Bosses and Burnout: Three Things Leaders Should Know

Burnout on the job is costing us millions of dollars annually, but the solutions leaders are putting into place to solve the problem are missing the point.  Here’s what you need to know about burnout, and three effective strategies we as leaders can take to deal with it when it arises, and even prevent it from appearing in the first place.

Bosses and Burnout

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Paper-Thin Margins

It was the final lap of the 2020 British Grand Prix when disaster struck.  Lewis Hamilton of the Mercedes racing team held a commanding 30 second lead over the second-place driver, Max Verstappen of Red Bull.  Suddenly Hamilton’s left-front tire punctured. 

In the heat of the day, and under the unrelenting pressures of the racing environment, the tires had worn more rapidly than they realized.  And now, without warning, one had blown.  Suddenly that comfortable lead didn’t seem so large. 

Hamilton drove as fast as he safely could, fighting to keep the car on the track.  The deflated tire steadily disintegrated around the axle, and sparks flashed as the wheel rim ground down on the surface of the track; a trail of smoke followed the car as it limped around the corners.

Commentators counted down the fast-falling margin of victory as Verstappen tore around the track, racing to close the gap.  The thirty second lead quickly fell to twenty seconds, and then only ten.  By the time Hamilton finally limped across the finish line, five seconds were all that remained between winning and losing the race.

It was a close call; Hamilton was lucky to finish at all.  But his experience was also a great illustration of burnout, and the kind of costs it can have on our organizations.  Like Hamilton’s left front tire, the people in our organizations are both absolutely critical to success, and susceptible to burnout.  As leaders, it’s important we recognize what burnout is and how to deal with it, so that we make it to the end of whatever race we’re running.

What is Burnout?

According to Suzi McAlpine in her excellent book Beyond Burnout, “Burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress related to your professional life.” 

It’s no small issue.  No less a body than the World Health Organization has recently recognized burnout as a global phenomenon, and described three dimensions which characterize it:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from the job, or feelings of cynicism
  • Reduced professional efficacy

It may be common to hear someone say that they are “so burned out” after a particularly stressful day or even week, but true burnout is not a short-term problem.  As McAlpine says, it’s likely to happen when we experience, “chronic, sustained and long-term stress at work…when that feeling of drowning under work-related stress doesn’t subside.”  

Why is this a problem?  The costs of burnout to organizations can be significant, including high rates of absenteeism, lost productivity, and poor engagement.  One study found that 23 percent of international employees felt burned out very often or always.  Another estimated that one million workers are absent from their jobs every day due to stress, costing larger companies $3.5 million a year.

With numbers like these, chances are it may be happening to someone around you, and it’s taking a toll on health and productivity.  That makes it a leadership issue.  And here’s another reason as leaders we need to sit up and take notice.

It’s a Leadership Issue

Convention and culture may lead us to think of burnout as a personal issue, possibly even a sign of weakness.  Counseling, resilience classes, and productivity training may be part of the solution, but if we don’t consider the workplace environment, we’re missing perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle.

In a great analogy from Beyond Burnout, it would be like treating a sick goldfish, and then just dropping it back into the same toxic water that made it ill in the first place.   Or in Hamilton’s case out on the race track, like replacing the blown tire with another that is already worn thin.  Under the same conditions, it will blow, too.

To avoid that kind of disaster, here are three things as leaders we can put into practice to reduce the chance of burnout happening, and minimize the impact if it does.

Prevention and Treatment of Burnout

Identification.  One of the reasons that Hamilton was able to complete the race is that he and his crew chief knew the risks they were taking and were watching for signs of potential trouble.  The symptoms of a tire under stress can include blisters or marbling on the surface of the tread, flat spots from heavy breaking, and abnormal temperature readings.  Like the professionals they were, driver and crew were paying close attention to the condition of their tires from starting light to checkered flag.

As professionals in the working world, it should be no different with us.  Though the symptoms may be a little less clear, it is no less important to be watching for them.  When our teammates exhibit signs of chronic exhaustion, increased cynicism, or a decrease in efficacy, there could be a problem.  If they manifest all three, it’s time to take action – that tire is about to blow.

Isolation.  Hamilton was never alone with his problem.  Though he was the only one in the car, he was in constant contact with his crew chief and they were talking openly and factually about the problem Hamilton was having.  In contrast, one major study found that almost 60 percent of employees had never spoken about their mental health status.  Many feared the stigma that can come with admitting to experiencing prolonged stress.

As leaders, we can counter this by bringing up the topic ourselves, sharing our own stories, or those of well-regarded professionals.  Another technique McAlpine suggests is to ask teammates about their mental wellbeing, what challenges they are facing, and even ask them to rate themselves on a ten-point scale.  Another point is to make sure we aren’t using language that might suggest we think less of someone experiencing burnout.  Making it OK to talk about burnout helps reduce feelings of isolation, and the social stress that can come with it.

Self-Determination.  Soon after the tire blew, over the radio you could hear the crew chief giving Hamilton more options and ideas for how he could get his car to the finish line.  In this way, he was reacting to the burnout by giving his driver more autonomy.  This is a key component of something called Self Determination Theory.  As humans, we have an innate need to feel we have control of our lives.  Without it, motivation, performance, and wellbeing suffer.

There are many constructive ways to do this on our teams, from input on priorities and decision making, to control over time schedules, to access to resources.  When we organize in ways that maximize our teammates’ say not only in what they do, but how they do it, we heighten their potential for motivation, and decrease the likelihood of costly burnout.

Bosses and Burnout – The Takeaway

Hamilton was able to make it across the finish line despite his blown tire, but it could easily have cost him the race.  When the equivalent of that tire in our professional lives is a human being, the costs can be far greater, not only to production, but to personal health and well-being, and the impact burnout can have on the other members of the team.

Maybe it was easier for Hamilton and his crew chief to talk about how close they were to the limit because they were talking about a thing – a race car – and not a person.  But if we want to make it to our own finish lines with our team healthy and intact, we need to create an environment that reduces the chance of it happening in the first place, and that includes making it something that’s OK to talk about.

And if we succeed with that, it might just lead to another kind of burnout – the good kind, as our driver does victory doughnuts on the race track before heading into the winner’s circle.

Lead On!

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