When it comes to workplace burnout, much of the advice you hear or read focuses on techniques managers can use to help their employees cope with the stressors. These techniques are useful as temporary symptom relievers, but they usually don’t reposition or fortify people to reach higher levels of performance. Afterward, people are still “disengaged.” Simply treating the symptoms of burnout is like giving someone medicine that provides temporary relief from the external signs of a cold. After the medication wears off, the person is still sick and operating at a less than optimal level.

So then, what’s the true cure for workplace burnout? The answer is to directly address the causes of disengagement and create environments that promote re-engagement with work.

The causes of disengagement and burnout
In 1997 the acknowledged leading researchers in the topic of burnout, Dr Christina Maslach and Dr Michael Leiter, co-authored a landmark book titled The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It. In their book, Drs. Maslach and Leiter listed the following six reasons as the cause for disengagement and burnout:

  1. Work overload
  2. Lacking a sense of control
  3. Insufficient rewards relative to the demand
  4. Breakdown or lack of a sense of community in the workplace
  5. Conflict of values or seeing work as meaningless
  6. Absence of fairness

“In today’s workplace, people and organizations are responding to the challenges of global competition, tightening budgets, and downsizing by working harder instead of smarter, resulting in the exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness characteristic of burnout,” stated Dr. Leiter. “The real solution to enabling people to effectively respond to the increase in demands will come from organizations and individuals significantly rethinking the way people work and how to effectively manage people and work,” he added. I agree; by doing this, we create environments that support true peak performance as measured by business results instead of the frenzied busywork and late nights that mask the diminishing returns of disengagement.

Drive more performance, less negative stress
Another interesting point that Maslach and Leiter point out is that the six areas that impact employee engagement are related, meaning that if we focus on fixing one, it will positively impact the others. With that in mind, I encourage you to approach the challenge by initially focusing on the application of just one or a few of the tips below. As you attack these dimensions of the challenge, you will find that the positive cascade effect will bring results in some or all of the other dimensions as well.

Maintain a sustainable workload
After any change that adds to the workload, get together with your team and ask them to list their current tasks, score each task in terms of their importance to the company, and identify the current level of quality (e.g., speed of turnaround for, say, help desk calls). With the team’s input, force-rank each team member’s tasks and determine where you’ll focus, cut, and eliminate to produce a high-value, sustainable workload. Finally, prepare a proposal for upper management on how you plan to resize the team’s workload.

Make sure you point out that by doing this, you’re preventing the erosion of quality and focusing on the things that are most important to the organization. The discussion will naturally result in some adjustments to the original proposal. But, in the end you will have a clear plan for focusing your team’s collective efforts on what’s most important to the company instead of diluting their focus and creating an unsustainable work pace by trying to do everything that was done before, plus the added work.

Involve people in the development and decision process
In the above example, the team’s participation was vital in creating the proposal. Likewise, in the creation of other common IT tools such as run books, make sure you include the team’s input. Don’t give them a manual put together entirely by you and/or consultants. Give the team members a voice.

Recognize and reward people in alignment with performance demands
Be ready to give more when you ask for more. If you can’t give team members a raise, look for nonmonetary but highly valued rewards. One manager I knew many years ago gave people special days off (in addition to vacation and personal days) to compensate for extra performance. Broaden your view of added compensation to include anything that gives value to your team members and that is commensurate with the extra effort you’re demanding.

Build a sense of community
One manager I know made it a practice to take his staff members out to lunch two at a time. By doing this with a different pair of people on a regular basis, he allowed his team members to get to know each other, which led to stronger personal relationships. Another approach that worked for me several years ago was to hold biweekly, in-house seminars, where speakers would talk about topics of specific interest to the team. For example, managing your 401K, low cost training opportunities, and buying insurance. This gave team members who normally didn’t see or work with each other the opportunity to interact on a regular basis and build a sense of community.

Communicate the value of work in terms that are meaningful to the people on your team
Another manager I knew who headed up a large team of engineers working in a major hospital conveyed to his team on a regular basis how the work they did to maintain the computer systems contributed to the overall focus of the hospital: saving lives. “You’re not just fixing a broken PC, you are helping doctors save a life,” he would tell them.

If you think about it, just about every entity exists to meet the needs of people. And every service within the entity is linked to the delivery of that benefit, although it may not always be apparent. Find that human value link and connect yourself and your people to it. You’ll be amazed at how this fires people up.

Create and maintain an environment of fairness, respect, and justice
No one or no organization is perfect. Despite best efforts work overload will happen from time to time, there will be mismatches in demand and compensation, communities will suffer due to restructuring, policies will be handed down from the top without discussion, and organizations will take actions that seem to belie their mission statements. But by being open, honest, and respecting your team member’s intelligence and opinions, you can ride out these challenges.

Fully engaging each team member as a valued individual by facing up to the real challenges in today’s workplace requires courageous leadership. By being courageous and providing your people with a supportive, engaging environment, you will fuel real results without driving your team or yourself over the edge.