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Burnout's a big problem. Start solving it through your team

Burnout is a topic finally getting the attention it deserves. After all, Americans have longer-than-average workweeks, and some reports suggest we’ve only increased that workload during the pandemic.

The pandemic has created special kinds of stress: health worries, financial concerns, reduced social contact and strange new social norms, working in homes not designed for work, and so forth. Plus, there are millions of people who must be parent, teacher’s aide and employee all at once. Of course we’ll see burnout!

But let’s not imagine that burnout wasn’t already a problem before COVID-19. We had executives reporting burnout 40 years ago, and high-stress fields like health care have long struggled to keep people going. And, of course, many lower-level workers have little or no paid time off, making them vulnerable to all sorts of stresses, burnout among them. These problems aren’t going to end once we’re all vaccinated.

All of this was why I wanted to talk with Paula Davis, whose book “Beating Burnout at Work: Why Teams Hold the Secret to Well-Being and Resilience” comes out today. She’s lived through burnout as a lawyer in a past life, and she has since founded the Stress & Resilience Institute. She had research and written about these issues years before we heard of COVID-19, and she’s looking to address burnout in an ongoing way, not just as a pandemic-specific crisis response.

What is burnout?

Burnout can be accompanied by stress or tiredness, but it’s not just that. Burnout is not limited to certain professions or job titles, either. As Davis and others have noted, if you have too few resources and too many demands, lack autonomy and support, aren’t recognized, feel the workplace is unfair or has too much bureaucracy, you are likely at risk of burnout.

Look at those causes again. They all involve more than just one person -- they involve the employer. Davis had a similar “a-ha” moment in realizing that burnout is not just an individual problem, it’s a systems-based problem. And how do you fix systems? Well, that’s a complicated question, but in many organizations, Davis says, you’ll want to start with teams rather than entire organizations.

Teams are little systems themselves, Davis says, but they are more malleable and faster to change. Teams can also deliver more impact than making everyone do the work on their own through, say, self-help. And while teams can’t solve everything and don’t apply to everyone, they encompass millions and millions of people in everyday settings. Teams are also where much of our day-to-day work and communication occur, where our closest (or at least most common) working relationships are formed.

Teams, in short, are a proxy for work, and if work is a prime factor in burnout, we need to look to teams for the antidote.

Getting teams PRIMED

Davis walked me through six key pathways, under the acronym PRIMED, that teams need to address to become more resilient and to thrive while fending off burnout:

  • Psychological safety and psychological needs 
  • Relationship and the importance of building connection 
  • Impact: Why do you do what you do? 
  • Mental strength and mindset 
  • Energy: addressing sources of stress 
  • Design: how to create positive change

This PRIMED approach is easier said than done, of course, but note how these six areas look to address the causes of burnout we mentioned above, like lack of autonomy, too many demands and unfairness.

Team leaders can also do some of this work even if they don’t have vast budgets or executive buy-in. Davis talked about the power of small moments, short interactions that don’t cost anything but are living examples of core values. These could be talking publicly about successes, holding check-in calls or being open about the stresses and challenges you’re facing. 

Davis told me about a pediatric ER physician who talked about processing an infant death, crying in front of other doctors. This wasn’t viewed negatively; in fact, it bonded them. Shared vulnerability and empathy are important, a way of  “reintroducing some of the humanness of work,” Davis said.

These “small wins” tactics might be supplemented or supplanted by a more focused, wider-ranging methodology, but the good news is that they can raise awareness of burnout and advance the conversation. And if you’re a manager or team leader and you’re not doing these things, perhaps it’s time for self-reflection.

As Davis told Employee Benefit News: “The pandemic has been a wake up call for managers to ask, ‘Am I the reason why people don't feel comfortable at work?’”

I asked Davis whether these tactics differ based on the size of the team or the function someone works in. There are some minor differences -- leaders might take a different approach with a couple of reports versus a department of 200. But the work of communicating about burnout, watching for signs and building resilience and care among teams is everyone’s job. 

What doesn’t help burnout within teams? A lack of psychological safety (the "P" in "PRIMED"), or a “culture of nice” that discourages difficult subjects from being raised. In addition, a group commonly challenged to give adequate attention to teams is leader-producers -- people who are assigned reports but maintain a full-time workload of goals, quotas or outputs. These managers are short on time and resources, which could fuel their own burnout while underdeveloping their reports,

Every organization is vulnerable

Another aspect of Davis’ research I think is important is how she worked with three different types of organizations: the Mayo Clinic, U.S. Army and Trivago. Each organization had different constituents and challenges, and each was at a different stage of understanding employee burnout and how to mitigate it.

Likewise, your organization might already be tackling burnout, and you’ll have lessons to share. Or, you might be working on resilience and other solutions. Or, you might simply be looking ahead, especially if your industry is being disrupted.

The Trivago example is of particular importance, I would argue. Yes, the Mayo Clinic and U.S. Army are in high-stakes endeavors, and the risks and stresses are higher than average. It’s important to learn from them. But it’s also easy to think of burnout as something for extreme situations like the emergency room or a combat zone, rather than a condition any of us can suffer from. Trivago is not working in a life-or-death environment, and yet the CEO had burnout top of mind as part of pondering the future of work.

Burnout is also a business problem, as Davis reminds us. If you manage a P&L function, are in the C-suite or sit on the board, know that research has shown a link between burnout and negative outcomes, such as rate of errors committed in a hospital setting. Some of the negative financial effects, Davis said, could include malpractice insurance, turnover, absenteeism and reduced productivity and engagement.

Of course, not everyone works in teams. This includes many freelancers and part-timers, as well as coaches, consultants and other professions. What can they do? It’s not easy! Davis thinks about this for herself, too, given her line of work. She has to pause and ask whether she can handle more or whether she has to bring in someone else to scale her work.

At the least, Davis says, those folks can ask themselves where they have a measure of control and influence -- and what their options are if they don’t have those things. These people can also look at where their energy is going, what gives them energy in their work, and what they could tap into.

What’s next?

Davis pitched her book based on the amount of burnout happening in a so-called normal working environment. She wrote it during, essentially, a real-time experiment in burnout caused by the pandemic. She was able to see how work functions when conventions are overturned, organizational weak points are exposed and the line between personal and professional disappears.

However, Davis told me, she wants her book to be a guide that lasts beyond the pandemic. The conversation about mental health and related issues must continue, she said, and more research is needed in areas such as the parental burnout laid bare by COVID-19.

Burnout might be at its peak, and it will always be a threat, but Davis’ work suggests that teams should be a focal point for organizations moving forward. Yes, the organization should worry about the effect of burnout on KPIs, HR should have a strategy and public officials need to think about how policy affects burnout.

But in the meantime, the tens of millions of us who work in teams should start doing the hard work that’s required.


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief's leadership newsletter and blog content. Contact him at @James_daSilva or by email.

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