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  • John R. Durant

Team Burnout: Treatment & Prevention

You can almost never go wrong when taking the time to ask how someone is doing and then listening. Take notes and reflect on what you learn. Ideas for fixing what is broken will inevitably come. Trust it!

A recent Gallup poll that tracks worker stress levels has confirmed what we all commonsensically know: many people are stressed and experiencing “burnout.” It’s not hard to find macro-level root causes. The adversities of the past year have massively affected people personally and professionally. Those fortunate to still have jobs have found themselves managing unusual personal challenges while shouldering even heavier workloads. Now, as dutiful workers struggle to hold it all together, some are burning out. What are some of the signs that this is happening, and what can you do about it?

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Potential signs of burnout

If you’re at least a few years into your career, it is almost certain that you’ve personally experienced burnout or you have witnessed it in others. Let’s look at some possible signs.

  • You’ve found a loyal employee’s resume sitting in the printer tray (the sine qua non of alarming signals).

  • Previously positive employees have become cynical or (even worse) have gone silent.

  • Employees are taking less PTO (I’ve found this to be a more reliable signal than its opposite).

  • There is a decline in productivity and/or a baffling increase in “silly” mistakes (a potential sign of growing apathy).

  • The words, “burning the midnight oil” have cropped up more than once in a year.

  • The words “death march” have been used to describe any project you’re associated with.

  • When you ask how people are doing, you receive vague and listless responses like “fine” or “OK” and nothing more.

  • Fun events like the “Company Kan Jam Tournament” or interest groups like “Crochet Club” no longer function.

  • The atmosphere just “feels” heavy (we’ve all experienced this and know it when it’s happening).

Of course, there are other signs. But hopefully this short list has got you thinking, and other ideas are coming to mind.

Let me be emphatic about this point: if you have reason to suspect your team members are experiencing burnout— you can just assume they are. You’ll rarely be wrong. The good news is, it’s not too late to turn things around. There are things you can do today to stop the disease of discontent from progressing any further.

Engage, listen, and don’t be defensive

Getting communication flowing is essential. Survey after survey tells a consistent story: a large percentage (some studies suggest over 50%) of employees either never meet with their managers or meet less than once a month. And the quality of the 1:1’s that do happen is often quite poor. Most of the time, managers are only interested in talking about tasks and tactics, rarely taking the time to ask how employees are feeling, how they are doing, and what could be done to improve their experience and work/life balance.

It’s not hard to find out how well your organization is practicing 1:1’s. Walk into any cube farm right now and ask any individual contributor you see two questions: “When was the last 1:1 you had with your manager? Who drove the agenda and did most of the talking?” The answers should be, “Just this week,” and “Me!” respectively. Obviously, managers need 1:1’s, too! So, the same questions apply.

The way forward

I make a point to avoid referring to people as “resources,” as if they are mere chunks of capital to be deployed in the service of some process. C.S. Lewis once said, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal … it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit.” One of the greatest duties of a manager is maintaining a healthy sense of humanity while organizing people to accomplish tasks that aren’t inherently human such as doing cloud deployments, monitoring desktops, creating test builds, running finance reports, updating product roadmaps, and hitting EPS targets. You can almost never go wrong when taking the time to ask how someone is doing and then listening. Take notes and reflect on what you learn. Ideas for fixing what is broken will inevitably come. Trust it!

* Thanks to Ruth Sleeter, CIO at Sonos, for bringing up this topic in a recent SignalFire roundtable we were in led by Yujin Chung.

© Growthsight, LLC 2021


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