How To Prevent Burnout on People Teams


Burnout is an all-too-common occurrence among employees in today’s work environment. While remote and hybrid models have introduced better flexibility and work-life balance, this is often countered with the feeling of being “always on” thanks to the accessibility of instant communication. How can people managers tackle the prevalence of burnout? And what can HR leaders do to avoid burnout within their own teams?

Elevate, a virtual event that brought together a cohort of powerful changemakers to elevate the way we work, touched on this topic across multiple sessions. In one dedicated panel, Anthony Onesto, Chief People Officer at Suzy, interviewed leading HR consultants, Jonathan Basker, CEO of Basker & Company, and Cindy Gordon, Founder of Lil Cin, about their own struggles with burnout, and their advice for others going through similar experiences.

How Can We Define “Burnout”?

“I think of it as a state of exhaustion,” says Cindy. “Burnout can have really big, devastating effects on mental and physical wellbeing and day-to-day functioning. It can impact your ability to be productive, your level of focus, your emotional state. It can be pretty debilitating.”

Jonathan says burnout often arises when a person’s life is not fully lining up with how and where they want it to be. “The effect can be that every day they’re waking up with less energy and feeling worse than the day before. When that hits zero, when that process completes and they wake up one day with nothing left, that’s burnout.”

Anthony referenced the World Health Organization’s definition of burnout as being the result of chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. “It’s about boundaries, and not letting those boundaries be infiltrated,” he says.

What Signs of Burnout Should We Look Out For As Leaders?

Jonathan says he has seen burnout manifest in two different ways, with one being much harder to spot than the other. “There are people who, when their battery starts to drain, they don’t quite operate at 100%. You can see it in someone who is normally on the ball, and things start to slip.”

“Then there are other people that burn at full efficiency and just hit zero. I think there are some people that don’t even know they’re about to burn out until they wake up one day and they just don’t have anything to give. Those are harder to detect. There’s a certain type of person who might even need to be protected from themselves a little bit, because their instinct in a moment of stress is to double down. That’s their coping mechanism. For other folks, you’ll see more obvious stress. You’ll see a shift, not just in their behavior, but in their outputs.”

“Effectively, if you notice a change, you may want to get curious about that change. Even if someone is working harder, that may be a sign that they’re trying to keep up with what feels like an increased demand that they don’t think they can meet.”

Cindy spoke of her own burnout, and said Jonathan’s categorization resonated with her experience. “I was in that bucket for years, running strictly off cortisol. It really snuck up on me. I didn’t realize it was burnout until I hit a breaking point.”

“Reflecting on the feedback that I was getting from my team and my loved ones outside of work, I was low energy. No matter how hard I tried to mask it, I was constantly tired, I felt very alone, and it showcased itself as dissociation with my loved ones and team members. I was really impatient about hitting deliverables and projects because I just didn’t have the ability to see things for a longer stretch of time. I was cynical and short-tempered. I couldn’t problem solve or think, and I just felt really inadequate. It was a big hit to my confidence.”

“Those are some of the signs, and it took an army of people to point them out. I’m still healing over it. I wound up resigning from my job over a year ago and I’m still trying to figure out how to deal with it. I’m not suggesting that people leave their jobs, I think there are signs you can pay attention to and a network of trusted individuals who can be transparency cops for you, so you don’t hit the point that I hit.”

Can Data Help Us Prevent Burnout?

Jonathan warns against an over-reliance on data-gathering when tackling the causes of burnout, and says the time may be better spent acting on known issues rather than attempting to quantify them.

“Can you gather information through surveys and interviews? Yes. Is that valuable? It absolutely can be. Is there some kind of magic data-gathering process that will illuminate the path for you on this? Probably not. I think you can get great signalling if you’re paying attention, but you could skip that part and get straight to actioning.”

“If your CEO is batshit crazy, you can run a survey every day but it won’t help anything. Sure, you’ll find out people don’t like the CEO, but you already knew that. My guess is that if people are experiencing burnout at your company, the primary reason isn’t that there is a lack of awareness of what’s causing it, it’s probably because there’s a lack of acknowledgement and willingness to do something about it.”

Cindy says one area in which data can be valuable is to compel key stakeholders to act on burnout issues, especially in cases where there is a disconnect between leadership and employees. “Pulse surveys can be helpful to identify trends. They might be overstating the obvious, but they might not be. It depends where the organization is at and how clued in companies are. The data can be helpful to see if there is a huge separation between what a company thinks is happening and what is really happening. It also gives employees a mechanism to voice things that they might not otherwise, and that can be helpful.”

How Burnout Led to the Great Resignation

The rise in burnout levels throughout the pandemic is just one of the reasons cited for the current “Great Resignation.” Instead of trying to turn the tide on employees quitting, employers need to look at this as an opportunity to resolve the root causes of burnout, and identify the reasons people are choosing to leave their companies.

“I’m rooting for the resignators,” says Jonathan. “I think a lot of people are recognizing that their life isn’t fulfilling enough. They’re taking massive action to change that, and I’m seeing that move norms in the workplace. This is the ultimate ‘vote with your feet’ moment.”

“This isn’t about work-life balance, this is about someone’s life being more than their work. Whatever your thing is – whether it’s knitting, video games, hiking, cooking – it needs to be present in your life in a way that is restorative. We can’t just fight what’s sucking the energy out, there has to be an input. If you’re a leader working with a HR team that’s sitting in a very difficult moment, and their job is to shepherd a whole company through it, make sure they have something going on that has nothing to do with their job. Ensure they have time to be in that other space.”

Cindy agrees that employers simply have to accept if workers are leaving for other opportunities, and should instead look at the reasons behind their resignations. “At this point, if people are already deciding to leave, there isn’t much you can do to address that, but you can certainly figure out what’s broken going forward.”

A Catalyst for Change

With the upheaval of the past 18 months comes the opportunity for growth and progress. “We have champions now to help us in this effort, we don’t have to do it alone,” says Cindy. “Meaningful work, flexibility, connectivity – these are all things we have been focusing on as people leaders for a long time. Now, we have more people on board with us. This is the time to ask for the resources you need to better carry out your job. Seize these opportunities to do what we’ve been fighting for for a long time.”

For more insights and inspiration for leading change and embracing the new world of work, check out the other sessions from Elevate, now available to watch on demand.

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