How Leaders Can Combat Burnout on Their Teams This Winter

The employees are not alright. Two and a half years after burnout reached new heights during the pandemic, the feeling has still not entirely subsided. And burnout, which is characterized by emotional exhaustion, disconnection, and a lack of motivation, can be amplified in the winter months--just as companies are entering the critical fourth quarter. 

Forty-three percent of American workers feel burned out, according to a survey conducted by Slack's Future Forum in August. Leaders are not faring much better either. Executives reported 20 percent worse work-life balance and 40 percent more work-related stress and anxiety, compared with last year. And more than three-quarters of human resource leaders have observed an increase in the number of burned out employees, according to a survey conducted by the nonprofit think tank The Conference Board earlier this year. 

As 2022 nears a close, companies are busy handling the rush of holiday sales, finishing up last-minute projects, and setting targets for the year ahead. At the same time, employees are dealing with illnesses, colder weather, and sunsets before 5 p.m.

"It feels like Groundhog Day sometimes, even if you love your job," said Charis Loveland, a global program manager at Amazon Web Services who spoke during the AWS re:Invent conference held in Las Vegas last week. "This feeling of dread or anxiety upon going into work, anxiety right upon waking, difficulty switching off at the end of the day, being over focused on work."

Loveland manages Amazon's emotional intelligence leadership program and has given trainings to more than 220,000 Amazon employees and 13,000 partners. At the conference, Loveland co-led a session on preventing burnout alongside Kelle Hand, a global senior trainer at AWS.

Small business owners have a vested interest in combating burnout among their employees because that sort of anxiety impacts daily performance and overall retention. Members of your team who are dreading the workday are three times more likely to be on the hunt for another job, according to the Slack Future Forum survey. To keep your team intact and operating at its highest level, here are some of the techniques that Loveland and Hand shared to help yourself--and your employees--recharge.

Schedule time to recover every single day, week, and month.

To be more effective in the workplace, Loveland advises focusing on the ways we can recover. That means scheduling out time for you and your employees to rest on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. The framework, which was originally developed by Lucas Miller and Sahar Yousef, lecturers at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, suggests taking at least one long weekend or day off each month and a couple of hours each week. 

"It's amazing how much even a few days can help you regain your sense of purpose and perspective," said Loveland. She added that the weekly ritual of a short break, even just getting outside to take your lunch away from your desk, can really improve focus.

On a daily basis, make sure to block off a few minutes on your calendar. In practice, Loveland said, that could be filled with a mindfulness routine facilitated by a tool like Calm or Headspace or it can be as simple as one minute of deep breathing at your desk.

Craig Shiesley found that it helps to tailor recurring downtime to your team's interests-and geography. When he took over as CEO of Yasso in 2019, the executive moved the frozen Greek yogurt brand to Boulder, Colorado. That decision attracted a sect of outdoor enthusiasts to the company, so Shiesley adopted a more flexible schedule that allows his 50 employees to embrace their Rocky Mountain headquarters.

"We take advantage of our location," said Shiesley, who extended summer Fridays into the winter. "If any individual announces a big powder day, you're going to probably have 14 individuals who won't come in that day." 

Leverage natural energy cycles.

To help you and your team combat burnout, Loveland stressed the importance of encouraging employees to work smarter and more efficiently, not harder.

"We can't actually manage time. It passes whether we want to or not," said Loveland. "The way to make the most of it is to leverage your natural cycles."

Research has shown that people tend to focus best in 90-minute spurts three times a day, Loveland explained. Rather than fighting against those inevitable lulls in attention, employers can leverage their team's natural slumps by splitting the workday into segments. Use the periodic downtime to schedule a mid-morning coffee break, a team lunch, or an all-hands meeting. "If this time of day--mid-afternoon, after lunch--you're feeling a little sluggish, that is a great time to have meetings," said Loveland. "You're sitting and absorbing and listening to information."

This was a lesson that Bombas co-founder and CEO David Heath had to learn the hard way--through years of experience. "When I was 28 and 29, I worked almost nonstop, because it's what I thought you had to do," he said. Once the entrepreneur got into his thirties, he realized that he could actually complete 95 percent of his work in a shorter span of time if he focused on his most critical projects during his most productive hours. "A balanced lifestyle contributes more to our success than working more hours."

Embracing this mantra of working smarter--not harder--impacts more than Heath's own schedule. The Bombas CEO said it's vital for founders to model this concept to their teams. "I think because we behave in that way, the rest of the organization sees that that's okay."

Lead with empathy.

To alleviate stress on the team, entrepreneurs want to set the right tone for the workplace. AWS senior global trainer Kelle Hand said during the AWS re:Invent conference that this starts by leading with empathy. "You might not be able to relate to the experience they're having," Hand said. "But you can at least try to understand what they're going through."

Still, that's not always as straightforward as it sounds. This leadership approach requires founders to manage their own levels of burnout, because--as Hand explained--anxiety and stress are some of the biggest barriers to expressing empathy in an effective manner.  

"If you want to be empathetic, you have to be present to notice and remove those distractions," Hand said. "If you are burned out, it's very difficult to notice how someone else is feeling."

Sahar Yousef: Cognitive Neuroscientist at UC Berkeley, Haas School of Business

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