Burnout is on the rise: Google searches for the phrase “burnout symptoms” hit an all-time high in May 2022. To address this, the authors have designed a series of 18 questions, tied to the six causes of burnout, that managers can use to spark a dialogue with their team. They also offer guidance on how to conduct the conversation.
One of the most telling signs that the U.S. is experiencing a burnout crisis may be the fact that Google searches for “burnout symptoms” hit an all-time high in May 2022, as we weathered the third year of the pandemic, while facing the prospect of a faltering economy.
Burnout stems from a mismatch between a worker’s nature and their job — a problem that is almost always systemic and endemic to the workplace rather than reflecting a problem with individual employees. UC Berkeley’s Christina Maslach has identified six specific areas where such cleavages produce burnout:
- Unsustainable workload
- Perceived lack of control
- Insufficient rewards for effort
- Lack of a supportive community
- Lack of fairness
- Mismatched values and skills
Before organizations can address burnout, however, they need to create the necessary conditions to discuss it. Too often, burnout carries a stigma of individual weakness, that someone “can’t hack it,” which makes people reluctant to be honest about it. So team leaders must provide psychological safety, or a culture where people feel secure enough to take risks and share problems without fear of punishment.
18 Questions About Burnout
To encourage these conversations, we’ve designed 18 questions around the six causes of burnout, drawing on our own experience working with and coaching executives and their teams:
Managers need to ensure that they have realistic expectations of your workers. You can’t ask them to do more with less indefinitely. Your team will often have a clearer view of what will — and won’t — move the needle in terms of results.
- How well are work priorities aligned with our strategy and expected results?
- To which priorities or activities should we pay more attention? What should we deemphasize in order to do that?
- How might we co-create an employee experience which would give you a more realistic and feasible workflow?
Perceived lack of control
Your workers are not automatons. People need to feel that their employer is confident enough in them to give them the space to innovate. Lack of control breeds learned helplessness and apathy.
- To what extent do you feel that you have discretion over how you do your job and influence over decisions which affect you?
- Where would more agency most benefit you?
- How can we redesign the work experience to give you greater latitude in how you accomplish our work goals?
Insufficient rewards for effort
Recognition doesn’t have to come in the form of salary bumps or bonuses. Sometimes the intrinsic and social rewards which come from credit and gratitude do wonders.
- How often do you and your colleagues receive appropriate recognition for work well done?
- What kinds of rewards and credit mean the most for you and your colleagues?
- How might we work together to build a system which better acknowledges your and your colleagues’ good work?
Lack of a supportive community
No job exists in isolation — each is part of a community which must, in turn, be a network of support, honesty and shared accountability. Today’s workforce is lonely, and managers must strengthen the social bonds of belonging. This is where addressing burnout as a team exercise is especially helpful, as shared storytelling augments and nurtures these connections.
- To what extent does our work community sustain and support you or, alternatively, drain your energy?
- Are there areas where our community is especially strong? Where it can improve?
- How can we work together to strengthen our community ties and connections?
Lack of fairness
Everyone needs a fair shot and an equal opportunity. Glass ceilings and favoritism create toxic environments.
- How fairly are you and your colleagues treated?
- To what extent do factors other than accomplishment and effort influence recognition and reward?
- How might we work together to make our company fairer?
Mismatched values and skills
Problems will arise when there is a disconnect between what workers stand for and believe and what the organization or workflow requires of them.
- To what extent do the team’s values align with yours? Where do they deviate?
- How well do the company’s actions sync up with its own stated values? How well do the team’s actions do the same?
- How can we work together to ensure that your values and the company’s align?
Broaching the Conversation About Burnout
We recommend managers start by having your team answer these questions asynchronously in a shared document. Everyone should do this openly, as this kind of potentially vulnerable sharing will help strengthen team bonds. Asynchronous collaboration affords a greater give-and-take and permits a broader spectrum of points of view to be shared — not just the loudest people in a meeting.
Then, call a meeting to focus on the topic. Divide people into small groups of three to four individuals and assign each one of the six above question clusters. Using the responses already provided in the shared document, have each team develop recommendations to report back to the larger group. Smaller group conversations allow for courage and candor, which are important for building your team’s resilience.
This kind of exercise will give your team agency and a collective feeling of ownership of their own levels of burnout. Co-creating and sharing vulnerabilities will also lead to stronger, more cohesive teams. This inclusive approach will make the solutions more innovative and apt than anything the HR department could offer alone.
In engaging in this dialogue it is important to set realistic expectations: that team members’ concerns and views will be taken seriously and respected, and that they can lead to change, but that is not a given. Once you have conducted this exercise to its conclusion, act on them: Make adjustments where feasible and where you cannot, explain why and look for other ways to close the gap.
Taken together these questions will help create a dialogue signaling to your employees that you value them and their wellbeing. And they will mitigate against the insidious spread of burnout.