Leading a Burned-Out Workforce

Let’s get straight to it, leaders. New research from HBR, Gallup, and others is revealing that about half of us are in denial and telling ourselves lies. We have been distancing ourselves from the real problem… often to protect ourselves, our leadership gaps, and frankly our organizational pressures. What are those lies? (1) We can fix the great resignation by simply recruiting. (2) We can’t fix our broken workplace culture. (3) Staff wellbeing is an HR problem. (4) We will regain our productivity soon. And the worst one, (5) I myself am not burnout. Part of our role as leaders is to remain positive and calm in very difficult times. We motivate and inspire our teams. But with 77% reporting burnout (Deloitte 2019) and 79% reporting a significant increase in work-related stress (APA 2021), our optimistic speeches AND aggressive business targets just don’t add up. And for Millennials these numbers are far worse (Forbes 2021). The road to recovery will be a long one…

For a moment imagine you are a fearless frog leader… responsible for a number of other frogs all sitting in pot with the water slowly warming. Perhaps you’re feeling like this already. Perhaps you want to believe and hope that things will get better soon. Perhaps you’ve even seen small improvements. Yet if you’re looking at your core KPIs, business targets, staff turnover rates, absenteeism, productivity, etc… deep inside you know things are NOT really getting better. The temperature is slowly raising and it’s getting really uncomfortable. You see other frogs jumping out. And truth be told, you have thoughts of jumping into another nearby pot that’s looking a lot more comfortable (but probably isn’t). Your fear of change is battling your feelings of losing hope…

Image Source: Global warming is happening here and now

What can you do for yourself and your team? What can provide a lasting change and address root causes, not just symptoms?

1. Don’t just switch pots = Don’t quit and drift to another org with no trust and no support network

20% of new employees leave in the first 45 days (Forbes 2022). Depending on the industry, those rates almost double within 6 months. Even if the job is easier and initial stress decreases, your new opportunity comes with a manager you don’t know, with peers that don’t yet trust you, and most importantly with no work support network when things get more difficult.

But there is a far more important reason that’s connected to your purpose. As a leader, you have the biggest impact in engaging and retaining your staff as well as in preventing their burnout as much as 62% (Gallup 2021)

2. Decrease the heat = focus only on what’s most important… and intentionally abandon the rest

With your team’s cognitive load significantly impacted, leaders must invest significantly more time communicating their vision and inspiring their teams. Only 32% of organizations provide a clear vision, reducing staff stress and burnout rates almost three-fold (McKinsey 2021).

Are you ready to say no to 40% of your least valuable work to ensure the 60% most valuable work actually gets done?

The more difficult aspect of this focus is coming to terms with realistic business targets. The effects of burnout and anxiety are long-lasting. The most conservative research estimates ~10% in loss of staff productivity based on staff absenteeism and turnover alone. More comprehensive research estimates ~40% productivity loss (HBR 2020 depending on the industry of course). This does not yet translate into a significant loss of income with most research reporting only a single-digit loss of sales (BLS 2020).

3. Heal yourself and your team = Make a long-term meaningful investment in staff mental health and wellbeing

No, we’re not talking about yoga classes and famous speakers talking about well-being. These are just short-term tactics that don’t get at root issues. We are talking about evolving how you work every day. We are talking about integrating mental health into regular leadership and mentoring conversations. We are talking about combining and amplifying human and business targets. We are talking about educating our teams about emotional awareness just like we train them on how to do their job. We are talking about radically redefining what it means to be a leader.

We are talking about radically and positively redefining what it means to be a leader.

Why? Because while we can’t always change the temperature in the pot, we can and should absolutely manage how we cope with increased temperature in our body. We can’t reduce workplace stress and burnout. But we can and need to become better equipped at managing it.

4. Evolve your pot = Innovate your leadership and management approaches

This topic has been a highlight for many in the last two years. From early conversations on resilience (e.g. Delloitte 2020) to a more recent focus on leadership empathy (e.g. Forbes 2021) to more comprehensive articles about evolving leaders’ role in staff well-being (WE Forum 2021)… the message is very consistent. We aren’t simply communicating the vision (WHY), directing targets (WHAT), and managing the organization (HOW)… we are equally if not more involved in the well-being of our staff and teams (WHO). We are no longer just experts and managers. We are mentors, coaches, and yes even councillors. Why? Because the biggest factors impacting our WHY and WHAT are the stress, burnout and turnover of our WHO. This also reflects our own needs as leaders and the type of support we require.

5. Stop lying to ourselves about the heat = Become a more authentic and honest leader

We cannot fix the issues we ignore or deny. Solving for easy symptoms without really addressing the underlying messy hairy causes will not yield long-lasting effects. The effects of burnout are long-lived. You can’t fix them with a few tactics.

The effects of burnout are long-lived. You can’t fix them with a few tactics…

Most importantly, don’t lie to yourself. You are burnout. The last three years were the most difficult in your leadership career. You need rest and healing. You need to focus on what’s really important and let go of the rest. And the road from surviving to thriving is a long and difficult one. But remember you don’t have to do this alone…

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