10 tips for preventing staff burnout in spite of more work, fewer resources

Motivation. It’s a popular topic in leadership teaching. Keeping staff members engaged, positive and productive has always been a management responsibility.

But today, the questions about motivation are often more blunt, even raw. How do we handle the human impact of an shrinking workforce tasked with increasing workload? How much is too much to ask of people before they break faith with management, or just plain break down?

Look at the word cloud of Digital First editors’ recent responses to the question “What obstacles do you face in getting things done?”

Nearly half of the people who responded to our Twitter poll said “staff” is the biggest obstacle to getting things done.

The big fat images are a shout out for support: staff, equipment, time — positioned near that most telling word, “lack.” It’s a billboard display of what most newsroom managers think, talk about, and struggle with today.

Look at the headline for a recent Poynter.org chat: “How to Tell When It’s Time to Get Out of Journalism.” In the conversation, chat host Joe Grimm, who’s coached countless careers, brought up the B-word:

The out-and-out “let’s get out” decision often follows a series of disappointments or a period of burnout. That indicates the craft has changed too much to be fun anymore, or we have changed and are looking for new things…

Joe’s right, but there’s another cause of disappointment and burnout I need to address: flawed management.

Leading in times of change and challenge takes skills far beyond helping people to get over it and get back to work. Bosses whose approach to employee engagement begins and ends with “you should be happy to have a job” can’t help but contribute to burnout. They inspire people — to look for better bosses.

Since you read this column, I’m betting you’re among the better ones.  As you do your best to meet your business objectives, you also want to fight against destructive disappointment and burnout.

That’s why I’ve developed a checklist for you: 10 things that bosses can examine and perhaps improve in these demanding times. In the process, you can remove obstacles to your staff’s success instead of adding to their stress.

Your Checklist of Ten Antidotes to Burnout

  1. Strategy check: When you’re clear on your business strategy, you can establish priorities. You can tell that employee who’s head is swimming (or nearly exploding) because of multiple demands, which tasks they should tackle first, or with more resources, and which should take a back burner. If you’re not clear on your organization’s strategic vision, make it your business to get as much clarity as possible from your bosses. And yes, strategy may change on a dime these days. Businesses are being advised to innovate and “fail fast” or “fail forward” -- which means today’s hot initiative may be tomorrow’s cold corpse. It’s your job to keep informed on the status of your strategy.
  2. Systems check: Smart managers constantly review workflow and systems for inefficiencies and opportunities. Where do things get bogged down? Why do we still hand off the work from department to department or person to person in this pattern? Where are the choke points or areas of frustration? It’s easy to focus on small fixes in daily work instead of re-evaluating the why and how of old — or even new — systems. Enlist your staff to help you. You may find that what you’ve been writing off as their “whining” about roadblocks are actual pressure points that may provide insights for improvement. Let people know you are open to hearing about problems, especially from those people who also offer pragmatic, realistic solutions.
  3. Resource check: Even when capital and operating budgets are anemic, make a “wish list” of hardware, software, and yes, people you would add right now if you could. Managers often lower their expectations in tough times, censoring themselves so they don’t look greedy, grumbling or goofy to their bosses.  But every manager should be prepared to make a business case for resources, especially when the argument can be tied to strategy, innovation, or any result that rings of return-on-investment. Even with no budget, be a “window shopper,” who knows exactly what you’d buy or whom you’d hire with your next real spending money.
  4. Training check: Somebody on your staff, right now, is less effective than he could be because of lack of training. Somebody on your staff is less engaged than she could be because she doesn’t feel like she’s learned something new in a while. Training is the first casualty of tough economic times, but smart managers persevere — finding everything from peer coaching to scholarships to bake sales to offset training costs. And don’t tell me you don’t have time to release someone for training. Just pretend. Pretend that the person who is away today getting smarter is home sick. The business wouldn’t shut down because of that sick day, right?
  5. Hiring check: Become a hiring genius. On the rare occasion you have an opening, “hire up” — don’t settle. Look for someone who takes your team to the next level. Set your standards high for skills related to your strategy, values for which you won’t compromise, and people smarter than you. You’re not just filling a hole when you hire, you are staking your reputation on the person’s ability to improve your work and your workplace.  Scout for that talent, even when you have no openings. You never know when opportunity may present itself and you’ll be ready.
  6. Accountability check: Here’s how to drive already hard-working employees to Burnout City: Ask them to pick up the slack for others on the team who can’t or won’t do work to that’s up to standard. To avoid this, make certain you don’t have blind spots about underperformers, especially if they are people you hired or frankly, you simply like. You don’t have to be a jerk to hold people accountable. You can be both kind and clear about expectations. Care enough to have tough conversations about performance issues. You owe it to your staff.
  7. Bad boss habit check: This could be (and probably will become) a column all its own. What bad habits of yours are making work harder for your team? Are you late to your own meetings? Do you delay decisions? Do you micromanage? Are you disorganized? Do you fail to follow up on conversations, emails, agreements? Do you resort to silence, sarcasm or screaming when you’re under stress? Recognize that your emotions are contagious and your bad habits may be the one burden you could immediately lighten for your team. I hope you have the courage to ask people about this, because I know there are employees who pray their bosses would ask for such input  and then act on it.
  8. Communication check: Even if you’re not silent, sarcastic or a screamer, that doesn’t mean you’re a good communicator. In times of change, people crave information. Are you keeping people informed, and feeling included? Are you listening to them? When they feel they aren’t in the loop, employees can fill in the blanks with their worst fears. That creates constant anxiety, a key ingredient in the recipe for burnout.
  9. Feedback check: The most important communication is feedback. Let people know where they stand, how they are doing, what they can be doing better and what’s expected of them. Never, ever miss an opportunity to provide feedback. One of my favorite recent management books, “The Progress Principle,” talks about the surprising power of small wins to keep people energized. The authors’ research also shows that small losses overpower small wins in employees’ minds, which is why consistent, constructive feedback can be so powerful.
  10. Agent check: I’ve written about this before and teach it constantly. Today’s managers can’t promise people jobs for life or a smooth, fast path to their dream job in the company. The economy can too easily make liars of them. But what bosses can promise is to be an employee’s good agent. If you hired an agent to represent you, that agent would make certain you are building a portfolio of noteworthy work, a record that could serve you well in your current job or wherever the changing business world takes you. The agent would candidly tell you what skills you need to sharpen in order to succeed, what things you’ve produced are worth saving and showing off, what next steps are within your reach and which would be too big a stretch. The agent would even tell you when you’ve outgrown your current role, and when a better opportunity might lie elsewhere. A good agent would protect you from burnout.  Bosses, are you that kind of agent?

I’m certain there are more than ten checks to be done. In fact, I know one more that’s an antidote to burnout. Call it a “culture check, which I explore in the companion podcast to this column:

If you enjoy these columns and podcasts, just a reminder that my book, “Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know”, will be released on June 5. Read the early reviews.

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