- Burnout is a medical diagnosis characterized by exhaustion and negative emotions toward your job
- Manager burnout increased 78% last year, according to a new survey from LinkedIn.
- Experts say if you’re feeling burned out you should pare down your to-do list and take time to reset.
- See more stories on Insider’s business page.
Kristaps Brencans describes this past year in blunt terms. “It was constant worry and stress,” he said. “I was pulled in so many different directions and everything felt pressing.”
Brencans, the head of marketing at On the Map, a Miami-based search engine optimization startup, said that when the pandemic hit last spring and forced local businesses to close, his company’s revenue dropped precipitously. “We were worried our business wouldn’t survive,” he said.
His employees, meanwhile, needed him more than ever — working parents were stretched when schools closed in the spring, and many people on his team had to take time off to take care of sick family members with COVID; several lost loved ones. “My team was going through so much, and I just tried my best to be there for them mentally and emotionally,” he said.
He had trouble sleeping. He was often irritable with his wife and three young daughters. And he felt disconnected from a job was usually passionate about. “Motivating myself was more difficult,” he said. “Procrastination was taking hold in areas where it never would normally. I felt like I was failing. It was a bad-habit-burnout loop.”
According to new data from LinkedIn, manager burnout jumped 78% between the first and fourth quarters of 2020. The finding, based off of roughly 3.4 million employee engagement surveys, provides stark evidence of the psychological toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on managers around the world.
They had to navigate new systems, shift business priorities, and reinvent new ways of working practically overnight. They had to lay off workers and take pay-cuts. They also had to be shock absorbers for their employees’ anxiety, doubts, and constraints all the while dealing with their own personal challenges.
“Managers bore the brunt of the stress related to COVID,” said Justin Black, head of people science, for Glint, a human resources platform owned by LinkedIn. “They had to respond to the needs of their teams in incredible ways — often at their own personal expense.”
Burnout is not your run-of-the mill stress. According to the World Health Organization, it is a medical diagnosis characterized by three dimensions: feelings of exhaustion or energy depletion; negative emotions related to your job; and reduced professional efficacy. Research shows it results in $125 to $190 billion a year in healthcare costs in the US alone.
At a time when the pandemic remains an ever-present force in our personal and professional lives, achieving a harmonious work-life balance may seem unattainable. But experts say there are steps you can take to overcome burnout — and help your employees lower their stress levels, too.
Diagnose the source of your problem
Burnout happens when you’re “cognitively and emotionally challenged beyond your capabilities to manage your professional and personal life,” said Denise Rousseau, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School Of Business.
Solving the problem requires understanding the reason (or reasons) you feel this way. Is there something going on in your personal life? Has your job changed? Have organizational demands increased without commensurate support?
Bear in mind, you may not be in the best condition to fully appreciate what’s happening around you. Talk through your situation with others — friends, mentors, and others who know you well. Ask them to vet your theories and help you strategize solutions. “You don’t want to end up blaming your employees for something you’re doing.”
Pare down your to-do list
Unrealistic expectations is one of the most common sources of burnout.
“If you have ten goals, you have no goals,” Rousseau said. “Your bandwidth is not sufficient to pursue a laundry list of ambitions.”
Instead, she said, you need to pare down your goals. Think about where you need to focus your attention, and be honest about what you and your team can reasonably accomplish. Remember, too, as a manager, your own tasks are important, but your primary objective is to develop and support your employees. That’s where most of your energy ought to be directed.
Look for meaning
Apathy toward your job is another common symptom and source of burnout. To counteract your feelings of indifference, focus on purpose. Studies show that when people feel like their work has meaning, they’re more engaged and productive. “Find a way to connect the work you do to something that’s meaningful to you,” said Eric Anicich, assistant professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business.
What essential service or product are you bringing to the world? How are you helping people lead better lives? Look for purpose locally, too. “You may realize that right now what your direct reports need is a shoulder to lean on, and that by being a compassionate colleague you’re helping them navigate their lives,” he said.
Choose to be (pragmatically) optimistic
Cultivating a resilient mindset is critical to combating burnout, according to David Rock, CEO of the NeuroLeadership Institute. For inspiration he cites the Stockdale Paradox, a concept put forth by Jim Collins in his book, “Good to Great.”
The paradox, named for Admiral James Stockdale, who was tortured as a prisoner-of-war in Vietnam, describes the psychological duality that kept Stockdale alive during his eight years in captivity. To prevail, Stockdale needed to have the discipline to confront his grim reality, while maintaining hope that he would one day be released.
The lesson for managers, Rock said, is to “accept the harshness of your situation, while also choosing to have faith that everything will work out.”
Focus on what you can control
Pragmatic optimism requires focusing your energy on what you can control, Rock said. Maintain order in your environment: keep your workspace organized and block off meeting-free zones in your calendar to concentrate on your work. Get plenty of sleep; eat nourishing foods; and carve out time for fresh air and exercise.
Creating clarity for your team helps, too. For example, many workers feel unsure about their company’s plans to bring employees back to the office. Take the opportunity to ease their anxiety by either telling your team that they will not be forced back to the office (as companies like Spotify and Microsoft have done) or setting a timeline for what returning might look like. Again, Rock said, your objective is to help others regain a sense of control — to “remove ambiguity and create certainty.”
Take time to reset
It may sound trite or overly simplistic, but the best cure for burnout is downtime. “You’ve been living off adrenaline for the past year,” Rock said. “You need a mental rest.”
Talk to your boss about taking time off to rejuvenate. At the very least, carve out a few hours every day to disconnect from work. Taking a walk in nature — even just a visit to your local park — does wonders for your wellbeing.
Do it for your team’s sake if not for your own. Your quiet calm will be contagious. “People take on the emotions of the high status person in the group,” Rock said. “If you want people to be calm, you need to exude it.”
As for Brencans in Miami, life has improved. His company is on solid footing — and it recently posted some of its best months revenue-wise. He’s sleeping better, exercising more, and he’s feeling more motivated, too.
“We were forced to look closely at our priorities and we created an action plan: we sharpened our focus and we improved what we offer our clients,” he said. “We got through it and we’re a better team for it. It was definitely a learning experience.”