According to the Mental Health Foundation research, published in 2022, the cost of poor mental health costs the UK economy at least £118bn a year.

As we head towards the end of 2023, we observe more concern around an economic downturn. As a manager and leader, you might see that your targets are extremely challenging; your organisation might be planning a restructure and changing people’s responsibilities, or your budget next year might be tight.

You might have some individuals in your team that are high-performers and give you confidence that you can still deliver what is being asked of you.  However, in times of additional pressure, change and uncertainty, some of your team members may experience burnout. In the first part of my blog I would like to describe the symptoms of someone who is experiencing burnout and how as their manager you can support them.  In the second part, I would like to draw your attention to the causes of burnout, so you are able to identify risky situations at work.

The Symptoms of Burnout

The first symptoms of burnout are both physical and emotional exhaustion.  Your direct report might be constantly complaining about being tired or not having enough energy. You may notice overuse of coffee, snacks, and energy drinks or the opposite, they regularly skip lunch and forget about even drinking water. You may also observe alarming situations, like fainting and dizziness; you may see raw emotions such as crying or getting really angry; and they may also tell you that they can’t cope with any more work.

The second symptom of burnout is de-personalisation, which can show up as cynicism. You may hear a negative comment, see a facial expression or a gesture that clearly shows they are framing a situation in a negative light.  You will observe that this is not their normal behaviour, and you start noticing it more and more.

The third symptom is personal ineffectiveness. Your team member may stop seeing the value of their work, despite continuing to do a great job. What you may also notice is that they start making more ‘silly’ mistakes than usual or take longer to complete a task.

What Action should you take?

If you notice those signs and suspect burnout, it is crucial to address them. I would highly encourage you to have an open, caring and supportive conversation with your direct report. Share your observations and invite them to comment on how they see it. As a leader, you can make sure their work is recognised, help them set the right priorities to manage their workload, encourage delegation of non-essential tasks, offer regular check-ins and support them in managing tricky projects or stakeholders. Of course, if you are concerned that you do not have the right tools to support your direct report, reach out to your Mental Health First Aider or the HR team to discuss what help can be provided.

Causes of Burnout

As a leader, you could also be put in a situation where you can’t see the symptoms of burnout, but there are things in place that could increase the risk of it in the future. I would like to share Christina Maslach’s 6 causes of burnout to illustrate some of those situations so you can look out for them.  The earlier you identify the risk of burnout for your team, the higher the chances are that you can offer them the right support at the right time.

1. Workload

High achievers tend to agree to do and deliver more than others. And sometimes it might be difficult for a manager to realise that they have their limits, high achievers may also be unaware of them. It is OK to occasionally have additional projects or responsibilities and complain about being physically tired. However, if you manage a professional who is constantly overloaded and doing a job of 2-3 people, with no defined end date, you may want to observe them more closely. It is also worth considering if there are any additional responsibilities, outside of work which are adding pressures e.g.: having a baby or caring for a sick loved one.

2. Perceived lack of control

This can show up in a few different ways. Firstly, do your direct reports have enough autonomy to make their own decisions and influence the final outcome of their work? Secondly, I see clients struggle when they have challenging stakeholders or clients and two managers, who are not aligned on the output of their work.  Thirdly, it is linked to what’s happening in the organisation. If the company goes through a re-structure, and changes its direction or objectives too often, the communication from leadership is not consistent, the team can start questioning their roles.

3. Reward

We don’t need to think about it as just financial recognition, it is also linked to other motivators such as praise, flexibility or responsibility. Some of my clients feel that they put lots of effort into work and it has never been acknowledged. They share stories about bosses who only focus on their mistakes or stretching them more, asking only about negative figures on the reports and not giving a word of praise. Different things motivate different people, as a leader it is important to work out what your team needs.

4. Community

Do your direct reports feel part of a trusting and supportive community? What behaviours are encouraged in your team? I recently worked with a client, who was in a highly competitive team, but it wasn’t supporting her performance. Competition can be healthy, but it can’t be the only value that is appreciated in the team. It is also important to think about the social interactions in an organisation, if all 1:1 are only focused on tasks, projects and results it does not create a productive working culture especially when many are continuing to work in a hybrid working environment. In particular, I would like to note how this impacts introverts who may be more prone to isolation.  A common question I get asked is: How can I build relationships with my colleagues while working remotely? As a manager, do you create a supportive culture and space for human contact for your team both online and face-to-face?

5. Fairness

It might be that your team or a particular team member is treated differently than others. They may have their deadlines easily extended, more 1:1 time or their mistakes are discussed less than others.  There are moments when the aspect of fairness is mainly subjective and you ‘could argue with logic’. Regardless of that, if you can notice differences in the treatment people receive, it is worth reviewing or asking more questions.

6. Value Misalignment

In general, we don’t talk about our values, only until one of them is not met. Below I share some examples where an employee’s values maybe misaligned with the organisation:

  • If you manage a direct report in a role that requires them to hold some information before they can communicate it, and their values are honesty and transparency, it might be really draining for them.
  • If someone values their work-life balance and is suddenly asked to go back to the office, commute 4 days a week and regularly do more hours, we can see a clear misalignment.
  • If someone encourages inclusion and psychological safety in their own team but is managed by someone who regularly ignores their input and comments with criticism, it also can be one of the building blocks for burnout.

In conclusion, I would like to highlight that everyone experiences burnout in a slightly different way, and it does not happen overnight. It means that as a leader, it is important you build a trusting relationship with your team, so you have lots of opportunities to spot the signs of burnout and act before you need to get HR or medical specialists involved.

If you would like to understand how executive coaching might help you to support your teams, please get in touch.

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