Exhaustion. Sleeplessness. Depression. Anxiety. The emergence of unhealthy habits, behaviors, and addictions, combined with receding joy, capability, efficacy, and a sense of purpose. Virtually all of us have seen these symptoms in others or lived through some combination of them.
It’s called burnout syndrome.
Most of us know what burnout is, even if we don’t always use the term. If we haven’t felt its effects ourselves, we’ve seen it in colleagues, loved ones, or friends. Sufferers tend to be unhappy, unsatisfied, exhausted, battling to get through each day, and seemingly struggle more while becoming less effective.
Burnout affects growing numbers of people in all walks of life, and it has gotten more attention in recent years as its prevalence has increased. The World Health Organization even recently categorized burnout as an “organizational phenomenon.”
Yet, many of us still think of burnout as an individual problem. It allows us and our organizations to comfortably place the burnout problem “over there”—as the affliction, responsibility, and fault of the particular person. That’s convenient but often inaccurate.
While individuals are more likely to showcase the symptoms and consequences of burnout outwardly, burnout isn’t necessarily an individual disease. Teams can be just as susceptible to burnout, and whether we succeed in identifying and treating it when it arises can make a big difference to our organizations.
Understanding what team burnout is, knowing how to recognize it, and intervening to keep it from growing is, therefore, a business imperative for managers and companies.
On a basic level, burnout is the natural result of sustained stress—the sense of having run too far, too hard, for too long. Even for the most committed, most productive people, sooner or later, the mind and body rebel when subjected to what seems like an unending tide of stress-inducing activities and events.
There comes the point where an after-work glass of wine or the yearly vacation doesn’t do enough to defuse the cumulative effects of that stress. On varying levels, we start to shut down and go into survival mode.
It’s bad enough when a single employee arrives at a burnout state. It’s exponentially worse when most or all members of a team are heading towards the same condition.
Chances are if one person in an organization is displaying signs of burnout, others are experiencing them, too, even if the symptoms aren’t visible yet. If you can’t see the signs, that doesn’t mean the damage isn’t being done. In a recent online survey conducted by The Conference Board – The Reimagined Workplace a Year Later: Human Capital Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic, human capital leaders reported that 76% of their employees have an increased feeling of burnout since the start of the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Team burnout shares some of the same characteristics as individual burnout, but often displays them in different ways:
- Detachment. Teams and team members can be observed “going offline,” aren’t fully involved or engaged in work and related activities, or frequently engaging in non-work activities at work.
- Blunted emotions. Sometimes seen as general passivity and going-through-the-motions when giving responses to ideas, activities or events.
- Imposter syndrome. A shared, unconscious belief that the team members, team, or company can’t meet challenges or compete effectively has a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
- Loss of creativity. Can be seen as fewer initiatives, uninspired work product, lessened attempts at problem-solving.
- Diminished communication. Often noticeable as minimal-effort, perfunctory responses to emails and reduced discussion in meetings. “Need to know” information fails to be transmitted between parties.
- Factionalization. Informal internal competition between teams or team members, or in worse cases, outright animosity between groups of team members or departments.
- Lessened motivation. Diminished productivity, slower development of work product, slowed or stalled initiatives thanks to approvals that never come or meetings that never happen can indicate that teams aren’t trying as much or at all.
- Loss of decision-making capability. Challenges go unmet, problems go unsolved, and stasis or paralysis sets in as team members collectively and unconsciously opt to let someone else worry about it.
Since we’re used to thinking about burnout in individual terms, it can be tempting to try to pin the blame for team burnout on an individual— probably the one displaying the most visible burnout symptoms. After all, it’s easy to say, “Person X is damaging morale,” or “Person Y is a roadblock.” That response is counterproductive because:
- Burnout is the result of a process, and whatever circumstances led one person to become burned out will probably lead others to as well.
- An incorrect diagnosis leads to ineffective treatment. Any attempt to tackle a systemic problem by focusing on an individual means that attention and resources are being focused away from where they’re needed.
The Perfect Storm for Team Burnout
As we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic has done a number on how we work and how we live. In these closed-up, locked-in, working-from-home times, both people and their companies have had to figure out new ways to survive on the fly. “Normal” is starting to seem like a distant memory, and the “new normal” is comparative isolation and Zoom meetings at the kitchen table.
It’s been incredibly stressful for everyone. Perhaps most importantly, though, it’s been a distinctly different form of stress. As people and as companies, we’ve been forced to accept unpredictability and adapt to sudden change. That’s raising some issues.
Besides the apparent magnification of stress, COVID and the changes it has forced upon us make it harder to ignore problems that may have been semi-dormant before, and team burnout is one of these.
In an in-person office setting, team members have some ability to counterbalance one another and self-regulate to a degree, even when a dynamic is dysfunctional. And, of course, managers can observe team dynamics firsthand—and at an earlier stage in the process.
Remote work essentially eliminates these small measures of protection. Warning signs and counterproductive behavior can happen off the radar, invisible in Zoom meetings and email chains. Managers lose opportunities for insight into team dynamics, so they’re likely to miss chances for meaningful intervention.
As a result, problems tend to incubate longer. When they finally emerge, it can be in the form of major organizational crises: Botching a critical job, losing key personnel, a productivity death spiral, or worse.
The Danger of Denial
Because team burnout is little known and seldom acknowledged, it’s frequently overlooked, even when its consequences are easily seen. A revolving-door employee roster, continual churn among clients, a sullen or even unfriendly work environment, the inability to retain high-performing personnel—all can be the consequences of a team stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of stress, exhaustion, and despair.
If you’ve ever seen one of your people shrug and say, “that’s just the way this place is,” you know you have a problem.
The irony is that you don’t need to be actively miserable to be burned out. Some of the most lauded “Best Places To Work,” complete with excellent perks and team-building activities and all the other outward signs of a peak-performing workplace, can still be a stress factory, laying the ground for a team’s ultimate implosion.
Solutions to the team burnout problem aren’t easy, but they’re necessary. As the pandemic continues, as the nature of work and the workplace evolve, and as new economic problems start to appear, companies and the teams within them are going to need aligned visions and resilience to navigate the choppy waters.
Understanding this dangerous obstacle is out there—perhaps out of sight, just below the surface—is not a solution, but it’s an important step towards one.
Identify and Prevent Burnout with True Depth
True Depth works with leaders to transform their organizations, their teams, and themselves through a unique combination of coaching and consulting that drives powerful, measurable results. Burnout can affect every facet of your organization, from how your teams collaborate to turnover and business growth. With our virtual Burnout Identification & Prevention Workshop, we’ve helped some of the world’s leading tech brands and agencies just like yours tackle these issues head-on and create customized strategies for lasting change.