As discussions around burnout and wellbeing in the workplace have increased over the past several years, less has been said about the role managers play. We often treat employee burnout as an individual-level problem, despite the fact that it’s experienced by so many individuals in our organizations.
At what point should be consider burnout part of a company’s culture?
When it’s a systemic problem throughout an entire company, it’s not an individual problem anymore.
Workplace community app Blind found that close to 60% of surveyed tech workers were burnt out at the time of the survey in May 2018. This is an industry-wide problem we need to address together.
The first step in doing so is to take control and stop expecting employees to fix systemic problems on their own. As leaders and managers, it’s our responsibility to recognize and fix burnout culture before it grabs hold of our team at all.
The numbers back this up as well. In a follow-up survey, 23% of Blind’s users directly cited poor leadership as the main source of employee burnout at their jobs. However, several other main causes of burnout are problems frequently caused or agitated by leadership, placing additional indirect responsibility on our shoulders.
The work you do – or don’t do – to build a culture that either enables or prevents burnout impacts your entire team, for the following reasons.
We lead by example
Tech companies are notorious for wholeheartedly embracing the hustle mindset, if not taking it to new levels. Those of us at the leadership level have gotten here through working our ways up, whether that was inside a company or as entrepreneurs on our own. And much of the time, that’s what was required or demanded of us.
But once you do reach a place of leadership, you have the power to create change (more on that later). That should start with changing ourselves, but old habits die hard.
Are you setting the example of a professional you want your younger team members to be?
Hopefully they look at you as a role model, so your actions speak very loudly. If you say days off are encouraged yet never take one, if you ask for collaborative teamwork yet don’t delegate many of your own responsibilities, your team won’t notice the technical rules for days off and delegation in the employee handbook.
We reward workaholism
It’s hard not to reward workaholism when the line between it and hard work is so blurry in the first place. How can you recognize and praise your team’s hard work without reinforcing unhealthy (and unproductive) habits of over-working?
As a leader and manager, it’s a delicate juggling act to manage workloads along with your employees’ best interests. It’s important to recognize a job done especially well, or an extra mile taken, without establishing it as a minimum standard. Our culture glorifies hard work so much that people tend to make work harder than it needs to be. From overplanning at the beginning of new projects to spending new time in meetings during the process and making tons of tweaks before completing them, we work for the sake of it.
In order to combat this while maintaining high-quality output, you need to define your larger culture as well as boundaries, and actually stick to them.
For example, limiting email and other work outside of office hours can encourage your team to be more efficient during dedicated work time. Instituting maximum durations for internal meetings and forcing a set “end time” for each one prevents them from sucking up endless afternoons. We’ll discuss culture changes more in a moment, but it’s easy to start with adjusting the way we treat “hard work” within our companies.
We’re in control of change
Finally, leaders are ultimately the ones who can make larger, organization-wide change happen, which is necessary for creating a long-term company culture that prevents and deals with employee burnout.
Some changes will be easier than others, of course.
Stress caused from sources like bad systems and processes or heavy workloads can likely be dealt with through small adjustments, at least temporarily. This can be especially helpful when currently dealing a burnt out team member. Adjusting your processes or redistributing tasks may not feel like they have a huge impact right away, but they remove friction that creates long-term momentum in fighting anxiety and overwhelm.
A more difficult, yet vital, change you’ll likely need to make is creating a culture with open communication. Burnout needs to be something discussed transparently at the leadership level and people should feel comfortable talking about it throughout the entire organizational chart.
If your team doesn’t feel comfortable talking to you about workplace stress, both on an individual level and from a culture standpoint, your own point of view will be too limited to make much of an improvement. That trust and communication is a prerequisite for any other piece of advice given in this article.
It starts at the top
From communication to project management and company culture, most of the causes of employee burnout can be traced back to leadership too easily to deny our role in it. Despite whether or not we actively encourage behaviors that cause it, it’s time to take a closer look at the ways in which we stress out our teams.