Burnout in Teams

Burnout in Teams

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How to recognise and prevent burnout in ourselves and in our teams

Burnout is a complex phenomenon that is caused by multiple factors. Being exposed to chronic stressors over a long period of time is part of it, but it is also linked to our attitude towards our own work performance. People with a high need for appreciation and recognition, as well as those with a high need to meet their own high demands, can be more prone to burnout. A perfectionist attitude, low feelings of competency, a high need for harmony or a belief that you do not control your own destiny are personality traits that increase the risk of burnout.

In May 2019, the World Health Organisation released an updated description of burnout in the 11th revision of its ICD-11 (International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems). Previously defined as ‘a state of vital exhaustion’, it is now classified as ‘a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress’. The WHO emphasises that burnout is specifically work-related, characterised by a sense of exhaustion or depletion, mental distance from work, negativity/cynicism about work, and decreased effectiveness at work.

What causes burnout?

Some specific examples of what causes burnout are:

  • Work overload. When what we need to do is more than what our capacity allows for. Here, ‘capacity’ could refer to emotional, mental, physical, or time limits.
  • Role conflicts. If your role conflicts with your values, your purpose, the meaning you want to create for your life, or your skill set.
  • Effort and reward balance. For example, if you’ve had to take a salary cut, but still need to put in the same amount of work, or you are working very long hours, but not able to complete tasks due to the volume of work.
  • Work / family conflict. Balancing home and work responsibilities can become a chronic stressor if you are unable to fulfil your responsibilities.
  • Roles that require high interpersonal and emotional demands, for example, nurses and doctors, but many other leadership roles as well.

Burnout means that your ‘tank’ is empty. The demands being put upon you have exceeded your resources.

How can we identify burnout in ourselves and in our teams?

“Our scope of practise as leaders is to ensure an effective workforce. That includes noticing where your team members are struggling. But actually diagnosing and treating burnout is for a professional – don’t try and take it on, as it is not your role, and in many countries the legislation prevents you from doing so,” says Candice Clark, Managing Director, Dynamic Talent. However, if you notice any of these signs in yourself or your team, a visit to your GP should be a high priority. Remember that a physical condition could also be causing these symptoms, and these need to be ruled out before a proper diagnosis can be made.

  • A drop in energy levels. This can come across in meetings, e.g. somebody might show changes in their speed of talking, body language or posture. Are we less excited and energized, especially by things that used to excite us and bring us joy? The path to burnout is characterized by tiredness, fatigue, and eventually just complete depletion of energy stores and of our ability to be self-motivated. Working online can make it harder to tell, so make a point of being more observant and sensitive to changes in yourself and your team members.
  • Changes in emotions. This includes cynicism about professional and other relationships; feelings of pessimism in general and struggling to get out of that pessimistic state of mind; or being more anxious about project outcomes. Are any of your team members more frustrated about bottlenecks than normal, or more angered by conflicts, changes, and last-minute deadlines than normal? Notice verbal signs as well as non-verbal, such as body language and facial expressions, and also how they are managing their work and their interactions amongst each other.
  • Reduced performance / professional achievement. Are we struggling to achieve what we normally would in our job? Are we missing targets or deadlines? Set aside mediating factors, like the current economic climate, a global pandemic (a chronic stressor for most if not all of us), or interruptions resulting from working from home, and ask: “Am I currently able to complete the same amount of work that I would normally complete in this amount of time?”

How to address burnout

How we cope and manage our stressors is a critical aspect of preventing burnout.

Active coping strategies – when we actively change the stressor or our perception of the stressor – are always more sustainable than passive coping strategies, which is when we avoid the stressor. Passive copying strategies like alcohol abuse, withdrawal behaviour, and not wanting to engage with friends and family are associated with burnout.

The following are some active coping strategies that will help prevent burnout:

For Leaders

  • Clearly define tasks and projects. Make sure you provide your team with tasks over which they have more control.
  • Streamline processes. Find ways you can make things more efficient for you and your team.
  • Mindfulness. You and your team can benefit from yoga, meditation, or other mindfulness practises to help you to stay in the present moment. These are more effective with a live team or instructor.
  • Counselling and corporate support. Counselling workshops or corporate support groups for your team can assist in identifying pre-burnout warning signs and help individuals to better manage and change the situation.
  • Identify priorities. Consider shuffling your team, reprioritising tasks, and identifying priorities to set realistic goals and targets.
  • Improve communication. Encourage sharing between team members on how to manage stress and feelings of being overwhelmed.
  • Hire professional help. Outsource to an executive coach to assist you and your team with identifying professional individual and team goals and looking at all aspects to enable realising this vision within a scheduled amount of sessions.
  • Participate in a mentorship programme. As leaders, a mentor can be invaluable to providing perspective and contribute to the overall better performance and success of yourself and your team. Mentorship programmes provide ongoing and as such more immersive solutions than that of coaching, as your mentor come to know your leadership style and on which aspects of your leadership – e.g. planning and prioritising – you need to work. Having someone to turn to for advice can help with reducing stress, and ultimately burnout.
  • Encouragement and appreciation. Encourage professional accomplishments. Compliment and recognise good work from your team.

For Team Members and Individuals

  • Maximise your protective factors. Just like security, best practice involves layers of preventative measures, each of us requires layers of protection to help us manage both everyday stress, and chronic stress in our work environment. These layers include:
    • Get enough sleep, regular exercise, and proper nutrition.
    • Hire more help at home or reallocate home duties to spread the load.
    • Maintain strong family and friendship relationships.
    • Reconsider your capacity – are your expectations for yourself achievable?
    • Speak up at work if you are feeling overwhelmed or not able to cope. It is hard to admit you are not coping if you have high expectations of yourself, but addressing the problem is necessary if you are to sustainably change a potential burnout situation.

While taking time off may give some respite, long-term and sustainable change will only come about with a reduced load, and/or a changed attitude and expectations. You cannot expect things to change if you keep on the same path. Getting professional help, medication if necessary, 7-8 hours’ sleep each night and making time for relaxing is critical. Take time out from your phone and laptop and spend some down time with people with whom you feel happy. It will require conscious effort, but burnout can be overcome.