Are Managers complicit in employee burnout

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Alison Gretz Avatar

I had an “aha” moment today while talking to coaching client who is a seasoned manager of a large team. We were discussing our responsibilities as leaders when we can believe that one of our team members is experiencing or heading towards burnout. As managers, we sometimes see the writing on the wall of the burnout experience – there are patterns you begin to notice for what chronic stress looks like in people that you know. The team member may be aware of it and bring it forward as something that needs to be handled, but sometimes they don’t have that self-awareness. In those cases, how do you step in? What if you have been offering support and help and the employee has been refusing, saying that they’ve got it, what do you do? You don’t want to be seen as punishing a high performer or micromanaging. You don’t want to force them to remove themselves from the project or work, or add someone to help them out if that won’t truly help. You don’t want them to take any intervention personally, and you don’t want to make it an awkward situation for other team members. It seems like a lose-lose situation.

To make it even more complicated, that team member is feeling unseen. They feel like they’ve been asking for help. They feel like they’ve been pointing out the difficult details that are contributing to their burnout. They say their manager hasn’t been helpful and “doesn’t care”. I know they have worked together for years, and have a trusting foundation.

How is it possible that the manager and the employee are on such different pages?

The more time I spend leading teams, or coaching groups that work together the more I see these interpersonal dynamics and misconnections. This type of situation is actually extremely common, and I imagine marriage counsellors or mediators perhaps see this frequently. There’s no bad guy, no villain, and no martyr. There are simply two humans attempting to communicate and misunderstanding some sort of nuance. Both are bringing their own values and baggage to the table and both are not receiving what they need from the other. This is a lack of direct, clear and kind communication, coupled with a buildup over time of feelings that go unexpressed. It leads to a situation that really negatively impacts both the employee and their ongoing relationship with their manager and workplace.

As I reflected on the situation, I realized that I’ve been in both the employee and the manager roles at different times.

As an employee, I have said, “I’ve already delegated. I need specifically XYZ, or I need some mediation with a partner relationship. I need a vacation where I truly, truly disconnect” It wasn’t about the workload. It wasn’t about getting additional help. My manager’s response was to focus on the workload, but it wasn’t about the workload. What I was struggling with was a relationship dynamic with a colleague that was making doing my job fundamentally difficult. The difficulty trying to both keep the peace, move projects forward, and stay confident in myself was deteriorating overtime, building up to chronic stress and repetitive discussions that moved nothing forward. When I then shared how overworked I was becoming – due to the emotional labor, not the tactical workload – I was unable to crisply, clearly, point to the root cause. As we become more and more stressed out, our ability to pragmatically approach situations decreases.

As a manager, I once had an art director who would be frequently visibly upset during our weekly one on ones. He was frustrated with our budget, with the retouching artist, with the marketing partner – all of it. I could see week over week the situation escalating as deadlines came and went yet the stress did not dissipate. Giving him a reprieve in workload didn’t help, neither did encouraging his disconnection after working hours. He continued to work long hours,

It’s the age-old couples’ therapy joke or analogy that it’s not actually about the dishes. If you’re arguing with your partner about the dishes; it’s not about the dishes. I digress.

So, if it’s not actually about the dishes, or in our case about the workload, what is it actually about?

Finding the Root Cause of the chronic stress

Well, in burnout research, we see that the main contributors to burnout are feelings of unfairness, being unseen, and unappreciated. We have to get underneath that as humans to really understand the root cause of the overwhelming and ongoing stress that is keeping that human up at night.

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