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Burnout is a growing phenomenon in the workplace — leaders experience it as individuals at the same time as they’re responsible for teams feeling it. Being able to address and mitigate burnout is a critical new leadership skill as we navigate this new world of work for ourselves and our teams.
In this replay of her 2021 Massachusetts Conference for Women breakout sessions, award-winning psychologist and author Dr. Jacinta Jiménez explores ways you can take care of yourself and also develop team cultures that inspire people to tap into their core resilience capabilities.
Jacinta M. Jiménez, PsyD, BCC (also known as “Dr. J”) is an award-winning author, psychologist, and board-certified leadership coach with a 20+ year career dedicated to the betterment of individuals, leaders, and organizations. Her work is focused around synthesizing her deep knowledge of human behavior and applying it towards the development of technology, innovative coaching programs, and leaders. A graduate of Stanford University and the PGSP- Stanford PsyD Consortium, Dr. Jiménez is a sought-after expert in bridging the fields of psychology and leadership and regularly contributes to international news and TV outlets, including CNN/HLN, Business Insider, Forbes, and Fast Company. Her book, The Burnout Fix debuted as #1 New Release on Amazon, has been recognized by Business Insider as a top book to read about burnout, was the winner in getAbstract’s prestigious 2021 International Book of the Year Reader’s Choice Award, and was named a Best Book on Burnout & Recovery for 2022 by Choosing Therapy. As the Vice President of Coach Innovation at BetterUp, Dr. Jiménez drives the development of groundbreaking science-backed coaching approaches for helping today’s top organizations foster resilience and mental flourishing at work. From this work, Dr. Jiménez has been recognized as one of the Top 50 Women Leaders in San Francisco for 2022 List by Women We Admire. Along with being a Fellow at the American Institute of Stress, Dr. Jiménez holds a certificate in Diversity & Inclusion from Cornell University and provides consultation on topics related to this important area as well.
Celeste Headlee is a communication and human nature expert, and an award-winning journalist. She is a professional speaker, and also the author of Speaking of Race: Why Everybody Needs to Talk About Racism—and How to Do It, Do Nothing, Heard Mentality, and We Need to Talk. In her twenty-year career in public radio, she has been the executive producer of On Second Thought at Georgia Public Radio, and anchored programs including Tell Me More, Talk of the Nation, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition. She also served as cohost of the national morning news show The Takeaway from PRI and WNYC, and anchored presidential coverage in 2012 for PBS World Channel. Headlee’s TEDx talk sharing ten ways to have a better conversation has over twenty million total views to date. @CelesteHeadlee
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Photo credit: iStock/ST.art
I am so thrilled to be here with you today to talk to you about a subject that I’ve been thinking, reading, writing, and researching about a lot, and that’s beating burnout and boosting team resilience as a people leader.
So I’m going to dive in pretty quick, because I want to provide you with as many tools and resources and information as you can, so you leave this session feeling empowered and with really great things that you can take away to help your team flourish and thrive in a new world of work.
So speaking of a new world of work, we are entering into what people call a VUCA world of work. So it’s an acronym that describes our new world and the new world of work we’re living in. So the V is volatile. The U is uncertain. The C is complexity. And the A is ambiguity.
We can all relate to those after 2020 and 2021 even. And this is brought on by really great advances in technology. We have hyperconnectivity, globalization, advent of machine learning and artificial intelligence, which has led to us having an unprecedented amount of information at our access at any time and that’s growing so fast, and also, that’s changing the nature of our work. We have increased remote work and these are all really exciting advances, but like anything that shines bright, it can also cast a shadow.
And that shadow is that the world of work is changing so rapidly, but we humans, we’re not adapting as quickly alongside of it. And a new world of work necessitates new ways to approach work, otherwise, if we’re not thinking about new ways to approach work, we’re going to be left with this feeling of uncertainty that the VUCA world brings. And let me tell you humans hate uncertainty. We are not wired to tolerate it, so much so I’m going to present you just a little questionnaire from a study that came out of the Imperial College of London.
And they asked participants one of two things, they gave them two options. So option one, I can give you a shock right now. Option two, I may, or I may not give you a shock at some point in the day. What do you think people picked? If you thought option one, you’re right. People would rather have a shock now and have a predictive negative consequence than have a shock that may or may not happen later in the day. And in fact, people who picked option two showed greater nervous system, so that’s physiological stress response throughout the entire day.
But this makes so much sense from an evolutionary perspective. So let’s say we’re hunter gatherers and we’re out in new territory and we’re uncertain about the weather patterns. We’re uncertain about where water sources are. We’re uncertain about what foods we can eat. We’re uncertain about what predators are in the area that could attack us and eat us. That’s not going to be great for our survival. That is why we are so wired to not tolerate uncertainty, but wait, we’re living in this VUCA world, that’s creating tremendous amounts of uncertainty, right? And so what are the consequences if we don’t find ways to help ourselves and our teams flourish through this uncertainty?
Well, there’s some big consequences that research has found. So what happens is our psychological resources get taxed slowly but surely over time and this leads to a couple of things, poor performance, more mistakes, decrease in creativity and innovation, which is so needed in our new world of work, and then also decreased morale, things that are not going to let us or our teams really flourish.
So I want to emphasize that this isn’t just a COVID problem, burnout has been happening for a long time. It’s becoming a growing epidemic, so much so that in May 2019, so before COVID, the World Health Organization went as far as to officially recognize burnout in its ICD-11 or International Classification of Diseases 11, as an occupational phenomenon. And they describe it as a syndrome conceptualized as chronic, that’s a key word, workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
And so if you’re feeling burned out, if your team is struggling with burnout, if your organization is struggling with burnout, you are not alone. This is a global phenomenon that is increasing substantially, especially after COVID and people are really feeling it. And it’s imperative that as leaders, we really think about how to get around it.
And I think that’s this silver lining of this whole thing is that people are realizing that taking care of our wellbeing and nurturing resilience in our people is not just a nice to have, it’s an imperative practice in our new world of work. In fact, a Global Talent Trends study just recently found that one out of every two employees wants to see a greater focus on wellbeing at their work.
And so in my book, this is my big hypothesis or synopsis in my book is that hard work is really important, smart work like productivity hacks is really important, but we’re missing a big piece of the puzzle and that’s pro-resilience mindset, skills, and behaviors. Those are the things that are going to keep us stable and fixed, hence the name, The Burnout Fix, fixed while the world of work and life continues to spin around us.
And so that’s what I’m going to be helping you all out with today. I’m going to give you three Ds, develop, detect, and demonstrate, to help you set your teams up for success to really feel firm, stable, certain, and grounded in our new world of work. So let’s dive in.
So the first one is develop and this is all about setting the foundation to set the stage for psychological safety, so people can talk openly about wellbeing, stress, and resilience, and feel more certain in the face of our VUCA world of work.
So what is psychological safety? So it’s coined by Harvard Business School, Amy Edmondson, and it’s described as a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. So I liken this to a trust fall. I’ve actually never done a trust fall. I’m not recommending anyone out there do a trust fall. This is just a metaphor, but you’ve probably seen it on TV or in I think an episode of The Office has it. And the team kind of goes, stands around together with their arms out, and one brave team member steps up on a stool. They cross their arms over their chest, they fall back and the team catches them and safely guides them to the ground and it builds trust.
Well, psychological safety is like a psychological trust fall. You’re taking a leap of faith with an idea, vulnerability, an opinion, knowing that that’s going to fall safely in the group. And so people are like, “That sounds great, but then everyone’s just going to agree on everything all the time.” And that’s a myth. Psychological safety is anything about having everyone agree on everything all the time. When people feel safe to share an opinion, it actually allows people to be more candid and more truthful, admit mistakes so they can get corrected earlier on. It’s actually really beneficial for productive dissent.
There’s another myth that when I bring up psychological safety that a lot of people are like, “Well, then we’re not going to perform well. Everyone’s going to feel safe. It’s not going to be great for team performance.” But no, no, no, the truth is that science has found it’s one of the, if not the biggest predictor of team performance.
So I’m going to give you an example, because I love research, I’m a science geek, and so I want to give you real good facts that actually show evidence for why you should do this. So this is Project Aristotle and it’s a big study. It took two years to conduct and the researchers wanted to know why some teams at Google are flourishing and hyper performing and why some are just average or even mediocre.
And so they looked at, over two years again, 180 teams, 200 interviews, 250 team attributes, so what the background was of the team, the education, the gender makeup, everything, and they couldn’t find a pattern and they were going, “What is going on? There’s no predictive pattern that predicts what makes a great team.”
That was until they looked at the psychological makeup of the team and they found out that if the team has psychological safety, they’re more likely to admit mistakes, partner and take on new roles. When psychological safety is there, certainty is there and courage goes up, fear gets diminished and people actually want to take on more ambitious goals. They want to admit mistakes and correct them earlier. There’s not that fear running, that uncertainty running behind them. It’s pretty amazing.
So what does an unsafe team sound like? They say things like, “Our team meetings don’t always feel like a safe zone for questions or thoughts. The tone of the meeting can be condescending and impersonal at times.” That’s not going to allow us to speak up, to be innovative, to take on ambitious goals or risks, whereas safe teams feel like the team is supportive, if you make a mistake. They also frequently ask questions. People are open to questions. They’re highly curious. And that is because they feel safe so they can really explore. But if we’re not safe, we don’t want to ask questions. We don’t want to explore. We don’t want to take risks.
So how do you build psychological safety? Well, I provided you all with a handout with a step by step process of how to set team norms for psychological safety and build psychological safety, and that will be provided to all of you. And I’ve sent this handout to many executives at companies worldwide and they’ve gotten really great feedback. So I really encourage you to try it out.
But it involves three things, the promotion of mutual trust, fostering a shared sense of purpose, so gathering around that north star mission of your team, and then establishing clear norms that are written, I say written rules about how to share information and ideas, so everyone knows when it’s a good time, when it’s not, and it feels clear and safe. And so when that happens, feelings of fairness and connection go up and feelings of learned helplessness or inefficacy go down. And that is so powerful again for providing certainty in our new world of work.
So I’m not going to go through every one of these questions, but I just wanted to give you an idea of what’s on the handout that I’ll be giving. Again, it’s a step by step process, but it’s things, asking questions like how do we communicate as a team, especially for remote, right? How do we make sure people can talk about resilience and wellbeing and stress and not feel embarrassed because it is different to start talking about this at work. How do we safely discuss sources of stress with our leader? How do they do that with you? And then, what can be done so that everyone can provide input at some point and feel safe to do so? So these are bringing out great dialogue and are just great starters, but the handout has even more.
So we’re onto the second D and that’s detect. So how do you recognize signs of burnout in your people and respond to them most efficaciously? So as you can see, I like to bust myths. I want to use science to give you the real truth. So there’s a myth that burnout is easy to detect. They’re like, “Oh, I’ll just know when my people are burned out.”
Not so fast, burnout is not an on and off switch. It’s far more insidious. It kind of sneaks up on you over time. And if you’re not looking out for it, it’ll get to the point where it’s so far, then it’s really disrupting your personal and professional life. It’s kind of like these corrosive drips in mass can really take a toll on your people’s vitality. So it’s really important to catch it earlier so that people can do something about it with you.
So I liken detect to a gas tank indicator, just like we have our gas tank indicator, our oil, our heat on our car dashboard and we know, oh, I’m going into the yellow, I got to get some gas. The same thing for our people and ourselves, we need to be able to monitor. If we’re getting into the yellow, let’s course correct then so we have the metaphorical, psychological resources in our tank to do something about it. When it gets to the red and our people are struggling, that’s hard. It hurts team morale. It decreases the team performance. It hurts that person as well. So the sooner you can catch it the better.
And I’m a big believer that knowledge is power. I wear my smart watch, I track my steps. Doctors have people track their blood pressure, their weight, all kinds of things to make sure they catch it preventatively. And so the same thing we have to do with our wellbeing. It’s not rocket science, it just takes time and just done on a consistent basis. So it can take like 15 minutes a week to just track it.
And I have another handout for you all, a burnout buffering monitoring sheet that you can give to your direct reports and also do for yourself. And it’s like a little tiny, quick check in that you can also incorporate into your one-on-ones with your people.
So how do you monitor for burnout, if you don’t know what it is? So let me walk you through what burnout is. So the research has found there’s three core components that make up burnout. There’s exhaustion, that’s immense, emotional cognitive fatigue. Of course, we’re going to feel exhausted at times at work for a week or two. This is not that, it’s prolonged exhaustion, where you go on vacation, you don’t feel better. You can’t get up to face another day on the job.
The next one is cynicism. This one’s not as obvious, but it’s really important to look out for the cynicism in your highest performing, most engaged employees, because these people are most ironically, likely to fall into cynicism. They’re so bought into their mission, they love it so much that sometimes they don’t know the boundaries, or they’re overworking so much they don’t pay attention to how they’re doing on a stress level. And then they boomerang into cynicism where they’re like, “I don’t even know why I’m doing my job. The mission doesn’t even resonate with me anymore.” And it’s so tragic because these are the people that really love what they do, they are your top performers.
And then the final one is inefficacy. So that’s a lack of productivity or feelings of competence on the job. They just feel like they can’t keep up. They’re not making progress. They’re not hitting their goals. And it’s again, this is heartbreaking, because these are people that are more than capable of doing their work, they’re just in the throes of burnout.
So when these three things come together, think of it like a Venn diagram, that’s when burnout happens. But the interesting thing to note is that people have different burnout profiles. So one person can have high levels of exhaustion, a moderate amount of cynicism and a tiny bit of inefficacy, whereas for me, I’ve been burned out in the past. Yes, even psychologists can burn out, so you have to monitor.
And so mine, because I love what I do, I end up with a lot of cynicism, so that’s the one I keep an eye out for a lot, and then a little bit of exhaustion and then some inefficacy. So if you have had burnout in the past, at least the silver lining is you know which one’s to monitor for. But again, I have a burnout buffering monitoring sheet for you that you could track just weekly so you can see how you’re doing, because if you’re doing well, it’s important to go, “Wow, what’s keeping me in the green and how do I keep that up as well?” So knowledge is power.
The next thing I just want to mention is how burnout happens. We know what it is, but why does it happen? And what happens is it’s a result of a mismatch between the nature of our work and our capacities as humans. So Michael Gungor has this quote that I love, burnout happens when you try to avoid being human for too long.
We are human beings, we are not machines, and when we deny our humanness for the sake of productivity, that’s when burnout happens. I liken it to a scale and things are never going to be totally in balance, but when it gets really out of balance, that’s when burnout happens.
And so there’s actually six person job mismatches that lead to burnout, that research has found. It’s not just from overworking. So if a person comes to you and says, “I’m burned out,” and you’re like, “Just work less,” that might not solve the source of their burnout. It could actually be from a breakdown in community, which we’ve all experienced with COVID, right? We, as human beings are highly resilient, but we’ve survived for centuries in tribes. We come into this world literally connected to another person. We need other people. And if we don’t feel a connection, if we don’t feel belonging or inclusion at work, that alone can lead to burnout.
A lack of control can lead to burnout because we don’t have certainty. It can lead to learned helplessness, where it’s like, why even try if I can’t control my situation? Another one is values conflict. So if we’re put on a work stream and it doesn’t feel like, this doesn’t align with what I stand for as a human being, and we’re trying to deny that human side of us that can lead to burnout.
Reward is another one. You know those shiny stars we got as kids for doing well? That doesn’t go away. That’s a human need to be acknowledged. And I’m talking about social and intrinsic reward for the hard work we’re doing. And it can be just little things, but it goes such a long way in keeping morale up.
And then the absence of fairness. So if things are changing on the job quickly, and we’re not being very clear about job expectations for job role success and one of your people is like, “Why did you not give me a promotion?” and it wasn’t clear expectations, it’s not going to feel fair. And that can take a toll as well.
So the source of burnout is much more complex than just overworking to the point of exhaustion. And the more granular your people can get with identifying the specific cause of the mismatch, the more precise and efficacious your response can be. So I think it’s really important to realize burnout is much more complex, and so it needs a much more complex monitoring system for it. But luckily that burnout buffering monitoring sheet will help you in a big way.
So I just want to talk about some things that you can do in your one-on-ones with your direct reports. So you can just ask them, how has your stress levels been? Are you in the red, yellow, green? You can use wording for that so it stays very high level. I’m not expecting you as a leader to have deep conversations about people’s wellbeing, it’s about checking in on them.
You can ask them if there’s a cause, the six mismatches. You can ask, what can we do to address this? Do you have an idea of how to address this? If it’s a breakdown in community, how do we get you feeling more connected? If they’re doing well, what contributed to this week going so well and how do we keep that up? And then a big one reward, thank you for sharing this with me. That can go such a long way in normalizing and reinforcing that this is an important practice that you’re incorporating into your leadership behaviors.
So we’re onto the final D, demonstrate. And I think this one is so important because as a leader, it’s your job to model, promote and reward pro-resilience skills, mindsets, and behaviors in your people, especially this is new. People want to see a greater focus on wellbeing, but people don’t know how to talk about wellbeing at work necessarily. So as a leader, setting the stage and leading by modeling.
So the thing I want to emphasize to you and your people is that stress isn’t bad. Stress gets a bad rap but stress in small doses, this is actually leads to growth and enhanced performance. When we go through a stressful event, especially as a team, it brings us closer. And especially if we successfully navigate it, it makes us feel like we have more self-efficacy, that we can learn from things, and it creates that confidence in the face of uncertainty.
I liken it to weight lifting. You lift weights, you break down the muscle fibers, but then you rest, and you come back stronger. And this is important because I think people think just stress is bad, but I’m going to show you … So if you see this slide, it’s called the Yerkes-Dodson curve. I’m going to get a little nerdy here for just a second. And on the bottom is arousal. So from low physiological stress to high physiological stress, where you’re really having overly stressed. And then on the side, you’ll see performance from weak to strong.
And if you’ll notice on the curve, too little stress, if you don’t have stress, you actually have low engagement and low performance. We need a little bit of stress to actually perform at our best. Again, it’s really not bad, but you want to stay in that optimal, I call it your stretch zone, right in the optimal space, and that’s where you want your team to go. But if they have prolonged stress, chronic stress that has not been successfully managed, going back to the World Health Organization definition of burnout, you can slide over the curve. And that creates impaired performance, which we do not want in our people.
So stress isn’t bad, it’s chronic stress without recovery that puts you in the danger zone. Again, we are wired to tolerate stress. Our nervous system is made for that. Just an evolutionary example, again, because of all the talking about lean into your capacities as humans, right?
So let’s say I’m walking in the woods and a bear comes at me. What happens is my sympathetic nervous system goes into play and I can do one of three things. I can fight the bear, but I’m only 5’1, it’s not going to go well. I can flight, I can run away, or I could freeze out fear. So let’s say I run away, I successfully escape the bear and I know I’m safe, what I do is I’m like, breathe, and my parasympathetic nervous system, that’s the nervous system that’s tied to rest and digest kicks in and it recovers.
But in today’s world, we’re hit with metaphorical bears constantly where we’re not getting to allow our nervous system to rest and recover. And if we don’t, it falls over that curve that I showed you earlier into that stress zone. If we rest, we can stay right in that optimal zone. So it’s really about counterbalancing stress with rest.
So if there’s a mantra, I want you to take home today. It’s when you stress, you must rest, and sharing this with your team as well. So having a stressful moment like right now, I’m excited to talk to you all, but my nervous system is activated. Your nervous system doesn’t know if you’re happy, stressed, it just knows it’s activated. But after every talk I do, I block off only 15 to 20 minutes in my calendar, it’s not much, to go somewhere that’s calming and breathe and let my nervous system recover.
And then I’ll go to another big stressful meeting, but then I’ll counter it with a micro dose of rest. And it doesn’t take much, but that will allow you to stay right in that stretch zone and allow your team to do it as well. And if your team does a big sprint, just bringing them back right into that stretch zone again and again, and again. It’s about consistency.
So you can pick your path. You can work, work, work, work, work, wait until a vacation time, I’m not saying vacations are bad, but we need these small moments of replenishment, and then you’ll have the decline of performance, which then leads to burnout. Or you could just work, rest, work, rest, little tiny things like that. And going through your calendar throughout the week and going, “Oh, I’m meeting with that stressful person. Okay, I’m going to put in a meeting with a person that really lifts me up,” can make all the difference in the world.
So this is a Tanzanian proverb I learned while hiking Mount Kilimanjaro on a all women’s expedition, summiting on International Women’s Day. I love women empowerment. So I’m happy to be here. Little by little, a little becomes a lot. Maybe your team does one thing that week. Maybe you end the meeting five minutes early and you all just go and breathe and recover your nervous system.
Maybe the next week, you’re adding more deposits into your team’s metaphorical resilience piggy bank. And by one month you have so much reserve, so then if you have a stressful sprint with your team, you can take reserve out of the piggy bank without breaking the bank, and the team still feels grounded and fixed and stable while we live and work in this VUCA world.
So another thing I encourage you to do with your team is just crowdsource, ask them, what do they do to detach and replenish psychologically? And it’s really fun to hear what leaders, the teams come up with. It’s a really creative little menu of little micro doses of leisure and rest and replenishment. And I talk about many, many ways to do that in my book as well.
So the final thing I just want to say is reward your team too, as a leader. So not just model this by doing this, but reward them. Look for opportunities to reinforce when they’re engaging in these skills. And then at your weekly team meetings, if you have time just spending a little time, even a minute or two, having someone volunteer and talk about their efforts to do stress with rest, so they’re modeling it for the team as well. And that also has reward, which is one of the causes of burnout. So you’re buffering against that too.
So there you have it, develop, detect and demonstrate. This is the foundation of resilient team leadership, establishing norms to promote psychological safety monitoring and responding to signs and causes a burnout and rewarding and reinforcing pro-resilience mindset, skills, and behaviors by emphasizing stress and rest.
So I want to end really quickly by telling you a story, because I think it brings the message that I’m trying to communicate to all of you, home. So when I started my meditation practice, I would get up every morning at 6:00 AM on the dot and sit for 60 minutes. And my meditation practice felt as weighty and important as my meditations did. That was until I got to hear the Dalai Lama speak. Yes, I was very blessed.
And so the day of the event, I went into the auditorium and there was this hush of conversation of seriousness about, what are we going to talk about with this world leader? What are these insights that he’s going to bring to us? And then they started us off with a meditation. And we all got quiet and pretty serious, closed our eyes. I grabbed my prayer breeds and I focused in on my breath. And pretty far into the meditation, there was an effervescent giggle that rang through the auditorium. And I was like, “Who is laughing during the Dalai Lama meditation?” And anyone who knows meditation, it’s like, oops, bring my thoughts back to my breath.
And then right after they had us open our eyes and come back into the room, and when I did the first thing that came into focus, I kid you not, was the Dalai Lama. And he was smiling with the most beautiful smile across his face, and he was the one laughing. And I was so taken aback because instead of some somber prayer or gentle words of wisdom, he laughed at himself and he made a joke. He said, “Oh my God, I’m so jet lagged, I think I fell asleep during the meditation.”
And it was the most profound moment and learning from that day and maybe that entire decade of life was that even the wisest of us, even the ones with the most responsibility and serious work can find a way to live with their humanness and humanity while doing important work in the world. Serious work in a serious time in the world should not, and does not have to come at expense to rest, wellbeing, and recovery.
If anything, the more centered we are in ourselves, the better we show up to our work and our people and our customers. We are more innovative, more creative, we have better morale, everyone benefits. And not only that, we show up to our families, our communities, everything, everyone benefits.
So I really encourage you to realize that resilience is not about how you endure, it’s about how you recharge and replenish. So I hope you get a little micro rest today.