A Top-Down Approach to Burnout Resolution

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Anyone can feel burnout, from entry-level employees to seasoned vets and members of the C-suite. However, when it comes to burnout resolution, the approach must come from the top. It’s not enough for remote employees to use their voices and speak out against toxic work environments.

Instead, leadership must actively take steps to alter the work environment and support their employees. 

“There’s a saying in corporate circles, ‘The fish stinks from the head down.’ Translation: If something’s broken where you work, it’s probably the executive team’s fault,” Tiffani Jones Brown, Executive Editorial Director, said.1

“Sounds harsh, but I think there’s a compassionate way to read it. If your leaders feel burned out and distracted, struggle to communicate, or lack purpose and autonomy, chances are this will trickle down through the rest of your organization.” 

There must be a top-down approach to burnout resolution. 

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Burnout Resolution Begins and Ends with Management

A founder sets the tone for the company culture. Management dictates how a company runs. Therefore, it falls upon managers, founders, and directors to set the proper precedence for their team.

When leadership employees work longer hours, email direct reports at midnight, and reward workers for constantly pushing themselves into overdrive, they increase and incentivize the behaviors that contribute to burnout. It’s the responsibility of management to lead by example. They must encourage their virtual team to slow down — even in the midst of a busy season. 

“I spoke to my manager about my concerns with the hours I worked and my productivity. He assured me that it really wasn’t accurate to use hours worked, lines of code written, or code reviews submitted as a measure of productivity — something I am really grateful for. He also mentioned that our team’s engineering manager had noticed my long hours, and that she thought I would burn out if I continued this pace. This shocked me,” Shirley Miao, a coder who faced burnout at an early internship, said.2

“It is a testament to how supportive my team was, that our manager would acknowledge that long hours may lead to poor mental health down the line. I took this as a clear sign that I should dial back how long I spent at the office each day. From this point forward, my manager was also very active in encouraging me not to work: telling me to go home when it got late, and to relax over weekends.”

Male senior manager on the phone with a direct report helping to navigate burnout resolution

Of course, work needs to get done. But realistically, remote work is not a life or death scenario. The Earth won’t implode if you don’t answer an email until the morning or if you need to reschedule a meeting to attend a doctor’s visit. Therefore, your manager or team lead should encourage your team to utilize mental health breaks, support your decisions to take vacations, and invite you to spend time with family.

Remember, if you were to burn out or fall ill, and you can no longer work, your position at your company would likely be filled within a month.  So, why are you killing yourself for a job that would replace you in such a short term? 

We all chose to go remote for a reason. We understand what it means to work remotely, because we feel its stresses, too. When an employee or teammate shows signs of burnout, we all need to listen. A self-aware manager should then pave the way for a healthy team and burnout resolution.

How to Have “The Talk” with a Burnt Out Employee

When an employee shows signs of burnout, it’s a manager’s responsibility to step in. After all, creating a safe work environment and protecting each team member’s mental health should be high on their list of priorities. 

“Building a relationship with your manager is critical. Talk to your boss about burnout symptoms you are facing. Great managers can identify this and support you as you recover. Even self-interested managers realize how attrition or reduced productivity will impact them, if they don’t catch burnout early. If your manager is not the type you can have this conversation with, it may be a good sign that this company isn’t the right long term fit,” Nemil Dalal, Product Manager, said.3

If you’re particularly close with another team member, or are spotting the tell-tale signs of burnout in a fellow employee, it’s perfectly acceptable to raise your concerns in a straight-forward, non-accusatory way. Use your knowledge of who the team member is on a personal level to talk to them on a peer-to-peer basis — not like they’re being reprimanded by a manager. 

According to Melissa McClung, LPC,4 one of the clearest ways to initiate the conversation is to say, “I care about you and you are a valuable member of our team. I look forward to working with you on this project. I’m concerned that you may be experiencing burnout. Am I reading that right?”

Consider approaching the conversation by mentioning the changes in behavior you may have spotted. 

For example, “I’ve noticed you seem more withdrawn on Slack lately. How are you feeling?” can open a productive burnout conversation. Opt for open-ended questions such as, “What’s on your mind?” or “How can I help?” This type of approach leaves the door open for your employee to share as much (or as little) as they feel comfortable. 

Emotionally intelligent female manager waving to video camera while on a call with burnt out direct report

“The first thing I do when one of my employees is starting to burn out is to ask them what I can do right in that moment to support them,” Annie Singer, Marketing Management Consultant, said.5 “They might just want to vent, and I can be a great listener and provide compassionate support. They might need to start communicating about a certain project differently. If chatting online is not working, we might make a video call to get everyone on the same page.”

Throughout the conversation, be sure to listen to their answers fully. Your job is not to interrogate them, but to make them feel understood and valid in their feelings. As such, it’s your role to ask how you can help, what changes they feel need to be made, and what can be done to help them reach a happy equilibrium in their work.

“Communication is also a critical factor impacting employee well-being: employees who felt their managers were ineffective communicators were 2.7x more likely to use language signaling burnout; 2.1x for those who felt their organization communicated poorly about change,” Justin Black, Head of People Science at LinkedIn, said.6 “Good communication reduces uncertainty and increases perceived control.” 

In some cases, a team member might be shouldering too much work. In other cases, they might not be allowing themselves to have a life separate from work. Reiterating the importance of placing a boundary between the two is critical. 

Remember that at the end of the day, we’re all just people. Whether the distance between you and your team is 5 feet or 50,000 miles, that gap can be drastically reduced by practicing empathy and making yourself open to difficult conversations that can lead to burnout resolution.

Supporting A Lead Player When They’ve Hit Burnout 

There’s always one lead player that’s known as the team’s rockstar. Someone who always hits deadlines, nails their deliverables, and is always willing to pitch in for more. But there are times when this willingness to help the team to succeed ultimately harms the individual more than it benefits the overall project. When this happens, and a rock star remote employee is burnt out, what do you do?

For starters, turn on your video camera. 

“The best comparison might be to seniors living in nursing homes, who are often hungry for social connection, and have too little contact with the outside world. A small 2020 study in the medical journal BMC Geriatrics found that nursing home residents experienced less loneliness, more vitality, and even less sensitivity to pain after connecting with family members once a week for six months via video call,” Angela Lashbrook, a writer and large proponent of using video calls to help alleviate employee burnout, said.7 

“A larger study, from 2011, had nursing home residents in Taiwan engage in at least one five-minute video call a week for three months. The experiment had a positive long-term effect on the residents’ depression symptoms and loneliness, even a year later,” she continues. 

While a video chat isn’t the exact same as in-person meeting, it shows humility. It allows you to read their expressions, feel their frustrations, and share a personal moment with a fellow remote employee. 

Two male remote employees on a video call to help reach a burnout resolution

“I will evaluate the distribution of work, any challenges on projects or assignments that may be contributing factors. I also let the employee know that my primary goal is to support them, as we accomplish the business goals. I communicate that if there is any way I can provide better support, that I’m willing—and I ask for honest feedback,” Kimberly Hardman, Founder, said.8

“I also explore what specific factors are contributing to burnout. If they’re no longer challenged, or are looking for new growth opportunities, I will look for ways to incorporate new projects that may revive their interest while removing some other responsibilities.”

Understand that a lead player deciding to approach you or your leadership likely took a lot of courage and reflection on their part. When an employee has the tenacity to discuss their mental health, take it as a sign that:

  1. They value you as a mentor or manager and have built rapport with you.
  2. They’re truly overwhelmed and need help. 
  3. All of the above. 

Depending on why your rockstar has hit burnout, it might be time to take further action.

“I sometimes ask a burnout employee if I may escalate the concern to upper management, or I may do so anonymously by saying ‘one of our employees shared X concern with me,’” Annie Singer, Marketing Management Consultant, said.9 “I do, however, value their privacy and confidence and unless it is a drastic situation — like harassment, dangerous work conditions — I will not ‘rat them out.’”

Alternatively, you could decide to simply give your employee the time and space they need to regroup and restabilize. For Kimberly Hardman, giving her remote team members a break from the daily grind is paramount to burnout resolution. 

“First, I create a plan to off-load some work — like temporarily hiring a VA or giving more responsibility to an intern). Then, I prepare a timeframe for a 2-week vacation as early as possible.”10 

Nurturing a Safe Space for Employees 

A lot of emphasis has been placed on building relationships with your remote team members, but the question most managers or founders face is “how?” Depending on your niche and the roles your team members play, this process can look different across the board. However, several elements of creating a safe space for employees ring true across the remote landscape.

Incorporate Virtual Team-Building Activities 

Distance doesn’t have to get in the way of having a good time. There are a ton of virtual team-building activities you can invite your remote team members to once or twice a month to get to know one another and alleviate a bit of stress. If you’re unsure where to start, a Zoom happy hour is always a safe bet. Set a time for employees to hop on a video call with their favorite food or drink and simply chat about pop culture, trends in the industry, or whatever else comes to mind.

For more structure, consider planning team trivia nights or team movie nights. For trivia night, pick a subject everyone can agree on: like the best 80s movies, popular music, or industry trends. For movie nights, allow one team member to select their favorite film each month. Extensions like Netflix Party or TwoSeven allow you to invite everyone to a virtual watch party where you can chat about what’s going to happen next.⁠ Then, allow a new team member to select a film of their choice next month. 

Meet In-Person Monthly or Quarterly 

Video chats are well and good, but face-to-face interaction builds quality relationships and enables trust between employees. Having opportunities to spend time together in the same space (not virtually) is a worthwhile investment. 

“I try to get together with my teams in person as frequently as possible to help alleviate loneliness,” Annie Singer, Marketing Management Consultant, explained.11 “I live in the Bay Area (SF) and have a team 300 miles away in Orange County. I try to make an effort to visit them when I have the chance, and I encourage them to meet in person with one another.”

Team members meeting in person at a coffee shop to get to know one another

If it is safe to do so in your area, consider inviting remote team members to conferences a few times a year to catch up and learn together as a team. Alternatively, if all members are in the same state or a reasonable distance from one another, plan an employee weekend where you gather a team, eat as a team, and get to know one another.

“I consistently recommend coworking to my remote working clients,” Melissa McClung, LPC, said.12 “We talk about the needs of social interaction and brainstorming balanced with focused alone time. For clients without access to coworking, I recommend public spaces like coffee shops and libraries.”

Encourage Open Communication

Whether you start a “Water Cooler” channel on Slack for non-work related banter or designate your Friday emails with relatable memes, encourage open communication among your team. Developing open communication is an excellent way of allowing team members to admit when a change in workflow is necessary and pave the way for burnout resolution.

“Burnout exacts a painful toll on society. 

In the U.S. alone, work-related stress results in $190 billion in health costs and close to 120,000 deaths a year. Many approach the problem by recommending individual workers change their behavior: take a yoga class, meditate, etc,” Scott Olster, Senior Editor, said.13

“Instead, business leaders may need to change how their organizations operate. One great way to start? Ask employees what small changes will help them most.”

Not to mention, routine open communication makes it easier to spot when an employee begins acting out of character. It also allows managers a chance to step in before burnout escalates.

If you’re unsure how to approach the conversation, try something empathic, along the lines of, “I’d like to clarify how you would like my support with this. Do you want support in solving the problem, or do you just need to share it with me so I’m aware of it? I’m fine with either option, I just don’t want to be insensitive to your needs.”

Allow Yourself to Be Vulnerable

Nobody is superhuman, even the manager of a 100-employee, all-remote team or a rockstar remote individual contributor. So, the next time you’re conversing with your team members, don’t be afraid to show a little vulnerability. Revel in both your wins and your losses. Share instances in which you didn’t feel you performed your best or had stress get the best of you.

“I try to take a compassionate, non-judgmental approach to communication with my employees and contractors,” Annie Singer, Marketing Management Consultant, said.14 “With feedback from the president of my company on my own performance, I try to remove the ‘I think… [the way I want to do it]’ statements, and instead ask, ‘What do you think about… [the way I want to do it].” 

At the end of the day, we’re all remote workers sharing the same grievances. When you break down the picture-perfect facade and give teammates a true glimpse of how you’re feeling from time to time, it becomes much easier for them to share their true emotions with you.

Don’t miss Chapter Eight: Moving Past Burnout 🔥

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  1. Brown, Tiffani Jones. “Beyond Self-Care: A Wiser Way to Beat Burnout.” Medium, Medium, 16 Oct. 2018, medium.com/@ticjones/beyond-self-care-a-wiser-way-to-beat-burnout-27d25c7bdd6a.
  2. Miao, Shirley. “Burnout and Recovery at a Tech Internship.” Medium, Code Like A Girl, 19 Jan. 2017, code.likeagirl.io/burnout-and-recovery-at-a-tech-internship-88d59aded71d?gi=3ed59ea5c630.
  3. Dalal, Nemil. “Why There’s so Much Burnout in Software and What to Do About It.” Medium, HackerNoon.com, 2 July 2019, medium.com/hackernoon/why-theres-so-much-burnout-in-software-and-what-to-do-about-it-4ef0297ca7cc.
  4. McClung, Melissa. “Professional Career Consultation.” Life By Design Careers, 2019, lbdcareers.com/.
  5. Singer, Annie. “Home.” Annie Singer, 3 Aug. 2020, annie-singer.com/.
  6. Black, Justin. “How Employees Are Feeling: Burnout Rises to Top of Stressor List.” LinkedIn, Glint, 7 May 2020, www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-employees-feeling-burnout-rises-top-stressor-list-justin-black/.
  7. Lashbrook, Angela. “Zoom Burnout Is Real.” Medium, OneZero, 14 Apr. 2020, onezero.medium.com/zoom-burnout-is-real-27e6938d0e1f.
  8. Hardman, Kimberly. “Building Better Leaders.” Aedify, 5 Mar. 2020, www.aedifyllc.com/.
  9. Singer, Annie. “Home.” Annie Singer, 3 Aug. 2020, annie-singer.com/.
  10. Hardman, Kimberly. “Building Better Leaders.” Aedify, 5 Mar. 2020, www.aedifyllc.com/.
  11. Singer, Annie. “Home.” Annie Singer, 3 Aug. 2020, annie-singer.com/.
  12. McClung, Melissa. “Professional Career Consultation.” Life By Design Careers, 2019, lbdcareers.com/.
  13. Olster, Scott. “What We Get Wrong About Burnout.” LinkedIn, LinkedIn News, 2020, www.linkedin.com/feed/news/what-we-get-wrong-about-burnout-4751444/.
  14. Singer, Annie. “Home.” Annie Singer, 3 Aug. 2020, annie-singer.com/.

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