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Are leaders to blame for burnout?

Blog leader burnout content

It’s a frightening statistic that 80% of people have experienced burnout at some point during their working life. What’s even more worrying is what this says about company culture en masse, and it begs the question — are leaders to blame?

Let’s start by saying this isn’t a finger-pointing exercise. But when we explore accidental behaviours within company culture, it’s little things like MDs or CEOs eating lunch at their desk, staying late or sending that occasional email on a Sunday that can begin to foster the belief among workers that ‘maybe I should do that too’.

There’s also the concept of ‘what success looks like’. Since school, people have had it drilled into them that you need to put in the extra work/effort/hours to get things done and to achieve success. So when we enter the working world and witness that same encouragement, it seems as if all of the leaders throughout our lives have been breeding burnout culture.

What is burnout?

Burnout is the direct result that comes from work-life conflict. If you’ve reached the state of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, chances are you’re suffering from burnout. And when it comes to the workplace, it’s pretty easy to spot the behaviours too: working longer hours, skipping personal commitments to fulfill work obligations, working while sick, lack of sleep, the list goes on… What it can lead to is anxiety, depression and even long-term health issues.

The problem

The big problem we face today is that the working world fosters burnout. It has become an accepted right of passage by many where in order to feel they’ve been truly successful in their achievements they have had to push themselves to breaking point. Yet if you looked at leaders within organisations, the majority would fall short of praise – or god forbid encourage employees to ‘take it easy’ and not push themselves too hard. Instead, it’s becoming more apparent that organisations allow this behaviour to manifest and weave its way into the company culture.

Sending work communications out of hours, ignoring when people haven’t taken advantage of holiday allowances, failure to respect people’s workloads, setting unrealistic expectations — these are just some of the all-too-common mistakes businesses make, and while they may be focussed on the levels of productivity, there seems to be a noticeable lack of awareness when it comes to the thriving burnout culture that is being fostered.

We are also now encountering the problems that come with the new culture of hybrid working as a result of the pandemic, and while this offers the perks of flexibility and the hopes of a better work-life balance, people are also finding that their commute time has indirectly been replaced with additional working hours, and a growing temptation to work while sick instead of taking the necessary time off to recover. In 2020, 7 in 10 people admitted to working while feeling under the weather, and felt that by already being at home they didn’t want to appear to be slacking or taking advantage by requesting time off to rest.

Here’s a question — what would you do if a whole team were to be signed off with work-related stress? The panic isn’t worth thinking about, right?

The solution

The risk of burnout to your team not only affects them, it affects you too. Not only will you see motivation and productivity eventually slip, but you don’t want to get a reputation for encouraging this behaviour either — it’s not going to win talent over in any acquisition drive.

If you’re serious about building a strong company culture which genuinely promotes the wellbeing of team members, then addressing the working patterns of employees should sit pretty high on your priority list. It cannot simply come from the HR department. If you’re to address the burnout problem then it needs to come from the top. Ask yourself what you’re doing to help the wellbeing of your team members? How often are you sitting down to assess how they’re feeling, any problems they may be facing, their motivations, and what you can do to support them?

Remember that real leaders take action, lead by example and demonstrate the company values through their own behaviours. If you’re sat at your desk way into the evening, this accidental behaviour is being observed by your team — perhaps unknowingly, but you’re sending the message that people need to continue working after hours. My advice? Take the work home where they can’t see it, or send a newsletter out to the team encouraging them to clock off at home time and reinforce the importance of a healthy work-life balance.

Here are some takeaway tips for battling burnout in your organisation:

  • If you haven’t already, then make sure you’ve got an employee assistance programme in place where team members can seek support for their wellbeing within a safe and confidential setting. Discuss the possibility of introducing mental health days where staff can take the time they need to reflect, encourage team members during regular 1-2-1s that it’s OK to talk any challenges through and to speak up — you could go so far as to introduce CBT sessions as part of office life.
  • Schedule out-of-hours communications — if any of the leadership team think to send any comms outside of working hours perhaps even to make sure you don’t forget, schedule the send of this to be for first thing the following morning so that staff aren’t tempted to respond during their relaxation time. Change the perception that they have to be constantly available.
  • Encourage lunch breaks — no eating at your desk or scheduling ‘working lunches’; get out for a walk, mingle with colleagues, get some exercise, or even a screen break. Particularly when you factor in daylight hours during winter, if you’re traveling to and from work in darkness with lunch stuck indoors, you’re not going to be benefiting from natural daylight or fresh air.
  • Monitor workloads — we actually use Asana as a helpful tool for this, which allows us to check what projects are being worked on and if anyone is going to be overloaded so we can step in to reduce any unnecessary pressure; find a tool that works for you and implement it throughout the business
  • Reduce meeting times. It’s often felt that if people spent more time doing than talking, we’d save a lot of time reaching the end goal. Could you cut an hour down to 30 minutes — or even introduce lightning meetings where key points are raised, problems solved and actions agreed in under 15 minutes? Make a point to celebrate giving this time back to your team. And make sure you don’t have meetings for the sake of a meeting.
  • Encourage time off — recognise the people who ‘haven’t got time to take a break’, these are the ones who need it most.

    By taking any or all of these tips on board, you have the opportunity to foster a more positive company culture which factors in the wellbeing of your team, promotes productivity, and reduces the risk of burnout.

    Have you spotted any signs of burnout in your organisation, or even experienced it first-hand? Do you think it could be solved by leaders taking action? Let me know on LinkedIn.

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