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How to identify burn-out in your team and what to do about it

The dynamics within your team — though invisible — is a driving and palpable force that influences the direction of their performance, mood, and behaviour. And since collaborative work is now taking over the workplace and an integral part of innovation and creative thinking, ensuring that your team is looking after themselves (both at an individual and group level) is key to being an effective and compassionate leader.

One of the latest phenomena impacting teams and workplaces across the globe is burn-out. First coined in 1974 by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, it is not a new phrase. However, the original focus was placed on those who had occupational caring positions like doctors and social workers. Fast-forward to 2019 and the World Health Organisation has labeled burn-out as a societal phenomenon “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Historically, the narrative of burn-out has been sold as an individual problem to solve. The onus has been placed on those who feel burned-out to find ways to decompress after work while managing their workloads and personal lives.

What experts say about burn-out

While burn-out is often seen as a direct result of long hours spent at a desk, qualitative research conducted by the Black Dog Institute has also found that other external influencers like long-term stress and psychologically unsafe work environments can also lead to feelings of burn-out.

From this, we can see that taking into account other factors like team cohesion, preferred work conditions and communication styles can help curb burn-out more effectively — especially in the wake of the current global health and socio-political climate across the globe.

According to Lysn psychologist, Noosha Anzab, the latest research also shows us that there is still a lot more that needs to be done in order to find effective ways to prevent burn-out alongside individual responsibility:

“New perspectives on curbing burn-out involves a more multi-dimensional model when exploring the concept. There is more focus on increasing engagement within roles to ensure the individual and their job are a sound and healthy fit, and to increase optimal choices being made to prevent burnout directly rather than just targeting stress.” 

Noosha Anzab

The symptoms of burnout

In order to identify burn-out within ourselves and our teams, it’s important to understand how it can manifest physically, emotionally and mentally.

Noosha Anzab says that “while [identifying] burn-out is not the easiest thing for those who are not mental-health professionals, there are definitely some signs to watch for if you suspect someone close to you may be experiencing it. We might see our colleague exhibiting signs of exhaustion, depletion in energy, increased cynicism, or negativity, becoming distanced from one’s job or more obvious signs such as reduced professional productivity.” Symptoms can also include:

Physical symptoms

  • Feelings of exhaustion
  • Loss in productivity 
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Loss of appetite 
  • Lack of sleep 

Mental symptoms

  • Constant worry and anxiety
  • Inability to focus clearly
  • Increased mental distance or apathy

Emotional symptoms

  • Feelings of negativity 
  • Irritability
  • Heightened sensitivity

Collective burn-out is also a possibility. If multiple team members seem to be suffering from these symptoms, or if your team seems to be experiencing a general loss in productivity, there’s a chance that they collectively may be experiencing burn-out in line with a new project that needs to be completed, or other organisational changes taking place.

Practical steps for curbing burn-out in your team

Identifying burn-out in a team member is one thing, but understanding how to address it can feel like a daunting task. It’s important to note that while there are ways you can effectively support your colleague or a team member you lead at work, mental-health professionals are experts within this field and can allow for positive, long-term change if burn-out has occurred.

When it comes to practical steps for preventing burn-out at an organisational level, Noosha Anzab believes that it starts with leaders implementing healthy work practices, regular check-ins and building personal boundaries for themselves.

Have regular conversations about wellbeing: One of the most preventative strategies to curbing burn-out in the workplace is to have regular check-ins and conversations with your team one-to-one. Ask open-ended questions and facilitate a space to have holistic conversations that aren’t just around status updates. This allows you to problem-solve any work stressors that arise early on.

When having these conversations Noosha suggests, “managers can encourage their team to work reasonable hours, take scheduled breaks, and take time off. Facilitating a safe environment free of retaliation wherein colleagues feel appreciated, safe and supported can really help in shifting gears and slowing down and maybe even preventing the road to burnout.”

Become an advocate for self-care: As a leader, it’s important to advocate for self-care on a regular basis. Whether that’s encouraging an employee to go home a little earlier after a big week, or going on regular coffee walks at lunch time, this can help build a culture of self-care within the workday. And according to Noosha Anzab, this is idea is better practiced than preached:

“I think the most important thing is for managers to lead by example and uphold boundaries. Too often, I hear clients share that they feel obligated to work well and truly into the night (and sometimes early morning) because they can see their managers or leaders doing so. This sets an incredibly unhealthy precedent. Managers should establish staunch boundaries around clocking off when finishing work and remaining off.”

Provide access to relevant resources: There are plenty of books, podcasts, blogs and corporate programs available. Whether it’s building a knowledge hub online or simply recommending helpful resources you’ve read in meetings, having conversations around wellbeing literacy can help foster a greater culture of self-care as well.

Encourage employees to seek professional help: As mentioned earlier, mental-health professionals are especially trained to deal with burn-out. Leader’s should also direct their employees to a psychologist in order to assist their team members get the right help. Many companies have psychologist services available as part of their employee assistance programs, so check out what your HR or People Team has available.

Practical steps for curbing burnout at an individual level

At an individual-level, Noosha believes that while the area of systematic intervention for burn-out is still being explored, there are proven, preventative methods that individuals can incorporate into their everyday lives. These include:

  • Build tactics with a mental-health professional to increase resilience to work stress.
  • Practice grounding and/or mindfulness techniques. Many counsellors and psychologists are able to teach you these principles, and apps like Headspace, Calm and Insight Timer are other accessible options.
  • Build plans to exercise regularly — this could even be a daily walk, stretching by candlelight, or going for a swim.
  • Find places outside of work for social engagement. Connections outside of our work are incredibly important and help shape our overall identities. Whether that’s scheduling a picnic with your family, catching-up with a friend from uni, or reaching out to a mentor or colleague from a former workplace.

While there is still a lot we have to learn when it comes to understanding burn-out and how to curb it, research does show us that actionable steps can be taken at an individual and organisational level to help support teams do their best work while taking care of their physical and mental health.

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