Burnout busters: 7 ways leaders can protect and energize teams

Balancing the demands of digital transformation and the risk of team burnout poses a constant challenge for leaders. Consider these expert tips to reduce stress
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Two years ago, the World Health Organization officially added burnout to the International Classification of Diseases, citing it as an occupational phenomenon. The pandemic put additional strain on workers across industries, and while the worst of the global crisis may be over, employee well-being remains a major concern across industries and functions. Burnout rose by almost nine percent between April and July 2021, according to the Glint Employee Well-Being Report – a 12 percent increase from the prior July.

Gallup recently announced plans to launch a Worldwide Stress Index, following what it found was the most stressful year in history.

Stress overall has become such an important topic that Gallup recently announced plans to launch a Worldwide Stress Index, following what it found was the most stressful year in history. A record-high 40 percent of adults surveyed said they had experienced a lot of stress the previous day during Gallup’s 2020 research – a five percent jump over the prior year.

For IT organizations charged with meeting relentless demands for digital transformation, the risk of burnout is a significant concern. “There are three underlying reasons for potential burnout: a shrinking window of transformation opportunity; paradigm shifts across all industries in business models post-COVID; and the fact that we are still in a recessionary environment due to drops in consumption and stress in global supply chains meaning [IT organizations must] ‘do more with less,’” says Sri Manchala, author of Crossing the Digital Fault Line: 10 Rules of Highly Successful Leaders in Digitalization and CEO of digital transformation services firm Trianz. “Burnout is clearly a concern on the global technology workforce. Some of [the impacted professionals] could be yours and some could be your tech service providers.”

It’s a supply and demand problem that can have a significant impact on individuals. “As more of us are working from home, there is both a psychological and physical blurring of boundaries between our work and nonwork lives, so we’re exhausted,” says Jason Randall, CEO of HR outsourcing company Questco and author of Beyond the Superhero: Executive Leadership for the Rest of Us. “When we are burned out, we are feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. It’s an existential threat to the effectiveness of the organization and should be regarded as such.”

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How to prevent burnout on teams: 7 tips

This exhaustion has significant corporate consequences as well. “This picture will take a few years to correct since we cannot manufacture digital tech-savvy talent overnight,” Manchala says. “The impact, therefore, will be higher costs of implementations as well as slower pace or even an inability to begin initiatives.”

Figuring out how to balance the need for speed with the threat of transformation fatigue on their teams is a challenging but critical task for IT leaders. CIOs can take these actions to prevent burnout on their teams:

1. Acknowledge the challenges

“A major aspect of burnout is feeling like there is no escape from the current-day pressures. Showing that you understand and acknowledge the situation is, by itself, a pressure release,” says Randall. “Don’t hide from addressing the issue even if you don’t have all the answers.”

2. Create and enforce workplace boundaries

“The pandemic catapulted the lion’s share of the labor force into remote work and both the resilience and ability to adapt displayed by the labor force was a testament to their commitment and professionalism,” says Arran Stewart, co-founder of blockchain-powered recruitment platform Job.com. “However, because life changed so quickly overnight, there was not enough time to put the necessary protocols in place to limit the number of working hours and the level of output that workers, especially in the IT space, were committing to their jobs.”

IT leaders must now put more structures in place to protect the well-being of their teams. “Managers need to set very clear parameters of work hours and expectations for their teams,” Stewart says. “They then need to make sure that those workers stick to that work commitment and do not overexert themselves, despite the temptation to continue working longer hours since their work is right in front of them at home.”

3. Be ruthless with prioritization

Think automation first. Look for those digital solutions and implementations that reduce the reliance on manpower while accelerating outcomes.

“Prioritize, prioritize, prioritize,” advises Manchala. “Focus on those initiatives that have the highest impact and urgency.” Think automation first. Look for those digital solutions and implementations that reduce the reliance on manpower while accelerating outcomes.

4. Measure the impact

Data is your friend. Randall advises well-designed and direct pulse check surveys that encourage candid, anonymous, and regular feedback about challenges team members are facing. “As important, our managers need to interact directly (even if virtually) and personally with each member of their teams about each person’s unique situation,” Randall says. “Because feelings of burnout are also wrapped in feelings of powerlessness, it’s so helpful to create an environment of trust so that each teammate can express his or her challenges.”

[ Is it time to revisit your approach to digital transformation? Read Why digital transformation demands a change in leadership mindset. ]

5. Create clear solutions

Using quantitative and qualitative data, determine what the biggest issues are in the organization. And, to the extent you are able, communicate a pathway to resolve any core issues you’ve identified, and a timeframe to do so. For example, if an employee is concerned about the sheer quantity of hours worked, make sure to communicate a future hiring plan you’ve developed to address this.

6. Work smarter and shorter

Machala advises strategizing and executing in quick iterations. “This means that smaller initiatives in shorter horizons,” he says. Investing in training and development can help. When approached strategically, upskilling employees in skills like agile engineering may enable IT professionals to work smarter and accomplish more with less effort.

7. Communicate often and keep commitments

IT leaders must be more hands-on with their teams, says Manchala, working to address issues with open communication and quick decision making. “When you have pledged to address a factor that’s contributing to burnout, give regular updates on progress, and reflect timing in your remarks,” Randall says. “Broken promises will lead to broken organizations.”

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

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.