It’s a phrase we’ve all heard at one time or another: “I’m just feeling a little… burnt out.”
When you hear this coming from one of your top performers, it can (and should) cause alarm. According to research from Gallup, employees experiencing burnout are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times more likely to be actively seeking a new job. The American Psychological Association discovered that $500 billion are lost in the US economy each year due to stress.
Clearly, it is a business imperative to engage your employees and fight burnout.
Burnout is a leadership development opportunity.
Often, part of the job of leadership development professionals is justifying to other stakeholders in the business why it makes sense to invest real dollars in skillsets like “EQ” and “strategic thinking.”
There’s already plenty out there making the case for skill development (we’ve even made the case here on our own blog here and here), but in this post, we’ll offer a slightly different argument: L&D is well-positioned to fight burnout and re-engage leaders.
Early research into burnout explores burnout through six basic areas of worklife: workload, control, rewards, community, fairness, and values. We’ll focus on four of these areas to see how a well-developed, experientially-focused LDP can rejuvenate burnt out employees and prevent it in the first place.
Workload is often the first factor that comes to mind when addressing burnout. The thought is that burnt out employees are often overworked. However, it’s not as simple as “more work = more burnout”. Burnout occurs when there is misalignment between workload expectations and an employee’s beliefs. Note: the misalignment goes both ways. Being overworked or underworked can cause burnout.
A supervisor may expect someone to stretch farther than the individual believes they can – if not sufficiently supported, this can leave the employee feeling “not good enough.” On the other hand, consider when you’ve been in a role that wasn’t challenging – you probably felt underused and underappreciated. In both examples, there is a misalignment between expectations and the employee’s beliefs about their own capabilities. Sustained over time, this misalignment can cause burnout and disengagement.
What Can L&D Do?
Improved communication can help address workload mismatch and it’s a skill that many leaders need help developing. When you give your leaders tools for better communication, you are preparing them to avoid workload misalignment not only with their direct reports, but with their own supervisors. Investing in communication skills development creates a chain reaction of positive outcomes.
This is where experiential leadership development comes in. Invest in leadership development that gives participants actual practice communicating expectations. While there is value in reading about communication, listening to podcasts, and seeking thought leaders’ views, there’s no substitute for hands-on, immersive practice. Leverage experiential learning to take development beyond frameworks and best-practices.
High-performers often have complicated relationships with the idea of “control”. They may feel they don’t have enough control at work or they may feel they aren’t able to explore their ideas freely. This misalignment between desired control and perceived control creates stress which can lead to burnout.
It is also important that people leaders understand the varying degrees to which mental health plays a role in their employees’ lives.. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 1 in 5 adults experiences clinical levels of anxiety. Those with anxiety don’t get to leave it at home when they arrive at the office. This anxiety can cause employees to feel out of control in regards to their work, their career trajectory, and their time.
What Can L&D Do?
Leadership development programs can create spaces for safe failure and allow participants to take advantage of new leadership opportunities. Whether it be through a simulation or an action learning project, an LDP can allow for leaders to reach a little farther than they’ve been able to in their daily work. By exercising this muscle of defining their own capacity, they will exert some control as well as demonstrate their capacity to their teams.
Experiential leadership development has the added benefit of giving your learners a chance to practice high-stakes, high-pressure situations before they face them. This “pressure management” approach has been shown to greatly improve stress management, allowing leaders to more consistently perform at their best, even when their anxiety levels spike.
Research on community and burnout consistently delivers the same findings: when individuals have a strong community at work, they are less susceptible to burnout. In communities that have high levels of trust and mutual understanding, there is the psychological safety needed to speak up and identify burnout before it becomes too great a problem to fix.
On the other hand, organizations with unhealthy company culture will be hard-pressed to prevent burnout. Gossip among teams, inconsistency from leadership, and unclear goals erodes trust and results in your leaders spending energy second guessing their perceptions. This instability leads to burnout.
What Can L&D Do?
Put simply: a good leadership development program will engage leaders across functions and backgrounds to create community in an organization. This community can act as an immune system for burnout, providing avenues for consistent re-engagement through social touchpoints like resource groups, mentorship programs, and informal get-togethers.
Any time an employee comes to work, they are investing in the values of the organization. If an employee only views their work as a means to a paycheck, you can expect them to feel burnout as soon as any other element of their work life tips out of balance. This strictly survival-based relationship between an employee and their organization neglects the many other motivators that keep an employee truly engaged.
When there is a values alignment, employees have extra fuel in the tank to get through rough patches in workload misalignment or lack of control. They can identify what their organization stands for, how the organization manifests those values, and can feel proud to represent those values.
What Can L&D Do?
When you invest in bringing leaders together, leverage the time to align. Do participants know the values of the organization? Do they believe the values are consistently exhibited? Take the pulse of your leaders’ values and ask yourself if they naturally align with those of the organization.
This kind of carefully facilitated discussion can provide valuable insight into the cultural health of an organization as well as help learners feel heard. An experiential learning approach (simulations, adventure retreats, real-world stretch assignments) to values-alignment will give your leaders the chance to “try on” those values, get their hands dirty, and feel connected to the organization.
Fighting burnout is not a one-step, one-time initiative. Employees experience burnout for a wide variety of reasons and only some of those reasons can be addressed by the organization. However, because of its massive financial and cultural impact, it is vital that burnout be addressed at any opportunity.
Experiential modes of learning have been shown to be highly effective in developing the soft skills necessary for preventing burnout . By focusing your leadership development programs on emotional intelligence, building resilience, and strengthening community, L&D departments can make a direct impact on the levels of burnout in the organizations.