Best Practices

A manager’s guide to combating burnout

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Quartz.

Extreme stress is now an all too familiar component of work. Last year, 71% of workers felt burnt out at least once. Additionally, the number of workers assessing their mental health as poor, or very poor, rose from 5% to 18%, with 42% rating their stress levels as high or very high. This elevated stress and pressure is a clear sign of the times.

In the same survey, part of Asana’s Anatomy of Work Index 2021, nearly half of respondents cited overwork as the key driver of burnout. In other words, the call is coming from inside the office (or Zoom). Add to that the events of 2020—a global pandemic, crucial US election, and worldwide reckoning with systemic racism and anti-Blackness—and it’s a wonder anyone is able to show up for work.

Overwork affects more than just individual employees; as exhaustion rises, engagement falls and whole companies feel the dip. Still, there are plenty of changes managers can make to help reduce burnout and stress, improve employees’ clarity and focus, and keep companies resilient. 

1. Open up the floor

Managers must be proactive communicators, creating an open dialogue in which all parties feel comfortable speaking up about their experiences. Feedback forums, like one-on-one meetings and Q&A sessions, give employees the space to share valuable information with leaders who can then use these insights to shape company culture and keep burnout at bay. 

Fluid communication allows for flexibility in other areas, too. Be open to different working styles and practices, like the Pomodoro Method or Focus Sprints. Initiate and accommodate these practices, and be considerate of work/life balance, especially if your company is working from home. Encourage employees to set and communicate boundaries, honor them, and ensure that others do the same. 

2. Explicate everything

Flexibility only works when there is clarity. Currently, 26% of deadlines get missed each week, largely because of unrealistic expectations or unclear processes. To avoid these pitfalls, managers must take the time to establish specific instructions or guidelines for projects ahead of time. They should also be prepared to assign certain functions to employees, and iron out any kinks. Doing so will help teams hit the ground running and sustain real productivity, as well as prevent work from slipping.

If work does fall through the cracks—which happens to everybody—it’s up to managers to catch, or at the very least, flag it. To do this, managers must keep close to projects without falling into the trappings of micromanaging. It’s a delicate balance, but resources like work management platforms and open dialogue allow managers to track their team’s workload and step in, provide insight, or coordinate when necessary.

3. Advocate for autonomy

Leaders have to give employees control over how they get their work done. While team-wide cohesion is still critical, giving employees autonomy is a healthy approach that gets at the root causes of burnout and serves as part of the larger Demand-Control-Support model, which managers can use at the individual, team, and company levels. 

The basic tenets of this model reduce demand on individuals, give them more control over their tasks, and increase support that allows them to get the job done. Lessening demand might mean scaling back the scope of certain roles that have come to encompass too many responsibilities. Increasing control could look like allowing for flexible work hours or entirely off hours. Boosting support is about more than just taking a task off someone’s plate: Do your employees need help paying for childcare? Space to air frustrations? One or more of these—demand, support, or control—can be implemented and adjusted to best fit the context of your company. 

Another key way to provide support is rethinking rest. The average knowledge worker gets fewer than seven hours of sleep each night, then wakes up and does it all over again the next day. It is up to leaders to set the expectation and example of prioritizing unplugged downtime. Encourage full-stop offline hours, enforce vacation minimums, and empower employees to log off when their work is done. 

4. Minimize distractions

Ever have trouble getting work done because you’re distracted by… work? The Anatomy of Work Index reveals that “work about work”—communicating about tasks, searching for information, switching apps, managing shifting priorities, and following up on project status—takes up 60% of an employee’s day. Employees are spending less than half of their day on the skilled labor and strategy they were hired to do. How did we get here?

Think of how many apps and platforms you use for work throughout the day: e-mail, instant messaging, spreadsheets, calendars. Navigating these, plus keeping track of the information being stored and shared, feels like a neverending run on a hamster wheel. Comprehensive, intuitive, and nimble tools like Asana let you streamline your team’s work management processes, eliminating a significant chunk of busywork. 

This will also help both managers and employees bust the multitasking myth once and for all. In our current era of romanticizing the hustle, what has traditionally been celebrated as multitasking is really just inefficient toggling between tasks, a process exacerbated by having all of our apps open at once. Often, multitasking leads to duplicated work, missed deadlines, and frustration. Instead, managers can instate dedicated time for undisrupted work and schedule meetings and correspondence around this protected period.

5. Tackle imposter syndrome

Almost two-thirds of survey respondents have experienced imposter syndrome, a form of chronic self-doubt that can lead workers to feel inadequate, regardless of their accomplishments or abilities. If your employees don’t feel like they can positively contribute to your company’s success, as well as their own, they will eventually stop trying. 

Battling imposter syndrome starts the moment an employee joins your company and should be part of every manager’s game plan, especially in the context of COVID-19: Nearly 80% of new hires who started their roles during the pandemic experienced imposter syndrome, compared with 57% who started their roles prior to 2020. This is perhaps because remote work has significantly limited opportunities to get together, celebrate successes, and strengthen camaraderie among coworkers. It is the collective responsibility of the company, HR, teams, and most importantly, managers to make new employees feel welcome from day one. Integrating fresh hires into a team, and creating a space where they feel confident and comfortable in expressing their ideas, sharing who they are, and rising to challenges, motivates them to do their best work.

Even employees who have been with a company for a while can experience imposter syndrome, particularly parents with children at home (67%), so these efforts must be made around the clock. Remind employees of their value and brilliance by celebrating their success, both publicly and privately. It doesn’t have to be a literal celebration (we’re still social distancing, after all), but acknowledging your employees’ wins both to them and to others gives not only that employee but other team members as well the courage and confidence to keep progressing. 

For more work management analysis and plans of action, check out the full Anatomy of Work 2021 Index.

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