Burn-out is an all-too-common affliction, leaving people exhausted, cynical, and unable to work. It strikes as a result of chronic stress. People who are highly-engaged but lacking resources such as support or certain skills are at especially high risk. Pandemic lockdowns have done nothing to help the situation.
In my experience, people suffering from burn-out are often the least able to address it, for the same reasons they are burning out in the first place.
What can be done to help someone suffering from burn-out?
Hold up the mirror
Show them what is happening:
Your concern for their wellbeing: maybe the person appears overwhelmed, exhausted, or out-of-sorts
Your observations about how their work is impacted lately: balls being dropped, struggling to orient themselves, or difficulty meeting commitments
Feedback and concern from their colleagues. For example, maybe their peers have noticed that something is wrong and are reaching out to you to ask if they are okay.
This must be done with utmost empathy. The goal is to support the person, so that they can get better.
Help them get some breathing room
Offering time off is a good first step. A vacation would be ideal, where the person can:
Do something that makes them happy
Spend time with loved ones
Break their routine for a bit
Any kind of time off is better than nothing.
You will need to work with the person to ensure their responsibilities can be covered as well as possible while they are away.
This is just buying time, though. Something must change; otherwise, before long, the person will be back in the same situation.
The stress versus performance curve. Credit: delphis.co.uk
Work with the person to identify and develop skills that will help them cope better in the demanding modern-day work environment. I recommend involving a medical professional such as a doctor or psychologist, if your company has such a facility. They can also work with an independent life or career coach.
Skills for success
What kind of skills can you coach, that may help the person protect themselves, going forward?
- Focus. Try to reduce the person’s scope as much as possible. Their work should reflect their critical responsibilities.
- Time management. Schedule reduced work hours, that gradually increase over time, when the person is ready. Help them clarify what they want to achieve in those limited hours.
- Delegation. Help the person insist on the help they need from others. What are they doing that others are better positioned to do?
- Prioritisation. The one or two things that the person needs to achieve should be crystal clear to you both.
- Saying no. All the above means that sometimes, the person will have to say no. Some people are extremely uncomfortable doing this. Let them know that you support them, and during this time, they can refer such queries to you.
Health over performance
When someone is burnt out, the important thing is their health and well-being. You as their manager will need to ensure their responsibilities are covered, because they will likely be unable to do so. The person’s performance at work is secondary to their long-term health – even if they may not see it that way right now.
One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important. – Bertrand Russel.
People suffering from burn-out are often least able to help themselves. Help get them some breathing room, making sure their responsibilities are covered. Then work with them to put a longer-term plan in place. This can include temprarily reduced work hours and coaching critical skills around prioritisation, time management, delegation and saying no. Help the person understand that their health is the priority. Involve a medical professional if you can. Above all, show empathy, and have hope: I’ve worked on many cases of burn-out where the person recovered to be a top-performer.
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