Why Burnout Could Be Your Biggest Hidden Team Performance Issue (And What You Need To Do Differently)

We’re still dealing with an uncertain economy, which means many teams, not just the ones at Wayfair, are going to be pushed to work harder again this year.

Imagine receiving a year-end message from your CEO encouraging employees to work longer hours, emphasizing that laziness doesn’t lead to success.

This was a reality for 14,000+ employees at Wayfair before the holidays. If I had received that message, my cortisol would have gone into overdrive to help me meet these expectations, which sadly is a pathway to burnout.

Too many organizations are aggressively setting high performance targets hoping to stabilize in this uncertain economy.

While you may not receive messages that are this blunt, a focus on high levels of  productivity is usually top of mind for leaders and it can show up in more subtle ways. Burnout hits a team like a thousand tiny paper cuts—small annoyances at first that snowball into pain. You might see it as a manager when you ask for a small change to a file or report and you get an unexpected amount of pushback. Or when your “always reliable, always stepping up” employee starts missing meetings or calling in sick. You might discover it in your own behaviour, when you start dreading going into work, even though there’s nothing specific you can pinpoint as the cause of your new disinterest.

Burnout manifests differently in every person, but the impact can derail a team.

With the challenging economy showing no signs of improvement this year, teams are at risk of burning out if they are being pushed to perform at unrealistic high levels.

However, it will be impossible for individuals to manage and prevent burnout on their own. They need their leaders to be aware of the key triggers of burnout and work with them to prevent it.

In my recent podcast conversation with Dr. Jacqueline Kerr, a workplace change expert based in the UK, we talked about the practical strategies leaders can use to prevent burnout from hitting their teams.

Back to Basics: We Can’t Separate Our Work and Personal Selves

First, we need to let go of the conventional idea that we can compartmentalize our work and personal lives. It’s an illusion.

We’ve often heard, “people need to leave their personal life at the door when they come to work” but understanding and accepting the whole person in the workplace is crucial.

This means accepting we all have other people and commitments in our lives that may impact our work at times. And given that these burdens tend to fall on women more than men, the issue adds to the perceived differences in work “commitment” if we try to pretend that people don’t have lives outside of work.

We Need Flexible Work To Be The Default

As we get into on the podcast with Dr. Kerr, the need to provide flexible options for where and how people work is an essential element for preventing burnout.

If we pretend that employees don’t have lives outside of work, we’re ignoring that they typically shoulder inequitable levels of work in their personal lives. While leaders are trying to entice workers back into the office, they’re forgetting that the ability to work from home creates significant ease in the rest of an employee’s life.

This flexibility not only reduces stress but also caters to individual needs, enhancing overall team dynamics.

Team Performance Is Impacted Significantly From Burnout, But Not In Ways You Might Realize

I could list a ton of stats about team performance being impacted by burnout; I’m sure you’ve seen them.  Most leaders believe that if pushed too hard, they may have a team member who isn’t able to handle the stress, which might show up in different ways, but they tend to believe these issues are manageable. Rarely do they anticipate the reduced performance across their team, or worse, the unseen issues that may crop up.

As Dr Kerr notes in our conversation, there are research examples of doctors increasing their racial biases towards patients as a result of stress. There are a myriad of other ways that this can show up, without leaders being able to pinpoint it back to burnout.

Understanding that there are systemic performance issues that can come from burnout translates into needing to consider team-based, not individually focused, solutions within your team in order to prevent it.

3 Strategies For Leaders Need To Use To Prevent Burnout On Their Teams

Dr. Kerr introduces a behavioral approach to workplace improvement, offering over a hundred different actions that individuals can adopt. This approach acknowledges the unique starting points and skill levels of each team member, thereby fostering a more inclusive and effective work environment.

1) Encourage Self-Awareness, Wellbeing, And Brave Spaces To Belong

We can’t ignore the importance of establishing psychological safety and emotional intelligence in your teams in order to foster a growth-oriented workplace culture. These elements are foundational for meaningful change, as they encourage open and honest conversations among team members.

Employees need to know that their wellbeing also matters in the productivity and results equation. As Dr. Kerr notes, “if you say somebody at work cares about me, what does that mean? Does that mean they give you flexibility? Does that mean that they check in with you one-on-one and ask about your personal life? Does it mean they give you a wellbeing plan when you have a career plan? What does it actually mean to know someone cares about you?”

We know from Dr. Amy Edmonston’s research that people who don’t have psychological safety at work are afraid of failing, which means they are less likely to experiment, point out issues or gaps they observe, or suggest new ideas. If holding back prevents them from solving critical issues affecting their wellbeing, burnout can follow.

2) Anchor The Work Of Your Team In Fairness

We also talk about the need for fair and equitable promotion systems and how the integration of well-being plans with career progression is crucial.

Dr. Kerr points out that conducting a pay equity review before merit assessments to ensure fairness can begin to resolve one of the underlying core issues in achieving employee well-being.

This extends to day-to-day practices within your leadership practices as well. Many team members experience an uneven distribution of work, perks, opportunities, or inconsistent responses when issues arise. You will need to lead with practices that support fairness and equity within your team.

3) Review How Work Is Organized and Change Where Needed

As Dr Kerr notes in our conversation, “if the meetings are 24/7, then it doesn’t matter if you’re working from home. You are still unable to do anything that can help with the stress.”

We need to think beyond the argument for where employees “should” be working and focus instead on how we’re structuring the work. Are we allowing for uninterrupted focus time for deep work? How are we collaborating? How are decisions made? And most importantly, where are the gaps that are preventing us from achieving the outcomes we need?

Leaders need to come to terms with the fact that they need an expanded set of leadership skills in this next era of work. These include facilitating the work by co-creating realistic goals, normalizing asking for help , and recognizing setting collaboration expectations at the beginning of projects. If these aren’t already part of your leader toolkit, you need to build them.

As leaders, you are the key component in whether or not your team can perform at high levels and avoid burning out. Your actions will speak loudly so make sure you are  modelling the same behaviours you are asking of your employees.

I really enjoyed this conversation with Dr. Kerr. We were so aligned on this issue–without fundamental changes to how we develop, manage, and lead work and the employees who perform it, we’re going to continue to be impacted by the costs to workplace performance from employees burning out.

Questions to consider:

  • How much do you consider the risk of burnout in your daily and weekly interactions with your team?
  • What could be happening within your team right now that could be contributing to burnout, or putting yourself or your team at risk for burnout?
  • Where are the small first steps you can take to change your leadership approach to begin dealing with it?
Picture of Carolyn Swora

Carolyn Swora

Carolyn is a leadership consultant, team coach, certified Dare To Lead™ facilitator, and two-time bestselling author. Her most recent book, Evolve: The Path to Trauma-Informed Leadership, brings new focus to an often ignored, yet critical leadership component: the nervous system. In her work with organizations, from phama to non-profits, Carolyn focuses on driving change through leadership focused on compassion and humility.

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