Many individuals, managers, and employers are seeking ways to successfully combat burnout.
After a recent Journey CxO Cohort Group session, member Nikki Katsutani sent a thoughtful list of follow-up questions, which inspired me to write this piece.
“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes… including you.” — Anne Lamott
The questions on combating burnout from Nikki came at a serendipitous time.
She also shared this recent piece from the New York Times on the topic. And soon thereafter, I saw this graphic in a blog post (The Why Axis) showing data from the National Social Survey which has been conducted by the University of Chicago for decades.
The shape of the trend lines show that something has clearly changed in the last 12-24 months. Burnout is clearly up dramatically.
I was feeling burned out myself and telling my business partner Chris about it. I was surprised and disappointed because I had just returned (a week ago) from “vacation” (at least in theory) in India with my mother.
It got me thinking: “What can I do both for myself and to help others?”
How Can We Combat Burnout as Individuals?
The tools and practices that help each person vary by individual. These ideas represent things that work for me. I am hopeful you will find something here that may reinforce what you already do or could be additive to your practice.
- Incorporate natural light into your day. Our circadian rhythms, body moods and sleep cycles are set by exposure to natural light. All of us are positively influenced by sunlight. What varies is how much.
- Spend time in nature. Even if you can’t take the big hike in the wilderness, simply walk in a park, or go out into your garden. When the weather permits, take off your shoes and feel the earth, grass, or sand (on a beach). Listen to the sounds of the birds and the wind.
- Get near or in water. Whether simply walking along the Hudson River (or equivalent in your big city), seeing and hearing the waves in the ocean or bay, or sitting near a lake. Water is uniquely calming to most humans. Perhaps because our body is 55-60% water, and an even higher percentage when we were infants (a time of life when we would generally describe ourselves as more content.)
- Move your body. Not for the sake of exercise, although exercise has many mood benefits. Exercise is known to release multiple hormones including endorphins (which causes the runner’s high), serotonin (the ‘happy’ hormone) and dopamine (the ‘reward’ hormone.) I recommend walking at a modest pace without your phone in easy reach (or simply left a home.) A Stanford University study from 2014 found that walking increased creativity significantly. Try dancing (even just at your home if you are not going to weddings or clubs) as an alternative to walking.
- Create opportunities for smiles and laughter. While it may sound surprising, I find that making the effort to proactively smile at others is helpful. We are wired to notice when others smile and will smile back instinctively, which can start a positive chain reaction. Check out those cute photos on social media; though I don’t have either FB or Insta, my boys make a point of sharing pics of fluffy and cute dogs with me. Laughter is even harder to “generate” than smiling. However, we all know what types of content or people make us laugh. Make time to proactively add those items to your week.
- Make time for physical contact. This is not about romantic intimacy. It is about encouraging greater basic human touch. Touch releases the hormone oxytocin that has a calming impact on our nerve centers, heart rate and blood pressure. COVID has severely deprived us of normal human touch. Even if you are not hugging as many people, you can play with a dog or a child. Those interactions always have a positive impact on me.
- Keep a Gratitude Diary. Humans tend to remember the negative events. Perhaps it is our survival instinct (which is less relevant today.) Work by the Gottman Institute reveals a magic relationship ratio of 5:1, which reflects the number of positive vs. negative interactions necessary to ensure a romantic relationship / marriage thrives. We don’t always have a romantic partner and may not want to count on them fully for positive feedback. So, I find keeping a gratitude diary helpful. Mine is comprised of the little things I notice day in and out. In addition, I record any actions or achievements I can take credit for. For me, this process has been very helpful.
- Listen to Music. We all have different tastes in music. Find the stuff you like (which changes for me based on my mood – upbeat vs. chill etc.) Turn it on, play it loudly, sing along or hum, and tap your foot. Multiple studies show that listening to music increases our happiness. Many of our important life memories are associated with certain songs. I welcome any music suggestions from readers.
How Can We Combat Burnout as Managers and Employers?
These are my thoughts from personal experience sitting on both sides of the employer/employer relationship. I look forward to hearing input from readers on other suggestions.
- Encourage time off. Managers and employers need to stress this. Everyone needs downtime. Model taking time off yourself. Cross train your team so that people feel less stressed when they are away, knowing someone else can pick up the slack. Incorporate time off into the work schedule and even in compensation plans (particularly for salespeople – Account Executives, Sales Development Reps etc.) Remember that contractors and freelancers also need and deserve time off.
- Increase opportunities for “flow” at work. Hungarian psychologist and social scientist, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi published the seminal work on “flow.” He defined it as a state of absorption with the task at hand such that time seems to fade away. And he characterized it by finding the right mix between the challenge of a task and our skill level. As a manager we can ask our teams to track their work and report back on what tasks they find “energize” them and what other tasks “drain” them. We can’t totally change the content of work, but as managers we can be conscious of the different tasks our teams engage in and find ways to increase the “engaging” tasks.
- Create psychological safety. This concept was popularized by the research of Professor Amy Edmondson published in her book entitled The Fearless Organization. It was later reconfirmed by a study undertaken by Google in 2012 named Project Aristotle. In its most simplified form, managers create ‘psychological safety’ by cultivating an environment (proactively) where everyone can speak their mind, can talk about mistakes, and ask questions with the fear of any reprisal or other adverse consequence.
- Remove blockers. Ask your team and encourage managers to ask their team what they can do to make employees’ weeks go better at work. Blockers create frustration. Knowing someone is there to make them successful will go a long way to reducing stress.
- Understand the “purpose” or goals of your employees. Ask them what they are working towards. Figure out (and they will first need to do the work themselves) to understand what gets them out of bed in the morning to come to work. There is no right answer. It can be aligned with the mission of the company or be about providing a better quality of life (income) for themselves and their family. Find ways to remind them of how the work they are doing ties back into their personal goals and creates meaning. On a quarterly basis or at least twice a year, set aside time to talk about longer-term objectives that are beyond any company or team OKRs or goals.
- Provide regular positive feedback (especially on little things). Appreciation is the opposite side of keeping a gratitude diary. There is no need to be fake. Positive feedback given frequently (when deserved) creates the reservoir of goodwill that will pay dividends when you have difficult conversations if they are required.
- Create conditions for greater autonomy. Individuals at different stages in their career will define autonomy differently. The advice for managers is to not micromanage people. Undoubtedly trust is earned over time. Work with each team member on creating a greater sense of control over their responsibilities and outcomes. Resist telling people how exactly to do their work. Instead provide guidance on outcomes and parameters on budget, timeline, and accuracy.
- Make yourself available for questions and help. Your job is not to solve all the problems people have but to be a resource for them when they have questions. Make asking questions and seeking counsel easy. And in those meetings, bias your behavior first to listening, second to asking curious questions and third (when requested) to giving specific advice.
Control What We Can. Accept What We Can’t Control.
The first noble truth in Buddhism is ‘dukkha’ which when translated from Pali to English may be expressed, albeit imperfectly. as “suffering is.” The experience of being human is that we will have ups and down in our moods and emotions on a regular basis.
All of us will suffer from burnout at one or more times in our careers.
It is the responsibility of individuals to take better care of themselves on a regular basis, and to give themselves grace when times are tough.
It is the responsibility of managers and employers to invest in the well-being of their people, particularly on the emotional and psychological vectors.
There is no silver bullet. And we can all try harder to make the workplace a better place.
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