Burnout in a Time of Crisis: How Should Leaders Respond?

By Andrew Chastain

A major concern among leadership is employee burnout at all levels of the organization. While as leaders we grappled with this challenge pre-pandemic, and before the wave of protests that followed the killing of George Floyd, it is now more than ever a challenging issue for leadership teams.

Employees are hurting, confused, anxious. This includes executives. It is with this perspective that I recently wrote an article for Chief Executive magazine, entitled, “How Not To Burn Out In a Time of Crisis.” In the article I advise fellow CEOs and other leaders how to address burnout – their own and that of their colleagues – amidst the current instability in the workforce and uncertainty of the future.

Is Executive and Employee Burnout Inevitable?

In the summer of 2018, WittKieffer conducted a survey of over 300 executives to gauge the effects of burnout. An overwhelming 79% felt employee burnout negatively affected their organization in some way. (For more detailed insight, you can access the survey report here.) Recently, my colleague Christopher Colenda, MD, MPH, wrote an article for our company blog examining physician burnout in academic medicine and the occupational hazards associated with it. In both cases, the literature focused on the responsibilities of organizational leadership and what they can do to alleviate the factors causing such high instances of burnout across industries.

Unfortunately, in light of the current pandemic and social unrest, burnout seems inevitable as teams tackle an onslaught of daily disruptions and challenges. In my recent conversations with CEOs, I consistently hear the same sentiment echoed across organizations: “I’m worried about my people.”

Care Starts with Oneself

These conversations caused me to take a moment and consider what advice I should give my colleagues, and what advice I should take myself. As leaders, we so often put our team members’ needs first, whether they be emotional, physical, or otherwise. As I said earlier, even with employee burnout, we tend to focus on the responsibilities of the CEO; what can a leader do to lessen burnout across an organization? In the past few weeks, one key piece of advice I found myself giving time and time again is that while, as a leader, you tend to the needs of your team, you must also remember to take care of yourself. The situation in which we currently find ourselves is a critical time to lead by example.

So what can we do? In the article in Chief Executive, I focus on four main goals for leaders to focus on for themselves and their teams during this time:

  1. Look in the mirror. This aligns with my point above, “take care of yourself.” In times of extreme stress, leaders are less likely to give attention to their own needs. However, this can have unintended negative consequences, as we are spread too thin to lead effectively through a crisis.
  2. Delegate with trust. As leaders, we build diverse teams with the attributes necessary to meet the complex needs of our organizations. This is a time to trust our own judgment, and let those we have appointed to lead our organizations do just that.
  3. Listen to your people. Even if we may not be physically together does not meet you can’t “drop in” to check in on your employees. As organizations shift to a virtual workplace, think of new ways you can have informal conversations to evaluate the mood of the organization (emails, quick Zoom meeting check-ins, etc.). Give colleagues and employees a chance to share their concerns or challenges, and let them know their feelings are valid – and valued.
  4. Understand your employees are likely experiencing the crisis differently than you. For leadership teams, managing during a crisis is stressful, challenging and time consuming. We run on adrenaline. This may be very different for your employees, who are uncertain of their own futures and in some cases may even be faced with a depleted workload. Listen to colleagues and staff; ensure they have what they need to complete their work and find fulfillment in it. Be empathetic but don’t feel the need to share all of your experiences. They may not translate well to your team members. They need you to listen and understand their anxieties.  

There are many steps that you as a leader can take to address burnout in your organization, but in times of crisis, the first should be to take care of yourself. Only then will you be able to effectively lead your team forward.

For more advice on how to manage your team (and yourself) in times of crisis, click here to access WittKieffer’s recent webinar series on this topic.

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