The Empathic Manager‘s Guide to Preventing Team Burnout

Burnout is on the rise, and it‘s costing companies big time. A 2022 Gallup study found that employees who are burned out are 23% more likely to visit the emergency room, translating to $22-190 billion in U.S. healthcare spending.

The World Health Organization now recognizes burnout as an occupational syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress. Symptoms include feelings of energy depletion, increased mental distance from one‘s job, and reduced professional efficacy.

While burnout is a widespread issue, it is especially prevalent in high-pressure fields like agencies, consulting, and tech. Advertising agency turnover spiked to a 10-year high of 29.5% in 2022, according to a study from WorkReduce and Advertiser Perceptions. The 4A‘s Employee Outlook Survey found that while 80% of employees are proud to work for their agency, only 43% feel good about their work/life balance and 60% report regularly working more than 41 hours per week.

Clearly, the current way of working isn‘t working. As a manager, you have the power and responsibility to change course and protect your team from the damaging effects of chronic stress. Here‘s how to lead with empathy and create a burnout-resistant culture.

Recognize the Early Warning Signs

Spotting and addressing burnout in its early stages is key to minimizing its negative impacts. Be on the lookout for these common red flags in your employees:

  • Increased irritability, cynicism or negativity
  • Difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness or more mistakes than usual
  • Low motivation and disengagement from team activities
  • Physical symptoms like headaches, digestive issues, fatigue
  • Overworking and inability to relax after hours
  • Isolation from colleagues and withdrawal in meetings

Regularly check in both formally and informally to get a pulse on how your team is doing. Ask open-ended questions and really listen to their responses. If you notice potential signs of burnout, address it right away with care and concern.

Help Your Team Monotask and Focus

Creative knowledge work requires long stretches of uninterrupted focus. Yet the modern workplace is designed for anything but, with constant notifications, meetings and requests fracturing our attention.

Productivity Impact of Interruptions
It takes an average of 23 minutes to refocus after an interruption.
Employees are interrupted as often as once every 10 minutes.
Knowledge workers spend an average of just 3 minutes on a single task before switching.
Multitasking makes tasks take 40% longer to complete.

Sources: University of California Irvine, RescueTime, Princeton University

As a manager, you can empower your team to monotask by:

  • Encouraging the use of time blocking and focus sprints
  • Providing noise-cancelling headphones and private spaces to work
  • Scheduling coordination time and holding each other accountable
  • Cutting unnecessary meetings and being mindful of people‘s focus time
  • Using async communication like messaging or recordings to reduce interruptions
  • Modeling monotasking and sharing what helps you focus

Case Study: Asana implements No Meeting Wednesdays to ensure employees have focused deep work time. The company also encourages the use of scheduling tools and setting clear status indicators to minimize disruptions.

Prioritize Rest and Recovery

Elite athletes build rest and recovery time into their training plans. In the same way, knowledge workers need downtime to recharge after periods of intense effort.

Overwork is a key risk factor for burnout. The more hours worked per week, the higher the likelihood of experiencing burnout symptoms:

Weekly Hours Worked Burnout Risk
Less than 35 hours 17%
35-40 hours 27%
41-50 hours 35%
51-60 hours 49%
More than 60 hours 62%

Source: Gallup 2022 Employee Burnout Report

Make it clear to your team that rest is not a reward, it‘s a requirement for peak performance. Strategies include:

  • Encouraging employees to take their full PTO and unplugging while out
  • Respecting people‘s off hours by not sending messages on evenings or weekends
  • Scheduling walking meetings and stretch breaks during the day
  • Allowing flex time for employees to work when they‘re most productive
  • Providing resources on stress management and mindfulness
  • Sharing how you personally disconnect and recharge

Case Study: Limeade, an employee experience software company, gives employees a $300 annual reimbursement for relaxation and recreation activities like gym memberships, spa treatments, or art classes. It‘s led to increased focus, motivation and retention.

Talk About Career Growth Regularly

Lack of learning and advancement is the number one reason employees say they feel stuck or burned out at work, according to a 2022 Gartner survey. When people lose a sense of forward momentum in their careers, everyday tasks can start to feel meaningless.

Make professional development an ongoing priority, not just an annual review topic. In your 1:1 meetings, ask questions like:

  • What skills are you looking to build?
  • What experiences would help you grow?
  • How can I better support your goals?
  • Where do you want to be in 1 year? 5 years?

Work together to create a personalized development plan with stretch assignments, mentoring, and training aligned to their aspirations. Advocate for their advancement and celebrate progress along the way.

Remember that growth isn‘t just about promotions. Lateral moves into new roles or teams can be equally stimulating. The key is helping employees continue to learn and take on new challenges.

Recognize Good Work Frequently

Feeling valued is a core psychological need. Employees who feel appreciated are half as likely to experience burnout, according to OC Tanner research.

Gallup found the most meaningful recognition is:

  1. Authentic and individualized
  2. Tied to specific accomplishments and effort
  3. Delivered in a timely way, ideally weekly

Rather than generic praise, call out the specific positive behaviors and results you observe. Focus on the process, not just the outcome. Celebrate small wins and milestones, not just big achievements.

Case Study: Gas South implemented peer recognition technology allowing employees to send each other redeemable points for demonstrating company values. After launching, they saw a 38% reduction in turnover and a significant uptick in overall engagement.

Model Boundaries & Self-Care

As a leader, your actions set the tone more than your words. If you consistently send late night emails, rarely take vacation, and wear overworking as a badge of honor, your team will feel pressure to do the same.

Start by getting clear on your own boundaries and needs. Block off personal time on your calendar. Set an OOO message when you‘re truly offline. If you‘re feeling overwhelmed, be transparent and ask for help. The more you can model prioritizing your own wellbeing, the more permission it gives others to do the same.

Of course, there will be times when long hours are needed to hit a deadline. The key is making overextension the exception, not the rule. Have an honest discussion with your team about what a sustainable pace looks like. Work together to ruthlessly prioritize and cut or delegate lower impact activities.

Build Psychological Safety

Google‘s Project Aristotle study on high-performing teams found that psychological safety, more than any other factor, was critical to a team‘s success. Harvard professor Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as "a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes."

When people feel psychologically safe, they‘re more likely to take smart risks, admit mistakes, and challenge the status quo – all key ingredients for innovation. They‘re also more likely to speak up early when they‘re struggling, rather than suffering in silence until problems escalate.

Some ways to build psychological safety on your team:

  • Admit your own mistakes and shortcomings
  • Respond to bad news with curiosity, not judgment
  • Promote healthy debate and reward respectful dissent
  • Give your full attention in meetings and 1:1s
  • Show vulnerability and share what‘s hard for you

Case Study: Vox Media saw a 62% increase in psychological safety after rolling out conscious leadership training focused on self-awareness, curiosity, and empathy. Participants reported greater trust and openness on their teams.

Support Every Employee as an Individual

To effectively combat burnout, managers must recognize the disproportionate impact it has on employees from marginalized groups:

  • Black employees experience burnout symptoms 38% more often than their White counterparts. (McKinsey)
  • LGBTQ+ employees are 25% more likely to feel burned out than their straight/cisgender peers. (LinkedIn)
  • Women are 32% more likely to experience burnout than men. (Gallup)

The unique stressors these employees face both in and outside of work – from bias and discrimination to lack of representation in leadership – make them more susceptible to burnout.

As a manager, educate yourself on the systemic barriers and daily challenges diverse employees face. Seek out their perspectives and listen to understand their lived experiences. Advocate for more equitable and inclusive policies and practices. Most importantly, appreciate each person‘s full identity and tailor your support to their specific context and needs. Inclusivity and belonging are powerful antidotes to burnout.

The Power of an Empathic Manager

Burnout may be pervasive, but it is not inevitable. By proactively supporting your team‘s wellbeing, you can buck the trend and create a healthy culture where everyone feels valued and empowered to sustainably do their best work.

It all starts with leading from a place of empathy – recognizing your employees as whole human beings, not just productivity machines. When you truly see, appreciate, and care for the people on your team, they will feel it. And that feeling of being understood and supported is the ultimate buffer against burnout.

Need more inspiration? Check out these stories of managers making a difference:

  • The CEO of marketing agency Brains on Fire closes the office for a week each quarter to give employees extended restoration time. "We believe the only way to transform business is to transform lives. Taking care of our people has to come first," said CEO Geno Church.

  • Diana Heldfond, Head of Product at Avo, implemented "Fancy Fridays" where the team dresses up and heads to a matinee movie during the workday. "Setting aside hours to be together as humans rather than employees has created such a deeper sense of trust and camaraderie," she shared.

  • The Head of Talent Development at Ropes & Gray makes gratitude a daily practice by sending five personalized thank you notes to employees across the firm. The initiative has significantly increased perceived manager support and fueled a culture of appreciation.

At the end of the day, your role as a manager is not just to drive results, but to help your employees grow and thrive. That‘s the true hallmark of an exceptional leader. When you empower your team to bring their best selves to work, there‘s no limit to what you can achieve together.