Burnout: Spot the warning signs

20 July 2020

Michelle Gibbings

Michelle is a workplace expert and author of three books. Her latest book is 'Bad Boss: What to do if you work for one, manage one or are one’. For more information, click here.

Michelle Gibbings provides five easy tips to help team leaders create mentally healthier workplaces.

Mental health in the workplace has never been more critical with workplaces struggling to adapt to new ways of working, and employees facing mounting pressure.

COVID-19 has brought new workplace challenges to the fore, while previous problems for employees of shrinking job stability, mounting workloads, and an ‘always on’ mentality is exacerbated. In such an environment, leaders within businesses need to be vigilant and alert to the signs of burnout.

In May 2019, the World Health Organisation officially classified ‘burnout’ as a recognised illness, while a 2018 Gallup study found that of the 7,500 full-time employees surveyed, 23 per cent felt burned out at work very often or always, and an additional 44 per cent felt burned out sometimes.

Leaders need to not only balance the pressure in their working day but be ready to spot the warning signs for their team members and support them. Here are five tips to help you better manage the mental health and wellbeing of your team.

1. Find the right level

 Research reveals that a certain amount of pressure is good for us because it helps motivate us and keeps us focused. When we experience the right amount of challenge and interest in a task we are doing, the brain releases specific chemicals (noradrenaline and dopamine), making us more alert, motivated and ready to learn.

Researchers and educators often refer to this as the ‘Goldilocks zone’. It’s the zone of optimal performance where we are working on a task or learning something that is neither too hard, nor too easy.

Pressure is unhealthy when a person feels like they:

  • Have no control or autonomy;
  • Are making little or no progress;
  • Have so much to do it feels overwhelming;
  • Are going backwards; and
  • Are ruminating about the same issues – again and again.

Over time, if not managed well, that pressure leads to ongoing stress, and potentially burnout.

2. Start noticing

Be alert to the warning signs of burnout in yourself and others. These signs may include feeling ineffective and more cynical, having reduced energy, motivation and efficiency, and being more frustrated and irritable.

Notice if your team members are working excessively hard or doing lots of overtime and yet, their productivity is waning. Check-in on how they are feeling, and find ways to offer support.

3. Build the foundation 

Central to creating a healthy environment is the relationship the leader has with team members. As well, it’s critical to establish a psychologically safe environment, where people are comfortable to share what is working or not working for them, and how they are feeling.

Be open with your team about your pressure points and what you do to manage stress and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

As part of this, encourage your team members to take care of their physical and mental health.  It helps if you, as the leader, role model self-care behaviours, and create a safe space for your team to talk about their mental health and wellbeing.

4. Support healthy practices

Encourage your team to take regular breaks during the day, and ideally, once a day to go outside the office. For example, consider holding walking meetings with your team, rather than doing your regular one-on-ones in an office or cafe.

The key is to get away from your desk because by shifting your environment, you alter your state, helping to reset your mindset and get a fresh perspective.

As a team, agree on the boundaries as to what’s acceptable regarding requests for work outside standard working hours. This simple practice makes it easier for team members to have boundaries between work and home life, and to be okay with not responding to emails or phone calls in personal time.

5. Create connections

Relationships and connection are at the root of all human existence. When you have strong relationships at work, it provides a support network for you to talk through challenges and get advice.

As the team’s leader, it’s crucial to build supportive and trusting relationships with all team members. People want to feel like they belong to something, and this is hard if they feel out of the loop and disconnected from you or their colleagues.

Find out what brings out their best and how the team wants to connect and engage with each other. As well, ask each team member what they need from you to enable them to be their best each day at work.

Awareness, patience and persistence

Creating a mentally healthy workplace isn’t about the one thing you do. It requires awareness, patience and persistence, so that activities and support are always and consciously applied.

Michelle Gibbings is an author and a workplace expert.