The end of the year is always a bit stressful. We are confronted with the pressure of finishing the business year strong while planning for a new and even more successful year. All this while juggling the season’s activities from mailing cards and buying presents to attending holiday events, working out who’s hosting family dinners, and organizing the white elephant exchange. Wait, this year, we might have to decide if we are doing any of those things. We’re certainly still experiencing increasing uncertainties. What will 2021 bring, where are we going for the holidays, and will my business be impacted by any more shutdowns? All this weighs heavily on a leader, and yet much of the stress is often pushed aside while we endeavor to keep a stiff upper lip to appear positive and optimistic for the people we lead.
Much has been written about the importance of employee engagement and boosting morale. Most of the responsibility for engaging employees falls squarely on the shoulders of the direct manager. Managers and supervisors set the tone and the climate of the team – by keeping employees informed about what's going on in the business, setting priorities, and providing on-going feedback and recognition. But what happens when you, as a manager, start burning out?
Let's look at the history of employee engagement for a moment. Since 2000, Gallup has been tracking employee engagement. The metric has been relatively steady, without sharp ups and downs, until this year. The upset and uncertainty around the on-going pandemic and related restrictions, mounting political tensions, and social unrest created a perfect storm of uncertainty and fluctuating employee engagement levels. As of October 2020, the good news is that employee engagement has returned to pre-COVID levels for all groups except managers. Manager engagement has continued to decline. Why is this a critical point?
This is concerning for several reasons. Currently, 41% of employees strongly agree that their manager keeps them informed about what's going on in the organization. That's great, for now. However, managers are reporting higher levels of stress and burnout than the people they manage. High levels of stress lead to reduced engagement, a drop in productivity, and burnout. This stress, in turn, can affect approximately 70% of the variance in team engagement. In short, we're overstressed, and on the verge of burnout, so it's only a matter of time before that impacts the entire team.
So, what do we do about it? As leaders, we hold the key to keeping employees engaged and productive, which means we need to make sure we are in good shape ourselves.
Managers – be sure to take a break! Need more encouragement? We've got it.
In an interview with Admiral John Richardson, former chief of naval operations, discussing strategies for leaders to avoid burnout and prevent pandemic fatigue, he notes, "the stakes are really high, and when the stakes are high, many leaders naturally tend to feel they have to be there all the time, to make all the decisions. But if you can't conserve your energy, you're in trouble." Sound familiar? Of course, it does. But remember, even military admirals must take breaks!
Admiral Richardson continues, "recovery is essential to mission effectiveness. That must include both taking time off to reenergize and to have the team and structure in place so that this time off can be protected, and the mission will continue."
Throughout the challenges this year, the front-line managers have shouldered the burden of carrying out and communicating the tough decisions businesses have made to stay afloat. We've had to make difficult decisions about layoffs, furloughs, and reduced hours. We've been uncovering new ways to get work done with fewer resources, staff, and funding.
Managers and our teams have moved to work remotely, making it harder to connect, communicate, and get work done collectively. We've had to look for new ways, through new technologies, to hold meetings, work on projects, track productivity, and communicate.
2020 has accelerated business innovations, technological advancement, and virtual communications to a degree we previously thought impossible. It's been possible, though the accelerated pace has landed significantly on leadership, and there may not be a protocol or structure to protect time off at this time. However, it's "mission-critical" to protect downtime for leaders and employees. The science proves it. In fact, before the pandemic, global surveys revealed: "burnout arguably is reaching epic proportions in many industrialized countries."
If your new strategies and structure haven't taken time off into account, go back and build it in.
It's a great time to take an inventory of your strengths and make sure you're leveraging them. If you are a hard-charging driver who is always thinking about the next hurdle, lean on your support team to be sure you are setting realistic timelines, planning the logistics, and following through on the execution. Nothing will burn you or your team out faster than setting new goals when yesterday’s goals are still in progress.
The Omnia Assessment is a fast, unintimidating, unbiased, and accurate way to reveal a person's natural behavior. Understanding individuals on a team can help managers alleviate stress for everyone. While some groups have worked cohesively for years, most have not. Between average turnover rates, the population aging into retirement, and the shift to remote communications, it can be challenging to understand everything about your team.
The Omnia Assessment breaks this down into easy-to-read, easy-to-interpret graphs focusing on four behaviors: assertiveness, communication style, pace, and structure. For example, if you know who's fast-paced and big-picture focused, you can pair them with someone more cautious and systematic to ensure tasks are completed but also proofed for accuracy. Understanding people's natural abilities can take years; with The Omnia Assessment, it takes less than 10 minutes.
Let's go back to stress and burnout. How can we protect managers and, by extension, all employees? Here are a few strategies other companies have employed:
Leaders need to conserve energy and take care of themselves. Review the five strategies above; the first bullet is on us. Set and enforce work boundaries, including taking time off. Then, lead by example. Our mental health and well-being are our responsibilities. Snap out of the martyr mindset. We aren't helping our teams by exhausting ourselves, and we aren't earning badges for the number of hours worked. It's time to reevaluate how we approach work. It's time to replace "busy" with productive and healthy, and 2020 may have given us all the opportunity to make that shift a reality.