Leading Through a New Brand of Burnout

The pandemic has expanded the range of things that stress out leaders and their staffs. Some tweaks to your approach to breaks and communication may be in order.

Welcome back from your Labor Day break! You’ve made it through the summer, maybe had a chance to use some vacation time, and now you’re ready to tackle a busy fall feeling calm and refreshed, right? Right?

There’s a good chance you aren’t as relaxed these days as you might like. Nor is your staff. A May 2020 report by the project management technology firm Asana found that 89 percent of U.S. workers experienced burnout at least once in the past year. And that was before the COVID-19 era hit full swing. Now, with a new array of stressors—remote-work arrangements that challenge work-life balance, Zoom fatigue, anxiety over the virus itself—the idea of what it means to look after your staff’s well-being requires a rethink. The usual rhythm of vacations and holidays may not do the trick.

Lack of autonomy puts people on a fast track to burnout.

The evidence of that is in reports on the “Great Resignation,” referring to the sizable proportion of Americans who are quitting their jobs—4 million in April 2021 alone. More break time alone won’t crack the problem of retaining burned-out workers looking for other opportunities, wrote workplace expert Liz Fosslien last week in the MIT Sloan Management Review. The struggle is more existential: “Lacking a sense of meaning and not receiving the emotional support you need to thrive are also strongly related to feeling stretched too thin,” she writes.

To address that, Fosslien recommends a number of things that leaders can do to help their teams feel a bit more emotionally balanced. Most involve opening lines of communication, if workers want to talk directly about particular issues. But a good leader also knows when to lay off a little bit: Empowering people to do their work without micromanaging them goes a long way toward their feeling less pressure. As Fosslien writes, “a lack of autonomy puts people on a fast track to burnout.”

This is also an especially good time to emphasize professional development. If “lacking a sense of meaning” is a substantial problem, opportunities to upgrade skills can be a boon for both the worker and the organization alike. That can involve the typical kinds of training that gets discussed at performance-review time. But the training can also be more ad hoc; Fosslien suggests that employees take part in 30-minute “skill swaps” in which employees train each other up briefly on particular skills they’re interested in.

Beneficial as those things might be, it’s best to tread carefully—the solution to staff feeling more overwhelmed isn’t necessarily putting for things to do in their inbox, even if they’re beneficial in the long run. But if a hallmark of the pandemic-era workplace is that everybody is now working everywhere, all the time, leaders can ease the anxiety by instituting some firm boundaries on when work gets done.

Speaking with the Society for Human Resource Management, leadership expert Michael Levitt recommends that workers get in the habit of setting alarms for when their workday is done, and then shutting off notifications for the day. I’d go a step further and suggest that leaders make a point to establish it as a policy; after all, your most-stressed workers are the ones least likely to ask for permission for that kind of peace of mind. And what if there’s an emergency? Maybe, in the midst of a viral pandemic, it’s best to save that word for when it’s warranted. “Priorities and urgent matters are fine, but only hospitals deal in emergencies,” he says.

How has your association faced and addressed burnout issues at your office? Share your experiences in the comments.

(holaillustrations/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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