For People Leaders
Burnout is real. The majority of people experience it to some degree. While it can be difficult to deal with, there are steps you can take to prevent and manage burnout if it affects you or your team.
Do you ever have days when you just don’t want to go to work? Or times when your job doesn’t feel as fulfilling as it did in the past? Are you having difficulty sleeping? Have you been experiencing headaches, digestive issues, or other physical ailments? Are you feeling impatient or irritable with everyone around you? Are you feeling less productive? Is it more difficult to concentrate than in the past?
If you found yourself nodding your head yes for any combination of these symptoms, then you might be experiencing burnout.
It’s important to note that some of the signs and symptoms associated with burnout are just a part of life, but when they become chronic and life-altering, it’s time to take a closer look. In addition to the consequences listed above, burnout can also inflict some pretty hefty and potentially serious health-related consequences on whomever is experiencing it:
Understanding the signs, symptoms, and consequences of burnout is crucial to both prevention and knowing how to handle it if it occurs—either personally or on your team, but it’s also important to be aware of what burnout is at its core and how prevalent it is in our society.
What Is Burnout?
Burnout is real. The signs and symptoms of burnout feel very real. While not classified as a medical condition in spite of all of those signs and symptoms, according to the WHO (World Health Organization), burnout is defined 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:
Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
If you’re feeling any degree of burnout, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re a member of an ever-growing club—a club that no one really wants to be a part of. Burnout is affecting more and more people in our fast-paced, seemingly ultra-competitive world, and studies about burnout found the following results that are important for both leaders and team members to understand:
“Unfortunately, burnout has been steadily rising since May 2020 and we have now hit a critical threshold. As it currently stands, people and organizations are being set up for failure, since high burnout leads to lower morale, more mistakes, and a lack of engagement with work.” ~ Dr. Sahar Yousef, Cognitive Neuroscientist, UC Berkeley
Tips for Managing Burnout Before, During, and After It Occurs
No matter where you are on the burnout spectrum, there are some things you can do to reduce the chances that burnout will get a more permanent hold of you. If you’re a manager, use these tips to help those you lead if and when they are affected by burnout, keeping in mind that employees can experience burnout due to no fault of leadership. Leaders can be powerful allies in the burnout recovery process.
Before Burnout Occurs
Since burnout can come on gradually, leaders and employees alike might not even realize they’re heading down the path to burnout, especially the most loyal and hard-working members of any organization. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Follow Franklin’s wise advice and use the following tips to reduce the risk of burnout happening even before those first signs and symptoms occur.
Watch for signs and symptoms of burnout. Once you understand what burnout is, it’s easier to see it creeping into your own life and the lives of your team. Even if what you’re experiencing isn’t true burnout, being aware of what’s going on can help nip potential burnout in the bud before it hits full force.
Ask and answer some tough project and task-related questions. With all your work responsibilities, ask yourself: Is this essential? Is this necessary? Can whatever you're working on be just as successful without the extra time, energy, and brain power you think it will require? Often, taking a bit of time to answer these questions can make tasks more manageable and less burnout-inducing while still getting tasks completed successfully.
Where employees are concerned, ask yourself these additional questions: Have you explored a new task enough to understand exactly what you're asking this employee to do? Is what you're asking them to do going to be outside their current bandwidth? Is your request realistic for them to accomplish? Managers sometimes assign a task not understanding the full realm of that task, leading to more work—and the potential for burnout—for employees than they realized. Discuss new assignments with employees and be quick to make any needed adjustments to their current workload OR give this new task to someone else.
Work life balance is a myth. Learn more about balancing your life here.
Just say no—set needed boundaries. This tip goes along with the tip above, but when it comes to taking on anything new in your work life, weigh the consequences of saying yes and how that yes will affect your risk of burnout as well as your personal life. If saying no isn’t an option, have a discussion with your leader about what changes need to be made to make it possible to complete this new task without exceeding your available bandwidth.
“You can do anything, but not everything.” ~ David Allen, productivity consultant
Practice consistent self-care. Burnout can wreak havoc on your life, especially your personal life. One of the best prevention tips is to make time to take care of yourself—not only when it’s convenient, but every day. This can look like exercising regularly, eating healthy, getting enough sleep, doing hobbies, spending time on relationships, taking vacation time—whatever you need to do to take care of yourself.
Make a strong team culture a priority as both a leader and within your peer group. When a strong team culture is built on trust, open communication, vulnerability, and honest feedback, including honest and open discussions about burnout, it will be less likely to occur, benefitting everyone in the organization.
“In burnout cultures, people are judged by the sacrifices they make. Hobbies, vacation, and even family time are viewed as distractions to penalize. In healthy cultures, people are judged by the commitments they keep. Interests outside work are seen as passions to celebrate.” ~ Adam Grant, organizational psychologist, bestselling author, top-rated professor at Wharton School of Business
Get tips for creating and nurturing a strong team culture here.
During and After Burnout Occurs
You’ve finally faced the signs and symptoms, and you’ve accepted that you’re burned out. Congratulations! This is a huge step towards your recovery! But, as you embark on the road to recovery, it’s important to understand that burnout will not go away on its own. You can’t just ignore it and expect to heal from what you’re feeling and experiencing. Unfortunately, there’s not a one-size-fits-all prescription for overcoming burnout, but hopefully, these tips will help if and when you’re experiencing burnout.
Seek to understand what caused the burnout in the first place. If you’re not aware of what’s actually been going on, you’ll have a difficult time making needed changes. Track your stress levels, how you’re feeling, what causes those burnout-related feelings to surface, and so on. Replace any unwanted habits with healthier options to reduce the chances of burnout happening again. If you’re having a difficult time unplugging from work, for example, choose some activities you enjoy that can take the place of the “extra” time you’d be spending on work. It’s easier to replace a habit than to go cold turkey on an unwanted habit.
Be vigilant in your recovery process. Just because you start to feel better, don’t think you’re recovered. It’s easy to fall back into the old habits that got you on the burnout spectrum in the first place if you’re not paying attention to how your life is going day after day.
Create or join a supportive community. This community can be made up of friends, co-workers, family members...anyone who you feel comfortable discussing your struggles with and who you can lean on for support. And don’t forget to return the favor to others too.
Seek professional help when needed. There is no shame in suffering from burnout. If you’re not seeing that light at the end of the tunnel, work with a professional to figure out your best path to recovery.
Give yourself grace and space. Burnout recovery will take time, and the recovery timeframe is unique to each individual and can depend on the depth and length of the burnout. Your recovery process won’t be perfect, and the important thing is to take it step by step, one day at a time. Celebrate what goes well and learn from what doesn’t.
Burnout is real. Experiencing any form of burnout is nothing to be ashamed of. Understanding what burnout is and how it can affect your life is crucial to prevention and management if and when it affects you or a member of your team. The good news is that burnout recovery is also real, and it can be overcome step by step, day by day.
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