They quit?!

Have you ever had that reaction when someone you knew voluntarily left an organization – sometimes quickly – with no goodbyes, nothing? What happened? Why would this person – a star player, someone you thought was content and thriving in their role – (seemingly) suddenly call it a day and move on? 

The answer is, it wasn’t sudden. It had been coming for a long time, but nobody recognized the signs that they went from burning brightly to burning out. An unexpected departure like that should make us ask what happened, yes. More importantly, though, we should pay attention to why it happened.

We don't want to lose good people to burnout simply because we don't recognize the signs! Even with the best of intentions, any one of us can become burned out on our work, worn out by toxic atmospheres, or worn thin by strained professional relationships and ever-increasing demands. For all of these reasons, among others, professionals can reach their limit and feel like giving up. 

The little things accumulate over time, and eventually, the day comes when a person decides that enough is enough, and they leave.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Camels or Horses?

To illustrate the point, we can compare camels with horses. They can be led by their riders, and both work the tasks they are given – laboring extremely hard, for extended periods of time. They can carry heavy loads for long distances. They can be responsive and obedient. 

But here’s the difference:

Horses will tell you through their behavior and actions when they are thirsty – losing concentration, stiffness, fatigue, skin changes, and showing a lack of energy. They eventually will stop activity and can't go on without water. The rider can see the horse needs to pause, rehydrate and rebuild their strength. 

Camels, on the other hand, drink far more water in one sitting and perform in harsh conditions in many of the same ways a horse does. However, because a camel’s system is made to help it preserve water, change its internal body temperature, and convert body fats into energy, it’s not always immediately apparent when they become dehydrated. If the person driving them doesn't pay careful attention, pushes them too long and too hard, or doesn’t get the camel the nourishment it needs, eventually, it may drop in its tracks and expire, without warning. 

Leaders, listen!

Looking at this concept metaphorically, the same principle goes for employees. People leaders have to be watchful to ensure we're not driving people so hard that we drive them straight into the ground, so to speak. Our job is to lead our teams effectively so they can successfully produce what’s expected by the organization, yes. However, team member care helps contribute to that success. 

So how can you help your team members to get to that metaphorical water so they can thrive?

  1. Check on your people. If you are not having regular 1:1 meetings with your team members, start now. This should be your team members’ opportunity to share with you what’s on their minds as well as what’s happening related to their tasks. This is a good opportunity to “take the temperature” to see how they are doing.

  2. Listen to your people. When you meet with your team members, be present. Actively listen. Make eye contact. Don’t multitask. Stay off of your phone. This time is for them. Hear what they have to say, and listen without interrupting. Ask open-ended questions to get a sense of what is happening. Ask them to be honest about their workload, and discover how you can support them.

  3. Balance work loads. All workplaces go through busy seasons, but it is up to management to understand day-to-day workflows and ensure a balanced distribution of work and tasks. If you find the load is unevenly distributed, be willing to redistribute tasks and reprioritize work to reduce unnecessary stress (e.g., Do your three big initiatives absolutely have to be completed in Q2, or can one be moved to Q3?) 

  4. Have an open-door policy. It’s said often, but as a people leader, you have to be available to your team and have an open-door policy. Your team members should feel they can come to you and talk honestly about how they’re doing in addition to what they’re doing. However, many times it’s hard for people to admit that they are feeling overwhelmed or stressed, so take the lead and ask. When they’re honest about how they’re doing, listen, be reasonable, and don’t become unconsciously biased toward them for being forthcoming about their level of burnout. 

Team member care is a significant part of a leader’s job. Take steps to check on your people, listen to them, evaluate how you can balance the workload for your entire team, and let them know your door is open whenever they need to discuss anything with you.

Tips for Mitigating Burnout Risk

When it comes to avoiding burn out, we all have to take personal responsibility. So, professionals, if you’re seeing the signs of burnout in your own day-to-day experience, consider these tips for mitigating burnout risk:

  1. Be honest with yourself. As professionals, we love to prove ourselves and tend to push hard, work 40+ hour weeks, meet every deadline, come to work early, stay late, and work weekends when we need to. That’s all well and good, but it’s hard to sustain over the long haul. If this describes you, and you’ve been maintaining this level for months or even longer, it’s time to pause and reevaluate. That candle may have both ends burning, but eventually, the wax runs out. If you’re feeling like you’re running on fumes, it’s time to be honest with yourself and find a balance.

  2. Manage your workload and expectations. Major initiatives, new projects, deadlines, and walk-on projects are an ever-present part of work. It’s important to take stock of your ongoing to-do list, examine how you can best organize your time, and plan before the volume becomes unmanageable. Plan how you can efficiently approach your projects and responsibilities, and work that plan. Sometimes, though, the best plans aren’t enough to juggle all the responsibilities. That’s when you need to set realistic expectations with your teammates and let your supervisor know the status of your work. Be honest with them if you need more time for tasks, could use another team member to join with you to complete a project, or are beginning to feel burned out.

  3. Go first. You may hope someone notices that you're struggling with your workload, and sometimes leaders or colleagues ask about how you’re doing (read: really ask and pay attention). It doesn’t always happen that way, though. When you put on the everything’s-just-fine face, people tend to think all is well – especially your boss. If you need help or are feeling like there’s just too much happening, take the first step to speak with a team leader or supervisor about the work. We all juggle competing priorities, so go first and speak up so you can call attention to projects that are out of balance. Good teams provide support and margin for each other. Don’t suffer in silence and let resentment build up.

  4. Take time to breathe. You have to take care of yourself. No one else will do it for you. Burnout will drain you, so take steps to take care of you. Build pauses into your day, take a short walk, get out into the sunshine. Remote workers, make time to connect with others – family, friends, networking groups. Whatever it may be, find people who build you up, bring fun into your life and encourage you. If you’re not taking vacation time, make plans to do it. Travel somewhere new or plan a staycation or just take a day to do something you love – but give yourself room to breathe, get mental and physical rest, and care for your soul. These steps will go far to make you a healthier person at work, home and in your personal life.

People leaders and professionals, you have it within your power to avoid and mitigate burnout. Endeavor to avoid it by taking time to observe, listen, and communicate about workloads and priorities. Go first and have those productive conversations so you can produce the best work possible at a tenable pace. Having vibrant workplace cultures, balanced workloads, and healthy teams are vital to the long-term success of any organization. So let’s work well together, take care of each other, and burn brightly for a long time.