Recognizing And Managing, And Ultimately Preventing, Burnout In People Leaders

By Nell Derick Debevoise, Contributor

How do you know if you or someone you manage is suffering from burnout? What are the signs to look out for, and what should you do about it?

The following will help you recognize, manage, and ultimately prevent burnout in your leaders. Discover if this important topic is relevant to your leadership, the leaders around you, or both, and learn tips on how to remedy it when it arises.

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The cost of employee burnout in the workplace

The estimated annual cost of not addressing mental health in the workplace is $1 trillion globally and $100 billion in the United States.

Mental Health costs businesses here in the United States and around the world too much to not pay closer attention, and it’s affecting a large majority of our workers. McKinsey & Company reported in April 2021 that nearly half of the employees who responded to their survey are experiencing burnout symptoms in the workplace.

For years we’ve treated mental health as a personal issue while ignoring the lack of accessibility to care within our country (statistics from CNBC).

  • 112 million Americans live in areas where mental health providers are scarce
  • Less than half of those with a mental disorder receive proper treatment
  • Medicare only covers about 23% of psychiatrists in the US

Ignoring your employee’s mental health in the workforce reduces job satisfaction, leads to poor work performance, high absenteeism, and poor relationships with coworkers. This adds to a feeling of disconnection and dissatisfaction with the company, which points toward resignation.

The good news is that solutions are coming! Executive leadership is taking notice, and so are several new startups like YubiHealth – a workplace mental health app for employees. The Great Resignation and the need to address employee wellbeing to retain top talent is a hot topic these days.

To truly make a difference in the workplace, it’s essential to recognize this is happening, and it is a risk for the people on your team.

Once you have addressed the immediate, begin putting preventative measures into place for long-term effects. Implement daily changes as well as long-term policies that lead to better practices. Then model those practices!

Recognizing the signs of burnout

The first step is knowing what burnout looks like. While there is no one-size-fits all you can recognize it by looking for the following:

  • Uncharacteristic work performance could include missed details, missed deadlines, and poor communication.
  • Signs of exhaustion could include late arrivals, irritability, visible distraction, and fatigue.
  • Sudden mood changes could look like social withdrawal, a change in how they interact verbally, or a physical reaction such as nausea to confrontation.

Burnout is contagious! So it’s important to recognize what signs of burnout YOU are feeling as a people leader? And what you’re doing about them. Be honest. 

Are you paying attention to your mental health wellbeing? Are you advising your people leaders to do the same?

Burnout is contagious, but healthy practices can be contagious too! It’s all about how you manage and model wellbeing.  

Managing employee burnout (and leadership burnout)

If you’re a people leader, your first responsibility is to make sure everyone on your team stays productive, happy, and healthy. If they’re not, there’s no chance they can deliver on the role they play on your team.

Although recognizing burnout is the first step, helping someone once you do can be tricky. It isn’t enough to tell them it will get better; they need reassurance that they aren’t alone and help to build their confidence to face challenges head-on.

Radical empathy is an art, not a science

You can help someone by applying radical empathy. The best way to implement this is to determine what they need in the moment. Then, use your intuition and your voice. A simple ask can make all the difference.

You can engage those in your workforce by sharing personal stories. This will let them know they are not alone and that you have also had your share of struggles. Everyone needs a leader they can relate to; they want to humanize you. Let them.

Add laughter and joy to the workplace and remember always to emphasize the other person’s value. Check in on them personally and regularly.

“Once you know where people are at personally,” says Maria Katris, Founder and CEO of Built In, “it explains all the professional stuff. Understanding the human element is actually more important to help people perform their best.”

Implement and model boundaries

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For mental health in the workforce to change it will take courageous leaders to implement and model the changes. Here are a few steps you can take to change the culture in your organization:

  • Take mental health days or half days, be open about why you are taking time off, and encourage employees to do the same
  • Schedule quiet times or “head down” times at the office where everyone takes a quick mental break
  • Review the workload and streamline the priorities. Not everything has to be a rush, and many of those meetings (virtual and in-person) could really be handled in an email.
  • Clarify and reinforce the purpose behind the job.
  • Be willing to reevaluate if this is the right season to address a particular goal if you are currently navigating burnout amongst your leadership or employees. Would it be better to wait and tackle that goal later?

Preventing burnout with the Me-We-World model

Applying the Me-We-World model is a great way to implement preventative measures for employee burnout.

Start with the Me

Define and talk about your purpose. Take a look at your purpose statement and refine it with this formula. It doesn’t have to be perfect or permanent, but it is a great place to start.

Once you’ve drafted your purpose statement, share it regularly, at least out loud to yourself, and ideally with teammates. Our team reads our purpose statements in our Monday standups, along with a highlight: one thing that we’ll do that week that feels most aligned with our purpose. The repetitive reading of the statement and concretely tying it to our daily activities ensures that we remember WHY we’re doing the work we’re doing. 

Review your purpose statement quarterly and make sure it still resonates. Over time it will evolve. For example, one of our team members has progressed from broader to more specific language as she learns more and more about what really lights her up. 

Walk the talk and take care of yourself. And talk about it! Modeling new behavior requires that people see you doing it. So take self-care days yourself as a leader. Set boundaries around when you’re available for meetings, calls, emails, and Slacks. Put midday walks or exercise breaks on your calendar for all to see - and hold yourself accountable for not scheduling over them! 

Experiment and learn what works for you to avoid burnout, whether it’s socializing, quiet time, a non-work hobby, getting outside, afternoon naps, or otherwise. 

Move towards We

Create an environment that allows for wellbeing. Build-in time for mindfulness and personal connection in your meetings and work together - especially for remote teams.

Mindfulness can take the form of a moment of silence or guided meditation at the start of a meeting, or a quick round of gratitude, sharing something you’re each grateful for. To keep the personal connections strong on our team, we start our Monday standups with a High and Low from the weekend before.

Schedule regular check-ins on your own and in direct reports. Make sure the people under your leadership are asked regularly how they are doing in each dimension (Me We World). Ask the following:

·         How are you doing, on a scale of 1-10? 

·         What could be better?

·         Can we make that change this week? This quarter?

·         If not, what are we doing to do about it? Is it a non-negotiable? Other solutions? New role?

Begin with informal and straightforward steps. We’ve added a weekly ‘wellness rating’ to our end-of-week stand ups. Everyone simply rates their wellbeing (mental and physical) on a 1-10 scale. The mere awareness is helpful and alerts colleagues and managers of the need to reach out if someone is falling below a seven many weeks in a row.

Eventually, you’ll want to move from the small steps to a more formal burnout avoidance policy. To do this you’ll need to define what it looks like. Require people managers to document their own burnout symptoms and management techniques to pay that forward to their teams.

Create and educate employees on the benefits that are available to address burnout. You can add mental health apps and services to the policy and incorporate flex time, increase PTO and improve ERGs and other internal connectivity points.

Then share the World

Share customer stories with your employees of how their work has improved real lives. This is one of the most potent ways to connect employees to the company’s purpose and impact, especially for those who aren’t in the frontlines and rarely see the impact firsthand, if ever.

African man counselor therapist coach psychologist speak at group counseling therapy session concept encourage support patients in addiction talk share problem sit in circle in rehab, close up view getty

Over a decade ago Adam Grant’s research highlighted how fundraising performance skyrocketed after meeting just one of the recipients of the funds raised. Personal stories are extremely powerful in providing a sense of meaning and purpose.

Another great way to engage the world is by supporting a cause that is larger than the We. Volunteer activities are a great way to strengthen teams and provide additional value to their work.

On our team, we’ve begun an anti-racism book club. We choose a book to read together and have 45 minutes of peer-led discussion about a few chapters every other week. Over the last year-plus of doing that, we have seen how it grounds us and puts ‘issues’ or stress into perspective.

Prevention begins with recognizing the problem and managing the immediate issues. To fully prevent burnout in people leaders and those they manage, it’s essential to emphasize workplace wellbeing. It’s critical to your personal wellbeing, the wellbeing of your company, and the overall workforce (Me We World) to manage and prevent burnout from becoming a long-term condition.

The reason is simple: Burnout is costly for both employers and employees.


Learn more about my new book, Going First: Find the Courage to lead Purposefully and Inspire Action, here.


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