Managers Face Struggles Helping Employees Battle Burnout

Maryellen May

Maryellen May, CEO and Narrative Coach, DOOR 3 Coaching.

You can’t always see it or hear it, and talking about it can be awkward for both managers and employees, but burnout is an altogether too real and growing challenge for leaders and their teams in a world upended by COVID-19.

Managing burnout begins with self-awareness, says Virgina Nido, global head for Product Development Industry Collaborations at Genentech. “If someone tells you they see signs of burnout in you, listen and take that seriously,” she says after leading high-pressure teams in the clinical trial arena for years. “Managers and workers have a shared responsibility and obligation” to identify and mitigate burnout for the betterment of all involved, she adds—especially clinical trial patients who might suffer from the mediocre work of a dangerously fatigued trial practitioner.

Nido’s advice to both leaders and staff about calling out burnout: “If you see it, say it.”

If employees need to be more proactive and transparent, managers might also consider changing their viewpoint, says Maryellen May, CEO and narrative coach at DOOR 3 Coaching in Ellicott City, Md. “Managers need to stop making assumptions and ask employees directly how they are doing and how they can help reduce stress,” she notes. “Management tends to be process oriented, but instead [it needs] to be relationship oriented” in times such as these, she adds.

May advocates both open group and one-on-one discussions, but cautions managers should do a lot more listening than talking. “Managers should say ‘let’s talk about stress and how we work,’” May says, and use group and individual meetings to focus on “what’s working well and what isn’t” as employees navigate the new normal.

Nido suggests keeping a special eye on your highest achievers or those with Type A personalities; they can be most susceptible to burnout, she’s noticed. For example, a manager should be concerned about an employee consistently answering e-mails at midnight. “Don’t let perfectionist fall into the trap of ‘I just work hard, I don’t need much sleep, I drink a lot of caffeine.’” Nido says. Perfectionist employees who say “that’s just the way I am” could be inadvertently setting a burnout trap for themselves down the road, she worries.

“Managers need to be on the lookout for their perfectionist types who may be working too hard and on the verge of burnout,” agrees May.

Danielle Coe, CEO and founder of Black Women in Clinical Research, believes effective managers help their team members avoid burnout and maintain work/life balance by creating an open, communicative environment where mistakes are opportunities to learn and not occasions for finger pointing. “A good manager is forgiving of mistakes,” she says.

Good managers and leaders also make their staff feel secure by defending them when needed, Coe says. “Provide a safe space for your employee to learn, grow, and chart a career path,” she adds.

Finally, May sees an important silver lining in the past 18 months. “COVID-19 has created an incredible opportunity to reimagine work because” ambiguity and complexity are rife in the workplace, she says. “It’s an incredible time to be creative” when it comes to how leaders and their teams can approach work/life balance, she adds.

Author: Michael Causey