Most managers and leaders would agree that the modern workplace is stressful. Some want to help their employees learn how to manage the stress.
But what happens when those managers are burned out themselves?
In my research and work with organizations, I’ve found that there is a great deal of denial in the management and leadership ranks of organizations when it comes to feeling stress or burnout.
Some managers believe that burnout is the price that they pay for having such a responsible job. Others adamantly profess that they love their jobs and don’t mind working 60, 70, or 80 hours per week.
I’ve even had some organizational leaders tell me that they don’t understand why their subordinates are burned out – especially since they have so much more responsibility than hourly or lower level workers!
But what is often forgotten is that managers are the role models for what is expected of their subordinates and how those subordinates should approach their work. For employees who are interested in moving up the organizational hierarchy, they are creating a path to success based on what they see the managers doing in the company – especially those managers who are being recognized and promoted.
In the case of burnout, imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery.
Managers Are Role Models: Inside and Outside of Work
As a manager, have you ever taken the time to fully step back and reflect upon how your actions are influencing the actions of your employees – for better or worse?
Think about your daily routine and work habits:
- Do you arrive at work before anyone else – and never leave before nightfall?
- How do you treat other people – are you irritable? Pleasant? Compassionate?
- How do you interact with your boss – are you challenging their decisions or acquiescing to whatever demands are placed on you?
Remember: your subordinates are closely observing your actions and they will imitate what they see:
- Your employees will start arriving early and leaving late…even if they don’t need to.
- They will begin treating their peers in the same manner as you treat others.
- If you pride yourself on challenging your manager’s decisions, be prepared to fully explain the reasons behind any request that you make of your direct reports.
- Or if you passively acquiesce to your boss’s demands, then don’t expect your team to fully open to you about the stress that they are experiencing – and how it may be influencing their productivity, performance, and desire to remain with the organization.
But your position as a role model for what is expected of employees also extends outside of work. Do you have hobbies or interests in which you regularly engage – or are you consumed by thoughts of work, work, work? Do you embrace work-life balance – or do you feel like you no longer have a personal life?
Don’t let your actions teach your employees that the only way to succeed in the organization is to eschew your personal life and remove any activity that conflicts with the demands of work.
If you’re not taking the time to take care of yourself, your employees are much less likely to take care of themselves – and that leads to job dissatisfaction and turnover.
Burnout is not something that can be cured by a week or two away from work. Burnout has tangible negative effects on your nervous system, cardiovascular system, and those parts of your brain that are responsible for higher level executive functioning.
So when managers are burned out, they are incapable of helping their employees decrease their stress levels. In fact, it’s like the “blind leading the blind” and no one achieves any relief.
Burned Out Managers Burn Out Their Employees
The role of managers is to serve as the liaison between lower and higher organizational levels. As a manager, you must ensure that the work is completed efficiently, on time, and on budget.
But managers are also leaders. As a leader, you are responsible for motivating and engaging your team so that they will be committed and innovative in completing their tasks and responsibilities.
Your role as a manager-leader is also be your team’s sherpa: to guide them throughout the organization’s landmines on the way to success. If can sometimes feel that your loyalty is split between the company and your people.
For example, imagine that you are aware of challenges affecting the company’s survival – but are warned not to share this information with subordinates. If you genuinely care about your workers, embrace transparency, and want to do the right thing, what do you do?
A burned out manager is too stressed out to deal effectively with the inevitable problems that arise on a daily basis within the organization. Burnout physically compromises problem-solving and decision-making.
Especially if you’ve been a high achiever, this decrease in performance and productivity can be devastating. As the stress builds, forgetfulness increases. You tend to lose your sense of humor (or become more cynical and make “jokes” that can feel like attacks on other people.
Burnout leads to the frequently unintentional abandonment of common civilities and niceties that are so essential in engaging employees. A sense of overwhelm takes precedence as you constantly strive to get everything done on a constantly growing “to do” list. You’re cranky, irritable, and not very nice to be around.
Based on my research, I’ve found that these compassionate managers begin to experience high levels of cognitive dissonance. The result is high stress, and ultimately burnout.
If you’re feeling burned out, your interactions and ability to effectively lead others will be compromised.
And your employees are noticing the change.
Moving Yourself and Your Team Out of Burnout
Most managers relish being the chief motivator and problem-solver for their teams. In other words, they enjoy serving as a mentor and role model. So in addition to your position as a role model for how to succeed at work, try also making yourself the role model for how to deal with stress at work.
Once you’ve taken the time to reflect upon what your behaviors and actions are revealing to your team, it’s time to make the necessary changes so that you can be the role model for how to avoid or overcome burnout.
- Consider the level of balance in scheduled time for routine tasks and large projects. Are your work habits focused so that you can delegate time on both of these types of responsibility? What would you need in order to achieve a better balance or schedule? Consider also offering these resources to your team.
- Try taking mini-breaks throughout the day. Even if it’s 10 minutes away from your computer screen or a mandatory 5-minute break between meetings, these habits can help create a distance from common stressors that lead to burnout.
- Keep a log as to your work hours. Are you the first in, but the last out at work? If you’re working remotely, consider a “no email” cut-off time. In other words, no emails are sent or responded to after this cut-off time. Honestly, not all emails require an immediate response.
These simple changes to your work habits will be noticed by your team. But the key is to not only embrace these changes, but to stick to them.
That’s the hard part.
Because when we’re dealing with workplace stress, it’s far to easy for “work stuff” to infringe upon these boundaries – and well-defined behaviors are one of the most important ways to begin de-stressing and recovering from burnout.
By embracing and emulating a balanced lifestyle, you give your employees permission to do the same for themselves.
- If you notice an employee is emailing around the clock, take time to compassionately discuss this with them. Don’t judge! Instead, ask and listen as to why they believe that their job requires so much time. Perhaps they have too many projects on their plate and feel uncomfortable saying “no.” You can work with them by identifying priorities, delegating, or modifying their schedule.
- If an employee is suddenly tardy or absent, this can be a sign that the stress is becoming overwhelming. Again, talk to them without judgment in order to understand what is happening so that you can offer support that will help them. Don’t underestimate the impact of personal responsibilities on work performance. Be compassionate and strive to create a win-win solution for the employee and the company.
- Ask employees what they need to do their jobs – then do everything in your power to provide it. Even if you can’t, listening to their concerns and striving to create a solution can make them feel heard – and this often reduces stress levels.
Remember: if you’re a stressed out manager, it is highly likely that you are unintentionally stressing out your employees.
Be authentic with your team. Expressing that you feel stressed too can open doors by giving employees a safe space to acknowledge their stress. Because the sad reality is that most people who burn out are initially in denial and believe that they are isolated and alone.
Optimism is important – but don’t try to put a “happy face” when you’re burned out. This is surface acting, which leads to cognitive dissonance and burnout. Besides, we’re all adults and can usually spot the insincerity quickly – which leads to confusion and more stress.
Additionally, if you are “Suzy Shine” or “Happy Hal,” this surface acting can lead to others believing that you are insincere and don’t really believe what you’re saying. This not only destroys trust, but also emphatically states that surface acting is “the way we do things here.”
And as a manager, you don’t want your workers to be involved in surface acting. You want them to be balanced and bring their whole selves to work – and ideally enjoy the process and the environment.
Finally, watch out for self imposed perfectionism. High standards are important and necessary in order to compete in a constantly changing world. But know when enough is enough by clearly articulating the desired performance standard for tasks and projects. Remember: perfectionism is highly aligned with the onset of burnout.
So if you’re a manager, realize that your job requires you to do more than just manage and lead your employees. You are also responsible for serving as a role model for how things are done in your organizational culture. You’ll set the tone for not just work habits and behaviors, but also shine a bright light on what is required to succeed at work.
Be consciously deciding that burnout is something to be avoided, you can create an incredible “new way to work” that breeds innovation, trust, and engagement. Good luck.
Dr. Geri Puleo is the creator of the Burnout During Organizational Change (B-DOC) Model, a research-based solution that defines the descent and recovery of workplace burnout. Her current project is focused on gender differences in workplace burnout. A frequent and popular keynote speaker, her TEDx Talk on Burnout v. PTSD: More Similar Than You Think has been viewed over 600,000 times on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFkI69zJzLI).