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Two Essential Tenets for Leaders Managing Team Stress and Burnout

It starts with taking care of you.

Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash
Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

Peter Drucker once observed that, “Much of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to work.”

Our job, as leaders, is to help people feel purposeful and energized so they can bring their best selves to work. Leaders are responsible to clear the path and ensure priorities, capacity and purpose are aligned.

In late May, the World Health Organization recognized burnout as a syndrome stemming from “chronic workplace stress.”  If you missed Dr. Richard A. Friedman’s op ed in the New York Times, Is burnout real?,  and Arianna Huffington’s response, it’s real-time insight into the conversation around burnout.

We are in a fast-paced, changing world. Inside companies, the only constant is change and it takes the form of mergers, acquisitions, buyouts, leadership changes, market and customer changes, and subsequent changes to strategy. Restructuring occurs with new roles, eliminated roles, new job requirements, and gaps in time where many are left wondering what they should be doing or doing. It’s common in corporate life.

As leaders of teams, we have a role to play in creating the kind of environment where people thrive in the face of change. Leaders create the potential for burnout when the list of priorities and projects puts more demand on capacity or capability than the company has.

There are two main tenets I think about when managing the potential for chronic stress and burnout in the workforce.

Put your mask on first.

Model good stress reducing techniques and take care of yourself first. You will show up clear and focused and it will show up in your team.  I recently read The Healing Self  by Deepak Chopra and Dr. Rudolph Tanzi. It’s a lot to unpack and it’s a formula for life. A few recommendations:

Exercise at least 3 times a week. Yoga and walking, in particular, have long-term and far-reaching benefits. Take the stairs. Walk for 5 minutes in between meetings. Get outside with nature.

Explore the power of meditation. Regular practice has many benefits in stress reduction. I’m a fan of Insight Timer, but check out this list of the top meditation apps. There are many guided meditations for beginners. I enjoy Hannah Leatherbury, Tara Brach, and Jack Kornfield.

Get enough sleep. Arianna Huffington has a lot to say about sleep in her TED Talk.  At least 7.5 hours a night is needed and has long-term benefits. There is research emerging around the impact of sleep deprivation on the protein that is associated with Alzheimer’s disease. I also recommend the application, Sleep Cycle. It tracks the quality of your sleep over time. If you are type A, you’ll find yourself checking out your score every morning.

Eat well and mindfully. When we are under stress, eating takes a very poor turn. I know all about that extra large Panera cookie that shows up when there is a working lunch. High stress often means loss of control over sugar snacks and beverages. It’s not popular to say this, but limit alcohol. Thanks to a colleague that inspired me, I adopted a no alcohol during the work week policy in 2019 and it has served me well.

Walk away from stressful situations and people. We all have to deal with them and leaving them as quickly as possible and turning our attention to the positive has enormous benefit to mental health.

Protect your Team.

Vacations don’t cure burnout. Purpose does.  It just does not matter how much vacation you take if you feel you are returning to the same chronic stress situation. People with a sense of purpose about work and who believe they are making a difference and are valued are less likely to burn out. Show appreciation and gratitude often and publicly.

Manage workload. Ensure there is a process for incoming requests. Matt Plummer suggests in his HBR article that all incoming requests be approved by the leader of the team. This saves team members from taking on more than they have the capacity to do and ensures attention remains on the highest priorities.

Track your team’s time. I’ll warn you. It’s tedious if done right. You and/or your managers won’t love the effort of assessing time on each project for each person across each month. Include travel, vacation and holidays. When you roll up the data, you quickly will see where you are over capacity by person and where you have traffic jams. It gives you the power to have an intelligent conversation about what is most important, what needs additional resourcing or what should be stopped to make room for a higher priority.

Put the right people in the right seat.  Not everyone is cut out to do a particular job and this can contribute to their stress and burnout. Make role adjustments and shifts as necessary.

Realize you can’t fix some problems. People do carry issues into work environments that cannot be remedied despite all your best efforts. Our role as leaders isn’t to fix everyone or to fix every relationship. It is to show up as our best possible selves, protect the team, show appreciation, and ensure skills match the role.

Burnout is real. Take care of yourself and your team.

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