The Ultimate Guide to Burnout: What It Is, and How to Prevent It

The period of time when the year draws to a close can be particularly stressful for teams. Projects need to be wrapped up, and work needs to be caught up in time for the holidays. It’s also a time of the year when we can begin to reflect, and take stock of our work habits and team cultures. What worked well, what didn’t, and what are the potential issues that are still unresolved.

So it’s a good time to talk about burnout. “Burnout” is a phrase that has been gaining traction in recent years. And with the shift to remote work and the uncertainty that the pandemic ignited, the conversation around burnout in the workplace has only expanded and deepened further.

In a recent blog post we talked a little about burnout in the context of hybrid teams. However, here we want to delve deeper into the topic and discuss some of the causes of burnout and ways of noticing it and preventing it.      

Burnout is something that all teams should be aware of, especially during times of great stress and uncertainty, like now. Furthermore, teams need to know how to deal with burnout because burnout can really only be solved through teamwide efforts at changing things like structure, relationships, work environment, and how work is managed. 

What is burnout? 

First, let’s talk about what burnout actually is. Burnout has a variety of symptoms, but generally it is a sense of deep-seated exhaustion and apathy with work (or life). It’s easy to confuse burnout with a lack of motivation. While they are related, there are some important differences. 

The first is that burnout often involves physical, mental, and emotional symptoms. It’s not just feeling down at work, but also feeling physically exhausted or emotionally insecure.

The second has to do with length of time. Motivation naturally has ebbs and flows, but burnout is a much more prolonged sense of frustration and exhaustion. This is often why the consequences are often more serious for both teams and individuals, and why it is important to catch signs of possible burnout early.

Lastly, burnout is for the most part a team-wide, collective problem. It involves a mismatch between individuals and their surrounding structures and communities. In the context of work, this means that burnout cannot be solved alone. It has to be solved in conjunction with others on the team, often by restructuring how that team functions in some way (relationships, workflow, work environment, etc.)

Signs of burnout

Lack of motivation can actually be one of the signs of burnout, but as we mentioned before, usually for a prolonged period of time. Other signs of burnout include:

• A sense of listlessness or apathy

• Behavioral changes

• Negative changes in sleeping or eating patterns

• Feelings of depression or anxiety from work

• Not paying attention to personal needs

• A sense of physical  or exhaustion from work that doesn’t get better after taking time off

• Overwork

• An inability to connect with other team members

• Reduced effectiveness at work

• Trouble focusing

• Chronic stress 

What causes burnout on teams? 

As you can see, there are a variety of signs of burnout. Likewise, the causes of burnout can be complex and have multiple sources depending on the team and work environment (as we shall see in a little bit). But to boil it down to one explanation, burnout occurs from the mismatch between an individual’s unconscious needs and the demands or structure of their job. 

Let’s unpack that. We all have unconscious needs when it comes to work. Some crave the community aspect of work, and of being part of a team. Others strive for work-life balance. Younger workers may want feedback and mentorship from more experienced team members. 

So we all carry certain needs which help us define what we want from our work, our goals, and our dreams for ourselves in the future. However, we inevitably bump up against work structures and team cultures that don’t allow us to meet these needs. Sometimes it does work out in the end. However, burnout is the result when it doesn’t.

These team-based, structural issues can be divided into three main groups, which will help us see where some of the causes of this mismatch stem from.

Overload 

This is when work overwhelms team members. It includes disorganization and lack of role specificity, workflow issues involving too many meaningless tasks or “busywork”, unreasonable time demands, and anything that limits one’s ability to deal with essential, value-adding tasks in a productive way. 

Lack of challenge

People need to feel challenged. When team members aren’t given challenges to face, they can often become apathetic and drift apart from the rest of the team. Not having enough challenges probably means team members are also not getting the validation they need from their superiors or coworkers.

Neglect

Individual team members also want to feel valued as part of the team. Not feeling valued can have profound impacts on team members’ ability and desire to perform effectively. Feeling valued includes an awareness of mental health needs, and ensuring a more equitable workplace. It also means valuing team members for their ideas and opinions as well as their productivity.

How to prevent burnout 

It should be clear by now that burnout is caused by a lack of community and team-wide structures that prevent team members from feeling fulfilled. In fact, the main lesson is that teams should act more as inclusive communities, where people reach out to each other and where everyone works together to create the best environment possible. 

It should also be clear that burnout is a structural issue. If there’s burnout, it means something in how the team functions is not working and needs to be changed. So, in order to prevent burnout, make sure the foundations of your team are solid. 

Create a psychologically safe work environment

Psychological safety means that team members feel safe to voice their opinions and feelings, and that conflict is managed and doesn’t hinder work relationships. Creating a psychologically safe environment requires trust and communication, which form the basis for strong teams, and  allows you to be more aware of team members’ needs and whether they are being met. 

Ensure equity on your tam

Equity means that all team members have what they need to get the job done. This can include material needs, like the right tools if they work at home, as well as psychological or emotional needs, such as access to training and mentorship opportunities, or time off to destress. Equity also means making your team more inclusive of all its members so that no one feels left out. 

Deal with workflow issues

Get your team organized and use the organizational and communication tools that are right for you. If some tools create more work, that will not be good for your overall workflow and might lead to overloading your team with meaningless tasks. Also try to limit multitasking, which can lead to members not focusing on essential tasks. And finally, clarify team roles to ensure that everyone knows how they fit into the larger picture and what they should be focusing their energy on. 

Be open to change

Flexibility is an important quality for teams to have, as we’ve discussed elsewhere. Here, teams need to be willing to allow change in order to create a healthier, and less burnt-out team. By encouraging more change to structures that aren’t working, you can signal to individual team members that their needs will be taken into account, and you will be creating a more resilient team in the process.  

Plan regular team building sessions

One practical step you can take to prevent burnout is to plan team building activities more regularly. They can be short and quick icebreakers, or day-long events. Either way, team building will help you connect better as a team, and help show you potential weak points when it comes to things like communication, organization, and trust. Plus, when you have fun as a team, you are able to de-stress together and create a better team environment that includes everyone.   

Conclusion

Burnout should be on all teams’ radars, even if you think that yours is immune. Every team can improve and make their working environments safer, healthier, and more inclusive. All it takes is a little awareness and the ability to see team members as more than just people you work with.

Invite Japan offers a wide variety of activities and programs that will help you catch and prevent burnout on your team, including online activities for remote and hybrid teams, outdoor scavenger hunts, and indoor games that can be brought to your office. 

Photo by Ante Hamersmit on Unsplash

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