Leading Through a New Kind of Burnout

By Kimberly Mosley posted 09-13-2021 04:00 PM


You’ve made it through the summer, maybe had a chance to use some vacation time, and now you’re ready to tackle a busy fall feeling calm and refreshed, right? Well maybe?

 There’s a good chance you aren’t as relaxed these days as you might like. Nor is your staff. A May 2020 report by the project management technology firm Asana found that 89 percent of U.S. workers experienced burnout at least once in the past year. And that was before COVID-19 hit full swing. Now, with a whole new array of stressors—remote-work arrangements that challenge work-life balance, Zoom fatigue, anxiety over the virus itself—the idea of what it means to look after your staff’s well-being requires a reset. The usual rhythm of vacations and holidays may not do the trick.

 A sizable proportion of Americans are quitting their jobs—4 million in April 2021 alone. At the DAA OneConference October 5 -7, Ron Hetrick will talk about how the US is suffering the beginning stages of a sansdemic: a lack of people to do all the work that needs to be done. And according to the new school’s Schwartz Center for Economic Policy analysis, some people may never come back. An estimated 1.1 million older workers retired and exited America’s labor force between August 2020 and January 2021. More break time alone won’t crack the problem of retaining burned-out workers looking for other opportunities, wrote workplace expert Liz Fosslien last week in the MIT Sloan Management Review. The struggle is more existential: “Lacking a sense of meaning and not receiving the emotional support you need to thrive are both also strongly related to feeling stretched too thin,” she writes.

It is more important than ever to hold onto your talent, but more break time alone won’t fix the problem.

To address that, Fosslien recommends several things that leaders can do to help their teams feel a bit more balanced. Most involve opening lines of communication if workers want to talk directly about issues. But a good leader also knows when to lay off a little bit: Empowering people to do their work without micromanaging them goes a long way toward feeling less pressure.

This is also a perfect time to emphasize professional development. If “lacking a sense of meaning” is a substantial problem, opportunities to upgrade skills can be a boon for both the worker and the organization. And, of course, being a corporate member of the DAA sends a clear message to your team that you want them to participate in professional development and be connected and supported by a digital analytics community.

But with professional development options, it’s best to tread carefully—the solution to staff feeling more overwhelmed isn’t necessarily putting more things to do in their inbox, even if they’re beneficial. If the largest symbol of the pandemic-era workplace is that everybody is now working everywhere, all the time, leaders can ease the anxiety by instituting some firm boundaries on when work gets done.

Speaking with the Society for Human Resource Management, leadership expert Michael Levitt recommends that workers get in the habit of setting alarms for when their workday is done and then shutting off notifications for the day. I’d go a step further and suggest that leaders make a point to establish it as a policy; after all, your most-stressed workers are the ones least likely to ask for permission for that kind of peace of mind. And what if there’s an emergency? Maybe, in the midst of a pandemic, it’s best to save that word for when it’s warranted. “Priorities and urgent matters are fine, but only hospitals deal in emergencies,” he says.

How has your organization faced and addressed burnout issues? Share your experiences on LinkedIn.

This blog excerpts from Leading Through a New Brand of Burnout by Mark Athitakis featured on Associations Now.




02-24-2022 09:54 PM

Top leadership needs to check in and see if the workload is doable and how can we keep the challenges achievable. 
That mindset shift alone can go a long way to reduce burnout.

09-14-2021 10:18 AM

Great article and so true Kim! I've felt and seen the impacts of the pandemic on myself and more importantly, my team. 

The challenges of working in remote isolation and the pressures of the virtual environment and what can only be described as the "multiple multi-tasking" environment (i.e. working on a deliverable, chatting with two other coworkers, and eating lunch.... all while on virtual call) has really taken its toll on the workforce.

I'm looking forward to Ron Hetrick's talk at OneConference on this topic and picking up some tips and guidance, but in the mean time, I think it's really important that leaders lead the way to helping their team's get their balance back.

Some things that I've tried to do... (and as this pandemic continues, a good reminder to reboot and keep doing!)...

1) Respect your team's time off and afterhours time. It's so easy in this virtual world to "ping" them when they're offline, we have to be more diligent than ever in respecting the boundaries and giving them the space to disconnect from work. There isn't even a drive home to create separation anymore, just a walk down the hall. As leaders, we have to help create that separation by standing by hours of business and not pulling them back in once they've stepped away for the day.... even if we're under pressure for something and need them. It can wait. Really, it can.

2) Encourage calendar blocking. Recognize that meetings and multi-tasking is off the charts these days and it's killing the white space to simply think and explore new ideas or approaches to things. We're all just trying to "knock things out" and close out deliverables... but what about doing them differently? Doing them better? Making connections and connecting dots? Again, we don't even have a ride home to think about things anymore! We have to make time for this important thinking/processing/connection making time, so encourage your team members to block time on the calendars weekly to focus and think... whatever works for them, and help them to make it sacred time.

3) Buy them lunch, virtually. As leaders we used to do drive-byes to see if our directs were available to grab lunch and buy for them to say "thank you". It's an important gesture and shows that you really appreciate the big and little acts of heroism they perform everyday. Don't let the virtual world kill that habit... you can use uber eats, grub hub, etc. to order locally and have lunch delivered to them... and remember, it's not just the gift of food, it's about spending time with them and just hanging out, so enjoy a casual 1:1 over lunch together... remotely! 

4) Get out. No, seriously... remember when we used to have to walk from building to building for meetings, or at least from our car to the front door? Well we need encourage everyone to get out of solitary confinement and into the outside once in while. A great idea for this is walking meetings. Try a 1:1 or staff meeting where everyone dials in from their phones (not video!!) and goes for a walk or hangs out somewhere outside for the duration of the meeting. 

5) Check in, sincerely. Set aside the first or last 15 minutes of your 1:1's with your team to ask how they are doing. No, really... not work wise, not performance wise, but how are they holding up. Care, sincerely about the answer.. it matters. We're all doing our best to adapt and deal with the changes this brought, but as this has become a seemingly unending marathon to endure, compassion and assistance is something we all need from each other. So make time to ask and help support your team. 

Those are just some thoughts and practices I'd share. I'm never ashamed to steal good ideas from other leaders, so I'd love to hear what others are doing and take a page out of your book!

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