Employee Burnout? That Could Be a Sign of Undermanagement

Burnout was first formally recognized by the WHO in 2019, before the rapid transformations of 2020 caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, burnout has only increased in organizations, and it is again coming to employers’ attentions in the midst of the Great Resignation.

The WHO defines three symptoms of burnout:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  3. Reduced professional efficacy

Remote work has been blamed as the source of most burnout these days, having blurred the line between work and personal time. Most employers endeavoring to prevent burnout among their ranks have probably identified the most obvious causes (and hopefully done something about them): the expectation to respond to work-related communication after hours, inflexible remote scheduling, and reduced use of vacation time.

But adjusting remote work policies will only go so far. Typically, that only addresses the first symptom of employee burnout. The root cause lurks beneath the surface, hiding in plain sight in most organizations: chronic undermanagement. And when undermanagement meets understaffing, a vicious cycle of overcommitment begins which is difficult to get under control.


The less managers are engaged, the more susceptible their teams are to burnout

It feels counterintuitive at first: managers who are highly-engaged are the ones pushing their teams to burnout in the first place, aren’t they? But the reality is a bit more complicated.

Managers who are hands-off—those who I would say are “managing on autopilot”—inevitably succumb to undermanagement. These managers more or less leave their employees to take care of things on their own, assuming that everything is on track and going fine…until it isn’t. Small problems have room to fester and grow into huge problems that must be taken care of immediately. Suddenly, the manager is pulling the team into firefighting mode in order to take care of the huge problem. Everyone is distracted. Time is wasted. And the worst part is everyone on the team has the sense that, eventually, it will all happen again.

Who wouldn’t be burnt out by that? Think about the message it sends: “No matter how great your work is, or how much effort you put in, there will always be some emergency that derails the process. That’s just how it goes around here.”


Highly-engaged managers empower their teams

This is not to say that managers who are guilty of undermanagement have bad intentions or do not care about doing their jobs well. In many cases it is quite the opposite: managers adopt a hands-off approach because they want to empower their employees and give them real ownership of their roles. And even more are simply afraid of micromanaging.

But too many managers overcorrect. Instead of empowering employees, managers leave them in a sink-or-swim situation. In today’s high-pressure, high-collaboration, hybrid workplace, managers must conserve, protect, and manage productive capacity. If they want employees to stop juggling, managers have to be willing and engaged enough to help them prioritize and adjust expectations accordingly.

  • It’s all about sticking to the basics of strong management:
  • Manage every single day—with structure and substance.
  • Learn to talk like a performance coach.
  • Customize your approach to each person’s needs and preferences.
  • Establish a robust process of accountability for performance, not just vague slogans.
  • Tell people what to do and how to do it.
  • Track performance every step of the way.
  • Be proactive about solving small problems, helping people prioritize their work, and managing the expectations of cross-functional leaders.
  • Do more for some people and less for others based on actual performance and results.

Bust burnout on your team

We have a host of free resources you can use to learn more about undermanagement and the fundamentals of becoming a better manager:

And if you need more support, we’re happy to help. Contact us to learn more about solutions for you or your team.

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