Understanding and Preventing Burnout on Your Team

As a leader, you may feel a certain level of dedication to your company that allows you to press on with projects and deadlines at a greater intensity as compared to junior associates or your direct reports.  While your level of commitment is admirable, you need to stay aware of the levels of enthusiasm and motivation in those who report to you—and monitor them actively for burnout.  So how can you identify the symptoms of this particular malady?  And furthermore, how do you fight against it?

Burnout: What It Is

In my experience as an executive coach, I have found that many professionals regularly confuse burnout with stress.  These two things are akin to each other, yes, but they are not the same thing.  Realize that when someone is suffering from burnout, all areas of their life are affected, both professionally and personally.  From a psychological point of view, burnout is a genuine term that was first referenced in 1974 by Dr. Herbert Freudenberger in the Journal of Social Issues.  It refers to persistent fatigue and lack of interest or enthusiasm.

In the workplace, burnout is defined as when “someone who is known as dependable and productive suffers an extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or a relationship fails to produce the desired results.” Furthermore, this particular condition is not insular—and it can be catchy amongst team members.  Therefore, as a leader, you must remain vigilant.

Freudenberger’s 12 Stages

As he explored the condition of burnout, Dr. Freudenberger defined 12 individual stages.  Consider the following:

  1. Manic Motivation: This could be identified in the person who is always eager to jump up and volunteer for a project and is okay with coming in early or staying late (even when you don’t need him to). His work life is a key part of his identity—bordering on co-dependency.  He relies on his position at the office to show everyone how great he is.  However, this person is doing all of this because he wants to also prove it to himself.
  2. The Workaholic: In this stage, the manic motivator increases his efforts and pushes forward as fast as he can.  He wants to prove that he is indispensable—but his energy is frenetic, which means it can fade easily.
  3. Martyrdom: Next up, the workaholic becomes the work martyr. When you ask him what he is doing tonight or over the weekend, his mind focuses on work and you have to ask the question with a pointed approach to the personal.  Most likely, he will come up short with an answer.
  4. Physical Distress: The 4th stage manifests itself in the physical. The person will begin to feel “off kilter” and experience stomach problems, sleeping issues, and other ailments.
  5. Loss of Life’s Value: The person will begin to realize he finds very little value in life’s joys because everything is for the job. He forgets to stop and enjoy the little things.  However, this is the stage where his performance begins to suffer.
  6. Enter the Cynic: In this stage, the individual begins to criticize others’ performances because their lack of effort pales when compared to him.  No one does anything as well as this person does and this perturbs him.
  7. Team Withdrawal: While this individual may still be charging forward at 200 percent and is present at all meetings, he stops attending team lunches and neglects to keep personal relationships with those around him. He stops socializing in the office and since he is also probably suffering physically, might turn to personal vices, such as alcohol or drugs.  This is a dangerous stage of burnout.
  8. What is Wrong with Him? This is the stage where people around the individual become genuinely concerned. However, he continues to avoid people and denies anything is wrong when someone does confront him over his behavior.
  9. Running on Empty: The individual moves from one project or task to the other. There is no joy or enthusiasm.  He is unable to relax and has officially withdrawn from any hobbies outside of work.
  10. Absence of Joy: Going one step deeper, at this stage the individual spends extra time in undesirable activities that affect his health.  Common bad habits? Substance abuse, gambling, and overeating.
  11. Depression: In stage 11 the person is officially depressed. There is no focus on his job or anything else.  He swings from apathy for his responsibilities to outright agitation and sadness.
  12. Full-Fledged Burnout: If the individual has reached this stage without intervention, he needs to see a doctor—immediately.  His chance of collapsing both physically and mentally is strong.

Preventing Burnout

Watching out for these stages of burnout amongst your team members is critical for preventing this issue from developing in the first place.  If you see any of these behaviors, consider how you can connect with your team member, communicate and explore what you should be modifying as their manager. Perhaps look at how you may be contributing.

In addition, consider implementing the following around your office:

  • Encourage recreational exercise. If there is a gym at your office, encourage team members to utilize it.  Or, coordinate regular breaks where you are getting out and walking in the fresh air.  Something as simple as a 15-minute break can work wonders.
  • Require team members to disconnect. Have a no email afterhours policy or require team members to leave the office at 5pm on the dot.  Institute limits around work and make sure you display good behavior yourself.
  • Be transparent and acknowledge the demands of the job. Frequently when someone knows that someone else is noticing them, it will help them feel and perform better.
  • Educate about Employee Assistance Programs. If your company has an EAP, make sure team members know what is covered and are aware of the resources available to them.

In closing, make it your business as a leader to stay aware of the tendencies and personalities of your employees.  Don’t pretend that burnout can’t occur, and set reasonable limits so your direct reports can feel confident and comfortable in the job they are doing for you.

To learn more about how I can help combat employee burnout in the workplace, I invite you to visit www.JPKantor.com.