This article was originally published on Forbes.com, under Jeff Miller’s Forbes Human Resources Council column.
Employee burnout hit an all-time high in 2020. I know I felt it. Toward the end of last year, I felt like that meme of the cat hanging onto a branch. It wasn’t unusual for me to work weekends and long weekdays. I’ve never been this worn-out — and I’ve been what you might call a workaholic for much of my career.
This year, we need to be better about fighting burnout, even as many of the same things that made last year so challenging persist. And it needs to start at the manager level. As we're working to build more adaptable, flexible organizations, much of that work comes back to ensuring managers are not just managing tasks, but managing people — and fostering their learning, growth and success. After a year as tiresome and demanding as 2020, the importance of managers in supporting employees’ engagement and well-being has only increased.
The challenge is that managers themselves have been just as burned out as their employees, making it harder for them to coach and support their teams. Doing better starts with this awareness: My exhaustion doesn’t just affect me and my health; it affects my team as well. From there, managers can focus their energy on making work better for employees by eliminating work friction, identifying and reducing the frequency of unproductive meetings and making the most out of individual check-ins. Implementing these three changes will have a ripple effect. Because employees will be less burned out, they will have more time and energy to focus on more meaningful, strategic work that will advance their personal growth — and the goals of the organizations.
1. Reduce Work Friction
As managers, our job is to make it easy for employees to do their job and ensure they have the time, resources and capabilities to perform well. Otherwise, they confront work friction. Misaligned project goals, overwhelmed teams and rigid or outdated work processes are common causes of work friction. And according to a recent Gartner report, the amount of time employees spend trying to get around work friction generates about 3.1 million wasted hours annually.
I realized this problem in my team recently, after asking for feedback. Overwhelmingly, their responses told me that I wasn’t doing enough to control the work coming in from other departments or leaders. I hadn’t been filtering these requests or adjusting their workloads accordingly.
To reduce work friction, work with employees to outline their roles, answering questions like, "What are the deliverables, and who is owning them?" or "What is the timeline here, and is it realistic?" Don’t assume that employees have answers to these questions or that they have the time necessary to complete these projects. And always make sure to leave employees room to ask questions. Urge them to give you feedback as well. In my experience, the best managers ask their employees for feedback as often as they deliver it to their employees.
2. Be More Intentional About Meetings
Since the pandemic, the number of meetings has increased, meaning there’s even less time to tackle projects. In one small 2020 survey, about 78% of employees said their meeting schedule is always or sometimes out of control and that upper management or their direct manager is responsible for creating crazy meeting schedules.
In 2021, think about reframing meetings and their purpose for your team. Meetings should be used to brainstorm ideas, gather other team members’ perspectives to help make decisions or reflect on completed projects to learn how they can be improved in the future. If not used for one of these three purposes, a meeting could be replaced with an email.
3. Do More With Employees Check-Ins
One meeting that managers should always keep on their calendars is check-ins with their teams. But here, the same rules apply: If you and the individual are simply using the meeting to deliver status updates on ongoing projects, that can be handled in an email.
Instead, use this time to check in with your employees about higher-level issues and questions, like their feelings on ongoing projects and personal well-being. The uncertainty and stress of the past 10 months have put many employees in survival mode — a depletive mental state that makes it harder to think logically. In this headspace, employees will complete tasks just to check them off their to-do lists without considering why they are doing them, how they could be done better or even what they like about the work. But by asking them to answer these questions in one-on-one meetings, managers can help coax employees out of survival mode.
Use these meetings to check in on employees’ mental and emotional health as well. I have a technique for this called "check up from the neck up" that I developed when teaching middle school. It involves asking my employees (or then, students) questions like "Where’s your head?" or "Are you OK?" This will bring employees’ attention back to these needs and provide managers with the information necessary to optimize their management style around any current struggles.
A 2021 With Less Burnout
Although 2020 is behind us, 2021 will likely contain many of the same challenges — meaning that, for many people, it will at times be overwhelming and stressful. If employees aren’t taking time to reset, that can negatively affect their focus, productivity and job performance. It’s a tragic, recurring spiral.
In 2021, we need to break this habit, and managers hold the key to unlocking a new way of working. They need to help employees find a better balance between work and life and develop ways to manage their workload. Then, by reducing burnout, managers can ensure employees have more time and energy for more meaningful projects that contribute to their personal growth as well as the organization’s, such as improving individuals’ responsiveness to change so they can become better at managing disruption and help build a more adaptable, flexible organization.