Tackling Burnout at a Team Level

We have a play in our PeopleNotTech Psychological Safety Dashboard Playbook called an Empathy Hackathon. In its intro it states:

With life going at a very fast pace, it is often hard to stop and think of others in a deep and meaningful way. With Emotional Intelligence comprising our ability to recognise our own emotions and those of others, we have to cultivate the ability to both comprehend and relate to those around us and validate their feelings by our understanding.

When we start being empathy deficient in a team we find it difficult to be open and our flexibility suffers as well as we can’t allow for other points of view and experiences.

If we managed to raise the level of empathy we employ in our relationships with our team mates, the overall Psychological Safety of the team would be improved.”

We created the play with the help of another team (all of our plays are crowdsourced from teams that have either come up with them and then worked with us to refine them, or have bettered one of the ones we came up with) quite some time ago, maybe one of the first one we built back in the day when we were bullish on building EQ to see Psychological Safety grow. We still believe that’s necessary, but we’ve also learned that it’s better to have EQ amass as a blessed by-product of happy teams doing human work than if it is made into intentional and relentless preachy educational work as the latter is a much harder sell. 

To have that EQ – to see and care about how those around you in the team feel, is of course always needed, but at a time like this when it’s more important than ever that we are kind, open and human, it is utterly essential. 

After the last surveys consistently showing that up to 81% of knowledge workers are suffering from burnout as a result of Covid, I went to check how often our client teams use this Empathy Hakathon play. I was saddened to see its use was dismal. Its use in general wasn’t high, little wonder when we have so much more entertaining ones – who would rather do something about Empathy than a “Humour Mini” or a “B!tch Fest” but certainly its use over the pandemic was lesser than I would have hoped for. I do wonder if this is because people don’t make the connection between having to have a higher degree of empathy and feeling better or because they simply suffer in silence thinking burnout is shameful and individual. I feel it can be both but the latter needs to stop. 

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We have to start talking about the topic of burnout and allow it to become an open, big, discussed one in lieu of a nagging, hidden one.

We need to deal with it together not on our own and we can not afford to be in denial about it.  

We need to make space for each other to be human and a lot more affected by what just happened than what we expected we would be.

Lastly, we need to shake the impostor syndrome when we compare ourselves with key workers and ignore the Twitter gutter level ridicule of burnout in the knowledge industry.

Being burned out isn’t about being a bit tired. Or out of sorts. Or unhappy. Or under the weather. Momentarily. It’s not a “snowflakey” affliction. It isn’t some type of existential ennui reserved for the privileged. It is a tremendously serious and dangerous state of being that can kill you. 

A lot of the work to get ourselves out of burnout and nurse ourselves back to mental health is all about adulting as it’s individual work of the classic self-care denomination – sleep, exercise, food, meditation, breathing, etc, we know what we need to do and we have to be serious about doing it obstinately for the next year -at least- to combat the effects of this past period. Still, none of this work can or should happen in isolation and without the support and true understanding of the organisation and more importantly, the team.

Here are some of the things you can and should bring to the team in your next meeting or retro:

  • Step up on increasing EQ and in particular Empathy. Whether with the help of our play or something other – offer each other permission to be kind, interested -even intrusive if you must- and understanding of each other’s emotions and lives.
  • Encourage self-respect as it reflects into self-care and encourage team members to share what they incorporate in their own regiment – i.e. hold a round-robin of sharing once in a while what they do for exercise, what they do for mindfulness, what kind of diet they embrace -if any!- or how much they sleep-. Sharing creates accountability and allows each of us to keep to our goals.
  • Rethink the definition of work when it comes to location. Work from anywhere is not time out, if you’re answering emails, taking calls, etc, you’re not on vacation, you’re working. A vacation is only a vacation if it’s perceived as such. Many people are going to be away multiple times this year. There are holiday packages owed to cash in on, children to convince life is normal, relatives to be seen, etc. Many times these instances off will not really be off despite the OOO email replies as they’ll be working even if not officially. Expect your team members to take multiple “vacations” with or without quotation marks and don’t resent them for it. Ideally, in the years to come, we will all only call ourselves on vacation if we really are that, and are completely off the grid and for the rest of time when we choose to work from the side of the pool we won’t even think to announce it.
  • Acknowledge burnout and be supportive of different rhythms. While we make the most team-level-magic when we’re all equally emotionally invested and energised, we have to accept those moment will be few and far between in the next year or longer while a substantial number of our team mates are burned out. So we may not all be equally excited and rearing to go next sprint or at the start of that new project but that’s ok, the ones who allow themselves the time to take it easier for now are really just investing in the sustainability of the team by taking care of themselves so be understanding of how they are doing things at their own pace irrespective of the collective urgency.

This is all mindful and intentional team-level human work and not common sense or kind of implied and passive, make no mistake about it. This isn’t about whether you’re all good people who would be compassionate, but about thinking out loud together of all this and clearly expressing and showing the support. More of that pesky people work that you can do at team level even in the absence of “organisational permission”. 

There won’t be a video tomorrow because this summer I’m #WorkingFromAnyhwherePartTime i.e. I’m on vacation some days, working on others and our teams at PeopleNotTech are too -we have regular sprints and will undoubtedly be producing all our desired outcomes -and then some- but we’re also testing the limits of our flexibility, understanding flow and how to get more individual-work joy and better time management and most importantly, we are recharging batteries and regrouping to combat burnout.

Hope everyone finds ways to do so too!

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