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To Prevent Burnout, Hire Better Bosses

When it comes to working conditions, we’ve come a long way in the past 100 years — and not just in the wealthiest countries. Global unemployment rates have been down since the 2008 financial crisis, and the number of new jobs created by technological disruption exceeds the number of old jobs that are automated. Yes, there are still ghastly sweatshops, windowless call centers, and asbestos-ridden factories. But, for the most part, there has arguably never been a better time in history to be employed, and it has also never been easier.

In this industrialized world, most employees desire consumer-like experiences. Stable jobs that pay well and give recognition are no longer enough. People want meaning and purpose, a sense of calling, and jobs that are crafted to their unique personalities. They want flexibility, fair compensation, tasks that stimulate, and perhaps most of all, they want to feel safe showing their “authentic selves.” Top employers know that they must cater to these significant expectations to be a serious competitor in the war for talent.

Yet, there’s still one, big unaddressed issue that keeps popping up: burnout. In the U.S. alone, workplace stress costs the economy around $300 billion per year in absenteeism, diminished productivity, and legal and medical fees. Unsurprisingly, study after study shows that stress and burnout are major drivers of staff turnoveraccidents, injuries, and substance abuse. Even among the top companies and the most desirable places to work this is a problem — and its generally the consequence of one thing: bad leadership.

In theory, leaders should be shielding their followers and subordinates from stress, operating as a beacon of calmness and safety throughout difficult times. In reality, however, leaders are more likely to cause stress than to reduce it. This problem is far more common than it should be. Millions of employees around the world suffer the consequences of bad leadership, including burnout, alienation, and decreased mental and physical wellbeing. This is particularly true when managers practice abusive behaviors, but at times, it’s their sheer incompetence that demotivates, demoralizes, and stresses out their teams. Lacking technical expertise, having no clue how to give or receive feedback, failing to understand potential, or a general inability to evaluate their subordinates’ performance, are just some of the common signs of incompetence.

If organizations want to improve their employees’ work experience, they should start by improving their leadership. This will probably do more to reduce workplace stress than any other single measure. To that end, here are four critical lessons you should consider:

There is no better cure than prevention. We are better at predicting our behavior than changing it, and that also applies to our leadership problems. While organizations spend much more time and money on leadership development than selection, it should be the other way around. Studies show that a leaders’ performance — including their tendency to stress employees out — can often be predicted using science-based assessments and data. There is no excuse for hiring leaders who consistently terrorize or alienate their teams. Moreover, it is not easy to simply coach someone to be pleasant, fair, and caring if they do not already attain at least some of those assets naturally.

In line, organizations should spend more time scrutinizing candidates who apply for leadership roles. Focus less on their past performance (particularly if they are being promoted from an individual contributor role), and more on their actual potential. Do they have the right expertise? Are they curious, smart, and fast learners? Above all, do they have EQ, empathy, and integrity? Using science-based assessments to measure these traits will help companies avoid future leadership problems.

It is more profitable to remove toxic leaders than to hire superstars. As a recent Harvard Business School study shows, it is about twice as profitable for organizations to eliminate parasitic, toxic leaders than to hire top performing ones. Toxicity spreads faster and wider than good behavior, and when bad behavior comes from the very top, it can pollute the company culture like a virus.

Organizations can avoid this common trap by focusing not only on leaders’ “strengths,” but also taking into account their potential flaws. What are their toxic or extreme tendencies? Do they display any dark-side traits? The key implication of the research here is that companies will be better off with above-average talent that is well-behaved, than with badly behaved superstars.

Resilience can hide the effects of bad leadership. Few competencies have been in such great demand recently as resilience, perhaps because resilience enables employees to put up with bad managers (same goes for grit). In a similar vein, incompetent leaders can hide their incompetence by hiring resilient employees with high levels of emotional intelligence, as they will show up as “engaged” in employee engagement surveys even when they are poorly managed or unfairly treated.

Organizations therefore need to ensure that their workforce doesn’t over-index in EQ or emotional stability. If you mostly recruit people who are dispositionally happy and cheerful as opposed to analytical and honest, it will be harder for you to detect problems with your leadership. Sure, this profile will generally be associated with higher levels of wellbeing, but it will also mask underlying leadership issues that need to be fixed. It is a bit like only reading customer reviews from your most lenient, positive, and friendly customers: just because they are polite or have low standards doesn’t mean you are doing a great job.

Boring is often better. Although people can stress out (and freak out) for multiple reasons, the most common one is an inability to predict what comes next. Uncertainty is one of the most common drivers of stress. This also applies to leaders, which is why boring managers will be far less likely to stress out their teams and subordinates than managers who are flamboyant, eccentric, or charismatic — especially if they are explosive and unpredictable.

To start, companies can reduce their reliance on short-term interactions, such as the job interview, when gauging leadership potential. The ability to put on a good show or performance during such instances says very little about the ability to be an effective leader. Instead, look into each candidate’s track record and references to learn more about their leadership style and character.

If companies are really interested in boosting their workforce’s wellbeing, they should spend less time and money worrying about perks like office layout, team off-sites, and organic snacks, and more time ensuring that their employees are not traumatized by toxic or mediocre leaders. To provide a stress-free work environment, they need to hire competent leaders. Finding the right person may take more time, but the pay off will be worth the investment — for employees and for the organization at large.


Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic is the Chief Talent Scientist at ManpowerGroup, a professor of business psychology at University College London and at Columbia University, and an associate at Harvard’s Entrepreneurial Finance Lab. He’s the author of Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (And How to Fix It). Find him on Twitter: @drtcp or at www.drtomas.com. 

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Preventing Busyness from Becoming Burnout

For most of my working life, I’ve felt way too busy. Sometimes heart-stoppingly, wildly so — working long hours, missing out on family time or fun, and stressed beyond belief. And yet, a few years ago, as I was cleaning out my file cabinet before leaving the Washington Post after nearly 20 years, I found folder after folder of half-reported stories that would have been good. Really good. If only I hadn’t been too busy to actually work on them.

In the years since, I’ve thought about that moment with a mix of shame and regret. I largely blamed myself for not making the time to do more ambitious, high-priority work, or managing to get it all done within reasonable hours and have more time for life. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to see how I was trapped in a busyness tunnel.

During the past two and a half years, I’ve been working on a project with researchers from ideas42 (a nonprofit that uses behavioral science to solve real world problems) to explore whether behavioral science design can help solve issues of work-life conflict. Our research finds that this conflict — which is a potent cause of stress and a key contributor to increases in poor health, a drop off in productivity and the stall in gender equality — is largely the result of how workers experience busyness.

And perhaps most importantly, we’ve concluded ending the busyness cycle may not be something workers can do on our own. The most promising solutions are at the organizational, not the personal, level.

How Workers Experience Work-Life Conflict

It’s taken some time to get to these insights. In the first phase of the project, researchers with ideas42 spent about a year working with three different nonprofit philanthropic organizations around the country. They made a couple of site visits to interview and observe the work styles of workers, managers, and leaders; the work culture; and how people interacted with their work environment to better understand the factors that drive work-life conflict. In the current phase, ideas42 scoped out five other nonprofit organizations and are working with three that have committed to design and test specific behavioral interventions to try to reduce it.

As we reviewed some of the most recent site work, I was struck by one powerful disconnect that came up over and over again: At virtually every organization, everyone interviewed said that work-life balance — the ability to work effectively and have time for a fulfilling and healthy life outside of work — is a core value of the organization. And yet, every organization (including ideas42 and the Better Life Lab, the nonprofit program I now direct) struggles to live that value. Emails can fly at all hours. Work spills into nights, weekends, vacations, hospital waiting rooms, and family celebrations. People are feeling burned out. And yet despite this, many workers very publicly wear this overworked, overly busy work martyrdom like a badge of honor. At one organization, workers said they felt that no one should work more than 45 hours a week. Yet the typical employee actually works more than 52.

Mission driven non-profits face a particular challenge. Workers there often think that their work is so important that it matters more than their compensation, health, or work-life balance — in fact, one recent study found that as many as half of all nonprofit employees are either burned out or on the verge of it. On the site visits, some workers said that, while they saw the benefit of work-life balance, they worked to the point of exhaustion because they love what they do. “We think [our work is] important, so it creates a disincentive in some ways to turn it off,” one participant told us. “If we all hated our jobs, it would be much easier to create work-life balance.”

Leaders didn’t fare much better. While they expressed a desire for better work-life balance — if not for themselves, at least for the rest of their staff — they were often among the worst offenders, texting at 9 PM, emailing over the weekend or at night, and rarely taking vacation. Some leaders weren’t even aware how what they did (overwork) undermined what they said they believed (that work-life balance is important). Others leaders knew they weren’t walking the talk: “We do a poor job modeling work-life balance,” said one.

I realized then that really creating better work-life effectiveness would require more than just telling people to log out of  email at night. Everyone at these work sites knew what they should be doing, but actually doing it was a different story. So whatever behavioral interventions researchers designed would have to address workplace cultures trapped in a broader busyness paradox.

The Busyness Paradox, Explained

Here’s how the busyness paradox works: When we’re busy and have that high-octane, panicked feeling that time is scarce — what one participant called the “sustained moment of hecticness” through the work day — our attention and ability to focus narrows. Behavioral researchers call this phenomenon “tunneling.” And, like being in a tunnel, we’re only able to concentrate on the most immediate, and often low value, tasks right in front of us. (Research has found we actually lose about 13 IQ points in this state.) We run around putting out fires all day, racing to meetings, ploughing through emails, and getting to 5 or 6 PM with the sick realization that we haven’t even started our most important work of the day.

So we stay late at the office, or take work home in the evenings or weekends, and effectively steal time for work away from the rest of our lives. “If you’re in this firefighting state of time pressure and tunneling, you’re not making time to meet long-term goals. You’re not dealing with any of the root causes that led to the firefighting in the first place,” said Matthew Darling, ideas42 vice president and project lead. “The tendency is to do the stuff that’s easy to check off. That’s all you have the bandwidth for.” Tunneling and busyness are mutually reinforcing, Darling added. “Focusing on short-term tasks makes you not make strategic plans, which causes you to be busy.”

In theory, workers could just ignore any work they didn’t complete before, say, 5 PM, and call it a day. But it’s hard to break out of the tunnel now: Unlike a century ago, when Americans showed their status in leisure time, busyness has become the new badge of honor. So even as we bemoan workplaces where everyone is busy and no one is productive, busyness has actually become the way to signal dedication to the job and leadership potential. One reason for this is is that, while productivity is relatively easy to measure on a factory floor, or on the farm, we have yet to develop good metrics for measuring the productivity of knowledge workers. So we largely rely on hours worked and face time in the office as markers for effort, and with the advent of technology and the ability to work remotely, being connected and responsive at all hours is the new face time. “Tunneling” is no longer something that happens by accident,” Darling explained. “It’s a condition that workers are forced into by standard management practices.”

 

So how can behavioral science interventions begin to nudge this powerful busyness bias that keeps us all so stressed out?

One key will be to construct new mental models of the ideal worker. Right now, the model is someone who comes in early, eats lunch at their desk, stays late, emails at all hours, is always busy and always available to put work first — a definition that excludes anyone with caregiving responsibilities (which, in the U.S., is primarily women) or the desire for a healthy work-life balance.

So the interventions ideas42 are designing to improve work effectiveness and work-life balance may also wind up nudging the idea that an ideal worker in the 21st century is someone who does great work, is well-rested and healthy, and has a great life outside of work — not someone who’s trapped in the busy tunnel, chasing their tail, thinking small and on the road to burn out. These interventions are designed with the very foundation of behavioral science in mind: that human decision-making is shaped not by individual personality or willpower, but by the environment.

3 Ways to Break Your Employees Out of the Busyness Paradox

Recognize the power of social signals. When we’re at work, all we see are other people working. And when we see late-night emails or texts, we assume that our coworker or boss has been working all day or night without interruption, when perhaps they’d been out walking the dog or having dinner with their families. But that life outside work doesn’t register because we don’t see it. (More, we often don’t want to share our lives outside work with coworkers and bosses in order to preserve the busyness myththat we are always working.)

“You end up miscalibrating,” Darling explained, or thinking that people are working more than they actually are, so you automatically think you have to as well in order to keep up. Researchers point to a classic study of such “norm misperception” and how prevalent and damaging it can be: one nationwide survey found that a large share of college students overestimated the amount of alcohol their peers consumed. Over time, the best predictor for how much students wound up drinking was how much they thought their peers were drinking, even though, in reality, their peers weren’t drinking that much.

To correct that “always-on” misperception, researchers at ideas42 are testing the idea of making non-work time more visible. They’re asking managers to be more open about: taking lunch breaks, leaving the office on time, working flexibly, going on vacation, talking about life outside of work or care responsibilities, and more demonstrably encouraging others to do the same — potentially even including life events on shared calendars. Another experiment involves automatic reminders. These reminders would go out at the beginning of every year and would prompt people to schedule their vacations.

Researchers are also working with teams to design email, phone, and texting protocols to cut down or eliminate work communication outside of normal hours, particularly from leaders who set expectations for everyone else. Behavior might be tracked and made transparent so that, through the powerful nudge of social comparison, people and leaders would be held accountable and the new systems more likely to stick.

Build in slack for important work. Humans are terrible at estimating how much time and effort are actually needed to accomplish things. It’s called the planning fallacy, and the busyness paradox only exacerbates that tendency to underestimate and overpromise. So one intervention being tested is for workers to intentionally create slack in their calendars every week — in other words, intentionally schedule a block of slack time to finish up any work that got delayed after an emergency popped up, or to finish a project that took longer than you thought it would. The team at ideas42 came up with the idea based on a study of hospital operating rooms that found leaving one room unused for emergencies, rather than booking to 100% capacity, actually increased the number of surgical cases and revenue while cutting down on staff overwork

Another idea is to create “transition days” at work before and after vacations, where the only expectation of workers would be to wrap up work before leaving, and catch up on what they missed while they were out. That would give workers a better chance of truly unplugging and recharging during vacation, and help people ease back into work after. People won’t feel as compelled to answer emails throughout for fear of falling behind, or dread juggling the awaiting inbox with immediate work demands. “You almost always need a lot more slack than you think you will,” Darling explained, “and it is actually markedly important for doing good work.”

Slack time requires a new mental model — recognizing that, no matter how carefully we plan, work emergencies and unexpected demands will always crop up and projects and tasks will usually require more time than we’ve allocated. So creating blank space isn’t slacking off (pun intended); it’s time that enables you to get your most important work done effectively and keeping it from spilling over into the rest of your life.

Increase transparency into everyone’s workload. Many people participating in our project felt they were always busy — going to meetings, answering emails, collaborating with others — but not necessarily productive. They found it difficult to find chunks of uninterrupted time to concentrate on a big project, much less plan or think or strategize. Some even said they used their paid time off just to have a day of uninterrupted, independent work.

So one intervention ideas42 researchers are experimenting with is an effort to “concretize” work by actually scheduling in time to work on the week’s priorities and making actual workloads transparent to bosses and coworkers. The thinking is that that transparency is likely to create positive friction every time someone wants to call a meeting. With priority work made more transparent, calling a meeting won’t be seen as cost free, but a values trade-off: what is everyone not doing because they’re at this meeting? And is the meeting the better use of everyone’s time?

Another idea involves “meeting hygiene” — can meetings become more efficient with a required agenda, limited time, and concrete action plan? Researchers may also test meeting and email black out days to encourage concentrated work time.

In the end, the hope is that these interventions will help people begin to act their way into a new way of thinking. If they see they can work more effectively and have a healthier work-life balance, perhaps instead of praising people who brag about being super busy and working all the time, they’ll begin to think: If workers aren’t getting their most important work done, are on the verge of burnout, and have little time for life, what needs to change at this organization?


Brigid Schulte is a journalist, author of the New York Times bestselling Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One has the Time and director of the Better Life Lab at New America.

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Beating Burnout

Heavy workloads and deadline pressures are a fact of managerial life. Who doesn’t feel overwhelmed or stretched thin sometimes? But when relentless work stress pushes you into the debilitating state we call burnout, it is a serious problem, affecting not just your own performance and well-being, both on the job and off, but also that of your team and your organization.

Hard data on the prevalence of burnout is elusive since it’s not yet a clinical term separate from stress. Some researchers say that as few as 7% of professionals have been seriously impacted by burnout. But others have documented rates as high as 50% among medical residents and 85% among financial professionals. A 2013 ComPsych survey of more than 5,100 North American workers found that 62% felt high levels of stress, loss of control, and extreme fatigue. Research has also linked burnout to many negative physical and mental health outcomes, including coronary artery disease, hypertension, sleep disturbances, depression, and anxiety, as well as to increased alcohol and drug use. Moreover, burnout has been shown to produce feelings of futility and alienation, undermine the quality of relationships, and diminish long-term career prospects.

Consider the case of Barbara (last name withheld), the CEO of a PR firm that serves technology industry clients. During the 2001 collapse of the dot-com bubble, the challenge of keeping her business afloat added extra stress to an already intense workload. Focused on this “unrelenting hustle,” she neglected her health, lost perspective, and began to doubt her own abilities. Cheryl (not her real name), a partner in the Philadelphia office of a global law firm, hit the same sort of wall after she agreed to take on multiple leadership roles there in addition to managing her full-time legal practice. “I felt like my body was running on adrenaline—trying to do a marathon at a sprint pace—all the time,” she recalls. And yet she couldn’t step back mentally from work. Another executive I know—let’s call him Ari—felt trapped in his role as a consultant at a boutique firm. Toxic internal dynamics and client relationship practices that clashed with his values had eroded his sense of self to the point where he didn’t know how to go on—or get out.

Over the past 15 years as a coach, researcher, and educator, I’ve helped thousands of clients, students, and executive-development program participants in similar predicaments learn to manage the stress that can cause burnout and to ultimately achieve more-sustainable career success. The process involves noticing and acknowledging the symptoms, examining the underlying causes, and developing preventive strategies to counteract your particular pattern of burnout.

Three Components

Thanks to the pioneering research of psychologist Christina Maslach and several collaborators, we know that burnout is a three-component syndrome that arises in response to chronic stressors on the job. Let’s examine each symptom—exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy—in turn.

Exhaustion is the central symptom of burnout. It comprises profound physical, cognitive, and emotional fatigue that undermines people’s ability to work effectively and feel positive about what they’re doing. This can stem from the demands of an always-on, 24/7 organizational culture, intense time pressure, or simply having too much to do, especially when you lack control over your work, dislike it, or don’t have the necessary skills to accomplish it. In a state of exhaustion, you find that you’re unable to concentrate or see the big picture; even routine and previously enjoyable tasks seem arduous, and it becomes difficult to drag yourself both into and out of the office. This is how burnout started for Cheryl. Her fuel tank was low, and it wasn’t being adequately replenished.

Changes at the job, team, or organizational level are often required.

Cynicism, also called depersonalization, represents an erosion of engagement. It is essentially a way of distancing yourself psychologically from your work. Instead of feeling invested in your assignments, projects, colleagues, customers, and other collaborators, you feel detached, negative, even callous. Cynicism can be the result of work overload, but it is also likely to occur in the presence of high conflict, unfairness, and lack of participation in decision making. For example, after ignoring repeated directives to push solutions that didn’t solve clients’ problems, Ari realized that the constant battle with his bosses was affecting his own behavior. “I was talking trash and shading the truth more often than I was being respectful and honest,” he explains. Persistent cynicism is a signal that you have lost your connection to, enjoyment of, and pride in your work.

Inefficacy refers to feelings of incompetence and a lack of achievement and productivity. People with this symptom of burnout feel their skills slipping and worry that they won’t be able to succeed in certain situations or accomplish certain tasks. It often develops in tandem with exhaustion and cynicism because people can’t perform at their peak when they’re out of fuel and have lost their connection to work. For example, although Barbara was a seasoned PR professional, the stress of the dot-com crisis and her resulting fatigue caused her to question her ability to serve clients and keep the business thriving. But burnout can also start with inefficacy if you lack the resources and support to do your job well, including adequate time, information, clear expectations, autonomy, and good relationships with those whose involvement you need to succeed. The absence of feedback and meaningful recognition, which leaves you wondering about the quality of your work and feeling that it’s unappreciated, can also activate this component. This was the situation for Ari, who felt that he was forced to function at a subpar level because his organization didn’t care enough to support good performance.

While each component is correlated with the other two and one often leads to another, individuals also have distinct burnout profiles. Michael Leiter, a longtime collaborator with Maslach, is examining this in his current research. He has found, for example, that some people are mainly exhausted but haven’t yet developed cynicism or begun to doubt their performance. Others are primarily cynical or suffer most from feelings of reduced efficacy. People can also be high on two components and low on one. Although most of the prevention and recovery strategies we’ll discuss are designed to address all three symptoms, it’s a good idea to diagnose your specific burnout profile so that you know where you need the most help.

Recovery and Prevention

Situational factors are the biggest contributors to burnout, so changes at the job, team, or organizational level are often required to address all the underlying issues. However, there are steps you can take on your own once you’re aware of the symptoms and of what might be causing them. Here are some strategies I have found to be successful with my clients.

Prioritize self-care.

It’s essential to replenish your physical and emotional energy, along with your capacity to focus, by prioritizing good sleep habits, nutrition, exercise, social connection, and practices that promote equanimity and well-being, like meditating, journaling, and enjoying nature. If you’re having troubling squeezing such activities into your packed schedule, give yourself a week to assess exactly how you’re spending your time. (You can do this on paper, in a spreadsheet, or on one of the many relevant apps now available.) For each block of time, record what you’re doing, whom you’re with, how you feel (for example, on a scale of 1 to 10, where 0 equals angry or drained and 10 is joyful or energized), and how valuable the activity is. This will help you find opportunities to limit your exposure to tasks, people, and situations that aren’t essential and put you in a negative mood; increase your investment in those that boost your energy; and make space for restful, positive time away from work.

Barbara says she bounced back from her bout of burnout by “learning to do things that fill me up.” Nowadays, when she notices that she’s feeling overly tired or starting to doubt herself, she changes her behavior immediately, making use of flexible work options, hosting walking meetings to get out of the office, and setting limits on the amount of time she spends reading e-mails and taking calls from colleagues and clients.

After her crisis, Cheryl also became much more intentional about her time off. “I find that going away, getting a change of scenery, and ‘taking it down a notch’ allows my body and mind to rejuvenate,” she says. “And my creativity benefits: I have more ‘aha’ moments, and I’m better able to connect the dots.”

Shift your perspective.

While rest, relaxation, and replenishment can ease exhaustion, curb cynicism, and enhance efficacy, they don’t fully address the root causes of burnout. Back at the office, you may still face the same impossible workload, untenable conflicts, or paltry resources. So now you must take a close look at your mindset and assumptions. What aspects of your situation are truly fixed, and which can you change? Altering your perspective can buffer the negative impact of even the inflexible aspects. If exhaustion is a key problem, ask yourself which tasks—including critical ones—you could delegate to free up meaningful time and energy for other important work. Are there ways to reshape your job in order to gain more control or to focus on the most fulfilling tasks? If cynicism is a major issue, can you shield yourself from the parts of the organization that frustrate you, while reengaging in your specific role and the whole enterprise? Or could you build some positive, supportive relationships to counteract the ones that drain you? And if you’re feeling ineffective, what assistance or development might you seek out? If recognition is lacking, could you engage in some personal branding to showcase your work?

Cheryl worked with an executive coach to evaluate and reset her priorities. “I work in a competitive field and I’m a competitive person, which can skew the way you see reality,” she explains. “In the past I didn’t dare say no to leadership opportunities because I was afraid that if I did, everything might disappear.” She says she’s now replaced that “scarcity” mentality with one that instead presumes abundance. “Now if I feel overextended, I’ll ask myself, Is there a way to inject joy back into this role, or is it time to give it up? And I understand that when I want to take something on, I need to decide what to give up to make space.”

Ari did the same sort of deep thinking. Although he had previously felt tethered to his job—the firm was prestigious, the pay was good—he realized that values and ethics meant more to him than any perk, so he eventually quit and started his own business. “After I pushed back a couple of times and said that what we were recommending wasn’t right for the clients, my boss cranked up the pressure on me and assigned me to only the most difficult clients. At one point I said to my wife, ‘It might be good if I got hit by a bus. I don’t want to die, but I’d like to be injured enough that I’d have to stop working for a while.’ She said, ‘That’s it; you’re getting out of there.’” He took a few months to line up some independent consulting assignments and then made the move.

Reduce exposure to job stressors.

You’ll also need to target high-value activities and relationships that still trigger unhealthy stress. This involves resetting the expectations of colleagues, clients, and even family members for what and how much you’re willing to take on, as well as ground rules for working together. You may get pushback. But doubters must know that you’re making these changes to improve your long-term productivity and protect your health.

Barbara, for example, is keenly aware of the aspects of PR work that put people in her field at risk of burnout, so now she actively manages them. “There’s constant pressure, from both clients and the media,” she explains. “But a lot of times, what clients label a crisis is not actually one. Part of the job is helping them put things in perspective. And being a good service professional doesn’t mean you have to be a servant. You shouldn’t be e-mailing at 11 at night on a regular basis.”

Cheryl, too, says she’s learned “not to get carried along in the current” of overwhelming demands. She adds, “You have to know when saying no is the right answer. And it takes courage and conviction to stick to your guns and not feel guilty.” If you find that there are few or no opportunities to shift things in a more positive direction, you might want to contemplate a bigger change, as Ari did.

Seek out connections.

The best antidote to burnout, particularly when it’s driven by cynicism and inefficacy, is seeking out rich interpersonal interactions and continual personal and professional development. Find coaches and mentors who can help you identify and activate positive relationships and learning opportunities. Volunteering to advise others is another particularly effective way of breaking out of a negative cycle.

Given the influence of situational factors on burnout, it’s likely that others in your organization are suffering too. If you band together to offer mutual support, identify problems, and brainstorm and advocate for solutions, you will all increase your sense of control and connection. Barbara participates in a CEO mentoring and advisory program called Vistage. “We’re a small group of CEOs in noncompetitive businesses, so we can share ideas,” she explains. “We spend one day per month together, have great speakers, and serve as advisory boards for each other.” Ari, now a successful solo entrepreneur, has built a network of technical partners who share the same vision, collaborate, and funnel work to one another. He says that running a “client centered” business he believes in and working with people he respects have boosted his engagement tremendously.

CONCLUSION

Burnout can often feel insurmountable. But the sense of being overwhelmed is a signal, not a long-term sentence. By understanding the symptoms and causes and implementing these four strategies, you can recover and build a road map for prevention. Your brutal experience can serve as a turning point that launches you into a more sustainable career and a happier, healthier life.

A version of this article appeared in the November 2016 issue (pp.98–101) of Harvard Business Review.
 
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Employee stress, burnout on the rise internationally

Stress and burnout related to the increasing pace and intensity of work are on the rise globally.  A survey of over 100 000 employees across Asia, Europe, Africa, North America and South America found that stress, anxiety and depression in employees accounted for 82.6% of all emotional health cases in Employee Assistance Programmes in 2014—up from 55.2% in 2012.  This is a hefty increase and indicative of our current constantly connected, “always- on”, highly demanding work cultures where stress and the risk of burnout are widespread.  It is also a major cause for concern as stress directly affects work performance.

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To Hold Someone Accountable, First Define What Accountable Means

At the end of a meeting, most leaders know that they should recap next steps and determine who is accountable for each. As prescribed in the commonly used responsibility models — RACI, RAPID, and the others — accountability should fall to one (and only one) person per item, even if the work involved requires input and contributions from others. Unfortunately, over the years we’ve spent advising organizations, we’ve found that the word “accountable” can mean different things to different people.

Consider this example. During a meeting at a luxury retailer, the executive team decided that the company needed a digital strategy for its China operations. Paul, the head of e-commerce, asked one of his direct reports, Madison, to “please form a team and let us know what we should do.” She was then designated “accountable” for the action item “digital strategy for China.”

But what did Paul mean? Was Madison tasked with forming a team that should develop a consensus view on what the company should do in China, or was she tasked with making the decision and executing? Or was it something else? At the time, no one thought to ask or clarify.

Madison went ahead and formed a team, which had several meetings. Three different approaches were suggested, and after weeks of deliberating the team still disagreed on the one to pursue. So Madison chose her preferred option, which she then relayed to Paul. Another team member — who had strongly backed an alternative course of action — got visibly upset, accusing Madison of “hijacking” the process and “imposing her view on the group.” Others felt alienated, wondering why their “rights” to being involved in the decision were seemingly ignored by Madison. Some wondered what the fuss was about — the team wasn’t making progress, so Madison simply used her prerogative to make a decision and move forward.

Hearing the dissent, Paul decided to hold a meeting with the entire team so he could hear all the arguments and figure out a resolution. This left Madison completely demoralized; she felt Paul had lost confidence in her managerial abilities and had taken the decision away from her.

Sound familiar? The problem, in our view, started at the moment Madison was named accountable. What was intended? What actual decision rights had Paul delegated to her, and was breaking the deadlock within or outside her purview?

To avoid situations like this one, we advise leaders to think about exactly what type of accountability they are offering — or accepting — especially when accomplishing a task that requires group effort.

On one end of the spectrum is the issue owner. In this role the accountable person has complete control over an issue or decision. A full team may be assigned to help, but the issue owner can make the decision however she chooses. She can decide unilaterally. She can call one meeting or 10. She can solicit individual opinions or talk to some team members but not everyone. She controls the process and ultimately owns the final decision.

On the other end of the spectrum is the team coordinator. In this role the accountable person is an equal member of the team with the added responsibility of logistics, such as scheduling and defining the agenda. She’s responsible for ensuring that there is a discussion but not for the outcome, and she has no more power or authority than anyone else in the room. If the team can’t come to an agreement, she can’t force closure — she must escalate the decision up a level.

In the middle is the tiebreaker. In this role the accountable person doesn’t have the absolute authority of an issue owner, but she’s more than just a coordinator. She is responsible for helping the team reach a decision, and in the absence of consensus she should make the final call.

We don’t advocate for one position versus another. Different issues may call for different meanings of accountability in the same organization. What’s important is to ensure that everyone understands what it means in the specific situation — especially the accountable individual.

In the case above, Madison assumed she was a tiebreaker or perhaps an issue owner who could try to build consensus. Some of her colleagues assumed she was a team coordinator, not authorized to break a deadlock.

So the next time you delegate a task or decision, think about which kind of authority — issue owner, tiebreaker, or team coordinator — you are giving people. Being explicit about not just who is accountable but what type of accountability they have goes a long way toward preventing problems down the road. And if you’re the one being handed the accountability baton, make sure you are clear on what you’re receiving.


Bob Frisch is the managing partner of the Strategic Offsites Group, a Boston-based consultancy, and coauthor of Simple Sabotage (HarperOne, 2015). He is also the author of Who’s In The Room? (Jossey-Bass, 2012) and and four Harvard Business Review articles, including “Off-Sites That Work” (June 2006).


Cary Greene is a partner of the Strategic Offsites Group, a Boston-based consultancy, and co-author of Simple Sabotage (HarperOne, 2015) and the Harvard Business Review article “Leadership Summits that Work” (March 2015).  He writes frequently for HBR.org.


HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW:  https://hbr.org/2016/06/to-hold-someone-accountable-first-define-what-accountable-means?cm_mmc=email-_-newsletter-_-management_tip-_-tip_date&referral=00203&utm_source=newsletter_management_tip&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=tip_date

 

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Steps to Take When You’re Starting to Feel Burned Out

Burnout hurts. When you burn out at work, you feel diminished, like a part of yourself has gone into hiding. Challenges that were formerly manageable feel insurmountable. It’s the opposite end of the spectrum from engagement. The engaged employee is energized, involved, and high-performing; the burned-out employee is exhausted, cynical, and overwhelmed.

Research shows that burnout has three dimensions: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment. When you’re emotionally exhausted, you feel used up—not just emotionally, but often physically and cognitively as well. You can’t concentrate. You’re easily upset or angered, you get sick more often, and you have difficulty sleeping. Depersonalization shows up in feelings of alienation from and cynicism towards the people your job requires you to interact with. One of my coaching clients summed it up like this: “I feel like I’m watching myself in a play. I know my role, I can recite my lines, but I just don’t care.” What’s worse, although you can’t imagine going on like this much longer, you don’t see a feasible way out of your predicament.

It’s this third dimension of burnout — reduced personal accomplishment — that traps many employees in situations where they suffer. When you’re burned out, your capacity to perform is compromised, and so is your belief in yourself. In an insidious twist, employers may misinterpret an employee suffering from burnout as an uncooperative low performer rather than as a person in crisis. When that’s the case, you’re unlikely to get the support you desperately need.

Research shows that burnout occurs when the demands people face on the job outstrip the resources they have to meet them. Certain types of demands are much more likely to tax people to the point of burnout, especially a heavy workload, intense pressure, and unclear or conflicting expectations. A toxic interpersonal environment—whether it shows up as undermining, back-stabbing, incivility, or low trust—is a breeding ground for burnout because it requires so much emotional effort just to cope with the situation. Role conflict, which occurs when the expectations of one role that’s important to you conflict with those of another, also increases risk of burnout. This might happen, for example, when the demands of your job make it impossible to spend adequate time with your loved ones, or when the way you’re expected to act at work clashes with your sense of self.

If you think you might be experiencing burnout, don’t ignore it; it won’t go away by itself. The consequences of burnout for individuals are grave, including coronary disease, hypertension, gastrointestinal problems, depression, anxiety, increased alcohol and drug use, marital and family conflict, alienation, sense of futility, and diminished career prospects. The costs to employers include decreased performance, absenteeism, turnover, increased accident risk, lowered morale and commitment, cynicism, and reduced willingness to help others.

To get back to thriving, it’s essential to understand that burnout is fundamentally a state of resource depletion. In the same way that you can’t continue to drive a car that’s out of fuel just because you’d like to get home, you can’t overcome burnout simply by deciding to “pull yourself together.” Rebounding from burnout and preventing its recurrence requires three things: replenishing lost resources, avoiding further resource depletion, and finding or creating resource-rich conditions going forward. Many resources are vital for our performance and well-being, from personal qualities like skills, emotional stability, and good health, to supportive relationships with colleagues, autonomy and control at work, constructive feedback, having a say in matters that affect us, and feeling that our work makes a difference. Try these steps to combat burnout:

Prioritize taking care of yourself to replenish personal resources. Start by making an appointment with your doctor and getting an objective medical assessment. I encourage clients to take a lesson from the safety briefing provided at the beginning of every commercial flight, which instructs passengers to “secure your own oxygen mask before helping others.” In other words, if you want to be able to perform, you need to shore up your capacity to do so. Prioritize good sleep habits, nutrition, exercise, connection with people you enjoy, and practices that promote calmness and well-being, like meditation, journaling, talk therapy, or simply quiet time alone doing an activity you enjoy.

Analyze your current situation. Perhaps you already understand what’s burning you out. If not, try this: track how you spend your time for a week (you can either do this on paper, in a spreadsheet, or in one of the many apps now available for time tracking). For each block of time, record what you’re doing, whom you’re with, how you feel (e.g., on a scale of 1-10 where 0=angry or depressed and 10=joyful or energized), and how valuable the activity is. This gives you a basis for deciding where to make changes that will have the greatest impact. Imagine that you have a fuel gauge you can check to see what level your personal resources (physical, mental, and emotional) are at any moment. The basic principle is to limit your exposure to the tasks, people, and situations that drain you and increase your exposure to those that replenish you.

Reduce exposure to job stressors. Your condition may warrant a reduction in your workload or working hours, or taking some time away from work. Using your analysis of time spent and associated mood/energy level and value of activity as a guide, jettison low value/high frustration activities to the extent possible. If you find that there are certain relationships that are especially draining, limit your exposure to those people. Reflect on whether you have perfectionist tendencies; if so, consciously releasing them will lower your stress level. Delegate the things that aren’t necessary for you to do personally. Commit to disconnecting from work at night and on the weekends.

Increase job resources. Prioritize spending time on the activities that are highest in value and most energizing. Reach out to people you trust and enjoy at work. Look for ways to interact more with people you find stimulating. Talk to your boss about what resources you need to perform at your peak. For instance, if you lack certain skills, request training and support for increased performance, such as regular feedback and mentoring by someone who’s skilled. Brainstorm with colleagues about ways to modify work processes to make everyone more resourceful. For instance, you might institute an “early warning system” whereby people reach out for help as soon as they realize they’ll miss a deadline. You might also agree to regularly check in on where the team’s overall level of resources is and to take action to replenish it when it’s low.

Take the opportunity to reassess. Some things about your job are in your capacity to change; others are not. If, for example, the culture of your organization is characterized by pervasive incivility, it’s unlikely that you will ever thrive there. Or if the content of the work has no overlap with what you care about most, finding work that’s more meaningful may be an essential step to thriving. There is no job that’s worth your health, your sanity, or your soul. For many people, burnout is the lever that motivates them to pause, take stock, and create a career that’s more satisfying than what they’d previously imagined.


Monique Valcour is an executive coach and management academic. Her coaching, research, and consulting help companies and individuals craft high-performance, meaningful jobs, careers, workplaces, and lives. Follow her on Twitter @moniquevalcour.


HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW:  https://hbr.org/2016/06/steps-to-take-when-youre-starting-to-feel-burned-out?cm_mmc=email-_-newsletter-_-management_tip-_-tip_date&referral=00203&utm_source=newsletter_management_tip&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=tip_date
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