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Don't let your team burn out

Burnout can happen to the best of us, especially if your job is particularly stressful. Add to this uncertainty about the future, an impending recession and the rising cost of living, and you have a perfect storm ready to wreak havoc on your team. 

As a leader or line manager, it’s your responsibility to prevent your team from burning out. This starts with role modelling certain behaviours, like leaving work at a reasonable time and openly talking about how you’re feeling. 

We spoke to Geoff McDonald, the global mental health advocate who spoke at Pleo’s Forward event, about some of the simple things you can do to spot the signs and take action before it's too late – both as a leader and an individual.

1. Don’t glamorise over-working

Sometimes it’s necessary to work a few extra hours to get the job done. But regularly staying late in the office or taking work home to finish in front of the TV can be a recipe for burnout.

As a manager, it’s important to emphasise the need for work-life balance. Try not to contact your team outside of normal working hours. Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule, but if you’re consistently messaging your employees at 10pm, you’re not honouring their right to a life outside of work.

Similarly, let them know it’s okay to delete work-based apps like Slack off their phones, or at least turn notifications off. Just the ‘ping’ of a new message from someone at work can tempt you to look at your phone and end up with you responding to more messages than you need to.

Look out for these signs: exhaustion, irritability, poor concentration, isolation, loss of motivation and frequent illnesses or sick days

2. Create a culture of recognition

When people are recognised at work, it makes them more engaged and even more likely to stay at a company. This is especially true for remote workers - of which there are far more now than two years ago - who are at risk of going unnoticed and feeling underloved. 

Geoff reckons that “the most critical enabler of a team’s performance is the energy of the people”. As a leader or a line manager, it’s one of your responsibilities to keep your team energised and motivated. Recognising their achievements is a great way of doing this.

Try to encourage people to find value in their jobs and show them how their work is helping others. Why not offer a monthly award or financial incentive to someone who’s worked in line with the company values? Or you could organise a quarterly team lunch to say thank you for all the hard work you’ve witnessed.

3. Allow your team to open up

“You have to address the stigma of mental health across your organisation,” says Geoff. A simple way of doing this is by encouraging people to talk about how they’re feeling and be comfortable in their vulnerability. It’s also a useful team bonding activity, as people are more likely to feel closer with those who’ve shared something personal about themselves.

If your employees open up to you about challenges they’re facing - either at work or at home - this provides an opportunity for you to help. We wrote about why now’s the perfect time for leaders to be vulnerable. They say a problem shared is a problem halved, so being able to talk about what’s on your employees’ minds might offer more relief than you know.

4. Remember the 3 task limit

There’s nothing more demotivating than setting yourself an unrealistic to-do list. If you vow on a Monday to get 20 tasks done by Friday, you’re likely setting yourself up for failure. 41% of to-do list tasks are never completed, which can leave you feeling frustrated and defeated. It’s better to set yourself fewer, more achievable goals that you can comfortably tick off. 

Pleo’s ex-Chief Product Officer, Olov, recommends making a list of one to three things you want to accomplish that week. It’s a realistic set of priorities that will keep you from feeling overwhelmed. Plus, with fewer priorities it’s easier to stay on track and feel in control.

5. Take a break

We all claim to love a holiday, but it’s becoming increasingly common for employees to roll over their annual leave days or lose them altogether. Taking a break is essential for relaxing, resetting and coming back to work feeling rejuvenated. And with the pandemic having put the brakes on foreign travel, people are more in need of a getaway than ever.

As a manager, it’s a good idea to remind your team to take their allotted holiday. You can set the tone by making a point of taking holiday yourself, not responding to work-related messages and mentally switching off. It helps if your company’s holiday booking system is easy to use and your team knows exactly how much holiday they have to use at any time.

Ultimately, the short-term benefits of overworking and sacrificing annual leave will be outweighed by the long-term drawbacks, like lower productivity and making more errors. So it pays to get your team jet-setting!

6. Offer mental health support as a benefit

With an hour of therapy costing anywhere up to £150 in the UK, it’s no wonder many people shy away from making an appointment. One way you can make this easier for your team is to offer an in-house therapist as part of the company benefits package. 

Spill connects to your business’ Slack app and offers therapy sessions, manager mental health training and regular feelings check-ins. Users reported feeling 52% less anxious and 42% less depressed after their sessions. The app measures your team’s ‘pulse’ each week, so it’s a great way for you to get an idea of how your employees are feeling. 

7. Show them it’s okay to say “no”

A major cause of burnout is taking on more work than you can handle. There’s no nice way to put it: overworking is killing 750 million people every year. 

Saying yes often feels like the right thing to do - particularly if you’re hoping for promotion or you’re new to the company and want to appear willing. But trying to juggle an unmanageable workload is more likely to leave you feeling like you’re drowning. Not to mention the quality of your work is at risk when you’re spreading your focus across so many projects. So get to know your limits, and stick to them.

“It starts with leaders” - Geoff Mcdonald

8. Assess your ways of working

The processes and policies you have in place have a big impact on your team. When you’re thinking about employee happiness, don’t just look at the results of your quarterly engagement survey. According to Geoff, all this shows is people’s “willingness to go the extra mile” and has no bearing on whether they’re actually content at work.

Instead, Geoff recommends doing an audit of your ways of working to identify what might be making people stressed in the workplace. Are there some weekly team meetings in your calendar that could be made monthly? Could you suggest people block out a lunch hour to prevent meetings being scheduled leading to yet another sandwich al desko? 

Or it might be as simple as asking your team straight up which improvements they’d make to the way things are currently run in the business. After all, if you don’t ask, you don’t get.

9. Don’t forget to look after yourself, too

It might be a leader’s duty to take care of their team, but it’s up to us to look after ourselves as well. One of the strategies Geoff mentions in his Forward talk is the ‘CAN DO’ method. It’s an easy acrononym to remind yourself of the small things you can (and should) do every day to look after your mental and physical health:

C - Take some time to connect with your friends, family or nature. Connection is key to maintaining our emotional health - it’s one of the reasons many of us struggled with lockdown.

A - Be active for at least 30 minutes a day. It doesn’t have to be overly strenuous. In fact, getting a dog is a great way to make sure you’re getting regular outside exercise.

N - Do something nice for someone, like making your partner dinner or writing a thank you card, and see what this does for your sense of purpose.

D - Discover something new - it’s great for oiling your neural pathways. It could be as simple as doing a crossword or starting that book you’ve been meaning to read.

O - Take a five minute break just to observe the space around you. Make a cup of tea or just stand in the sun - Geoff calls this the ‘stroke the cat’ moment as it requires zero effort.

Protecting your team’s - and your own - energy is one of your biggest responsibilities as a manager, and these are just a few ways you can help them avoid burnout. Ultimately, creating an environment where your employees feel comfortable being honest with you is one of the best things you can start doing today.

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