Burnout: Its Costs and Cures

Burnout: Its Costs and Cures

Summary: The critical difference between companies that handle aggressive schedules and stress versus those that can’t is how well managers perform their jobs. This “Leadership Tip” describes six ways managers can help prevent burnout and still deliver.

Without exception, the managers of today are under extreme pressure to deliver their products and services as soon as possible.  During the course of a year, I am involved in a dozen or more projects at major corporations around the world.  As I observe these various companies, I can see great differences in the amount of stress that permeates these organizations.

The critical difference between the companies that can handle aggressive schedules and organizational stress versus those that can’t is how well managers, rather than the employees, are performing their job.

The Pressure Lever

As the demands of your job seem ever increasing, you look for ways to get more and more accomplished.  Imagine, for a moment, that you have a huge lever beside your desk.  When you pull on it, pressure is increased on all your people.  When you release it, pressure is reduced.  Pull the lever all the way up and the pressure is at its maximum.

Now, what’s your tactic?

As you consider this question, there’s probably a tiny voice somewhere inside your head telling you to pull the damn thing all the way up and leave it there forever!  If so, you wouldn’t be alone.  An increasingly common bit of organizational folklore maintains that pressure improves performance.  Thus, many managers will:

  • Push harder on delivery dates
  • Require long hours
  • Load on extra work
  • Get angry when disappointed
  • Be severe about anything other than superb performance

But wait a minute!  Don’t we all know these strategies are not effective in the long run?

The Symptoms of Burnout

Some pressure at work is unavoidable and, perhaps at times, necessary.  Initially, people respond to pressure by adjusting techniques or processes, concentrating on critical work elements and by putting in extra hours.  If excessive pressure continues, the emerging symptoms of burnout are easily recognizable.  These include:

  • Fear of risk-taking
  • Leader-dominated meetings without much listening or engagement, i.e. submissive followers
  • Good people and experienced leaders starting to bail out
  • A once-cherished belief in the job and mission is now eroded

Ultimately, burned-out workers have no passion for anything!

The Cure

Anything with moving parts will create energy, and energy will create pressure if it is not expended or relieved in some way.  The same goes for organizations and the people who work in them.  We often simply attribute burnout to increased pressure, but this is an intellectually lazy diagnosis. Burnout can be avoided if pressure is controlled.  Yes controlled.  And, that`s what your job is about.  You have to come up with specific strategies to alleviate burnout.  If you take a deeper look, there are specific actions you can take to address the underlying causes of burnout with the following remedies:

  1. In high demand environments, increase employee autonomy and control.
  2. Provide employees with time to think.  This allows them opportunities to innovate new ways to increase efficiency and to take ownership in what they do as they provide value to the organization.
  3. Provide forums for employees to acknowledge frustrations and air grievances, along with discussing problem-solving recommendations.
  4. Ensure there are clear priorities so that every employee has a sense of direction.
  5. Clarify roles, responsibilities and accountabilities.
  6. Make certain employees are not chronically overstretched and “deadlined.”

The Challenge to You

As a manager, it is important to realize all of the above is about you, your executive team and the real culprit — poor management strategies.  It isn’t your employees’ responsibility to recognize the problem or to come up with the solutions.  As their leader, that job is yours.  Through aggressive listening, careful analysis and good problem solving, you can create the kind of environment where your people are on fire, not burned out!

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