The Leader’s Guide to Managing Burnout on Your Team

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Many factors contribute to symptoms of burnout. Bill O’Brien PhD shares some important strategies for building trust with your team members and managing conversations about burnout. 

Today, teams are under great pressure to innovate, solve problems and perform at a high level in difficult situations.

We’re all experiencing a lot of intensity, and there are a lot of reasons for team members to re-examine their role and ask the question, “Why am I doing this?” or even, “Why am I here?”

Burnout has been described as a “syndrome of depersonalization, emotional exhaustion, and low personal accomplishment leading to decreased effectiveness at work.”

Major factors impacting burnout include heavy workloads, mis-alignment with managers or organizational values, lack of resources, and the absence of a sense of belonging and community at work.

Another important factor of burnout is responsibility & accountability without authority & empowerment.

For leaders and mentors, this is a time for active listening. Conversations about burnout need to focus on building trust and connecting with team members. Here are four things to keep in mind:

No Consequences: Consciously create opportunities for people to safely externalize their thoughts and feelings without fear or consequences. Care Calls are an excellent vehicle. 

Manage Yourself: Manage yourself, so that team members don’t feel judged. 

Forget About Facts: Facts are not important. Rather, try to listen beyond what’s being said. 

Listen For Themes: If you understand the root cause issues of a person’s burnout, you can respond in more meaningful ways. 

A Leader’s Guide to Managing Conversations About Burnout

Typically, there are five conclusions that team members draw when they’re feeling burned out, relative to their role. There are those who want to stay, those who don’t want to leave, those who aren’t sure, those who want to get out and those who want to do something different.

Leaders will want to listen for these five major themes. Here are some strategies for responding in a way that accurately reflects how your team members are feeling.

Theme #1: “I want to stay because I feel successful.” 

What to Listen for: “I am managing things well and deriving a sense of success and satisfaction with what I am doing. I feel I am having an impact.” 

What to Do: Reinforce their participation and the contribution they are making to overall progress 

What to avoid: Make this person the “go to” team member as a way of managing the issues of others. 

Theme #2: “I don’t want to leave, but I don’t feel successful.” 

What to Listen for:My job reflects my values and purpose, but I am not feeling successful or satisfied.” 

What to Do: Acknowledge the negative realities. Appreciate their willingness and contribution to overall success. Let them vent. Help them reflect on a past time when they felt successful and engaged. Ask them what they think it would take to get back to the “past”? 

What to avoid: Give false hope that things will get better quickly. Give alternative responses or solutions that marginalize their experiences. Test them for accuracy; they are expressing feelings and want to be heard. 

Theme #3: “I am confused / unsure about what to do.” 

What to Listen for:I haven’t had the opportunity to process my intense experiences with anyone whose mentorship I trust and appreciate. I am confused about my next step / future goals.” 

What to Do: Make the time to have a one-on-one conversation and check in as soon as possible. Be a catalyst for them to engage in self-exploration. Encourage them to introspect / listen to their own intuition vs. the advice or feelings of others. 

What to avoid: Allow them to draw conclusions based on the conclusions drawn by others.  

Theme #4: “I don’t want to do something else, but I am at my limit.” 

What to Listen For:I love my profession, but I have reached my breaking point; I don’t want to be working like this. I don’t know if I can do this, like this, for much longer.” 

What to Do: Acknowledge that values are not being matched under the circumstances. Be authentic, honest and vulnerable. Share your own stories and concerns to validate their experience (if relevant), so that they know they are not alone. 

What to avoid: Dismiss their thoughts and feelings as temporary, reactive or irrational. Prevent them from having the “air-time” to talk about their experiences. Give false hope about conditions changing soon. Make bargains regarding situations that you may not be able to change or control.  

Theme #5: “I want to do something else.” 

What to Listen For:My values, purpose and meaning can be accomplished elsewhere. I can’t find joy or satisfaction in my work anymore. I want a new profession.”

What to do: Allow them to talk about alternative paths. It’s ok to let people create these images. Identify the values they need met and talk about what is challenging those values right now. 

What to avoid: Judge them for exploring alternative ideas. Don’t attach their exploration to their commitment, they are likely in pain. Allow yourself to be defensive or dismissive; this will ensure you will lose them. 

For more information about managing burnout or our comprehensive SurePeople for Teams solution, please reach out.


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