We've all known stress and exhaustion after a hard day's work. But burnout isn't like ordinary stress.
Kristaps Brencans doesn't mince his words when describing the past year:
It was constant worry and stress. I was being pulled in so many directions and everything felt rushed.
Kristaps Brencans, the chief marketing officer of On the Map, a Miami-based search engine optimization startup, said that when the pandemic struck last spring and forced local businesses to shut down, his company's earnings fell precipitously. He says:
We were afraid our business would not survive.
His employees, meanwhile, needed him more than ever—working parents were strained when schools closed in the spring, and many of his team had to take time off to look after family members sick with COVID; many have lost loved ones. 'My team has been through so much, and I have done my best to be there for them, mentally and emotionally' he said. He was having trouble sleeping. He was often irritable with his wife and three young daughters. And he felt disconnected from a job he was usually passionate about. 'It was harder to motivate yourself,' he recalls.
Procrastination was creeping in areas where it never normally would. I felt like I was failing. It was a bad habits-burnout loop.
Manager burnout jumped 78% between the first and fourth quarters of 2020, according to new data from LinkedIn. This finding, based on about 3.4 million questionnaires on worker engagement, provides striking proof of the psychological toll that the COVID-19 pandemic has imposed on managers around the world.
They've had to navigate new systems, change business models, and reinvent new ways of working almost overnight. They had to lay off employees and cut wages. They also had to deal with the anxiety, doubts and constraints of their employees, while also dealing with their own personal challenges.
Justin Black, head of people science for Glint, a human resources platform belonging to LinkedIn, says:
Managers have borne most of the stress linked to COVID. They had to meet the needs of their teams in incredible ways - often at their own expense.
Burnout is no ordinary stress. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it is a medical diagnosis characterised by three dimensions: a feeling of exhaustion or lack of energy, negative emotions related to your work and reduced professional efficiency. Research shows that it engenders health care costs of $125 billion to $190 billion (around £90 billion to £137 billion) per year in the United States alone.
At a time when this pandemic still remains omnipresent in our personal and professional lives, achieving a harmonious balance between the two may seem unachievable. But experts say there are steps you can take to overcome burnout - and help your employees reduce their stress levels, too.
1. Diagnose the source of your problem
Burnout occurs when you are 'cognitively and emotionally challenged beyond your ability to manage your professional and personal life,' said Denise Rousseau, professor at the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.
To solve the problem, you need to understand the reason(s) that make you feel this way. Is there something going on in your personal life? Has your job changed? Have the organisational demands increased without adequate support?
Remember that you may not be in the best position to fully appreciate what is going on around you. Talk about your situation with other people—friends, mentors, and others who know you well. Have them give counsel and help you come up with solutions. 'You don't want to end up blaming your employees for something you did.'
2. Shrink your to-do list
One of the most common sources of burnout is unrealistic expectations. 'If you have ten objectives, you have no objectives,' summarises Denise Rousseau.
Instead, she says, you need to rescale your goals. Think about where you need to focus your attention, and be honest about what you and your team can realistically accomplish. Also, remember that as a manager your own tasks are important, but your primary goal is to develop your business and support your employees. This is where you need to direct most of your energy.
3. Find meaning in your work
Apathy towards your job is another common symptom and a source of burnout. To counter feelings of indifference, focus on a goal. Studies show that when people feel their work has meaning, they are more engaged and productive. 'Find a way to relate the work you do to something that is meaningful to you,' says Eric Anicich, assistant professor in the Marshall School of Business at USC.
What essential product or service do you bring to the world? How do you help people lead better lives? Be also on the look out for a concrete goal. Anicich continues:
You may find that right now what your team need is a shoulder to lean on, and by being a compassionate colleague, you are helping them orient themselves in their lives.
4. Choose to be (pragmatically) optimistic
According to David Rock, CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute, cultivating a resilient mindset is essential to tackling burnout. He cites as an inspiration the Stockdale paradox, a concept put forward by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great—Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't.
This paradox, which owes its name to captured and tortures American admiral James Stockdale, describes the psychological duality that allowed him to survive during his eight years of captivity. To get by, James Stockdale had to have the discipline to face harsh reality, while clinging to the hope of one day being released.
The lesson for managers, according to David Rock, is 'to accept the harshness of your situation, while choosing to have hope that everything will work out.'
5. Focus on what you can control
According to David Rock, pragmatic optimism requires focusing your energy on what you can control. Maintain your environment clean: organise your workspace and block non-meeting moments in your calendar so you can focus on your work. Get enough sleep, eat nutritious foods, and set aside time for fresh air and exercise.
It is also helpful to clarify things for your team. For example, many workers are unsure of their company's plans for returning employees to the office. Take the opportunity to assuage their anxieties by telling your team that they won't be forced back to the office (as companies like Spotify and Microsoft have done), or by setting a reassuringly concrete time-line for that return. Again, according to David Rock, your goal is to help others regain a sense of control- to 'remove ambiguity and create certainties.
6. Take the time to 'reset yourself'
It may sound trite or overly simplistic, but the best cure for burnout is downtime. 'You've been on an adrenaline rush for the past year. You need a mental rest,' advises David Rock.
Talk to your boss about taking time off to recharge your batteries. At least, set aside a few hours a day to disconnect from work. Taking a nature walk - even if just a walk to the local park—does wonders for your well-being.
Do it for the good of your team, if not for your own. Your quiet strength will be contagious. 'People embrace the emotions of the high-ranking person in the group,' says David Rock. 'If you want people to be calm, you have to live it.'
As for Kristaps Brencans in Miami, life has improved. His business is built on solid foundations—and he's recently had some of his best months in terms of earnings. He gets better sleep, exercises more and also feels more motivated.
We were forced to take a close look at our priorities and we developed an action plan: we have better focused our efforts and improved what we offer to our customers. We got through it and we're a better team for it. It was definitely a learning experience.