\Startup Life Opinion/

How to prevent and cure burnout in your team

Almost half of all sick days in the UK are down to burnout. Calvin Benton, founder of Spill, explains how employers can help.

By Calvin Benton

Startup life is a lot. We expect big things from small teams. We wear many hats. And we tackle new, difficult problems every day. 

For founders, protecting the mental health of your team in all of this is a very real responsibility. And with almost a fifth of the UK population expected to need mental health support as a result of Covid-19, it’s now more important than ever. 

More than half (53%) of those doing therapy on Spill — our mental health support Slack app — at the moment are accessing mental health services for the first time: the pandemic has brought mental health issues to the fore for a lot of us. Fortunately, more and more tech founders and people managers are turning towards this responsibility.

Burnout is rife in UK workplaces. 43% of all sick days in the UK are down to burnout. That’s a productivity loss of £5bn per year — not to mention the human cost.

As founders and managers, it can be hard to spot burnout affecting our own teams, especially whilst we’re out of the office. When we do identify it, how do we help people who are struggling? And how can we build a workplace where it’s less likely to happen? 

Identifying burnout

Burnout is the combination of three emotions: exhaustion, negativity and ineffectiveness. The feelings of negativity and ineffectiveness are what differentiate it from regular tiredness or exhaustion. And it’s different from depression in that it’s purely work-related — you don’t burn out from relationship issues or life stressors, for example.

Burnout is the combination of three emotions: exhaustion, negativity and ineffectiveness.”

Identifying burnout as early as possible is important, not least because prolonged burnout can easily turn into depression. The order in which burnout symptoms — exhaustion, negativity, and ineffectiveness — manifest will differ from person to person. However, negativity can often be the easiest to identify at an early stage. 

The following exercise will help you identify warning signs in members of your team. Think of an employee you’re worried about, and ask yourself:

  • Do they seem more irritable, or regularly exhausted?
  • Do they tend to point out the worst in everything that happens or is suggested? 
  • Are they quicker to shoot down other people’s ideas?
  • Do they give off the idea that any work you’re giving them just feels like a burden?
  • Are they dropping the ball at work when they usually wouldn’t?
  • Are they producing less ideas, or being slower to respond?

If you’ve answered yes to any of the above, it’s worth doing a more thorough stock-take of the other symptoms of burnout. 

Burnout first aid: time off

If you’ve established that someone feels burned out, the first step is to give them time off work, straight away. Think of this as first aid for burnout — we’ll talk about the longer term recovery next. 

Sadly, taking time off is often easier said than done. As a manager, try to do what you can to dispel worries around taking time off. That probably includes setting a good example and taking your own allotted leave. 

Also, to ease potential FOMO, make sure that work progress is shared on Slack in their absence (so they can catch up on their return), and offer to check in on them on WhatsApp during their time off. 

Often, employees also fear the knock-on effects for their colleagues for their absence. Here, it’s important to review work sprints wherever possible, and to communicate a clear plan for how the work will get done without causing unnecessary stress for others. This could mean bringing in help from other teams or departments, or postponing non-critical work.

Identify the root causes

Once your team member is back at their desk (remote or not), it’s time to work out what caused them to burn out in the first place.

Below are some common psychological reasons:

  • Their goals and targets feel genuinely unachievable
  • Their goalposts for success keep moving
  • They don’t have enough autonomy
  • They don’t feel like they’re mastering new skills
  • Rewards, recognition and workload feel unevenly distributed
  • The work culture feels competitive or unsupportive
  • Their job requirements don’t fit with their personality and strengths
  • Their job requirements don’t fit with their values and dreams

Encourage your team member to go through each of these issues and mark whether they would disagree, agree or strongly agree. The good news is, you can make a number of small changes as a manager to help make these issues manageable. 

For example, if they don’t feel they have enough autonomy, why not explore cooperative goal setting? If they feel there’s a mismatch between the job requirements and their strengths, it might be time to find a new role that is better suited for them. Why not get them to chat to their coworkers in different roles to get an idea of what it is they are looking for and what role would be a good fit?

Burnout-proof your workplace

To prevent burnout, it’s important for employees to feel like they’re making meaningful progress towards valued goals. That’s no small task, and probably won’t be achieved with the odd training session or away day.

“It’s important for employees to feel like they’re making meaningful progress towards valued goals.”

But it needn’t mean big budget interventions either. The key here is to adopt small, fixed habits. When consistently applied throughout the company, these habits will generate happier, more productive workplaces. 

Let’s say one or more of your team members have identified the problem of  ‘unachievable targets’ as a factor in their burnout. There are a number of small changes you can make to tackle this problem, both in policy and day-to-day interactions. For example:

  • Make it okay to flag when people feel overstretched
  • Praise under-promising and over-delivering
  • Encourage people to be clearer about their boundaries
  • Build holiday time into execution plans
  • Protect your team’s time — for example, let them periodically turn off Slack notifications or try ‘Deep Work Wednesdays’

These are small but meaningful changes your company can make today to prevent each and every cause of burnout, and create a highly engaged working culture. 

Calvin Benton is founder of Spill, a Slack integration that provides all-in-one mental health support to employees.

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