Chances are managers in your organisation are feeling burned out. Middle managers have felt the squeeze of having to execute strategy from above while coaching and developing their teams below them — often without receiving the same type of development or empowerment from more senior managers. Often under-resourced, they frequently roll up their sleeves to do the work alongside their teams, particularly given higher rates of turnover in the last few years.
Research from McKinsey revealed that some middle managers spend up to two days a week on individual contributor work and a day a week on administrative tasks, in addition to their management responsibilities. Too much work, combined with too little time and resources adds up to scores of exhausted managers, who are almost twice as likely to leave their employer, according to research from Microsoft.
Burned out employees goes well beyond simply being tired or stressed — thus, recovering from it is not a quick fix. It takes time, intention, and organisational support to not only regain a sense of equilibrium, but to also feel energised, engaged, and motivated again.
To be sure, each person’s experience of being burned out will be different, so various approaches to address it will impact them differently. Likewise, there is no silver-bullet antidote. Employing a multi-pronged approach that includes the strategies below will help your managers in their burnout recovery journey.
There are two aspects to this strategy. First, recognising and showing concern that an individual is experiencing burnout can help them feel seen, understood, and even cared for. Acknowledging the burnout also puts it on the table so that it can be addressed.
The second aspect is to recognise the manager’s sustained efforts and positive contribution or impact on the business. In a study of more than 12,000 employees, Workhuman and Gallup showed a strong positive correlation between employee recognition and wellbeing, which also led to better business outcomes. Moreover, this recognition can show the individual they are making a difference, especially when their impact might not be as visible to them. This can help them to counter feelings of diminished efficacy, reduce their cynicism or mental distance from the job, and derive more meaning from their work.
“When we take time to recognise people, it not only has a positive impact on them but on ourselves as well,” shares employee appreciation and workplace culture expert Christopher Littlefield. “The act of noticing what is going well, celebrating progress, and sharing the impact of their work helps us generate meaning, hope, and a sense of belonging — all things known to promote wellbeing. This can be as simple as taking five minutes to write a meaningful thank you note, give a quick compliment, or even use reflective recognition.”
Creating opportunities for personal connection (both in-person and virtually) amongst managers as a group can counter feelings of isolation that are common with burnout, particularly for those working remotely. Creating a sense of community, where managers can share their challenges (and successes) with their peers not only facilitates support, but also reduces feelings of isolation that can come with burnout and creates a sense of being “in it together.”
Likewise, connecting one-on-one beyond the work at hand can also be powerful, and may be more meaningful to some. “Picking up the phone to check-in on a colleague can help remind someone that you are there for them,” shared Adam Smiley Poswolsky, a workplace belonging keynote speaker. “Reconnecting with a coworker you haven’t spoken to in a while can provide them with energy and inspiration – especially when they are struggling with stress or burnout.”
Poswolsky added: “A simple act of kindness — like remembering a coworker’s birthday, or buying a colleague their favourite coffee order, makes people feel like they belong. When we provide more time and space for human connection at work, we normalise talking about the full spectrum of human emotions, of which burnout is one of the most common. When we normalize talking about burnout or stress or loneliness, we help people feel less alone, which in turn can help them feel much better.”
Re-assess, Re-prioritise, and Re-distribute Work
When managers are burned out, it’s likely due in large part to an excessive, unrelenting volume of work, and as new priorities emerge, existing projects do not get de-prioritized. Everything has become important and stays on their plate, making the workload unsustainable.
Conduct an audit of what your managers are each working on and what’s consuming most of their time. Identify the top three areas that will make the biggest difference in achieving the organisation’s goals. Focus your managers’ effort on these and de-prioritise the rest. In doing so, determine what can be put on the back burner, what deadlines can be extended, or what can be cancelled altogether. Likewise, re-assess the level of detail or quality needed for certain work products or metrics for success.
As part of this re-evaluation, take time to understand each person’s workload and capacity and re-distribute work, as needed. Moreover, make this a regular practice to help your managers re-assess and manage priorities on an ongoing basis.
While you can’t create more hours in the day, you can make the case to adjust the scope of the work to be commensurate with the resources available (i.e., people, time, and budget) or advocate for more resources, such as budget to hire more people or engage outside contractors to share the workload, even if only temporary to manage a peak period.
Revise Team Agreements
Empower the managers on your team to help solve the problem of burnout by revising agreements about how you all work together. What boundaries can you and the managers on your team agree to respecting? This may include things like not sending evening or weekend emails or avoiding other micro-stresses. Looking for a better way forward together by creating new norms can help create a sense of agency that is often missing in cases of burnout.
As a team, you can decide things like how you will hold each other accountable to your respective commitments, give each other permission to push back or say no, and establish specific non-meeting days to do focused work. Making these types of agreements can reduce wasted time, energy, and frustration, as well as create a sense of empowerment and ownership for their experience going forward.
Touch base one-on-one with your managers on a regular basis, particularly those who have exhibited signs of burnout. Check in to see how they are doing and how you can best support them. Ask them where they are stuck. Make it safe for them to speak up and tell you when they’re feeling overwhelmed so you can discuss how you can make their work less taxing by clearing obstacles or taking things off their plate, as appropriate.
Relax and Reset
While not sufficient alone to recover from burnout, taking a meaningful break from work to decompress is a necessary step to restore your managers’ energy level and help them reset, both mentally and physically. Set the expectation that they use all of their vacation time — it can be easy to put off or skip vacation when there’s so much to do. The reality is, there will always be more to do, so trying to wait until you feel caught up at work is like running a marathon with no finish line.
In addition, by making vacation mandatory, you can help counter any warrior mentality in your organisation’s culture that might be a contributing factor to burnout. This can be done in a staggered way amongst team members to avoid business interruption, or some organisations choose to shut down completely during selected weeks of the year.
Whichever approach you take, give your people permission to completely unplug while they’re away and role model this for your team. Research shows that working during time off (which, sadly, two-thirds of Americans do), reduces intrinsic motivation, which will already be at a low point if the individual is burned out to begin with.
The remedy for feeling burned out is not an instantaneous single solution, nor is it one-size fits all. Using the aforementioned strategies in combination over time will allow you to not only support and recharge your burned-out leaders, but also to keep burnout at bay going forward.
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