How to spot and stop burnout
When I was younger I loved the movie The Fast and the Furious (yes, you’re free to judge me). The cool cars and intense action blew my 11-year-old mind. I saw the movie in theaters seven times–I think. However, when I wanted to go for an eighth time, I couldn’t find any volunteers.
My preteen-brain couldn’t comprehend why, but as an adult it’s simple: everyone else was burnt out on the movie. The continued exposure and repetition got the best of them. They couldn’t stomach another viewing. Though far less serious, it’s not unlike how we experience burnout at work.
When we’re continually exposed to similar types of stress without a break, it takes a toll. In sales, this could come from more calls than normal getting cancelled, leading to more of a struggle to meet quotas and goals. It could come from repeated disruptions to your routine based on competing priorities while working from home. And it could certainly come from the continued challenges that we’re all facing right now.
Eventually, it leads to feelings of disengagement, fatigue, and even depression. And it leads to a reduced ability to engage and contribute — at work and in the world at large.
There’s a million different versions of how burnout happens, but since it’s a gradual process, it can be easy to miss… That’s why it’s important to be intentional about keeping an eye out for it and taking measures to manage it. We can look for burnout in ourselves, and we can also take care of one another by looking out for others on our teams.
Read on to learn more about the signs of burnout to look for and what to do about it.
Spotting burnout isn’t the most straightforward thing to do. Everyone internalizes, and externalizes the effects of stress differently, so the signs vary from person-to-person. What you’re really looking for are behaviors that aren’t consistent with how someone normally operates.
That said, there are three main things to look for when monitoring for burnout:
- Feelings of inadequacy
It’s important to distinguish between tired and exhausted. Monday morning, or the day after someone has a late meeting, they’re probably tired. They rebound and get back to their normal energy levels relatively quickly. When they’re exhausted, it’s chronic. No matter how much coffee they drink, or extra hours they sleep, they still can’t focus, and feel groggy all the time.
Exhaustion may present in ways besides just seeming generally tired. If you notice that someone who’s normally very detail-oriented is consistently turning in sloppy work or missing deadlines, it could be a sign they’re experiencing exhaustion.
The best way I can describe cynicism is that it’s a core belief that things will not, and can not, get better in any way. It’s a general, “who cares?” attitude that makes it very difficult to stay motivated
Not only does it affect the person experiencing it, but research shows that cynicism is contagious. So, it has the potential to do damage to your team as a whole. Other research suggests the presence of cynicism is also a predictor of turnover due to burnout.
If you notice someone is much more negative or disengaged at work, it could be a sign that they’re experiencing some level of cynicism. It’s very possible they’re just having a bad week, but if it shows over a longer period of time, it may be worth talking about with them.
Feelings of Inadequacy
From time to time, team mates may lack a little confidence. Perhaps they’ve been assigned a new task they’re not familiar with, or a recent project didn’t turn out as they hoped. In those cases, it’s completely understandable if someone’s confidence is a bit shaken.
Feeling uncertain is part of the human condition. However, if someone’s constantly feeling like they’re not able to do anything right, or that they’re just overall bad at their job, it could be a sign of burnout. Again, some externalize stress and lash out at others, whereas some internalize stress and turn on themselves.
It can be tough to spot, and some people are more self-deprecating than others, but if it’s outside how they normally act, it might be an indicator that something else is going on. As with all the possible signs, if you do decide to talk to someone about what you’re perceiving, be sure to handle the conversation with care.
Just as there’s no one cause of burnout, there’s not a single solution either. Everyone has different needs, so it’s important to be as attuned as possible and to let those who are experiencing burnout set their own course, to some degree.
That said, there are some basic things you can implement to try and stop burnout from happening in the first place.
There are lots of ways to approach flexibility. What first comes to mind for me is flexibility of schedule. It could also be expressed in the type of work or projects someone takes on. In any case, it’s important. One study found that higher levels of flexibility led to higher overall job satisfaction.
Depending on the type of work someone does, and the company as a whole, how you approach flexibility may vary, but some level should be possible. Consider having core hours everyone needs to work, say 9am to 3pm, then have the other hours they work be up to them.
You could also consider allowing people to work from home one day a week or a couple days a month. Another option is giving allotted time for employees to work on projects outside of their core job responsibilities, which can be really invigorating and rewarding.
Have clear expectations
If I asked your team what is expected of them at work, could they tell me? According to a study by Gallup, there’s only a 50/50 chance they could, and that’s a problem. When people don’t know what’s expected of them at work, it contributes to a lack of engagement, and that can contribute to burnout.
No matter the job, there is some measure of success tied to it. If you manage people, make sure you clearly define what those measures of success are. From there, set up a regular cadence to talk about not only how someone is doing, but also allow it as a time to plan and strategize to help them on the path to success.
Acknowledge people’s work
Knowing what to do is important, but so is being recognized for a job well done. According to research, those who are recognized for their work tend to be more engaged, have better relationships with their managers, and are generally less stressed than those who aren’t given recognition.
It doesn’t have to be anything huge, but it does have to be genuine. For example, here at Qwilr we provide weekly updates on our goals and what we’re working on and include a “shout outs” section in that email. This is one easy way to encourage regular recognition. There are also tools out there like Bonus.ly that can help solidify the routine.
Encourage time off
Depending on your team and the work they do, there may be some feelings of guilt when requesting a few days off. That said, time off isn’t just a nice thing to have, it’s necessary. Studies consistently point out that taking regular time off actually helps overall productivity. Having time away allows us to decompress and destress, which are both crucial in avoiding burnout.
There are a few things you can try to make sure employees are taking the time they need. First, make sure that those at the top lead by example. If all anyone sees is people working 50+ hours a week with no breaks, it can be hard to convince themselves it’s okay, or needed, to take time off.
If you manage people, be proactive. If you notice someone hasn’t taken many vacation days, suggest it to them. Having that approval upfront could be the extra push they need to grab a little R&R.
Connections with others at work reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness and also add to increased happiness at work. As with time off, the benefit is shared. Happier employees are more productive, so having personal relationships with co-workers is a win-win.
Scheduling regular slots for informal chats is a great place to start. If your team uses Slack, the Donut app makes pairing people for chats super easy. Consider having video calls that are dedicated to talking about normal life, not work life. You could also start a book club, or do a virtual class with your teammates to get connected on a personal level.
Taking care of each other
Everyone is at risk for burning out. The best thing we can do for ourselves, and others, is to be vigilant and proactive. Look out for your coworkers. If you notice someone acting out-of-the-ordinary, do what you can to help. Be an advocate for broad change where it’s needed and make suggestions to help your organization curb burnout for the whole company. Everyone can be a positive example, not just those at the top.
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