Ensuring your team is making the biggest impact with their work, while avoiding stress and eventual burnout, shouldn’t be an either/or battle. The planning skills that will help you meet your goals are also the best way to ensure employees enjoy creative, productive and happy work lives.
We can understand burnout as “a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job, defined by the three dimensions of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy” according to a major physiological study on the phenomenon.
Although it’s easy to say long hours are the cause, the root of the problem can be found in the stress that’s generated when we feel our lives are out of control – a perpetual state of busyness when nothing is ever good enough.
Unfortunately, the nature of modern work means worker stress levels are rising: over half of the global workforce report that they are closer to burnout than they were just five years ago, according to a Regus Group survey of over 22,000 business people across 100 countries.
Over communication and the ‘always on’ state that technology has dealt us is often cited as a cause of burnout, but I believe it's a symptom of other underlying problems. There’s no doubt that the design of new tools are all optimised to grab our attention when it’s usually required by something else, but a non-stop flurry of messages that continue into the night can’t be blamed on the products themselves.
OKRs or SMART goals are good tools for personal development and guiding medium-term progress. However, complementing these with practical two week plans – precisely detailing the work that needs to be done – is an excellent way to break ambitious goals into workable pieces.
The timescale here is important: To avoid the stress that builds up when chasing a goal for prolonged periods of time, we need the regular feeling of achievement that comes from meeting what we’ve committed to over two weeks – giving us the ability to think "that’s it, I’ve done what I need to do and I’m on track."
As a manager this doesn’t mean the top-down assignment deliverables. Helping employees gain the sense of control that dissipates stress, requires setting the agenda and facilitating the planning of work, but in doing so, making sure the team agree on their commitments together.
The manager's direct influence should instead come in weekly one on one meetings. You can use these to understand how your employees feel about their contribution to the team, to guide them towards what they could do more of, and explain what they could back away from. These meetings are also good opportunity to discuss new ideas and understand how open the employee is to ideas from others. This is a good gauge of stress levels: when we’re stressed we’re more likely to avoid new initiatives for fear of the further commitments they’ll bring, and we also stop generating new ideas ourself.
Summarising the research on multitasking, McKinsey & Company explain: “When we switch between tasks, especially complex ones, we become startlingly less efficient: in a recent study, for example, participants who completed tasks in parallel took up to 30 percent longer and made twice as many errors as those who completed the same tasks in sequence.” During this process we’re also producing more stress-related hormones and reducing our short-term memories.
To avoid the detrimental effects of multitasking we can look out for the causes of interruptions and plan to avoid them. Are there projects that are competing for resources, dragging employees from one to another? Are there ambiguities left over from planning, leading to back and forth communication to set people on the right track? All these tasks that can be handled efficiently one by one become increasingly more tiring when piled on top of one another.
Monotasking also applies to our time away from work – on the evenings, weekend, and holidays that we need to clear our minds and renew our energy for tackling tasks creatively. An often overlooking frustration that comes from interruptions outside of work is the stress that’s caused by not being able to do something to the best of our abilities.
That innocuous request for updated presentation slides at 9pm can send employees into panic, simply because they want to feel and display their competency – rather than doing a rushed job while trying to put the kids to bed or eat dinner. If this happens consistently, employees begin to give up on doing their best because they feel it’s not possible, and instead start settling for what will appease the boss – as clear an example as any of the “cynicism and inefficacy” in our definition of burnout (above).
How we work, and not only when we work, profoundly affects our susceptibility to burnout and disengagement. Helping to structure your team’s workload in a way that leads to more defined outcomes, combined with room for new ideas, is clearly what we all hope for – but giving employees more control and time to focus is also healthier for individuals, today and in the long run.
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