burnout, always make sure you take visible action.  Leaders need to be clear about what is changing, what isn't changing, the knowns and the unknowns.  They also need to be able to describe how the changes (e.g. layoffs) impact the team's work, for example “What's going to be reprioritized?” Engage in multiple formats as you communicate (meetings, 1:1s, emails, etc.).

Give folks time/space to process and build wellness checks into the culture. Those who are "left behind" after layoffs often feel a sense of guilt, grief, fear, and frustration. They need productive and safe spaces to process with their managers and peers. Hearing the "why" from senior leaders is helpful, but many people find value from being heard. Consider two light, but impactful ways to do this:

  • Managers should dedicate a small amount of time in 1:1s to check in on how their employees are feeling. Ask: “How are you feeling? What's worrying you? What can I do to better support you?” Channel openness and receptivity and let go of a need to defend or solve. Often folks just want to be heard, so the power in this practice is really listening (especially since most managers cannot guarantee job security).
  • In weekly team meetings, create a regular (but time bound) space for everyone to check-in. I find the TEA check-in to be amazing.

Last, don’t be afraid to explore ways to spark innovation—what might become possible due to these changes? Is there an opportunity for new processes to emerge? Is this a chance to cut a program that has been ineffective? I'm a big fan of creating space on this topic so folks feel like they have an opportunity to influence outcomes.

A portrait of Kristen Arterburn smiling. To her left is text that reads, "Hearing the "why" from senior leaders is helpful, but many people find value from just being heard." Underneath is text attribution, reading "- Kristen Arterburn, Former Head of Change Management, People Strategy, Google".

3. Model Self-Care

Oftentimes work can feel like we’re in the mosh pit where it’s dark, we’re being bumped around, and we don’t have a clear direction (help, where’s the exit sign!). It’s important to periodically get up on our own balcony, to clarify our priorities (both life and work) and to take stock of where we are putting our focus.

If you are calendar-driven, leverage that to your advantage. Schedule your vacations, block time for exercise and lunch, block work time (as opposed to meeting time), and you can even block thinking time.

It’s normal to feel a sense of powerlessness when we’re overloaded. Make two lists, one for things that are outside of your control, and the other for things that you can control. Reviewing the list of what’s within your control, identify one small action that could help move you in the right direction. It can be really helpful to talk this through with a trusted friend or colleague.

Recently I made a list of all of my work and life responsibilities, and wow, it was enlightening! Volunteer commitments, a long list of work projects, caregiving for parents, kids, and pets- the list went on and on. I then color coded what I needed to keep, what I could stop, and where I had questions. Sharing this with a supportive family member provided some needed accountability.

A portrait of Kara de Maine smiling. To her left is text that reads, "It’s important to periodically get up on our own balcony, to clarify our priorities (both life and work) and to take stock of where we are putting our focus." Underneath is text attribution, reading "- Kara de Maine, Former Deputy Director People & Organization Potential, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation".

4. Leverage Flexibility to Improve Culture

When you do the right work, at the right time, in the right space, with the right people - everyone wins.  Never lose sight of the power flexible work arrangements can unlock for your team’s productivity and well-being.  Three opportunities to consider:

  • Establish collaborative working norms vs enforcing top-down rules & mandates. Team level agreements are a set of guidelines developed by team members to establish healthy boundaries and expectations for working together, regardless of where the work is done. The goal is to build trust, which in turn improves team performance, effectiveness, cohesion and satisfaction.
  • Explore flexible work arrangements to accommodate individual needs. When teams embrace results-oriented, flexible work models (like job sharing or flextime), they can then shift from measuring time spent at a desk, to tangible results and contributions, allowing for a more outcome-driven environment
  • Provide opportunities for skill development and growth within the team. This not only boosts morale but also helps individuals feel more engaged and motivated in their roles.

Employees need time to recharge, and a culture that values and promotes work-life balance and flexibility can significantly reduce burnout.

Stacked portraits of Sara Wiita and Shannon Crile smiling. To their left is text that reads, "When you do the right work, at the right time, in the right space, with the right people - everyone wins." Underneath is text attribution, reading "- Sara Wiita and Shannon Crile, Founders Chapter Two Group, Former Google".

Interested in learning more about our Organizational Design services? Send us an email at info@intentionalfutures.com.

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