How senior leaders create burnout for themselves and their teams and what you can do to avoid it
A great company culture brings with it a team dedicated to delivering on your vision and mission. What senior leaders sometimes fail to notice before it is too late is that this can also lead to negative behaviours. When a leader or their team are so invested in creating success for the business and the community they serve, they can ignore the warning signs of burnout and the resulting fallout is exactly the opposite of what the company culture is trying to achieve.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), burnout is an occupational syndrome with typical signs being exhaustion, cynicism and decreased productivity. You will likely see team members acting irritably, isolating themselves, not being their usual enthusiastic self, taking more time off sick than usual or, even worse, coming into work looking unwell (more about that later). Whether it is your staff showing these signs or yourself as the leader, you have to address the root cause of burnout.
Whilst the WHO defines the cause as ongoing and unmanaged stress in the workplace, being aware of the typical reasons for burnout is essential as a leader. It is only then that you can align the benefits of a great company culture with wellbeing at the heart of business success. Burnout happens due to three main factors – overload, lack of development or neglect.
Overload can happen for a variety of reasons. As a leader, you may experience overload when you don’t delegate tasks to your team. It could be that you are an ambitious group, driven to be successful and achieve beyond your goals. It could be that you simply haven’t spent enough time looking at ways to systemise tasks within the business and people are spending more time than they should on simple day-to-day operations.
Whether you are the business owner or part of a wider senior leadership team, it is up to you to take time out from working IN the business to work ON the business to identify the areas and reasons for overload. Are your goals realistic? Could you create smaller, more manageable, goals instead? Are you giving your team the best systems and processes to complete tasks, whilst testing and refining those systems? Would you benefit from an independent third party to help you identify the points of overload?
Lack of development
Lack of professional development opportunities contributes to burnout in a couple of ways. If you don’t feel skilled enough to complete a task or manage a project, the stress can really take a toll. If you are inexperienced and do make a mistake, a task can end up taking you much longer to complete than necessary and negative feedback due to mistakes also compound the stress. All leading to people not enjoying their job and that all-to-familiar Sunday-night dread as the new work week looms.
This is one factor relating to burnout that is so easy for leaders to avoid. Having regular check-ins with your team, using 90-day reviews rather than annual reviews to set professional development goals and getting into the habit of continuous learning are just a few ways that you can banish burnout from lack of development.
As a business owner or team leader, nothing should be more important than creating a team of people who can run things without you. Sharing your expertise or providing the opportunity for your people to grow is part of what makes you a leader rather than a manager. If you’ve identified common areas of development for your team, such as confidence-building or time management, create a bank of resources such as links to TED talks, Big Friday Finish sessions or audiobooks.
Burnout from neglect is something that is likely to occur when a company talks the talk about having a great culture but doesn’t walk the walk. There’s nothing worse for an employee when they are sold the dream of a fantastic workplace culture during recruitment, only to realise in the first week of employment that it simply doesn’t exist.
Setting a good example from the senior leadership team down will support a company-wide adoption of your culture. For instance, nobody wants a sick member of the team turning up to the office because there is a culture of frowning upon sick days. Presenteeism is just as unhealthy for a team as absenteeism. Encouraging time off for recuperation is key but then dragging yourself into work with the flu because you’re the boss is counter-intuitive.
Similarly, when it comes to taking holiday, time away from the office can benefit all employees, with that example starting at the top. If employees see their boss never taking a day off and working longer than they need to, they will assume they need to do the same. Taking a holiday shows all other employees it is okay to do so and how the company values their wellbeing. A culture of wellness goes a long way in recruiting and retaining employees.
When you return from your time away, you will more than likely have a renewed sense of self. You will feel refreshed and will tend to approach projects with increased vigour, opting to tackle them with more enthusiasm rather than settling for an easy option. To make sure this doesn’t form a cycle of time off leading to overload burnout, create a process for holiday handovers across your team. You can allocate responsibilities to share the workload, removing the need to work increased hours before and after a holiday just to catch up.
Whilst anyone is susceptible to burnout, as a leader you can influence its prevention by educating yourself and your team on its general causes and how to spot it early. Just because you have a team committed to and focused on delivering your vision, there need not be a war between culture and wellbeing.
Tips for avoiding burnout
1. Pace yourself and take breaks - thriving under pressure can be useful in the short term, but it isn’t sustainable. Ensure you take regular breaks to allow your mind some respite and recovery time. Don’t attempt to achieve everything in one go, instead work through things step by step. Take mini breaks every 90 minutes to get up, stretch and release any tension.
2. Take care of your body and your mind – though this is written in any article referencing self-care, sometimes it is the basic things we tend to forget. Find a way to get some exercise you enjoy, even if it is a walk to work or to the shop on your break. Eat a healthy, balanced diet and drink plenty of water – hydration is key to functioning. Try to create and maintain a sleep routine, aiming for around eight hours a night to be well rested.
3. Set boundaries – be clear about when you are working and when you are not available. Don’t be consumed by social media – we all know that scrolling can take you down a black hole. In fact, if you are an iPhone user, why not utilise the time restriction settings? Be selfish with what makes you happy and make sure you make time for the ones you love.
4. Manage your time effectively – ensure you set out your priorities clearly and know exactly what you have to achieve and in what order of importance. To set realistic and achievable goals, share your workload with similarly skilled people in your team. Minimise the distractions around you. Or if you are working from home, create an area for yourself to be productive.
5. Make just one small change today – you might not be able to change everything at once about your work, but you can change how you feel about yourself and align more closely with what you want from life. Commit to taking your full lunch hour or reading one chapter of a book per day – achieving these small goals and setting good habits elevate your sense of wellbeing.
Julie Wagstaff is the UK co-founder of ActionCOACH, the world’s number 1 business coaching franchise.