Not Sure How to Address Burnout? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I’m a tech founder and have developed a tool called “burnout tracker,” which is embedded into our 1:1 tool. Without going into too much detail, the tracker is able to predict when a support conversation between manager and employee is needed.

Here’s my challenge: What is common sense to me seems to be a foreign language to many of the managers using our tool; for example, that during a support conversation, the leader listens to the direct report and provides help where they can.

Yes, the phrase “support conversation” is a bit vague. But to me, that’s where the gold is. By simply asking “How can I best support you at the moment?” the leader can get the team member to provide insights into what they need. Unfortunately, this isn’t happening.

I think the managers feel ill-equipped to have support conversations. It feels strange to them—they mistakenly believe they need to play the role of therapist. 

So, if the employee says they are burned out, what should the manager do next? My natural response would be to first ask the employee more questions. Sort their answers into two buckets: (1) things I can help with; and (2) things I can’t. Then help with the things I can, empathize with the things I can’t, and find resources that may be able to assist. 

Is there a framework or model I can share that would help managers feel more confident going into a support conversation?

With gratitude,

Burnout Support

P.S. Thank you for your blog. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m a huge fan of your work and am a better leader because of you and your insights.

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Dear Burnout Support,

First, thanks for your kind words. They mean the world to me!

Now, to your question. I love the idea of a burnout tracker. If only we humans had a handy gauge on our forearm—like a gas gauge—that could alert us to an empty tank while we still have time to do something about it.

This is a big can of worms, partially because you are right—managers are terrified of conversations about the complexities of being people. It is sad that smart people think they need an advanced degree and a credential to do that. When I taught coaching skills to managers and leaders, I heard the question “Wait, are you telling us we need to be therapists?” a million times.

So the first order of business is to train all of your managers in simply being a human being who can have conversations with other human beings about being a human being. To be fair, this is a big ask in the tech industry, since many who end up working in it would much prefer to not have to interact with humans. Am I biased? Maybe. But this is what being a manager means, so it would be good if managers understand that from the get-go. I know you can’t go back in time, but it’s never too late.

The average manager doesn’t receive manager training until they have been managing for ten years. So you are not alone. Here is a white paper—Core Skills Every Manager Should Master—that outlines the core skills every manager needs as well as the elements that help, or prevent, the building of trust.

Trying to track burnout is also a can of worms because, in my opinion, once symptoms of burnout appear, things are already so far gone that it’s hard to turn them around. It’s best to catch the problem early before it causes real trouble.

Christina Maslach, coauthor of the book The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationship with Their Jobs, says helping people cope with stressors is a good step. But it is far preferable to address the origin of the stressors that cause burnout in the first place. You might check out how she recommends your managers do that.

Finally, I propose that individuals who are feeling chronically overwhelmed, cynical, and hostile about the organization, and also losing faith in their own effectiveness, are probably not going to be willing to make themselves vulnerable to their manager. The manager can ask questions all day long, but if they are hoping their people will spill the beans about what is really going on, that will only happen if the relationship was properly set up at the beginning.

You have to remember that many employees, no matter where they were raised, internalize the story that work is a contact sport. It is a Darwinian fight to the death out there, and only the strong will survive. The age of managers being the agent of a harsh organization is not that far behind us. People need to have evidence that their managers see them, hear them, and have their backs. Managers need to nip the “Hunger Games” story in the bud by seeking to understand their employees’ strengths, development areas, and dreams. They need to do their utmost to tailor the job to the best of each employee and monitor each person carefully to make sure that the job is actually doable for each person.

So, the question “What do you need?” should be asked at every 1:1 meeting. Having a manager ask questions and identify how they can help is best done weekly. Address the small obstacles and blockers early and often, and escalate the large organizational ones before they get out of hand.

Burnout is just a modern word for the despair experienced by humans who are stuck doing jobs that can’t be done. The condition is universal and ancient. The best way to avoid it is to build support into the manager/employee relationship early, and weave in support every step of the way. That way, when people need it the most, they will be much more likely to avail themselves of it.

Your instincts are right on. It is inspiring to know that at least one tech founder out there cares enough to create a tool and ask the question. Keep going!!!

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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