Burnt out at work: A 3-step program for managers to protect their team from burnout

It’s official, burnout is real. While not going as far as to call it a medical disease, the World Health Organization’s latest International Classification of Diseases lists employee burnout under the category of ‘occupational phenomenon’ as more and more people seek medical attention and services for feeling burnt out.

While they’re the latest major organization to recognize the dangers of our current workplace culture, they’re certainly not the first.

In June 2018, Japan passed a law that limits overtime to 5 hours/day. (Which is still a 13-hour workday!) While in France, the El Khomri Law (aka the Right to Disconnect) makes companies unable to expect workers to be available on digital tools outside regular work hours.

Unfortunately, examples like these are few and far between. In most scenarios, it’s up to you as a manager or employee to understand and protect yourself from burnout. But is this right?

With international organizations and national governments taking on the issue of burnout, isn’t it time your company did the same?

RescueTime helps you understand how you spend your time on digital devices so you can build better habits, stay focused, and avoid burnout. Try it for free

Burnout isn’t an individual problem. It’s an organizational one.

burnt out - individual

It’s easy to shirk responsibility for burnout onto the individual. But almost everything that causes workplace burnout stems from organizational problems.

Even the WHO’s definition of burnout says that it’s “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

Burnout isn’t just a period of extra stress. It’s a complete breakdown of your ability to focus, be productive, and feel good about yourself and your work.

In fact, one study pegged the cost associated with the psychological and physical problems of burned out employees at $125–$190 billion a year.

In the book Time, Talent and Energy, the authors identified three trends in the companies with the highest levels of burnout.

  • Excessive collaboration
  • Weak time management principles
  • A tendency to overload the most capable with too much work

As co-author Eric Garton writes:

“These forces not only rob employees of time to concentrate on completing complex tasks or for idea generation, they also crunch the downtime that is necessary for restoration.”

Despite burnout being out of their control, no one wants to look like they’re incapable of doing their assigned work (even if the initial expectations were unrealistic).

So what can you do to help?

A 3-step program for managers to protect their team from burnout

Instead of shoving burnout under the rug, you need to be proactive in talking about it, setting guidelines, and empowering your team to understand and optimize their time.

Step 1: Change the stigma around burnout

burnt out - stigma

Our always-on, work-hard-play-hard, say-yes-to-everything, hustle culture is a breeding ground for burnout. And because this has become the norm, it’s even harder to go against it.

As Dr. Maslach writes in The New York Times:

“Quite honestly in America, we glorify stress. And that’s another thing that leads people to be quiet and shut up about some of the stressors they’re facing because they don’t want to be viewed as not doing their best.”

Helping your employees avoid burnout starts with changing your culture around workplace stress. It’s completely fine to go through busy periods and have deadlines and push to hit your goals. But it becomes a problem when that’s just business-as-usual.

As Eric Garton writes in the Harvard Business Review:

“Most often, employees are left on their own to figure out how to manage their time in ways that will reduce stress and burnout. They have limited ability to fight a corporate culture in which overwork is the norm and even celebrated.”

Changing the company culture in this way has to start at the top.

That means making time to have conversations about priorities. Push back when employees say yes to everything. Talk about the need for downtime and to disconnect from work.

And above all, act on those beliefs. When you see your team showing signs of burnout ask:

  • Is a particular project or recurring task sucking up more time than it should?
  • Are certain processes or meetings taking away time for meaningful work?
  • Should some of their responsibilities be shifted to other people?

Let them know it’s safe to answer honestly. You just want them to have space and resources to do their best work.

Step 2: Identify the processes and practices that are burning your team out

If burnout is mostly an organizational problem, then it needs to be addressed at the same level.

Unfortunately, many of the processes and practices you’ve implemented to help employees work better together are actually causing burnout and stress.

Collaboration is at the top of that list.

According to research, people spend 80% of their days in meetings, on the phone, and responding to emails “leaving employees little time for all the critical work they must complete on their own.”

Even worse, the constant expectation of collaboration eats into what little productive time your team has. To keep up with the expectations of collaboration, most workers average only 2 minutes in a digital tool before switching and check their inboxes every 6 minutes.

The costs of trying to juggle tasks like this are well documented. Even just quickly checking your email while doing something else throws 20% of your productive time out the window. Add in more tasks (like responding to a Slack message) and you could be losing 80% of your productivity.

The thing is, you don’t have to work this way.

You can be just as collaborative by reducing the time spent on collaboration. In fact, studies have found that groups who pair long stretches of isolated Deep Work time with “bursts” of communication perform significantly better.

Pro Tip: Apply the “burst” technique to all your workplace collaboration

While the “bursty” study looked at communication tools, that same technique can be applied elsewhere in your organization.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Meetings: Zero out your meeting schedule and determine which ones are absolutely necessary. Then, schedule them for specific times that don’t disrupt focused work (and never in the morning).
  • Emails and chat: Talk about expectations on response times and make employees know it’s OK to go dark if you’re working. (Our new Slack integration automatically broadcasts when you’re focusing on important work and shouldn’t be interrupted).
  • Project management: Spend time defining priorities and use time-boxing to promote periods of sustained focus.
  • Management: Be vocal about understanding everyone’s time constraints and delegate or outsource as many situations where you’re a bottleneck.

The goal is ultimately to reduce the need to always be on and instead, empower your team to schedule long periods for focused work.

Step 3: Use time tracking to change work habits and protect your team from overwork

burnt out - time tracking

It might seem ironic that we’re advocating more work as a cure for burnout culture. But what we’re really talking about here is efficiency.

When you remove the collaborative and cultural waste from your company you multiply what your team can do in a day. Click To Tweet

What once took 8 hours because you were constantly stressing and putting out fires is suddenly done in 4. Giving you more time to innovate, get creative, and catch up on communications.

As Alex Pang, author of Rest: Why you Get More Done When you Work Less, told us:

“Two hours where you can really get into the problem yields solutions that are going to be better than if you spent 10 hours broken up by meetings and bouncing around on Slack channels.”

We’ve already covered half the equation in fixing your culture and process. But to really help your team avoid burnout, you need to empower them to understand and control their time each day.

Pro Tip: Use a time tracking tool to uncover distractions and rebuild focus

A time tracking tool like RescueTime gives everyone on your team a detailed breakdown of how they’re spending their time each day so they can:

As a manager, you can also use RescueTime for Orgs to get insight into your team’s overall productivity and health.

While managers aren’t able to dig into data from individual team members (to protect their privacy), you can see where your team is spending their time, what tools are being used the most, and how much time is being worked outside of normal hours.

RescueTime for Orgs Dashboard

All of this gives your team the tools they need to properly understand and optimize their time each day for focus. Not burnout.


Burnout isn’t an individual problem but a symptom of our culture.

No one does their best work when they’re constantly stressed and scatterbrained. And by changing the stigma around burnout, identifying the processes that are killing your team’s productivity, and giving them the tools and time management training they need to control their own day, you’re putting them on the path to a happy, healthier, and more productive life.

How have you helped your team avoid burnout? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

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