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PHOTO: Mariana Beltrán | unsplash

The cure for burnout is not self-care — that's the message from the new book by Emily Nagoski, Ph.D and Amelia Nagoski, DMA titled, "Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle."

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the movement to work from home (WFH), we have been inundated with articles and advice on dealing with workplace burnout. Invariably we hear about the need to “book quiet time,” “take control of your time commitments,” “make time for reflection/meditation,” “take Fridays off,” “say no to non-critical meetings,” “triage your emails” ... the list goes on.

What caught my attention about the potential ineffectiveness of self-care remedies is not so much that they lack merit, but the perception they can be implemented with no negative consequences for anyone else. One recently identified cause of workplace stress is the pressure to collaborate. A recent article in Harvard Business Review identified collaboration overload as a major cause for a drop in productivity since WFH. Microsoft has gone further and used workplace analytics to identify just how overloaded staff may be. The big culprit was online meetings.

The plethora of articles on workplace burnout suggests the majority of us are suffering from overload, leading to potential burnout. If this is actually the case, and we all diligently followed the advice to carve out more me time, what might the organizational impact be?

In reality, few of us are islands in our workplaces. If we were to carve out a good portion of our time to go offline, it is going to impact someone else — and potentially with disastrous consequences for the organization as a whole.

What Can We Do Other Than Self-Care?

To be fair, not all suggested remedies for workplace burnout are confined to self-care tactics. Suggestions like “discussing options with your manager,” or “looking for support from your co-workers, friends, or loved ones” align with Emily and Amelia Nagoski’s recommendation that “connecting and sharing support is the way out of burnout.” In other words, if we are to undertake any of the self-care remedies to workplace burnout, we need to undertake them in concert with our closest work colleagues; the very colleagues who would most likely be impacted by your solo self-care program.

This is also consistent with the advice we heard from the best practice practitioners. The high-performing teams identified in SWOOP Analytics’ 2021 Microsoft Teams Benchmarking study invariably spoke about the understanding they shared among their fellow team members as to their work patterns. We heard of remote and distributed teams developing a team charter, either formally or informally, to cater for the unavoidable absences of a team member. We heard phrases like "we have each other’s back" to describe how the team can flexibly adapt to members’ absences. The levels of trust developed were high. Team social capital ensured that there was no free-riding.

Related Article: Your Remote Team Isn't Disengaged, You Just Didn't Set Them Up for Success

Can a Potential Burnout Situation Be Reversed to One of Extreme Performance?

Twelve months ago I wrote “Working from Home: Are you Overworked, Overwhelmed or Overjoyed,” where I reported on workplace analytics research we at SWOOP conducted using Yammer and Microsoft Teams. The results suggested that reciprocal relationships, identified through digital work interactions, could mediate the effects of collaboration overload. The research confirmed neuroeconomist Paul Zac's proposition that trustful relationships can turn a chronic stress (and potential burnout) situation into a challenge stress one, where rather than being burned out, we can thrive in the extra workload. This is precisely what we found when we interviewed highly interactive staff in high-trust teams.

A year on, as we prepare for our 7th Yammer benchmarking study, we are hearing how digital communities are providing safe places to connect and share support, beyond the single team. For the most part, these communities are not directly work-related. Some are workplace social communities. Others have topics popular for work-at-homers like plants, food, pets, children — the full gamut. The topics, however, are only important to the degree that they speak to supporting the members’ sense of connectedness and well-being. They are a safe place beyond the politics of the formal organization chart, where hierarchical level means nothing.

In 2008, when Yammer was first launched, the existence of a plethora of “non-work” communities was grounds for shutting the whole platform down. How the world of work has changed! Many of those very senior leaders who would have shut Yammer down in 2008 are now active participants, who WFH themselves.

Related Article: So Now Microsoft Axes the Yammer Community Team

What Can You as a Leader Do to Prevent You and/or Your Staff From Burning Out?

Managers, whose power base had been based around the office, tended to feel the impact of the pandemic and WFH more than others. Robbed of the ability to  "manage while walking around," many were at a loss how to manage in the WFH era. We have regularly heard how COVID-19 collapsed hierarchies, as middle management were bypassed as senior executives communicated directly with frontline staff via digital platforms.

Alyssa Place identified the need to build trust at the team level in “How Managers Can Protect Themselves from Burnout.” If they had previously operated in “command and control” mode, they will need to become transparent about their struggles. It's only through exposing their frailty and uncertainties that they can hope to develop such a climate of trust. The diagram below identifies a potential transition from an office-based culture to an agile hybrid workplace one:

transition to hybrid workplace culture

  • Pre-COVID-19 office-based structures were largely hierarchical. Staff were physically located according to their location in the hierarchy. Email was the dominant internal communication vehicle, for bridging the hierarchical layers.
  • The enforced WFH required teams to form around the core business processes. These WFH teams could span formal organizational units. Teaming software (e.g. Teams, Slack) effectively supports remote WFH teams. Burnout can be mediated by the higher levels of team-level trust built between team members.
  • Line managers became commanders of teams. Their distance from the day-to-day can lead to a feeling of disconnectedness, compared with the in-office situation. Line managers often chose to create large super teams to create a digital version of their in-office context. These groups tend to cater to the leader, more so than the teams.
  • Moving forward into a post-COVID-19 hybrid world, leaders find their place in the network of Teams. By practicing servant leadership, leaders embed themselves in the network as team coaches and brokers between the teams they are part of. Rather than a large Team space centered on them, leaders form a Community space (e.g. Yammer, Workplace by Facebook), which team members are encouraged to join. The former line managers morph into Community Leaders.
  • Leaders adopt the “Connecting and Sharing Support” as their mantra for avoiding burnout for both themselves and their staff.

Related Article: What Burnout Is Costing Us