You’ve just landed the perfect team, generous funding, and a big once-in-a-lifetime project that will take a year to complete. You’ll be facing overwhelming workloads and intense deadlines, but you’re confident you’ll complete the project on time if everyone works at peak capacity. Your only worry now is that your team might fall victim to the heavy workload and burn out over the course of the project. Losing even one member of your team to burnout could spell disaster for the future of your startup. What can you do?
What is burnout?
Burnout, a concept first coined in 1974, lies on a continuum somewhere between chronic stress and depression. Early findings suggest that it can change the brain’s structure. Emotional exhaustion and cynicism are early warning signs of burnout, which can stem from an imbalance in six aspects of work and life: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. Many of these imbalances can be grouped around three key epicenters of risk–self-identity, control, and exhaustion–and turned into three golden rules.
1. Protect self-identity
Self-identity, self-worth, and social status operate at the heart of emotional exhaustion and burnout. Threatening these increases the risk of burnout.
- Clarify who does what. Being assigned a clearly defined role bolsters self-identity and protects social status within the team. Individual employees feel their contributions are recognized, boosting self-esteem.
- Be fair. Procedural justice is a powerful antidote to stress. You will hurt your employee’s self-worth and threaten their social status by being unjust.
- Reward effort. If you don’t reward effort, you hurt an employee’s self-worth. If you can’t reward an employee immediately, at least acknowledge their effort and ask for a rain check.
- Spot goals. Take time to explore your employees’ goals and find alignment with the team’s goals and values. This aligns their self-identity with the identity of the team as a whole and gives your employees a “why” for the tough “how” ahead.
- Be there. Nurture a culture of acceptance and social support within your team through a focus on shared team goals and authentic leadership.
2. Maximize control
Uncertainty causes stress. Not feeling in control is one of the biggest contributors to burnout.
- Define the problem. Check every member of your team knows precisely what needs to be achieved, how it can be achieved and exactly what is expected from him or her, at all times.
- Share decisions with transparency. If you see an imminently stressful project ahead, tell your team and involve everyone in the decision-making and planning process. They will feel more in control of a heavy workload that they have voluntarily taken on, than one that has been forced upon them.
- Listen. Employees who feel their voices are heard, feel more in control of their situation than those who don’t.
- Reduce suspense. Avoid suspense at all costs. If you’re emailing an employee to meet you the next day, stating “Please come to my office” contributes to unnecessary stress, whereas adding “to talk about a new deadline” immediately puts an end to pointless rumination.
3. Minimize exhaustion
Exhaustion — whether it’s cognitive, emotional, or physical — is a strong predictor of burnout. A heavy workload is tied to emotional exhaustion and incessant job demands are linked to cynicism.
- Ask “what happened?” and never “why did it happen?” During criticism or feedback, or after stressful events, actively encourage everyone to take a factual, impersonal approach. Cognitive reappraisal helps to regulate negative emotions and reduce emotional exhaustion.
- Be authentic. Authentic leadership reduces emotional exhaustion, especially in emotionally demanding environments.
- Demand sprints, not marathons. Schedule in and enforce a tailored “breather day” after every couple of days of intense work, with fewer hours and immunity from new tasks and emotional demands. Frame the workload as short, high-intensity sprints, rather than a continuous, high-intensity marathon. Constantly remind employees of the next breather day so they can visualize light at the end of the tunnel.
- Put in circuit breakers. If your employees sweat over the same problem, day after day, break the circuit of monotony so they use a different set of cognitive skills or work in a novel environment, at regular intervals.
- Check on sleep. A recent study on financial workers revealed job strain caused burnout if people also suffered from insomnia. For a better night’s sleep, enforce daylight exposure at intervals throughout the day, daily exercise and later starts in the morning during periods of intense pressure.