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What to do when success leads to burnout

by Ana Lopez
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Founder and Chief Culture Officer of Ideal resultsInc. Author of the new book Culture Ignited: 5 Disciplines for Adaptive Leadership.

“You’ve been so successful that you’ve created a burnout culture.”

I recently told the senior management of a large media company. The company had launched a new project in a new space. Everyone had worked very hard to meet a tight deadline. They were 100% focused. They had worked extra hours. Pushed the boulder to the top of the mountain. And then they briefly celebrated their success – they were proud of what they had achieved – before moving on to the next project, with another deadline.

The management team was concerned and surprised that since the great triumph there had been a decline in both email communication and active participation in meetings. Suddenly it didn’t feel like the same place at all. The hard truth I brought forward was that success, followed by the immediate drive for further success, came at a price. The team was exhausted. Because they didn’t have time to recover, they didn’t have the energy or enthusiasm for the next project. Key influencers at various levels across the company had reduced their level of involvement and it permeated the entire organization. Their success had turned toxic because they didn’t take a breather before moving on to the next big thing.

My client is not alone. No fewer than 81% of employees feel threatened by burnout according to a study of nearly 11,000 C-suite executives, HR leaders and employees, by global consulting firm Mercer. The most important reason? Feeling that they are not adequately rewarded for their efforts.

a Future Forum Survey found that 42% of employees said they already had burnout, a real danger signal as employees with burnout are three times more likely to be ready to look for a new job elsewhere. Those most affected? Almost half of the employees are under 30 years old. a research by the Mary Christie Institutea national thought leadership organization, found that 53% of recent college graduates between the ages of 22 and 28 said they experienced burnout at work at least once a week.

What can you do to prevent burnout in your organization?

Create a safe workplace.

From a leadership standpoint, you need to create an environment where members of your team ask for help without fear of a negative response. I am very conscious about creating a safe space for people to express themselves. Recently, during a period when the workload became extremely high, one of my team members felt comfortable raising her hand and saying, “I’m satiated and I’m reaching my breaking point. You need additional resources for me to maintain the quality of our work.’ That’s exactly the kind of culture and work environment I want.

Stay connected.

One of the fundamental causes of burnout is isolation, especially these days, with many employees working remotely full-time or part-time. Leaders should do everything they can to make everyone feel involved and important. Find ways to get them off that deserted island. This could include increasing one-on-one conversations, moving from bi-weekly team conversations to once a week, and scheduling regular face-to-face team events.

Schedule free time.

Burnout levels have almost certainly risen in step with the increase in home working. It’s so much harder to separate from work when your desk is only three steps away in your living room. Make sure your employees build an official lunch break and shorter morning and afternoon breaks into their agenda. Encourage them to go for a walk outside. To expand. And also follow your own advice. You’ll come back refreshed and re-energized and ultimately more productive. One of my colleagues who is bound to a desk most of the day sets an alarm on his phone to remind himself to get up and stretch every half hour.

Take care of yourself.

Leaders also burn out. Remember the flight attendant’s safety instruction as the plane begins to taxi: “Put on your own oxygen mask before helping anyone else.”

Your emotional control is paramount. If you have a meltdown, it has a major impact on the entire organization. In our executive coaching we emphasize the need to take a deep breath, take time for reflection, exercise, golf or any other sport or hobby. Separate yourself from work to avoid burnout.

Take a real vacation.

I’ve been shocked by the number of customer Zoom or Teams meetings I’ve attended over the past few months where the participants would be on vacation. Sometimes they were even out of the country in different time zones. I feel they joined out of fear; that they could not loosen; that they didn’t want to risk being out of sight and out of mind. It is not a healthy corporate culture where this exists. Think big sports teams. They all have downtime between seasons. It’s unrealistic to expect star players to continue to perform at their best without time off – and that includes your corporate stars.

Recognize achievements.

Recognizing employees for their efforts and high performance helps create a healthy work culture. This increases their sense of belonging to an organization that cares about them, and contributes to a climate where signs of burnout can be spotted and corrected early.

Don’t underestimate the dangers of burnout and be aware that it probably exists at some level in your organization. Make it a priority to keep your eyes and ears open so you can calm things down before things turn scorching hot. Create an environment where team members can have an open and honest dialogue with you when they feel overburdened and overwhelmed.

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