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Burnt Out

The beginning of autumn is NOT when we would normally be thinking about burnout. Start of the fourth quarter usually marks renewal. People return to work from summer vacations, children begin a new school year, Europe reopens after August holidays and the fashion and entertainments industries launch their most fruitful period of releases.

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But, in this pandemic year, so much about our normal rhythms and routines is altered.  Instead of the return to work and school after summer activities full of great memories and renewing changes of scenery, most people took no real vacation. Moreover, many people lost their jobs (or the routines of their jobs) in March or April and are still reeling in a cycle of survival efforts. All told, 2020 has been as remarkable for its monotony as for its shocks.

For leaders within organizations, it’s critical to understand the signs of burnout, both in your team and in yourself.

Burnout is something we refer to in the popular culture, but it isn’t often defined or characterized. Although we think of being burnt out on exercise or the news – or certain foods –in fact, according to the World Health Organization and the American Psychological Association, burnout refers specifically to work.

It occurs when people experience prolonged job-related stress.

Even athletes can experience burnout when they are in periods of constant stress and training. By now, most of us have seen Michael Phelps in interviews, sharing about his battle with depression, as well as having observed professional or Olympic athletes who have had breakdowns, become depressed or displayed bizarre behavior following extended training and competition.

Although burnout isn’t a disease, it is a syndrome with symptoms that you will recognize. When people are burnt out, they typically feel sadness or pessimism, they feel unmotivated and may find it hard to focus, and find it hard to muster the passion and energy they need for their jobs or other activities. Workers who were once enthusiastic about their positions wake up dreading the day, and normally high performers start producing mediocre results.

Maybe you recognize those characteristics in one of your team members, or in yourself!

Why would this be a particularly likely scenario right now? Well, even if you insisted that your team members use their holiday time, it doesn’t mean they took time off in a way that revitalized them. Regular breaks are important for all of us. Taking formal time off and changing the kinds of activities we do refocuses our brains on new things and gives our bodies and spirits new stimuli. That renewal can happen through restful activities or time away from the office.

But, in the absence of offices per se – a break may have meant little change for the employee herself. He may not have logged into Slack or been taking meetings, but likely he was in her same home with his same family, doing most of the same things –and worst of all – performing the same routine.

And what about your own summer? Did you leave home? Travel anywhere? Probably not. Only a minority of workers went further afield than home and its immediate environs. Even if you did go camping (or glamping), took a road trip or went to see relatives – you likely did more than most of your team.

“A change is as good as a rest” is apt when we talk about burnout. The more you broke with your routine and changed your scenery, the better. But for many of your team members, even if they took time off, little changed except the number of Zoom meetings they had.

The goal should be not just to identify burnout but cut it off at the pass. What does that entail?

To identify people on your team who are in danger of burnout, look for the signs I mentioned above. Low energy, low motivation, less creativity, and sadness. Direct managers may have the best view into who is struggling. Ask them.

To avert burnout in the making, think about the behavioral and cultural milestones that make up an ordinary week. How much does one week truly vary from another? Most of my clients have regular stand-ups, team meetings, all-hands and other events that are take place every week. Those rituals are great under normal conditions. But, given the risk of people experiencing the stress that causes burnout, this is a good time to break with routine.

Burnout creeps into people’s experience through repetition both in the events of their week and within the demands of their roles. Because of the highly specialized nature of so many of our jobs, people tend to repeat the same behaviors within their jobs. So, it’s a good idea to lean heavily into cross-training. You can’t rotate everyone at once but initiating a program in which people are regularly moved into new departments, trained in new functions, or given a different manager to work with can rekindle curiosity and passion.

This doesn’t mean upending anyone’s complete job. But consider taking a percentage of their energy and turning it on its head. Have two team leaders swap direct reports for a couple of weeks. It may lead to unexpected creativity. What if your lead engineer manages the sales team for a week and the customer success lead manages engineers? Of course, you still want to maintain your archiving processes, including code reviews and CRM. But let different leaders take a crack outside of their comfort zone and innovate newly with different folks.

Or send some of your employees away to be digital nomads for a week.

By undertaking these kind of musical chairs processes, you will inject novelty and fun into the organization. That unexpected change can relieve stress and may also foster a sense of discovery in your team.

Trust that your folks will still produce results even though you’re literally pulling the rug out from beneath them. But let them slip and slide a bit – it will catalyze creativity!

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