When it comes to burnout and stress, much of the advice we hear or read focuses on how managers can help people cope with the stressors. These techniques are useful and come in handy as temporary symptom relievers, but unfortunately they do not position or fortify people to reach real higher levels of performance. Simply treating the symptoms of burnout is like giving someone a medicine that provides temporary relief from the external signs that they have a cold. After the relief medication wears off, the person is still sick and operating at less than optimal levels. Likewise after these temporary relief solutions, people are still “disengaged” and performing at less than peak levels.
So then, what’s the true cure? The answer is by directly addressing the causes of disengagement and creating environments that promotes reengagement with work.
What’s causes disengagement and burnout
In 1997 the acknowledged leading researchers in the topic of burnout, Dr Christina Maslach and Dr Michael Leiter, co-authored a landmark book titled “The Truth About Burnout.” In their book Drs. Maslach and Leiter listed the following six reasons as the cause for disengagement and burnout:
- Work overload
- Lacking a sense of control
- Insufficient rewards relative to the demand
- Breakdown or lack of a sense of community in the workplace
- Conflict of values or seeing work as meaningless by the individual.
- Absence of fairness
“In today’s workplace, people and organizations are responding to the challenges of global competition, tightening budgets and downsizing by working harder instead of smarter resulting in the exhaustion, cynicism and ineffectiveness characteristic of burnout,” states Dr. Leiter. “The real solution to enabling people to effectively respond to the increase in demands will come from organizations and individuals significantly re-thinking the way people work and how to effectively manage people and work,” he adds. I agree and to this I would add, that by doing this, we create environments that support true peak performance as measured by business results instead of “frenzied busywork” and late nights that mask the diminishing returns of disengagement.
How to coach managers in the art of gaining more performance with less stress.
Another interesting point that Drs. Maslach and Leiter point out is that the six areas that impact employee engagement are related, meaning that if we focus on fixing one, it will positively impact the others. With that in mind, I encourage you to approach the challenge by initially focusing you managers on the application of just one or a few of the tips below. As you attack these dimensions of the challenge, you will find that the positive cascade effect will bring results in some or all of the other dimensions as well. Here then are some specific ways that you can coach managers on how to attack the inhibitors of high performance and chief causes of burnout:
- Show them how to maintain a sustainable workload. After any change adding to the workload, ask managers to get together with their teams and ask team members to list their current tasks, score each task in terms of their importance to the company and identify the current level of quality (e.g., Speed of turn-around for say customer phone calls). With the teams input, have them force-rank each team members tasks and prepare a proposal for their management on how they plan to re-size the workload by either eliminating tasks and/or adjusting the quality of the work (e.g. Four hour turnaround instead of two). Coach them to make sure that the proposal is designed to put the most emphasis on the tasks that are of the greatest importance in supporting the goals of the organization. Make sure they point out to their managers that by doing this, they are preventing the erosion of quality and focusing on the things that are most important to the organization. The discussion will naturally result in some adjustments to the original proposal, but in the end the manager will have a clear plan for focusing their team’s collective efforts on what is most important to the company versus trying to continue to do everything that was done plus the added work. (For a free Sustainable Workload Balancing tool for yourself and your managers to use, go to wwwjoesantana.com .You can also find it by visiting my mirror site www.joesantananews.com)
- Get them to involve people in the development and decision process so that they have a sense of choice and control. In the above example, the team’s participation was vital in creating the proposal. Likewise in the creation of other common IT tools like “procedure manual,” make sure the managers include the team’s input versus having the manual put together entirely by consultants or the manager. Give the team members a voice.
- Encourage them to recognize and reward people in a manner that is in alignment with their performance demands. Teach managers to be ready to give more when they ask for more. If they cannot give team members a raise, tell them to look for other non-monetary, but highly valued rewards. One manager I knew many years ago gave people special days off (in addition to vacation and personal days) to compensate for extra performance. Advise them to broaden their view of added compensation to include anything that gives value to their team members that is commensurate with the extra effort their are demanding.
- Advise them to build a sense of community. One manager I know did this with a dispersed work group by making it a practice to take his staff members out to lunch two at a time. By doing this with a different pair of people on a regular basis he facilitated the process of these team members getting to know each other, which lead to building stronger personal relationships. Another approach that worked for me several years ago was to hold bi-weekly in-house seminars, where speakers would talk about topics of specific interest to the team. For example, managing your 401K, low cost training opportunities and buying insurance. This gave team members who normally did not see or work with each other the opportunity to interact on a regular basis and build a sense of community.
- Tell them to communicate the value of work in terms that are meaningful to the values of the people on their teams. One manager that I knew many years ago who headed up a large team of engineers working in a major hospital did this by conveying to his team on a regular basis how the work they did to maintain the computer systems contributed to the ability of the doctors to save patients lives. “You’re not just fixing a broken PC, you are contributing to saving lives,” he would tell them. The people on the team found this provided them with the drive to always reach for excellence. If you think about it a bit, just about every entity exists to meet the needs of people and every service within the entity is linked to the delivery of that benefit, although it may not always be apparent. Tell manages to find that human value and connect themselves and their people to it. They will be amazed at how this fires people up.
- Encourage them to create and maintain an environment of fairness, respect and justice. Needless to say, no one and no organization is perfect. Despite best efforts work-overload will from time to time happen, their will be mismatches in demand and compensation, communities will suffer due to restructuring, policies will be handed down from the top without discussion and organizations will take actions that seem to belie their mission statements. By, however, being open, honest and respecting their team member’s intelligence and opinions managers can ride out these challenges.
Fully engaging teams as valued individuals by facing up to the real challenges in today’s workplace requires courageous leadership. By coaching your managers to be courageous and provide their people with a supportive environment that is engaging, you will enable them to produce real results without driving their teams or themselves over the edge.