Large numbers of American workers are reporting feeling stressed and exhausted on the job. Some of that is beyond the reach of the workplace—people have been living through more than two years of a global pandemic, and, more personally, most people have stressors at home that are hard to leave behind when the workday starts. But some elements of burnout do lie within an employer’s control, because they can result from the way jobs and workplaces are structured. And, practically speaking, burned-out employees will turn to their managers, who need to be able to guide them. What can leaders do to help workers who are feeling perpetually stressed out?
I talked with Jakada Imani, the CEO of the Management Center— which has trained tens of thousands of managers at organizations such as nonprofits, political campaigns, and school districts—about burnout and how to help prevent it.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Caroline Mimbs Nyce: How much control do bosses actually have over burnout?
Jakada Imani: We often say ‘Folks don’t leave jobs; they leave managers.’ If your manager understands that you have a role that is exposed to burnout, they can help you set realistic parameters around how you define your goals.
I was working with a client a couple of years back, at the start of the Trump administration. They were the primary attorneys for minors in the immigration system. And so turning off the computer at the end of the day felt like a betrayal. We had to reformulate what success will look like.
What success looks like is eight to 10 hours—12 tops—of work, and then recovery. You actually have to step away so that you can come back fresh tomorrow, because if you don’t, your error rate is going to go up. And so we had to reframe for them that winning every case and doing all they could do wasn’t going to be successful in the long term. And it took management saying, “We actually want you to have a manageable caseload. This is heartbreaking and tragic, but burning you out means that other people won’t get adequate defense and support. And so we can’t do that.”
Managers and leaders can play a huge role in valuing people’s rest and recovery, and understanding that as a part of their labor, as a part of what they contribute to the organization.
Nyce: Is supporting rest the most important thing a manager can do to prevent burnout?
Imani: I would say the biggest thing is to remember that you are managing and working with humans, and there are differences among them. So individualize it. You should have conversations like “Hey, how do you manage stress? How do you manage workload? Where do you find solace? What is the stuff that fills you up and renews you?”
There’s no one answer for the millions of workers in the United States. For some folks, it’s vacation. For other folks, it’s managing it day to day. For other folks, it’s having a manager who has their back and who they can talk to about, like, “Hey, you know, I’m just not feeling it today. I’m feeling draggy or I’m feeling down or I’m really angry, and I can’t focus.” And just having that discussion frees up their brain to get back to work.
And then lastly, we often talk with folks about getting feedback and input from their folks about what’s working and what’s not through a mid-year evaluation. And at the end of the year, having a “stay” conversation with folks that you want to stay: “What would it take for you to stay for another 12 to 24 months?”
Nyce: Would you ask that directly?
Imani: Oh yeah. For high performers and people who you want to stay, we advise all of our clients to have a “stay” conversation. Because the assumption isn’t that they’re going to stay, especially with the Great Resignation of the last few years.
We tell managers to assume that folks are making plans that may have little to do with the organization. If you are banking on those people, you should make that transparent. It demonstrates a level of appreciation and commitment to them. That in and of itself is a grounding thing for folks, to know that they’re wanted. We live in a world where people need more now: They need to know they feel wanted and seen and valued for their contributions to the organization.
Nyce: A lot of organizations are not set up well culturally. How can a manager who is working in a not-so-great environment protect their team and prevent burnout?
Imani: This is a difficult question. Some organizations and institutions are so big, so old, so complicated—or the person at the top doesn’t give a damn at all—that the cultures can be lackadaisical and toxic.
As a manager, your relationship with your individual people—checking in on them, asking them how their weekend was—is one way to build in culture. Another is to think about the expectations you’re setting as a manager and whether they are in alignment with your values and the culture you’re trying to generate. Then you can have a culture conversation with your team, getting articulate and explicit about the culture you’re trying to create.
You can also talk to your manager: “Hey, this is what I’m trying to do with my team. How can the organization support me?” Or “Hey, these things are getting in the way of us having a good team culture. It’s leading to staff turnover or team dissatisfaction. What can we do to mitigate or address this?” Managing up and inviting your boss to help you do it a little bit better moves the culture a little bit—or at least creates some space for your team to have a different day-to-day reality.
Nyce: How does a manager know if someone’s burned out?
Imani: Work productivity takes a huge dive. They were churning, churning, and now they are slogging. They’re missing deadlines. They’re missing check-ins. They don’t have that sort of same energy and fire in the belly, or consistency. They’re telling you in their actions, sometimes in their words: “Hey, how was your weekend?” “It was fine, I mostly slept.”
Nyce: Is there anything that you think is just really important that managers know right now?
Imani: All this stuff around quiet quitting—and that general “back in my day” grumbling—is a failure of leadership. And it’s a failure of imagination. Because you have to lead the actual team you actually have, not the team you want. And so if you imagine you have all these people in your team who are just willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the company and you lead based on that—as opposed to people who are self-interested, complicated, living through a big world-shifting series of events and a destabilizing moment in this country and the world—then you’re not leading them. You’re leading your imagination.