When Burnout Hits: Five Ways to Reduce Burnout and Improve Employee Retention
by Jamie Spannhake
October 24, 2021
A few weeks ago I served on a panel about attorney burnout for a bar association club for attorneys in their first 10 years of practice. I mentioned it in my prior blog post When You Learn from Your Mistakes. The attendees were all lawyers, but their experiences with burnout and the questions they asked are not limited to lawyers. Anyone can relate to the experiences of working in an environment that leads to burnout.
The last question asked by an attendee perfectly exemplified the real problem with burnout, and the way I answered repeated the same problem pattern.
Here’s what I mean.
Asking the Right Questions About Burnout
The question was about how to handle unreasonable expectations from a supervisor. In the example, based on the employee's real-world experience, the supervisor would promise a deliverable to the client without consulting his team and then delay delegating the task to the more junior employees. The supervisor would then have an unrealistic deadline and freak out because he had promised the client an answer or deliverable by a date that was, by that time, impossible.
The attendee asked the panel: What should I do? How should I handle it?
We provided good techniques for communicating the impossibility of the task to her supervisor, and how to talk with others about possibly getting an extension for others’ work without pressing deadlines. We also discussed how she could communicate the specifics of what she would be able to produce in the timeframe provided.
This was all useful information, and hopefully, it helped her. But thinking about the question later, I realized we had addressed the wrong question.
Burnout to Breakthrough: Whose Problem Are We Solving?
Sure, we answered the question asked, but really, the question was about how to avoid getting in that situation in the first place. More importantly, the answers should have focused on the fact that the more junior employee should not be the one responsible for solving this problem.
There is plenty of advice out there about being proactive about preventing or reducing your own burnout. In other words, how to get from burnout to balance. That was, in fact, the focus of the panel I was on. But I want to go further and discuss ways senior business leaders and supervisors can create an environment and culture that reduces burnout with work.
Burnout Is Everyone's Problem
I believe there are ethical and health reasons for the business to adapt to a better working environment. But even if you don’t agree, creating a culture that reduces burnout is critical for the health of your business's bottom line. You should be fully focused on retaining employees because otherwise your investment in hiring and training them will be wasted; replacing employees is expensive. More importantly, burned-out employees are not able to be as efficient or effective as more balanced, healthy employees — and that is a disservice to customers and clients.
How Burnout Happens: Five Ways to Create a Culture That Reduces Burnout
1. Make expectations clear
Not knowing what is expected of us is a big contributor to workplace dissatisfaction and ultimately burnout. We don’t know how to act, how to prioritize, what to do, or even to whom to communicate when expectations are not clear. If you are a business leader or supervisor, make expectations absolutely clear. At a minimum, the following should be communicated directly to your employees (perhaps even written down):
- “Chain of command”
- How to communicate issues and problems with assignments and co-workers
- Hours expectations
2. Delegate early and effectively
Delegating is a skill, and, unfortunately, many people are never taught how to do it effectively. The first step is getting clear on what needs to be done: the task, assignment, deliverable, etc. Then it must be explained in detail to the person who will be handing it. The deadline needs to be expressed clearly, including the reason for the deadline. Questions need to be entertained. There must be a check-in at least twice. If you as the delegator do not want to be responsible for checking in, then you must make clear to the delegatee that you expect them to check in with you twice about progress and status. Most importantly, delegate a task as soon as possible. If you are considering doing it yourself but are concerned that you do not have time — to either do the task or delegate — make it your No. 1 priority to delegate it ASAP.
3. Communicate with your team before setting deadlines
If you work as part of a team, especially if you are the lead or senior person on the team, discuss responsibilities and availability with your team before making promises about deadlines to clients and others. Your team will thank you and will be able to take ownership of deadlines. Plus, they will learn these skills and carry them forward when they are more senior. Your clients will thank you because they will get timely and well-done work product. And you will be growing as the leader of a team who feels you respect their input.
4. Be an advocate for and mentor to your junior employees
It takes time and effort to support the more junior employees in a business, but it is always worth it. They become invested members of your business or department, acquire skills more quickly, and grow more effortlessly into senior employees who know how to lead others. If your mentee is in an uncomfortable predicament where she has more than one assignment or responsibility for more than one supervisor that needs to be “first priority,” take it upon yourselves, supervisors, to talk to each other so that your junior employee is not in the unfortunate situation of trying to manage her bosses’ relationships with each other. It’s not the junior employee's job to do that.
5. Model balanced behavior
Most of us learn by watching others do and be what we want to do and be. Whether you are owner, supervisor, manager, or team lead, do your best to model more balanced behavior. Take into consideration that your colleague — everyone in the company — is also a person who has a life outside the office. Outside the office, we all have people, interests and needs that require our time and attention. And taking the time for those people, interests and needs is the very thing that will help us avoid burnout.
Breaking the Burnout Cycle: Burnout to Balance
As the questioner at my panel made clear, the supervisor with unreasonable expectations was also likely suffering from burnout, creating a vicious cycle of unhealthy workers unable to offer the best service to clients and customers. You can be the one to break the burnout cycle.
An attorney-focused version of this post first appeared at Attorney at Work and is revised and reprinted here with permission.