Without a doubt, the culture and practices of an organization are major factors in the burnout—or well-being—of employees.
But the most immediate, most palpable burnout factor for most workers involves their supervisors.
For many employees, company policies are abstract and executives are removed figures.
In contrast, supervisors are typically part of employees’ daily experience. Supervisors have a tremendous effect on how workers feel about their job, their work environment, and themselves.
Even within an organization that embraces positive company-wide strategies to promote well-being (see prior blog post on organizational strategies to prevent burnout), some supervisors will be far more successful than others in helping employees to prevent burnout.
In short, supervisors and managers play a pivotal role in helping employees to realize well-being—or to sink into burnout, which is so rampant in today’s workplaces (see earlier blog on the pandemic of burnout).
Supervisors and managers, like the rest of us, have their own styles and strengths. Some are naturally better suited than others to promote employee well-being.
But fortunately, preventing burnout and promoting well-being is also a skill set that supervisors and managers can learn and practice.
Seven Critical Strategies
In particular, seven strategies can help supervisors to be successful in preventing burnout. (For simplicity’s sake, I will use the term supervisors to include managers; although the positions differ, the burnout prevention strategies are very similar.)
1. Provide regular, frequent supervision.
Most jobs can at times be one or more of the following: overwhelming, demanding, tedious, frustrating, stressful, confusing, complex. Regular supervision can help guide employees through the rough patches of the work. In one of our studies of burnout in mental health agencies, we found that more frequent supervision reduced employee burnout—and their intentions to leave their jobs.
It is critical, however, for managers to understand that frequent supervision does not mean micromanaging workers. As described in the prior blog about organizational strategies to reduce burnout, employee morale is best when workers feel they have a degree of autonomy in their jobs.
Supervision is typically most helpful when workers feel it as supportive. Embodying the other strategies discussed below can help reduce burnout.
2. Focus on work process and the human elements.
In hectic, productivity-driven, and bureaucratic organizations, supervisors sometimes fall into an excessive preoccupation with administrative concerns: Is all the paperwork complete? Are procedures being followed precisely? Are productivity targets met?
Such matters need to be discussed at times. But supervisors who perseverate on such issues, at the exclusion of work process and human aspects, often turn supervision meetings into a negative, soul-sucking experience rather than a supportive factor.
To support worker well-being, supervisors also need to discuss their employees’ concerns.
Such topics include the technical process of their work (e.g., “How is that project going?” “How are you tackling that issue?”). Supervisors need to be able to help workers to think through difficult, sticking points of their job. They should also celebrate their employees accomplishments and recognize the specific factors (e.g., technical skills, creativity, determination) that contributed to success.
In addition, it is important for supervisors to remain mindful of the obvious fact that all too often gets forgotten: employees are humans with feelings.
I am not recommending that supervisors become therapists for their employees. But it is important for workers to feel that their supervisors genuinely care about them as people and are interested in their feelings about their work—and about their personal life, when it spills into the work day.
3. Be Knowledgeable About Burnout Signs and Prevention Strategies.
Managers and supervisors should be familiar with the signs and symptoms of burnout (see handout).
They should also have knowledge about the ways that burnout can be reduced (or prevented) and the strategies that facilitate worker wellness. Supervisors do not need to be experts in burnout prevention, but they should be aware of organizational-wide activities and individual skills that do so, while mastering the supervisory strategies that prevent burnout.
4. Make Employee Well-Being a Safe Topic.
Many employees feel reluctant or ashamed to discuss with supervisors how they are feeling about work, especially feelings of burnout. Often workers worry that disclosing such feelings may lead to negative supervisory judgments.
Supervisors need to set a tone of openness and acceptance for talking about work well-being. They need to share in team meetings that many employees in today’s workplaces experience burnout and that it is acceptable—and important—to talk about burnout and ways to improve well-being.
A former Fortune 50 executive recently developed an easy-to-use but helpful assessment questionnaire for managers and supervisors for use within their teams (see handout). Supervisors can share the assessment tool with the team and use the items to talk about possible causes and signs of burnout and then explore possible changes to reduce stress.
In addition to making such statements in team meetings, supervisors should have an initial conversation with each employee during individual supervision, asking about their emotional work life and any signs of burnout. Supervisors should be mindful that the topic may be easier for some employees to discuss than others. Some employees may need multiple check-in conversations in order to feel safe to discuss such feelings.
Supervisors should also work with their employees to build burnout prevention and wellness plans, using the following strategies as they are applicable to each unique individual.
Once the topic is broached, follow-up conversations to see how things are progressing (or not) is important.
5. Help Employees When They Feel Overloaded.
Feeling overwhelmed with more work than time is one of the hallmark triggers for burnout. Burnout deepens when an employee feels overloaded with no way out—other than spending more and more time and energy, which again can feed burnout.
One of the key burnout prevention strategies that supervisors can utilize is to help employees who feel overwhelmed. Three actions can be especially useful:
- Discuss work tasks and help employees set priorities among the multiple demands. In many jobs, some employees will often feel like there is more work to do than is humanly possible to achieve within a healthy work schedule. Many employees, especially those who strive to be responsible high-performers, can slip into burnout when they try to do everything. Supervisors can help by discussing the various projects and tasks, and helping to determine the top priorities—while acknowledging not everything can or needs to be done at once.
- Ask employees to conduct a self “audit” or tracking of how and where they spend their time each day for a week. Supervisors should then review the tracking log with the employee, examining it for activities that are inefficient or take up time without much benefit (e.g., some employees spend considerable time throughout the day inefficiently scanning and responding to unimportant email chatter or attending low-yield meetings). Supervisors can then help employees to eliminate unproductive activities or gain efficiency.
- Access other resources, when necessary and available. For example, priority deadline projects may require more time than a single employee can provide. Managers and supervisors may need to bring in additional resources, such as another team member, to help meet important deadlines without burning out their staff.
6. Foster a positive team/department work climate.
A positive team culture promotes people to feel good about their jobs and to do their best. Supervisors need to actively work toward creating and sustaining a positive environment within their teams and departments.
By contrast, nothing destroys employee motivation and energy like unresolved, intense interpersonal work conflicts. Persistent co-worker conflicts are powerful drivers for employee turnover. People don’t like to work where there is ongoing interpersonal tension; many workers, including those who are most productive, end up looking for another job elsewhere.
Unfortunately, some supervisors and managers avoid dealing with team conflicts, to the detriment of the emotional health of the employees and their team’s productivity.
Supervisors need to proactively work with the team to positively resolve conflicts that when allowed to simmer, create burnout.
In addition, employees who consistently fail to perform, whether through a lack of skills or effort or high levels of absenteeism, are also a drain on the morale of the entire team.
Although some supervisors are reluctant to address such problems, they need to actively engage employees who fail to perform or who have excessive absences or tardiness (without justifiable medical causes). Employees should be provided with coaching and offered EAP, if applicable, and an opportunity to improve their behavior. Those workers who chronically do not meet expectations, may need to be moved out of their positions or out of the company.
7. Practice Organizational Strategies to Prevent Burnout.
Managers and supervisors also need to champion—and practice—strategies that the organizational as a whole should use to reduce burnout. It is especially important that supervisors promote employee wellness, practice good communication with their team, support appropriate employee autonomy, and set necessary boundaries. Supervisors should also model the behaviors that their employees need to follow to prevent burnout (taking breaks, not disturbing employees with work matters after hours, enjoying time off, etc.).
In addition, the nuances of two additional strategies for supervisors are worth noting:
- Tackling work barriers. Frontline staff are often the employees who are most aware of barriers to working effectively—but they are typically furthest removed from decision-making power. Employees need supervisors and managers who first acknowledge the barriers they experience and second advocate with leadership for addressing those issues.
- Ensure accountability for preventing burnout. Burnout occurs within departments and teams as well as across a company. Supervisors need to “think locally” about burnout and proactively assess burnout—and its causes—within their teams. Supervisors can use the short assessment tool (see handout) to monitor burnout causes and signs within their team and their own managerial practices.
One More Critical Strategy
By many accounts, managers and supervisors often have the most difficult jobs within organizations. They often feel pressure from company executives above them in the organizational chart while witnessing the difficulties, frustrations, and needs of those they supervise.
Middle management is not for the faint of heart. Supervisors and managers have stressful positions and they often experience high rates of burnout themselves.
It is imperative that supervisors and managers take care of themselves.
Preventing burnout is critical for the health and well-being of supervisors (and their loved ones). Caring for oneself is also a crucial step in order to help support the well-being of those employees they supervise.
Fortunately, a number of strategies for preventing burnout and improving well-being are helpful for managers—and everyone who works—as we shall see in the next post.
Title photo credit: Airfocus, Unsplash.com