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Burnout: How to Keep Yourself (and Your Team) in the Game

Burnout. It’s likely been on your mind and on the minds of your employees a lot over the last several months. And that doesn’t surprise researchers, or the World Health Organization, who were raising concerns about chronic stress and burnout well before quarantines, masks, and Zoom meetings became the norm.

According to Jennifer Moss, award-winning author of “Unlocking Happiness at Work” and frequent writer for Harvard Business Review and SHRM, chronic stress did not begin with the pandemic. However, the factors that contribute to chronic workplace stress — and can eventually lead to burnout — did accelerate in 2020. 

“The pandemic was like putting a match to a workforce in drought,” Moss said.


Moss believes that burnout prevention is not the same as the traditional workplace wellness programs of the past. This has never been more clear than the last many months of navigating the challenges, stress, and chronic uncertainty of running a business in a pandemic. An exercise app or “Biggest Loser” challenge now appears a bit quaint in comparison.

With the perspective of more than three decades as a business owner supporting other businesses, CEL founder and CEO Cindy Leines knows first hand the risks of burnout and the importance of prevention for leaders and teams. And she believes in the airplane adage that you must secure your own oxygen mask before you can help the people around you.

“Our businesses need a whole team to run,” she said. “And our teams need us to pay attention to our own health and wellbeing, in order to lead them well. The pandemic and times of high stress, including all the changes of the last year, have impacted our lives. How we work, how we lead, how we relate to our families. And many times, we don’t even realize it’s happening.”

To help manage chronic stress and fatigue before they lead to burnout, Leines has used three key strategies over the years that are just as important in 2021.

Pay attention to changes.

Early signs of chronic stress range from changes in appetite or stress to irritability, lack of motivation or a persistent gap in inspiration. The sooner you notice any changes in your mood, energy level, or mental processing, the easier it is to address with self care or professional mental health support. 

With an increase in meetings and a lack of face-to-face collaboration, brain fog has become commonplace in 2020 and 2021. Leaders are certainly no exception. This phenomenon is characterized by difficulty making small decisions, quick loss of focus, searching for words in a conversation, or times when even the smallest task feels huge. Moss recommends scheduling very brief breaks each day, as well as a 15-minute “frivolous” activity during every work day — sitting on the patio, reading a magazine, meditation, prayer — to help avoid brain fog.

Stay connected with peers.

No matter your role in an organization, find others in similar situations who can share in the experience. “Leaders should have a strong go-to network,” she said. “Life as a business owner and life as a leader have changed dramatically in the pandemic,” Leines said. “It’s really important that you can exchange what’s working and what’s not with leaders inside and outside of your industry.”

Staying connected with others  can help you identify and bring additional perspectives and ideas to the challenges and issues you face. Not only do these interactions help you work through decisions and discover new resources for growth — they also are a powerful way to normalize the stress you’re feeling. You aren’t alone, and sometimes there’s encouragement in that alone.

Value your non-working time.

Leading a business or organization can seep into every crack of your life, without intentional boundaries to keep personal or family priorities in check. “Balance between work and life isn’t possible,” she said, “but harmony is. And as business leaders, we have to be clear and intentional to create the life we want, as our priorities and schedules shift and change on a daily or even hourly basis.”


Moss believes preventing burnout is a shared responsibility between individuals and the organizations where they work. She recently shared six root causes of burnout, first identified by Christina Maslach in 2015, that are still relevant today.

You may need to address only some of these root causes with your team. But as a leader, it’s worthwhile to spend some time learning about each and reflecting on how your employees may be affected, especially in light of the past year.

Root cause: Unsustainable workload

Evidence shows that overwork is the most common predictor of burnout — and the pandemic compounded it. With as much as 30% more work hours each day, as well as a sharp increase in the number of meetings, the National Bureau of Economic Research found that average workday has increased 48 minutes globally. 

“As leaders and business people, there are times when we are going to be swamped,” Leines said. “We work hard. The key is to assess whether the high demand is a short-term deal, or if it is longer term because of how we envision the future.”

Undoubtedly, growing your business requires periods of increased work, whether related to expansion, unrolling a new pursuit, or driving toward a new goal. 

“As a business leader, you’ve got to be choosy about the pace of growth and workload when you can,” Leines said. “But the reality is, there are many times in our business life when we aren’t able to be choosy. Economically, it’s needed. The challenge is how you will continue to grow while stabilizing and using your people’s best talents in that process.”

You can help: Leaders can create regular opportunities for employees to communicate about stress levels and overwhelm, whether one on one or in a group. Not comfortable doing that yourself? Delegate to someone else on your leadership team with those strengths.

Root cause: Perceived lack of control

Stress goes up in roles with unpredictable work days that lack routine and choice. In fact, studies have found that the more control a person has over a job actually reduces the risk of burnout. Consider the losses of control that everyone has felt during the pandemic, including working on remote teams, adapting around canceled events, and sudden changes in everything from school and worship to grocery shopping.

You can help: Consider how employees can be given more control and flexibility on tasks and workflow. A quick weekly check-in during a team meeting can empower team members. Make it safe (but not mandatory) to share concerns with simple questions, such as:

  • On a scale of 1-5, how do you rank this week for you? 
  • What barriers made it challenging to reach goals?
  • What can we do for each other to make next week better?

Root cause: Insufficient rewards for effort

Professions that traditionally include long hours and comparatively low wages are at high risk of burnout, and fair and equitable compensation is a focus of many organizations in 2021.

You can help: Get curious about whether the right people in your organization are being recognized and rewarded, and whether employee compensation is equitable. Review your organizational structure and incentives.  Ask your team to suggest different ways to reward or recognize good work.

Root cause: Lack of supportive community

Workplaces are not the only place where relationships suffered due to a year of physical disconnectedness. But Moss points out that people missing friendly workplace interactions likely also felt less connected to the mission of the organization. 

You can help: There has never been a better time for leaders to understand and invest in the value of workplace friendships, from increased productivity to decreased risk of burnout. Certain pandemic restrictions will be the norm for some time. Consider how workplace tools, such as Slack, Zoom, Skype, or Teams, could create social time for employees and their family members, or be used to encourage connection among employees with shared personal interests, such as cooking, exercise or nature.

Root cause: Lack of fairness

It’s not surprising that research shows a workplace lacking a value of fairness will be a short path to burnout for employees. In fact, when employees strongly agree that they are often treated unfairly at work, they are 2.3 times more likely to experience a high level of burnout

You can help: Pay attention to the many polarizing issues at the forefront of news and awareness in 2021, including mistreatment of people and communities of color, women, and LGBTQ+ individuals. While your organization may not face all of these issues at this time, it is critical to understand the perceptions and reality of fair treatment at work. 

Root cause: Mismatched values and skills.

The happiest employees — including those promoted to management positions within a company — are the people empowered to do work that aligns to their values and skills. 

You can help: Ask yourself how the people you lead have been asked to shift focus, take on different responsibilities, or use different skills. Do they still enjoy their work? Do they feel supported? Have the changes left them energized, or discouraged?

As a leader, you know the  essential role your employees play in  the health and growth of your business. Making wellbeing a priority for yourself and your organization will help keep you and your team in the game to reach short- and long-term goals.

Read more about the habits that leaders can model to create a workplace that values wellbeing.

Published on: May 5, 2021