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How Leaders Can Prevent Burnout: 7 Skills They Need

Why leaders are at the forefront of employee burnout and what skills they can master to help prevent burnout in your workforce.

Publish Date: May 12, 2021

Read Time: 6 min

Author: Stephanie Neal

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Burnout is one of the biggest issues facing companies right now, affecting a whopping 76% of the workforce. But most companies don’t have a handle on how to gauge the impact. And with so much remote work happening, it’s even harder to recognize when it’s happening. So what can companies do to prevent burnout?

Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that leaders play a major role in preventing burnout. And with the right skills, they can help bring employees back from the brink of total job burnout.

The bad news? Very few leaders are confident in these key skills. In fact, preventing burnout in their teams is one of the areas where leaders rate themselves the lowest.

This blog will go in-depth behind the research about burnout, especially the impact and the specific skills that leaders can demonstrate to prevent it from happening on their teams.

What Is Workplace Burnout?

Let’s start with a clear definition of burnout. Burnout is a work phenomenon that’s become so prevalent that the World Health Organization (WHO) declared it as a syndrome that “refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context…resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The WHO took it one step further, specifically stating that burnout “should not be applied to describe other areas of life.”

Even before the pandemic, many companies began to prioritize employee well-being initiatives. But even with these efforts, most leaders were still largely unprepared to prevent burnout and the risks it now poses.

Why Burnout Is a Problem

Why is employee burnout dangerous for companies? Simply, it creates a huge retention risk. If employees are feeling burnout, they’ll head for the door.

Perhaps worse is if the employees stay. Burnt-out employees tend to produce both a lower quantity and quality of work. This is particularly dangerous for those in critical jobs that require detail, such as healthcare or finance. Furthermore, burnout can have serious effects on their physical and mental health.

Keep in mind that your leaders are prone to burnout as well. And it’s a major issue threatening the future of leadership and companies’ pipeline of top talent they’ve worked so hard to attract.

Our new Global Leadership Forecast 2021 research identified that 86% of high-potential employees are feeling burnout. That rate has climbed 59% since before the pandemic.

High-potential employees are even more at risk since they may be reluctant to reveal their frustration to leaders. Why? They may fear being outspoken could cost them a chance for a key opportunity. These employees are twice as likely to leave than those who said they didn’t feel used up at the end of the day.

But what can companies do when employees are struggling with burnout? It starts with the people who manage employees—the company’s leaders. But first, what are leaders doing to contribute to their company’s burnout culture?

7 Skills Leaders Need to Fight Burnout

How well companies manage burnout is directly influenced by their leaders. Why? Often, it’s the actions of leaders that cause employees to either move closer to burnout or reach full burnout status.

So where are leaders going wrong? It’s all about their leadership skills.

In our Global Leadership Forecast 2021, we studied the companies where leaders and employees had the best handle on burnout. We then looked at the strength of leadership skills in those companies. With that data, we were able to pinpoint seven key leadership skills that help prevent burnout. Here they are, in order of impact:

1. Empathy

Leaders’ ability to demonstrate empathy ranked as the top skill among companies that were best prepared to mitigate employee burnout. When leaders connect with their teams on a human level, they are more likely to identify risks to wellbeing and burnout symptoms.

It’s clear that working from home has made connecting with empathy more challenging. Leaders typically rate themselves well on demonstrating empathy, but once the pandemic hit, their self rating dropped by 15%.

2. Coaching and Delegation

Coming in second are coaching and delegation. As workloads and uncertainty rise, team members long for clarity about what they need to do and how they can best get it done. That’s why these skills have such a major impact on reducing chronic work stress and anxiety.

3. Influence

Influencing skills can help leaders prevent burnout in a few ways. One is that having strong influence helps leaders get their teams and others on board with a new direction. Secondly, strong influencing skills enable leaders to better advocate for their teams, securing the resources and clarity that their team needs to move forward.

4. Leading Change

Unquestionably, one of the biggest drivers of burnout is constant change. And right now, employees are dealing with massive amounts of change. From layoffs and turnover to fast shifts in company direction to a change to remote work, most employees have had the ground pulled out from under them. And even as many things return to normal, the future will be filled with rapid changes. So it’s no surprise that a leader’s ability to give their teams clarity, vision, purpose, and consistency through these changes is crucial in preventing burnout.

5. Leading Virtual Teams

As many companies rapidly switched to remote work during the pandemic, leaders suddenly lost the opportunity to check in with their employees more informally. And it takes a different set of virtual leadership skills that enables leaders to engage and connect with their teams virtually. When leaders fail to do so, their teams may end up feeling unappreciated, disconnected, and like they need to work around the clock. And those feelings lead to burnout. So as the virtual work world becomes the new normal, leaders need to improve their virtual skills accordingly.

6. Drive for Inclusion

One of the keys to drive resilience and prevent burnout is to build a team that supports one another. Those deep connections, trust, and camaraderie can be powerful tools to fight the exhaustion and overwork that leads to burnout. That’s why inclusion is so critical. Leaders who know how to make people feel included—not in spite of their differences but because of them—will have stronger teams who carry the load together, rather than crushing them individually.

7. Developing Future Talent

When employees can see their career path and growth ahead, it makes a big difference in their energy levels. Leaders who can help their team members see their strengths and focus on their development also relieve stress for their team. Rather than leaving them to wonder what their hard work and exhaustion is for, their teams feel energized for the future. Plus, the more skills they develop, the better (and more efficiently!) they’ll be able to perform, which also reduces stress.

An Exodus of Burnt-Out Leaders

While leaders can manage burnout on their teams, they are still humans themselves. And many of them are feeling the weight of burnout at the same time.

As mentioned above, burnout is also hitting leaders hard and encouraging many to consider quitting. According to our Global Leadership Forecast 2021, 60% of leaders feel “used up” at the end of every workday. This is a strong indicator of burnout.

In addition, about 44% of leaders who are feeling burnout indicated that they expect to leave their companies to advance their careers. Even more concerning is that 26% said they plan to leave within the year.

Clearly, burnout is a retention risk for employees and leaders alike. No one in the workplace is immune! But leaders are in the unique position to influence others by helping prioritize work and energize their teams. However, they need to take care of themselves and manage their own stress level to be able to take care of their teams effectively.

In Conclusion:

The Key to Decreasing Burnout

Although it may be impossible to completely prevent burnout in an organization, effective leadership can mitigate it. But these behaviors have to be embraced at every level of the company. Otherwise, you’ll not only lose your frontline workers to burnout, but your top-performing leaders.

For more of the latest research on leadership, download the Global Leadership Forecast 2021.

Stephanie Neal is director of the Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER). She leads market and trend research focused on leadership and business innovation, and is general manager and lead author of DDI's Global Leadership Forecast.