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How to Notice the Signs of Burnout

How to Notice the Signs of Burnout

November 1, 2022
Lead Others
Joseph Cook

If you have ever experienced burnout, you know that it is not a desirable experience. In its extreme cases, burnout can leave us feeling desperate to do whatever it takes to merely survive. No one desires to experience burnout, but a recent survey by Deloitte revealed that over 75% of employees surveyed have experienced burnout in their current job. If no one wants to experience burnout but it keeps showing up, chances are high that we are failing to notice the slow fade that leads to it.

Breaking Down

Leaders and teams can find themselves in trouble when we fail to notice the caution signs. During long road trips, my heart has started beating faster and sweat has begun to perspire the moment I look down at my dashboard and notice my gas light is on and the gauge is sitting at or below that wretched “E.”  

We have all been there; at one point, possibly around a quarter of a tank, the prudent thought of filling up crosses our mind but is immediately followed by another reminder on our mental checklist, and then another and another as we drive right on by the fuel station. Miles, kilometers, or days later, we look down, see the light and gauge, and begin asking, “How long has that been on? How much further can I make it? Where is the next fuel station? Why didn’t I fill up when I had the chance?” A moment of panic ensues, and we can only hope our vessel makes it to the next opportunity to fill up. Otherwise, we will find ourselves sitting on the side of the road with more problems to solve than we had planned for.

The analogy here is a simple one. Every now and then, we must fill up our fuel tank if we want to keep moving forward. Without filling up, we burn out all our fuel and our vehicle ceases to function as it was intended. For leaders, your team is your vessel, and it will not function as intended if its members are burning out. The purpose of this article is to help leaders notice the signs of burnout before it is too late, resulting in a broken-down team with more problems to solve than you had planned for.

How to Notice the Signs of Burnout

Noticing the Signs of Burnout

Many leaders have faced this reality at work. Maybe at one point recently, you saw or heard something concerning from a team member, had the good intentionality to offer some sort of support, but the task list, responsibilities, and expectations bulldozed those intentions. The next thing you know, the team has stopped moving forward, members are disengaged from the work and each other, and you begin to wonder how it got to this point. If only you would have paid closer attention to the caution lights, you might have avoided this forced, inconvenient pit stop.  

The good news, however, is that there are some clear signs of burnout to watch out for. 

When I have found myself facing burnout and an empty tank, there are some specific action steps I will take to try to survive until the next fuel stop appears. One step I will take is that I will begin to coast to avoid any acceleration which burns fuel faster. Another step I take is turning off anything in my vehicle that uses more fuel like the air conditioner. Finally, I will shut down any peripheral attention and pour every ounce of focus into surviving.  

Have you ever experienced these behaviors in yourself or one of your team members? Their acceleration forward has clearly decreased, and they have begun to coast along. They are allowing certain tasks to fall off their plate because there is no extra energy to expend to keep them. It seems that they have stopped responding to you or their teammates, and engagement is absent. These are the looming signs that burnout is imminent without corrective action.

How to Notice the Signs of Burnout

Take Immediately Corrective Action

As the driver, my focus is purely on surviving and getting to the next fuel stop safely. There are some ways, however, that those around me can provide support to help us get to our destination. While my attention is on the coasting/accelerating balance, I need my partner in the passenger seat to look for possible pit stops. While I don’t have the capacity to look ahead on the map, they can provide some relief by showing me how to get to the closest pit stop as efficiently as possible. At this point, I am not as focused on the ultimate destination of our journey, I am more concerned with just getting to the next stop. 

As the leader, you can help your narrow-focused team member by giving them a vision or clarity on where their next pit stop can be found. The next pit stop is not replacing your ultimate destination, but it is the more important concern in this moment. It may not be as helpful to explain what your team member could have done differently to avoid being in this situation or how their behavior is affecting others on the team; in this state, they are putting ALL their attention on finding the next opportunity to refuel. Help them by looking at the map ahead. 

As I am running out of fuel rapidly, I also need others in the car to understand the situation we are in and allow me the space to do what I need to do. I need the passengers to lower expectations for my attention because this can be a shortcut to added stress and frustration. I am not asking them to modify or lower their expectations of me permanently, but I do need the space in this moment to be released from answering questions or looking at anything other than my gauge and the road in front of me. 

Team members on the road to burnout can seem to have a shorter fuse to stress and frustration, so leaders and teammates can help by simply giving some space and temporarily lowering expectations. The team member driving still has an important role, so giving grace toward dropped tasks or decreased engagement can provide relief that may help them perform in that role more effectively. Another tip is to be willing to offer appropriate encouragement in this scenario. Expressing gratitude and showing confidence in your teammate might just give them the courage they need to make it to the pit stop.

How to Notice the Signs of Burnout

Learning from Mistakes

A feeling of heavy relief always surfaces the moment I pull into the pit stop. I fill up the fuel tank, use the restroom, grab a snack, and stretch my legs before getting back on the road. There is also a real internal thought expressing, “I never want to be in that situation again.” This scenario has never happened to me more than once in any one trip, because when it happens, I do everything I can to avoid it happening again. 

Getting back on the road, I pay closer attention to the fuel gauge, we adjust our route to stay in proximity to fuel stations, and we take advantage of pit stops when we have the opportunity even if they seem unnecessary in the moment. These learnings are critical to apply because we still have a destination to get to. Even though the pit stop had every ounce of my focus with a low fuel tank, there is a reason we set out on the trip in the first place. 

When leading your burnt-out team members, the most important next step is to get them to the next opportunity to refuel. When they make it, celebrate the achievement of reaching the pit stop, and then, help them adjust their route going forward to ensure they avoid burnout from happening again. Help them keep an eye on their self-care tank, try to avoid long intervals and routes without fuel stations, and ensure the team is still headed in the direction of the preferred destination.  

Lastly, book a retreat with WinShape Teams. We might just be the pit stop your team needs to refuel your tanks and get you back on the road toward your preferred future. 

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