Burnout has officially been recognized as more than just a cultural phenomenon. The condition is now recognized by the WHO, probably to some relief from the HR departments who have been trying to combat increasing levels of burnout for years now. According to some research, burnout is responsible for nearly 50% of workforce turnover.
Anyone endeavoring to prevent burnout in their own organization has probably identified the most obvious causes and done something about them. Not requiring employees to respond to work-related communication after hours, providing scheduling flexibility, and encouraging (maybe even rewarding!) employees for using their vacation time are some simple and efficient ways organizations can reduce burnout.
But while these measures do much to address one of the three symptoms of burnout, “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion”, they do little to directly address the other two:
Of course, negative or cynical feelings about one’s job may dissipate over time as the pressure caused by an “always-on” culture is reduced. But there’s no way of being able to predict whether or not that will be the case. And what to do about professional efficacy? Trying to motivate an employee already suffering from burnout to “do more” will certainly backfire.
Beyond simple demands on time and energy, burnout could be the result of chronic undermanagement. The solution is strong, highly-engaged managers.
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 the vicious cycle of 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 have to 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 that everyone on the team has the sense that, eventually, it will all happen again.
Who wouldn’t be burnt out by that vicious cycle? Think about the message that 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.” Reduced professional efficacy, indeed.
Of course, the truth is that undermanagement is not “just how it goes around here.” The vicious cycle—the costs and effects of undermanagement—could be prevented. It is the manager’s responsibility to break the cycle and commit to the fundamentals of highly-engaged management.
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 the problem is that too many managers overcorrect. Nearly 90% of leaders, managers, and supervisors today are not providing the basic guidance, direction, and support necessary for their teams to succeed. Instead of empowering employees, managers leave them in a sink-or-swim situation. “Do it how you think it should be done,” is not an empowering statement. It is especially not empowering when the punchline is “…even though the way things should be done is ultimately not up to you.”
Real empowerment comes from knowing exactly what is expected of you and having the solutions in hand to meet those expectations. The example I always use is this: imagine your boss came to you tomorrow and said that if you do a great job you will get a raise, and if you do a bad job you will be fired. What are the first things you would want to know? Probably what a “great” job and a “bad” job look like, right? That same theory can be applied to everyday, low-stakes management conversations.
At the end of the day, what most people want to know is, “What do I have to do to be successful, earn more, and how?” The manager is the one responsible for answering those questions.