How to fight burnout: Tips for IT leaders and employees

Protecting your team members from burnout is critical these days – but the effort should be mutual. Consider these tips for leaders and employees
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Preventing employee burnout is one of the biggest challenges IT leaders face, especially in today’s remote work environment. But leadership is only part of the equation.

Running an IT shop that seeks to embrace the future of work – where collaboration and communication rule over command and control – takes a two-pronged approach:

  • Leadership must take certain actions, including empowering employees.
  • Empowered employees must also take action.

Why does preventing burnout involve both employees and leaders?

I’m reluctant to compare leadership with parenting – it’s obviously not the same thing – but parallels do exist. Specifically, there’s plenty of literature on how children of “helicopter parents” end up with lower self-esteem than those with “autonomy-supportive” parents.

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Enlightened leaders don’t impose their will and keep employees under their thumb, but offering solutions that ask nothing of employees is just as dangerous. How can employees feel autonomy if leaders, like those helicopter parents, attempt to fix things unilaterally?

To prevent burnout, employees must share responsibility with leaders. Let’s look at how this works in a future-focused workplace.

Do's and don'ts for leaders

While toxic micromanagement is a big no, there’s plenty that leaders can do to foster employee well-being.

I’ve heard some outstanding examples of how fellow CIOs are keeping the lines of communication open with their staff members. On the creative side, Net Health CIO Jason “JJ” James taught an hour-long Zoom class on barbeque for all of his employees. James, a KCBS Certified BBQ judge, shared tips and recipes, discussed the history of barbeque, and answered questions – all during business hours to help reinforce and retain the organization’s connected culture in a remote world.

Healthcare CIO David Chou writes that he holds weekly town halls with his staff to combat burnout. And Zafar Chaudry, CIO at Seattle Children’s, sends weekly messages to staff to ensure that everyone feels connected.

Here are some other ways leaders should – and shouldn’t – help their employees.

Start with the right level of transparency. Although too much transparency can be a micromanagement red flag (“Mwahaha, I see you took five minutes too long on that coffee break!”), you can’t say, “Hey, it looks like you have too much on your plate” unless you generally know what tasks and projects are on whose plates.

What does this look like in real life? Try requesting a report on work orders or project assignments, organized by employee. If you use work transparency to punish employees, this information will stop coming in. But used properly, work transparency is a great early warning system to help you prevent employee burnout.

Check in with employees by asking questions, not issuing statements. A simple “How’s it going?” can reveal more than you might think. You’re already coaching, guiding, and mentoring – go ahead and add an inquiry or two about employee well-being.

Check in with employees by asking questions, not issuing statements. A simple "How's it going?" can reveal more than you might think.

Encourage employee feedback. The only employees who don’t push back are those who have already been squashed. Don’t just allow for dissent – encourage it. Use intermediaries, enable anonymous feedback, and appreciate and recognize employees who speak up. What you’ll learn will be worth it, and employees will feel like active participants in creating their future.

Giveth – and taketh away. Be mindful that when you put something on an employee’s plate, you should also take something off as needed.

Model the way. Display healthy self-care and avoid suggestions that employees should skip their own. If you send weekend emails, for example, expect your team to think they should, too. Need proof? Maura Thomas put it brilliantly in her Harvard Business Review article, Your Late-Night Emails Are Hurting Your Team.

Similarly, don’t talk about “catching up on the weekend” or your team will feel compelled to do the same – which is the opposite of self-care. When you don’t take vacation time, it signals that others shouldn’t either. Talk about a setup for burnout!

Promote self-care. During employee check-ins, add self-care to the list. But be careful not to impose your own version of self-care on your employees. Not everyone wants to meditate, for example, or perhaps a team member is saving time off for a future special event and doesn’t want to take a vacation day now. Have the conversation, but don’t be pushy.

Don't impose your own version of self-care on your employees – not everyone wants to meditate.

Structure projects appropriately. Gigantic projects with no end in sight always cause frustration. Small, achievable goals give employees a feeling of accomplishment and the satisfaction of getting something done. Don’t underestimate the positive effect this can have on an employee’s mental well-being.

Don’t try to solve everything. What do you call leaders who try to solve everything themselves? Micromanagers. One way to avoid this is to go beyond simply delegating tasks or projects – also delegate finding solutions. This gives employees the satisfaction of solving problems themselves.

Do's and don'ts for employees

Employees must also take responsibility for preventing burnout. Here are some ways to do that.

Speak up. Leaders are certainly responsible for creating an atmosphere where folks are comfortable sharing their thoughts, but they can’t read minds. Employees must speak up.

Take care of self-care. Again, leaders can create a comfortable, accepting atmosphere, but they cannot decide for you to take a break for meditation or yoga.

Set boundaries. Only each individual employee can set their personal boundaries. For example, some team members may feel energized and eager to take on an early morning upgrade, while others prefer a 10 p.m. timeframe. If you don’t communicate this to leaders, they won’t know.

Understand workload. This is a tricky one – there are still plenty of time-and-motion aficionados who think leaders can clearly define employee capacity: “We can crank out 150 lines of code or solve 10 incidents per unit of time per unit of employee!”

This is, of course, nonsense. Some employees work more quickly on certain tasks than others, and some tasks are more complex than others. This is part of being human in a complex world. Employees must feel empowered to communicate when they’re at capacity – as well as when they have the capacity to do more work.

Ask for help. When there’s a roadblock, a question about priorities, an overload issue, or a problem, the employee is usually the first to see it. Employees should feel comfortable escalating these questions.

Well-being is key

Leaders have an incentive to help with an employee’s quality of life: When someone is experiencing well-being, they do their best work. When employees are happy, content, and excited about their work, they are far more productive. They do discretionary, high-quality work.

The best way to achieve that in the future is to guard against burnout – and making it clear that doing that takes the efforts of leaders and employees alike.

The bottom line: If you don’t set up an environment where your employees’ well-being is job one for everyone, someone else can – and will.

[ How strong is your EQ? See our related article: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ] 

Jonathan Feldman is the CIO for Wake County in NC and is an award-winning CIO, speaker, and writer. He was named a top CIO to follow by the Huffington Post and was honored with a Frost & Sullivan CIO Impact Award. He was previously CIO for the City of Asheville, NC.