How to avoid burnout: 3 things teams need from leaders now

Leaders need to focus on communication, expectations, and trust to help teams avoid burnout during uncertain times. But leaders also need to take care of themselves. Here's how to do both
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Editor’s note: In this new series, we'll share tips to help IT professionals manage their stress - and guide their teams through challenging times. Here, Lena Reinhard, VP of product engineering at CircleCI, shares her tried and true techniques.

3 things teams need from leaders now

During the past decade, I've learned how to handle stress for myself and my team – by managing my time and energy deliberately, setting boundaries, avoiding micromanagement, and leading my team through conclusive communication techniques using a coach-oriented mindset.

Here are some techniques that I’ve found useful:

1. Conclusive communication: When I send messages to my distributed team, I make an effort to set up the conversation so they can reply and then that interaction is over. I also always consider the time of the day when I approach people. 

2. Set expectations and over-communicate: This is especially important for people struggling with anxiety or depression. Distributed organizations in a high growth stage have a lot of ambiguity, which is challenging. This can mean dealing with lots of information at all times and can increase the odds of anxiety. My job is to create clarity and provide the leaders and teams in my organization with context so they can make their own decisions. 

One way I do this is through recurring emails: a weekly overview sent to my team, highlighting what’s been top of mind for me, exciting news, as well as upcoming events or strategic topics I’m thinking about. 

I also utilize recurring meetings with my direct reports. Recurring meetings are often looked down upon. But, by making sure that these meetings are always useful for all parties involved, I find them helpful. Not only do they encourage relationship building, which is an important investment, they provide an outlet where people can expect information, which reduces uncertainty. 

3. Trust your team and resist the urge to micromanage: To do this I create a culture of visibility and accountability by using shared goals, as well as goal trackers and weekly one-on-ones. I focus on results over effort by setting clear goals on outcomes and making sure people achieve those, and have the support they need to do so. However, it is crucial to lead with trust, and go into relationships offering a portion of trust; more trust can be earned, but don’t start on a trust deficit. 

[ Want to help people be intentional about time and energy? Read also: COVID-19 leadership lessons: 5 ways to help your team recharge. ]

3 ways to avoid personal burnout

I recommend three things to leaders to keep spirits high during this time:

1. Schedule your day around your energy. I always encourage leaders to be mindful about how they structure their day: instead of only focusing on time spent, look at what activities are energizing or draining to us. Being fulfilled at work is not only about managing our time, but also about managing our energy. 

There's an exercise I do where I map out my schedule for the day with the intention to identify my energy levels and what increases or lowers my level of energy. As I go through the day, I'll put a "+" next to the tasks that energized me and a "-" next to the tasks that drained me. That way, I'm able to recognize what emotions come up throughout my workday and plan around them. 

It's also helpful to set boundaries for yourself. Maybe it's blocking an hour on your calendar for lunch each day or reserving "no meeting time" for critical thinking or more intense projects.

2. Practice boundary setting. It can be very difficult to set boundaries, especially in high-pressure situations or when dealing with larger organizational challenges. As leaders, we have a responsibility to build sustainable work environments for our staff, and ensure our teammates have the space they need to lead balanced lives. 

With that, the way we balance our own personal and professional lives also matters: people perceive when we send emails or answer to messages, and whether we take time off. At the same time, building sustainable teams also means ensuring that our own workload and energy levels are sustainable, so we can support our teams in the long-term.

3. Take many short breaks. Smaller breaks are better for the brain to reset and refresh. At around 11:00 a.m., I go for a short walk to get a coffee around the corner and sit in the sun for a bit. Some days, I take a longer break around that time to go to the gym, my piano lesson, or run errands. 

Given the current distribution of my teams around the whole globe, midday is usually when the majority of my meetings start, usually a mix of one-on-ones with my peers, manager, and direct reports, or other people across our company that I work closely with, and some team meetings. These last until 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. my time, and I’ll take short breaks in between to have a light meal, tea, or sit on the balcony for a little while.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Lena Reinhard is the VP of Product Engineering at CircleCI, the leader in continuous integration and delivery for developer teams. After a career in finance, arts, and media, Lena found herself working in tech, and at age 26 cofounded her first software company and became a CEO.