A Tactical Guide For Tackling Burnout

Lo Kidd

July 23, 2021

Let’s get really real for a moment – with all of us working from home, burnout (AKA the physiological state of physical and emotional exhaustion) is on the rise. And depending on the day, we’re all running the risk of fizzling out.

But the key to not burning out? Working less so you can be more productive! Hear me out on this – burnout isn’t sustainable. It can get you sick more often, lead you to make avoidable mistakes, and (if bad enough) force you to look for a new job.

So, how can you protect yourself (and your team) from burnout? Well, it starts with recognizing the signs.

What is burnout?

Burnout is when you feel completely exhausted (both mentally and physically) from being overworked and put under excessive stress. It’s typically accompanied by other negative feelings – like helplessness and cynicism. And it’s often associated with a detachment from work and a lost sense of meaning. 

Live look at what it feels like to face burnout

Christina Maslach, an emerita psychology professor and researcher at the Healthy Workplaces Center at the University of California, Berkeley, didn’t originally coin the term. But she published the Maslach Burnout Inventory in 1981, which is the most popular assessment tool for measuring burnout.

While burnout can technically affect anyone, people who view their work as a calling (and not just a paycheck) are at higher risk for burnout. Think teachers, health care workers, and entrepreneurs.  

But today, with so many people working from home (or in a really stressful job), more individuals are at risk of burnout than ever before. And we can see the warning signs from what we type in Google.

According to Calmer, a service to reduce stress and prevent burnout, web searches for ‘signs of burnout’ showed a 24% increase throughout 2020 compared to the previous year. And they believe the surge in searches is a clear indicator that more people are experiencing burnout since the pandemic began.

So, how can you spot when you (or one of your employees) is experiencing burnout?

Signs and symptoms of burnout

It’s not always easy to spot burnout. And this is especially true if you don’t see employees in person often. So, if you have remote employees, consider using weekly check-ins to detect the symptoms early.

Start by looking for the mental and emotional symptoms of burnout. According to the government agency NCBI, this includes people feeling (and talking about feeling):

  • Overwhelmed
  • Dissatisfied with their work
  • Under-appreciated
  • Lonely 
  • Tired

These symptoms tend to take form first. And if left unaddressed, they can manifest into physical symptoms that can negatively impact your team member’s health.

For example, people experiencing long-term burnout also tend to have physical symptoms as well. This includes:

  • Increased anxiety levels
  • Lack of motivation
  • Extreme physical exhaustion
  • Extreme mental exhaustion
  • Energy depletion
  • Headaches
  • Stomachaches
  • Appetite or sleeping changes
  • Harder time managing pre-existing health conditions

As a result, burnt-out employees are 63% more likely to take a sick day. They’re 13% less productive if they do show up to work. And, they make more avoidable mistakes than someone who is not experiencing burnout. All because they are both emotionally and physically depleted.

Employees who face burnout will likely take more days off

Plus, nearly 40% of employees feel so burnt out that they want to quit. And when they do quit, it costs you time, money, and a cultural blow. Because when employees feel so burnt out that they quit, it’s a reflection of the company – not the person. And the consequences can leak across the organization and affect others teammates’ connection to work.

5 tips to tackle burnout

I really can’t stress this enough – when employees feel burnt out, it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. And it means there are huge costs associated with its effects on your company culture and the time spent offboarding, hiring, and onboarding a replacement. 

Luckily, burnout doesn’t have to burden your team. Because there are strategic ways to support employees and avoid burnout altogether. But there’s one catch: You have to get in front of it. 

So, here are 5 tips to prevent burnout (ideally, before it starts):

1. Recognize feelings of burnout for what they are

When you first spot signs of burnout in yourself or others, recognize the feelings for what they are. Meaning, don’t avoid the reality of the situation. If you do, it’ll only get worse. 

According to Healthline, you might also want to skip the cliche lines when trying to reassure others. Because when you tell someone who’s already burnt out that “it doesn’t sound that bad” or “things will get better,” you only invalidate their experience. This can make burnout worse.  

Instead, choose to acknowledge the person’s experience for precisely what it is. Don’t sugarcoat it. Don’t assume how they’re feeling. Candidly talk about it with them. And be sure to remind them that burnout is nothing to be embarrassed about.

Then, use the opportunity to offer your help however possible. You can lighten their workload, suggest taking a mental health day, or simply ask what they need to feel better. It seems small. But employees who feel supported by their manager are 70% less likely to experience burnout regularly. So, this small gesture can be a big mental health win!

2. Know that if everything is a priority, nothing is

Priority, by definition, is a singular word. Only one thing can be of the utmost importance. Yet, at some point, people started talking about priorities. And today, it feels like everything is a priority. 

An early sign of burnout is when everything seems like a priority

But here’s the thing: When you scramble to get everything done with the same sense of urgency, completing your to-do list feels overwhelming, if not impossible. So, try determining what’s actually the most important thing and focus on that. Everything else can wait. 

This step is critical because unreasonable time pressure is a leading contributor to burnout. When employees feel like they have plenty of time to do their work, they’re also 70% less likely to experience severe burnout. Meaning, less is more when it comes to working.

However, you might need to take things off someone’s plate to make it happen. To proactively prevent burnout, revisit each employee’s responsibilities every review cycle. Sometimes, people pick up tasks along the way that shouldn’t really belong to you. And when added to their normal workload, it can be too much for one person. 

Similarly, someone is already burnt out, look at what they need to accomplish. What tasks could someone else take over? 

When you decide what to delegate, find someone who has the bandwidth and is ready to take on the task immediately. Just make sure you don’t take responsibility for one burnout employee and simply burn out the next. 

If only one employee can really do that work (or if delegating the work means risking burning out someone else), you need to hire someone else. No exceptions. You might think you can wait to hire more people, but if you do – you’ll just end up hiring your current team’s replacements. 

🔥 Tip: Trainual makes it easy to take tasks off of your plate. Because it puts all of your company’s how-to’s in one centralized place. That way, anyone on your team can do what you do – taking you out of the equation. Try for free.

3. Set personal boundaries for work

Remote work is a blessing for some and a curse for others. And if you’re not careful, WFH might feel less like working from home and more like living at work. 

So, if your team’s work-life balance seems out of wack, you need to set some team-wide personal boundaries. Then, actually, enforce them. 

For example:

  • Set hard stops at 6 pm on weekdays (everything else can wait until tomorrow)
  • Implement non-negotiable, no-work weekends (not even a Slack message)
  • Have everyone turn off work notifications outside of working hours (you can do this in settings for most apps)
  • Give friendly reminders for people to not log in during their PTO or scheduled days off
  • Politely kick people offline via Slack when they’re not enforcing these boundaries for themselves

But you should also take measures throughout the workday, like taking breaks. Adults can only focus on something for 75 minutes at a time before they start to experience physiological fatigue. 

Once people hit this point, they need 15 minutes to let their brain rest and reset. Otherwise, they’re more prone to burnout. So, schedule those much-needed breaks onto your team’s calendar. 

👉 Is scheduling downtime is not your strong point? BreakBot is the free Google Cal integration that automatically schedules breaks into your day. Try it free. 

4. Work gets 80% of your energy (max)

If work feels like all you do all the time, burning out is likely looming. That’s because you’re giving it your all. And by the time you log off, you have no more gas in the tank. So, the other things you care about don’t end up getting the attention they need because you have nothing left to give. 

Burnout can make your employees feel like they have nothing left to give

Instead, try giving work 80% of your energy. And that’s max. Everything else should be reserved for your family, taking care of yourself, and hobbies. You know – the things (other than your work) that give your life meaning. 

And while you might think you can get away with skimping on these things, you can’t. Self-care is critical to battling burnout. Because it’s impossible to pour from an empty cup. But by investing in yourself (whatever that means for you), you feel refreshed and clock in, ready to do your best work. 

We know – what does 20% for everything else even mean anyway? Generally speaking, this means setting aside 3 non-sleeping hours to focus on what you need. Not work. And not what your kids, family, or friends need. (This is especially important for working moms, who are statistically speaking one of the highest risk demographics for burning out.)

To make this easier on your calendar, you can even break it up. Meaning, you can take 30-minutes in the morning, an hour at your lunch break, and an hour and a half before bed. That way, you can refill your cup and be ready to pour out generously – without risking running dry. 

5. If you’re not working, don’t think about work (duh)

This seems like an obvious one. But for people with burnout, not thinking about work even when they’re not at work may seem unthinkable (no pun intended). It may even be happening subconsciously. 

But those lingering thoughts give your brain no time to rest. And that leaves little room for finding better, more creative solutions to problems. 

We all know the saying, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” But according to leading neuroscience research, it holds true. That’s because creativity happens most when the mind is at rest. And if it never turns off, it turns into a kind of broken record. That is why workaholics tend to only talk about work – even when nobody asked.  

Luckily, you can train your brain to turn off work in the same way that you turn off work notifications (wink). The key, however, is to be gentle with yourself – especially at first. 

To do this, log off. And when work creeps up in your thoughts after hours, simply acknowledge the thought and let it pass. Meaning, note that you’re thinking about work. Remind yourself that it can wait until tomorrow (it might even be helpful to hear yourself say those words out loud). Then, continue with whatever you’re doing. 

If that doesn’t work, concentrate on taking a few deep breaths or even consider a distraction – like reading, cooking, or taking a walk. 

Admittedly, it might be hard at first. But, like working any other muscle, the next time you do this exercise, it gets easier. And the time after that, even easier. 

Listen, I know that no matter what you do, work is hectic. And as a business leader, you might feel like burning yourself (or your team) out is the only way to grow or scale. But it’s not sustainable. I really can’t stress that enough. 

Your best long-term play will always be to avoid burnout. Even if that means getting a little less done today, so you can do more tomorrow.

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