The roots of burnout run deep but are usually hidden from view, making it difficult to detect in others before it’s too late. In the second post in our series, Lindsay Troxell, Director, Knowledge Labs® Professional Development, discusses how to prevent burnout from damaging the foundation of your team.

I recently had to have a tree removed from my front yard. This tree had been slowly, silently growing right in front of me for a long time, essentially unnoticed – that is, until its root system started encroaching on the foundation of my house and I realized I needed to do something immediately before serious damage set in.

It occurred to me that burnout can take hold in much the same way as this tree: You plant the seeds, water it with stress and negative thoughts, and suddenly it’s taking over your life. But just like my problem tree, those roots have been growing and spreading underground, buried below the surface, for a very long time. You just don’t notice it until things get really bad.

In my first post on this topic, I wrote about some of the techniques that have helped me start to recover from my own experience with burnout. In this post, I’ll focus on how to cope with burnout among your team. The tree analogy is especially fitting here: When one or more members of your team is struggling with burnout, the roots run deep. They’re almost always hidden from view because people tend to mask how they’re feeling in a professional setting. And by the time the tree has sprouted, a lot of damage can already be done – damage that threatens to unsettle the very foundation of your team’s dynamic.

The good news is, it’s not entirely outside your control. The key is to assess the situation regularly to prevent it from taking over – to prune it back before it becomes overgrown, to stick with the botanical theme. But how is it possible to do that when those roots are often buried so deep? Here are a few ways leaders can address the issue with their teams:

Open the lines of communication. First, even if you’re not suffering from burnout yourself, as your team’s leader, it’s imperative that you open up the lines of communication to others who might be struggling. These lines of communication don’t necessarily need to be formal – it can be as simple as asking someone, “How are you doing… really?” Rather, it’s about establishing a culture of transparency and support where team members do not feel compelled to hide how they’re feeling. In fact, they should feel encouraged, and ideally empowered to be open and honest about how their stress levels might be impacting their performance.

Watch for the warning signs. Speaking of culture, it is precisely this element of transparency and acceptance that makes it possible to prevent burnout before it takes hold. Some of the warning signs of burnout are people being disengaged in meetings, not showing up to social gatherings, and not being as participatory as they had been in the past. These are all indicators that there’s a crack in the foundation.

Cropped shot of a young businessman looking stressed while working late in the office

If you start seeing those cracks form, ask yourself, “How did we get here in the first place?” What is lacking in your firm’s culture, in its approach to managing the business, and in your team’s interactions that has allowed one or several individuals to reach this state? Because if we’re only addressing the issue once the damage has started affecting the team’s ability to function, we’re too late. Once we’ve reached that point, there will be so much momentum carrying us in the wrong direction, it’s like turning a ship against the current.

Provide opportunities for human connections. We’re all familiar with the dreaded Zoom fatigue. While video calls have been indispensable for many throughout prolonged lockdowns and social distancing, they clearly have their shortcomings – particularly when it comes to our awareness of how others are really feeling. I’ve personally been on many calls where participants don’t even say hello before jumping right into the business at hand.

While we tend to view these virtual meetings as just another tool for getting things done, it’s important to remember that they’re also an essential touchstone for all of us interaction-starved humans. Zoom calls are notoriously impersonal and disorienting, but for now at least, they’re the only outlet many of us have for connecting with people. So I encourage you to do what you can to make them opportunities for personal connection.

Walk the walk. As a leader, you are viewed as the embodiment of your team’s culture. Team members will emulate your behaviors because they will assume that is what is expected of them. So even if you attempt to create the culture I’ve described above and send all the right messages, it will all fall flat if you don’t walk the walk. In fact, when leaders put out directives but their actions are contradictory, it can be confusing and upsetting for team members – in fact, it can be a direct source of burnout.

Smiling mature businesswoman leading team meeting in office

It’s also important to remember that you can’t show up for other people if you don’t take care of yourself. One key aspect of setting the right example for the team is to make sure you’re promoting a healthy balance between productivity and health and wellness. So it’s important to strive for that balance yourself and make it clear to the rest of the team that this is something you value and insist on for yourself.

Of course, showing up for your team also means showing up for your clients. Addressing (and ideally preventing) burnout is obviously crucial for the wellbeing of the individuals on your team and for the group as a whole. But your clients are also benefactors. And you owe it to them to stop burnout before it creeps into your firm’s foundation and threatens to overtake everything you’ve done to earn their trust.