Am I burned out? What about my team? How to identify & prevent mental exhaustion

By Bridget Papanicholas, CEO, TRANSEARCH USA

Birthdays are supposed to be a time to kick back, relax and celebrate another year around the sun. In an interview with The New York Timesabout a recent birthday, the world's most famous entrepreneur and visionary, Elon Musk, regaled how he spent his special day pulling an all-nighter working in his factory.

Culturally, we have tended to value and admire the Musks of the world - those who work the hardest, no matter the cost. But then came Covid. And with it, the fiery burnout was plaguing workers of all stripes. Today, burnout is a significant concern for most businesses. A simple google search of 'burnout' yields a staggering 33,000,000 results, illustrating how prevalent and problematic it is, affecting everyone from rookie employees to C-Suite executives.

An Indeed study of 1,500 US workers found over half (52%) of respondents are experiencing burnout—up from 43% pre-Covid-19. A global study of nearly 4,000 workers and business leaders across 11 nations found burnout and fatigue are equally concerning for employees working remotely (43%) and those in a physical workplace (43%).

What causes burnout? According to the Mayo Clinic, job burnout is caused by unchecked stress, unbalanced lives, and loss of control.

Leaders who genuinely look out for 'their people' are apt to burnout and suffer from leadership fatigue. These people are people-pleasers and givers; they are doers. They feel responsible for their performance and take care of others. Coupled with The Great Resignation, where managing the day-to-day nuances of a remote workforce while watching your best employees leave, you've got a perfect storm for stress and anxiety.

The traits that often make someone an excellent leader can also make them more susceptible to burnout. Overachievers and perfectionists are likely to battle workplace exhaustion, resulting in underperformance, missed deadlines, and feelings of pessimism and distrust, leading to the "c-word" – cynicism. "[I]f you demonstrate cynicism, you're likely to feed into your team's cynicism," organizational psychologist Ben Dattner tells NPR. "To the extent that people are demotivated and disloyal and looking for other jobs, [cynicism] can be a problem."

Leaders with high personal standards tend to hold their teams to high expectations. Perhaps unattainable expectations. When that person becomes skeptical and exhausted, they may not trust their people to meet performance expectations. It's a nasty pattern, resulting in lower productivity and profitability.

Now that we understand what is causing the growing burnout epidemic, let's look at three practical, proven strategies to prevent it:

1. Open communication and regular check-ins

One of the critical steps to burnout prevention is for leaders to engage team members in regular temperature checks. After all, you need to know how people feel before determining how to help them. That's why it's integral to reach out to your team during the day proactively. Ask them how manageable their workload is if they are experiencing work-life balance issues and struggling to switch off from the work zone after hours, even when their laptop and phone are right beside them.

Be straight up and open with team members. Ask people if they are happy. Ask employees if they need more support. By keeping the lines of communication open and honest, you can tune in to whether employees are burning out or at risk of it. You'll also cultivate stronger relationships with your team. This is a sure-fire way to prevent isolation, show people you care about their well-being, and boost morale.

2. Flexible, healthy schedules

During Covid, companies have generally been agile, shifting to remote and hybrid workforces and demonstrating flexibility. For instance, working parents have been able to carpool without the exhaustion and stress of rushing to catch a train. Many people have moved to lower-cost locales and worked as if they were still in office.

But flexibility needs to go beyond the freedom to work from anywhere. It must be employee-centric and focused on people's physical and mental health. For example, companies should offer employees the opportunity to engage in stress-relieving activities, such as yoga, meditation, counseling, and various forms of exercise. If it's over lunchtime, and there is no interference with the workday, then why not encourage employees to schedule a time to do healthy things during the day. Another option is fitness reimbursements for gym memberships or exercise equipment and ensuring their schedules have 'flex time.'

Such initiatives will help your employees unwind and allow them to prioritize themselves and then rejuvenate and return to work with a better mindset, which will ultimately translate into greater productivity.

3. Lead by example

The example set by Musk, however successful he is from a monetary perspective, is one we can point to as not an ideal way to lead by example. Instead, leaders should model work-life balance to their teams. Share a video of your CEO on a jog. Set up times for workers to have fun together, whether virtual or in person. Encourage other leaders to open up about what's going on with them, good and bad.

The Covid Pandemic has taught us that the most robust company cultures are ones where leaders emphasize and value closeness, humility, optimism, courage, authenticity, and empathy. When leaders open up about their struggles with burnout and the steps they are taking to combat it, their team members will relate and feel comfortable modeling those behaviors.

People aren't looking to emulate a stressed-out workaholic. They look up to and respect a leader who is authentic and honest. Someone approachable. Someone who has flaws and doesn't shy away from admitting them. They need a super-competent leader, laser-focused but not work-obsessed, bent on winning at all costs, and disconnected from the people on the front lines.

Burnout is not inevitable if organizations are proactive about prevention and embed innovative, engaging values in their corporate culture. Leaders who focus on empowering workers, building relationships, delegating tasks, and genuinely sharing a positive outlook are far more likely to avoid burnout. And if they are on the path to busting burnout, their team members are likely to follow suit.

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