Danger! Danger! How to spot the signs of burnout in your team (and what to do about it)

Hands up if you’ve seen a cut to your staffing levels but absolutely zero reduction in the actual work.  Hmmm… that’s a lot of hands!

A year ago, the Independent reported the TUC’s findings that the number of people working excessive hours had increased by 15% in five years.

There doesn’t seem to be a sector that is unaffected by this issue. Whether you work in a school, a hospital, a bank or a call centre. In fact, the NHS are taking the issue so seriously that they are offering free help and advice, including psychotherapy, to GP’s experiencing burnout.

It’s an insidious issue which, if left untreated, can destroy a team – the people and their performance. If you lead a team then here are the common signs to look for:

Exhaustion – the most obvious of all the signs. Exhaustion means that our level of physical, mental and emotional reserves to manage ourselves and the situations around us are depleted to danger levels.This is why it’s so important that managers keep close attention and pay interest in each individual team member. Key things to watch and listen for, various team members saying they feel tired with increasing regularity; people becoming increasingly forgetful; more people becoming ill and in some instances unable to shake off a cold, with it coming back again and again; increasing levels of anxiety about even the most simplest of tasks, such as sending an email; and bursting in to tears at the slightest thing, including someone being nice.

Lots of negative talk – you don’t know how it happened but suddenly the norm across your team is to focus on all the things that are wrong and how terrible the organisation is. These conversations will take place everywhere – over a coffee in the team kitchen, in the toilet, in team meetings, across desks. Whilst a bit of skepticism can be healthy, with burnout it can quickly degenerate in to constant negativity. Left untreated, it can spread through the team like wildfire. If normally constructive and solution-oriented team members seem to have had a personality change and can’t see anything good in anything then you know you’ve got a problem.

Emails at 2am and at weekends – I need to flag up that some people do their best work at these times and prefer to do so. It’s where you have other team members normally have clear boundaries between work and home who suddenly seem to be sending you emails at really random times. That 2am email that is about something so innocuous that it could have been left till the next day (if indeed it needed to be sent at all). It’s also worth checking your behaviour – if your tendency is to send emails in the wee small hours of the morning, stressed staff who are struggling to keep on top of their workload may feel the need to do the same.

Normally engaged team members no longer engage – effectively they have stepped out. Exhaustion has a tendency to do that. Where a person’s level of physical and mental energy at zero (or near) then they will go in to self-protection mode. In other words, the flight bit of ‘fight or flight’. You’ll encounter more silence than you would do in one-to-ones and team meetings. That normally chatty team member who comes up with ideas will talk a lot less and have their head down at their desk. In fact, you might see less positive engagement between team members. Less laughter.

Temper flares across the team with regularity – there’s a difference between the occasional disagreement between team members and daily arguments. You’ll spot that a number of your team have developed a snappy tone when they speak to each other. With what started off as a simple request made by one team member to another suddenly degenerating in to each party defending their positions. Arguments will play out in your team space, rather than take place in private.

If you’re seeing one or more of these signs in your team then here are some things you can do to tackle:

Meet with your team to air concerns – just you stating that you’re worried about the team can be powerful in and of itself. Ask people how they’re feeling and what they think is fuelling this. Some of your team members will be less comfortable saying what’s on their mind in front of others. A good idea is to also block some time out in your diary for people to meet with you on an individual basis. The information you get should help you start to form an action plan and it’s important that your team sees action – a difference. Or they’ve shared their thoughts and concerns for nothing.

Review your team’s work plan – the source of a lot of burnout is too much work and not enough time (or people) to deliver. If you have an annual work plan, then you should be reviewing it on a monthly basis anyway. And in some businesses, you should be reviewing on a weekly and/or daily basis. Have you prioritised what needs to be delivered? Or has everything been given the same level of priority? This is where I’ve often seen things go wrong with work plans – where lots of projects and tasks are ‘front loaded’ so that the bulk of delivery is in the first half of the year. Work with your team managers to review and reprioritise projects and activities so that they are spread more equally across your team and across the year.

Look at your team’s resource levels – as I said at the beginning, you might have recently restructured your team and cut some roles. Yet the work those cut roles did has not disappeared. You thought it had but it’s come back, somehow. This is where its key you and your managers know exactly what your staff are working on – not in a micro-manager way – but in a fact finding way. You’ll be surprised at the things people will end up taking on because they want to be helpful but yet are no longer a priority. If you have vacant posts then it’s even more crucial that your work plan reflects this.

Re-clarify what you do (and don’t) expect – this is about you setting the ways of working. And if you’ve done that in the past, you need to do it again. Regularly remind your staff that you don’t expect them to work all the hours, or send you emails at 2am, or work weekends. In fact, you’ll be worried if they do. Make clear that if people have concerns about a project delivery date that it is absolutely okay for them to raise these concerns – as long as they come up with a suitable alternative. I’ve seen teams have their ways of working set out in writing and put in prominent positions around the office as a reminder.

Role model – once again, it starts with you. Are you coming in when you’re ill? Are you sending emails at 2am? Are you ‘losing it’ with team members in public? Do you work through lunch (if you have lunch at all)? If so, then you’re leading the way in terms of burnout and need to put in place your own plan. This is where a coach, mentor or your occupational health team (if you have one) can help. You have a responsibility to yourself and your team to set the right example.

Ensure team members are taking breaks – making sure people take their lunch entitlement is crucial. Encourage people to eat lunch away from their desks (although some people like to surf the web when they’re eating). Encourage people to get outside and go for a walk. And making sure people are taking regular holidays and days off is also key. I’ve seen lots of people accumulate their leave because they weren’t organised and either losing their leave or having to carry it over, having ever increasing holiday quotas they struggle to take. Again, it starts with your example – show that you’re booking ahead, long weekends, proper holidays and the odd day off. You can’t underestimate what your example does.

Ensure team members take time off if they are really sick – I’ve seen too many drag themselves in when they are clearly extremely poorly, with hacking coughs or constant vomiting. You need to send these people straight home when they walk through the door. No arguments. Likewise, when someone is really ill and stays at home but then is emailing you throughout the day you need to say “no”. If they are sick then they should be resting and recovering. Whilst sending emails might not seem like hard work, it will still be a form of stress and as we know, stress can impact the immune system. As the boss, again it starts with you – don’t come in when you’re really ill and don’t be sending missives from your sick bed. Your body will thank you for it and your team will too.

Have you experienced burnout or led a team that has? What were the thing you did to tackle the problem? Share your responses in the comments section so others can benefit from your experience.


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