Overwhelm and Burnout

Businessman who is experiencing burnout

I know, it’s been a while.  June was a crazy month and I got a little overwhelmed.  As usually happens when we have too many balls in the air, one of them dropped, writing this article.  It happens to all of us, no matter how organized, or how well-intentioned, inevitably we say “yes” one too many times, or we don’t leave enough room in our calendars for something to go other than as planned, and the next thing we know we’re juggling 5 balls when we can only handle 4.

Of course, if this happens to you and me, it also happens to your team, they get overwhelmed and, if it keeps up for too long, they get burned out.  When I first joined the Navy, I had a salty, old Chief Petty Officer impart the following wisdom to me, “Sir, your job is not to tell the sailors what to do, that’s my job.  Your job is to remove the barriers to keep them from doing their job.”  I remember that I thought he was talking about making sure my sailors had the right tools, parts, and equipment needed to do their jobs or coordinating with other departments to make sure we didn’t get in each other’s way.  While it did mean all of those things, that was a small part of the job.

Where Burnout Comes From

Most of the time, the “barriers” were self-imposed.  They were the small things in life that come up and distract us while at work.  For my sailors, this could be something small, like bouncing a check.  I learned that the average 19-year-old thought that if they had checks in their checkbook they had the money to cover it.  Sometimes it was buying a car they couldn’t afford.  Unscrupulous car dealerships knew that Uncle Sam would make sure they got paid, even if it took every penny of a sailor’s paycheck to make it happen.  Homesickness, cheating girlfriends, or the general stupidity of a 19-year-old all made up the “barriers” that kept my sailors from doing their job.

You’re probably thinking, “Yeah but my workforce is older and smarter” and that may be true.  However, as they say – Life gets in the way.  My friend, Anne Bonney, a leadership expert and my podcast co-host recently conducted a survey.  What she found is that more than 50% of the things that cause overwhelm and burnout at the workplace are not work-related.  They are sick family members, kids having problems at school, problems with the neighbors, emergency home repairs, automobile issues, etc.  Just like my sailors, these problems are not work-related and they are work-impacting. That’s why it’s critical we provide resources to help our team members deal with these issues. If you think about how much effort it takes to do anything new vs something you can do by rote, like driving a car now vs when you were learning you’ll realize how the energy drain can affect people’s performance.

Dealing with the Issues

Over the years I’ve known many owners, managers, and CEOs who thought, “That’s your problem, don’t make it mine” whenever one of these outside-of-work conditions came up.  Our job as leaders doesn’t stop at the office door, it begins there.  These are more than distractions; they are energy drains.  When they arise, they sap the energy that would normally be allocated to work.  Most people can still get the job done with less energy.  However, if we are implementing any changes, it always takes more energy until the new processes are internalized.  If you think about how much effort it takes to do anything new vs something you can do by rote, like driving a car now vs when you were learning.

I’ve also seen business owners who offer loans to help others get out of financial difficulties.  While this is generous and may work, it is also fraught with peril.  Team members who have poor financial discipline will “forget” that they needed help and can resent any attempt to collect on a loan or they may come to count on your assistance instead of learning to be better money managers.  If you decide to help financially, I suggest creating paperwork like any lending institute would, along with a repayment plan that works for your employee and is administered, in accordance with local laws, by your payroll department.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting you simply go up and provide help.  That can be seen as invasive and actually have a negative effect.  What I’m suggesting is that, in private, you offer help with empathy.  Let the team member know you are concerned for them and gently remind them that their distraction may be affecting others on the team or your customers or clients.  Let them know you’re there to support them.

There’s an additional benefit to helping someone deal with a none work issue, it engenders loyalty.  When we treat people as important enough to care, they reciprocate by caring about us and our company.  It is the essence of the triple win.


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