4 Brave Conversations that Minimize Burnout
Journalist Jennifer Moss published The Burnout Epidemic in 2021, and it couldn’t have been timelier. I read it last December and have been thinking about it ever since. We’ve been hearing so much about the “Great Resignation”, and a lot of leaders are worried sick that their teams might fall apart…right when they need team the most.
And as human resources professionals, you’ve been hearing all about it.
Let me paint the issue for you here with broad strokes. And then I’ll send you off with a few tools to recommend and try out with the leaders and teams you’re working with.
A Brief On Burnout
In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognized burnout as an occupational phenomenon, noting that it results from, “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
While the WHO does not classify burnout as a medical condition, it sure can turn into one if leaders don’t figure out how to minimize burnout on their teams. The connection is clear between stress and illnesses like heart disease, stroke, anxiety and chronic inflammation. For a deeper dive, check out Dr. Gabor Maté’s book When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress.
But burnout doesn’t have to go that far to be debilitating to an organization. It shows up as feelings of exhaustion, depleted energy, reduced efficacy on the job, and negative or cynical feelings about one’s job.
Can you smell the burnout all around you?
It’s Not You, It’s Work
First identified in the 1950s’ and accelerating at an alarming clip ever since, Moss and other researchers argue that burnout is a problem with the system—not the people in it.
Which is good news for those tired souls who have tried hot baths, yoga and meditation…but are still having to talk themselves out of bed in the morning.
And which is bad news for bosses whose teams are harried, overloaded, and feeling like they’re not making a difference.
In her 2019 HBR article Burnout is About Your Workplace, Not Your People, Moss frames out an anecdote that helps us grasp the systemic nature of the issue. In speaking with Christina Maslach, burnout expert and psychology professor emerita at UC Berkeley, Maslach described the situation to Moss using the familiar canary-in-a-coalmine metaphor.
Moss grasped the systemic connection right away. “They are healthy birds, singing away as they make their way into the cave,” she writes. “But, when they come out full of soot and disease, no longer singing, can you imagine us asking why the canaries made themselves sick? No, because the answer would be obvious: the coal mine is making the birds sick.”
A Closer Look At The Coal Mine
In 2018, Gallup reported that burned-out employees are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job.
And that data was mined before the pandemic.
You can see how organizational functioning is at risk when people burn out. While the classic advice for resolving burnout has been for people to take a holiday or reduce work hours, Gallup actually found that the number of hours worked matters much less than the way people feel while they’re working those hours.
Sure, working 60 hours a week actually does correlate with burnout—that’s no surprise to anyone—but Gallup Director of Research and Strategy, Workplace Management, Ben Wigert points to an interesting blip in the data.
In his 2020 article Employee Burnout: The Biggest Myth, Wigert wrote that employees who are engaged and have good flexibility in their jobs tend to work more hours per week than other employees and they report better wellbeing. “When people feel inspired, motivated and supported in their work,” Wigert writes, “they do more work—and that work is significantly less stressful on their overall health and wellbeing.”
His conclusion? It’s not just the number of hours people are working. It’s also how their leaders are managing them, and how they experience work during those hours.
Gallup lists five factors that show the highest correlation with employee burnout:
- Unfair treatment at work
- Unmanageable workload
- Unclear communication from managers
- Lack of manager support
- Unreasonable time pressure
Also notable? Gallup named lack of role clarity as another top cause of burnout.
Only 60% of workers understand what is expected of them at work (Gallup again, in its State of the American Workplace Report), and that leads to exhaustion as they chase moving targets and question what they’re accountable for.
The good news is, when you get brave and open up conversations with your team, you can get to a place of much greater clarity, communication and support.
Brave Up Your Leadership To Turn Down The Burnout
It takes courage to have clear and honest conversations with your employees—especially if you’re not in the habit of sharing open dialogue. Getting honest about what’s really going on is the foundation of Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead curriculum—and that’s exactly one of the reasons I teach it.
Organizations are increasingly moving away from command-and-control leadership toward coaching leadership. Good leaders and managers talk with their people about responsibilities and performance goals—and they make sure everyone is clear about who’s doing what.
Questions are the best and fastest way to figure out where your team is at and what they need to do their work well. Asking your employees questions about their projects, their goals and what will support them better also serves to build trust—a hallmark of resilient and psychologically safe workplace cultures.
Four Brave Conversations To Head Off Burnout
Clarity conversations are the first step in the coaching system we teach at Inspired Results Group. You need to get these down first, before you jump into coaching conversations, otherwise your coaching won’t be as powerful as it could be at helping people take ownership of their work.
Clarity Conversation #1: Clear Goals
With your employee, identify 3–5 clear, transparent goals for the year. Some questions to help you guide that conversation:
- What do you want to celebrate a year from now?
- What does success look like in your role?
- What growth or learning would you like to have this year?
Clarity Conversation #2: Clear Expectations
Eliminate assumptions and confusion about what’s expected (remember to stay open to learning and discovering as you both share your answers):
- What do you expect from yourself?
- Here is what I expect from you…
- What do you expect from me as your manager?
Clarity Conversation #3: Clear Roles
Spend some time exploring the role of your employee, and your role as the manager:
- What is yours to own and take responsibility for?
- What is mine to own and take responsibility for?
- Where do we overlap? What needs to be more clear?
Clarity Conversations #4: Clear Support
Here, you’re jointly deciding your action steps for when one or both of you needs backup:
- What does support look like for you?
- How will I need when you need help?
- What will make it easy to ask for support?
As Brené Brown says, “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” Spending time on creating clarity in a compassionate and co-creative way will be the strategy that mitigates burnout and serves you and your team in the long term. This investment in upfront time will inspire your team to dig in—and dig deep—as you continue to navigate a never-ending landscape of change and challenge.
Where will you start? Who is looking for clarity right now? Go have that conversation and see what difference it makes for both of you. Now, stop reading and go!
We go deeper into strategies and tools for preventing and correcting burnout in both our Dare to Lead™ training and our Courageous Coaching for Leaders course. You can find out more on our website at www.inspiredresultsgroup.com.
Diane Lloyd is the founder and CEO of Inspired Results Group, a learning and coaching company that teaches coaching and leadership skills to schools, universities, government agencies, NGOs and businesses. Diane trained rigorously and directly with Brené Brown in 2019, joining a select group of global practitioners certified to deliver Brown’s research-backed Dare to Lead™ curriculum. She will be leading one of the Pre-conference Workshop – Do You Dare to Lead? A Courage-Building Workshop for HR Professionals.
For the latest HR and business articles, check out our main page.
We want to hear from you!
Do you have a story idea you’d like to see covered by PeopleTalk?
Or maybe you’ve got a question we could ask our members in our People & Perspectives section?
Or maybe you just want to tell us how much you liked the article.
The door is always open.