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Maintaining your spark: How to prevent burnout in your team

It’s a misconception that if you do what you love, you’ll never work another day. The truth is we are all at risk of burnout regardless of how much we love our work. Burnout can take many forms and it’s important to know how to stay ahead of it in the workplace. Even the most passionate leaders experience burnout. The first step in getting ahead of burnout is acknowledging that everyone is susceptible to it. When we understand how to handle burnout as leaders, we can better support our team.

What is burnout and how does it affect leaders?

The World Health Organization defines burnout as a phenomenon “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. Simply put, burnout is a state of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion caused by prolonged stress. Burnout can cause you to feel emotionally drained, tired, detached, less productive, and deprived of satisfaction from things you used to find fulfilling. It decreases your motivation, and you may find it difficult to perform daily tasks. As leaders, when we experience burnout, we may even unsuspectingly pass our feelings of hopelessness and frustration onto our team and unknowingly affect their performance.  

Burnout in leaders can cause feelings of inadequacy. Leaders who experience burnout may find it more difficult to stay focused, engage with their team and maintain their stamina. This usually happens when leaders are overworked and have too many tasks without the right support systems. Leaders and people in positions of power like executives, are often faced with the additional pressures and responsibilities that come from managing their team. This is why it is so important that as leaders, we can identify the characteristics of burnout in ourselves. If left unchecked, burnout can cause leaders to become quick to anger and even carry a suspicious attitude about others. For leaders, taking time to destress and practice mindfulness exercises are great ways to decompress after a stressful day.

Burnout manifests differently in everyone. Some people may experience physical symptoms like back pain and headaches. They may experience sleep disruptions including sleeping too much or not enough or finding it hard to stay focused and motivated. Other people may feel emotionally withdrawn and find it hard to connect with friends, coworkers, and family. Many people who feel burnt out find their work tasks to be overwhelming and dreadful. Burnout usually happens when we are overworked and do not take enough time taking care of our wellbeing. This is especially prevalent during busy and stressful seasons as we can find it hard to manage all of our responsibilities.

Burnout doesn’t just affect leaders and their team—it also lowers productivity and morale.

A human-centred approach to emotional labour

It’s important for leaders to discuss burnout with their team. Dr. Christina Maslach, a social psychologist and professor from the University of California, Berkeley explains burnout as “a human response to stress.” She indicates 6 common drivers of burnout in her research including workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and value. Let’s unpack how leaders can create a positive workplace free from burnout by addressing these stressors.

  • Workload. We know insufficient resources, lack of time, and high demands lead to burnout. As leaders, we should reduce these obstacles as much as possible.
    • Control. This occurs when team members aren’t given enough autonomy. For example, when leaders micromanage their teams, it can lead to feelings of inadequacy and frustration. Having trust is crucial in healthy relationships. 
    • Reward. Leaders should give their team the recognition for doing good jobs. Even a simple, “great job” is meaningful. Positive feedback builds morale and creates a healthy team environment. 
    • Community. We all need community, and leaders should aim to create safe spaces for their team where they feel safe and heard. This is why team exercises and bonding opportunities such as group walks are so important for creating a welcoming community.
    • Fairness. Everyone deserves to be treated fairly. This ties into control: when team members are micromanaged or not given enough choice, they may feel they are unfairly treated.
    • Value. Leaders should help their team see the value of their work. When people feel that the work they do is meaningful, they feel fulfilled and satisfied.

    Talking about burnout with your team

    Burnout is a very real problem in the workplace and leaders should take initiative in talking about it more with their team. Having open conversations is the first step in managing workplace burnout with your team. As leaders, we should be proactive in starting conversations with our team—even if they are difficult conversations—and equip them with the tools and resources they need to succeed. When each member thrive, the whole team thrives. Having authentic and realistic conversations with your team members about their workload and wellbeing are essential to creating a healthy community and building resilience.

    The key takeaway is this: take initiative in talking about burnout and be proactive in implementing solutions will improve the wellbeing of your team. Compassion goes a long way.