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Mollie West Duffy

Lattice

Head of Learning and Development

Read more about Mollie West Duffy

Burning out of control: Are line managers in crisis?

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Each New Year offers a chance to reflect on the one gone by, and 2023 has certainly been a chaotic and uncertain one. Although there are positive signs for the year ahead, we aren’t out of the woods just yet – especially for employees in the UK.

In fact, the British Chamber of Commerce recently described the UK’s economic outlook for 2024 as ‘fragile’, suggesting that organisations will have to navigate more uncertainty and unpredictability.

With this in mind, business resilience has never been more critical. And to build resilient businesses, you need great managers. Who else is better positioned to inspire employees, set performance standards, lead with empathy and keep people aligned with business objectives?

But managers are under unprecedented strain, and many are burning out:  According to Gartner, 75% of HR leaders report that managers “are overwhelmed by the growth of their job responsibilities.” Or as they put it more bluntly: “Managers are cracking” under the strain of layoffs, restructuring, budget concerns and change fatigue.  

Higher rates of manager burnout don’t really come as a surprise.

Managers are feeling the burn

Burnout is increasingly acknowledged as a global crisis harmful to both companies and employees in the long term. A recent YouGov survey on behalf of Lattice found that 54% of employees are experiencing burnout, with 11% reporting it as “significant.” Furthermore, two-thirds of people managing a department or team report burnout in their current role, with 23% saying that it’s “significant.”

These higher rates of manager burnout don’t really come as a surprise. In moments of continual change and economic uncertainty, managers are on the front line when it comes to tackling and preventing burnout amongst their teams.

Managers are tasked with keeping their teams engaged, productive, and doing their best work, all while taking care of their teams’ and their own wellbeing. But this comes at a cost to managers themselves.

Let this go on for too long and burnout will inevitably ignite.

It’s time to take the heat out of manager burnout

So how can HR leaders step in and protect the managers that are so valuable to the building of healthy and successful businesses? Here are a few tried and tested strategies:

1. Recognise managers for the work they do

It may seem simple, but it works. Recognise your managers for all the work they do to run efficient, engaged, high-performing teams. The hardest parts of being a manager go mostly unrecognised under the assumption that they are “just part of the job.”

Change this by creating frequent opportunities for feedback and praise. Some HR software platforms enable employees to submit praise for other people in their team or the wider organisation, publicly or privately, so managers can get recognition from their reports or peers.

Another simple but effective burnout-beating solution is to add specific questions about manager behaviour into your regular engagement and pulse surveys. This kind of invaluable feedback can help you spot manager behaviours deserving of recognition and celebration. 

It’s important to identify burnout as early as possible.

2. Create dedicated spaces for managers to tell you what they need 

Provide open forums for managers to talk about burnout, and emotional and physical impacts associated with common symptoms – feeling overextended, disengaged, or ineffective.

Some may be experiencing all these symptoms, others just one, but it’s helpful to differentiate between the different types and levels of burnout felt by managers so that each can be tackled effectively.

Equally, it’s important to identify burnout as early as possible. Manager feedback is invaluable for spotting the signs and taking action quickly. 

The key to this is opening up avenues for candid discussion. Consider hosting dedicated sessions for managers to share what’s currently keeping them up at night, what challenges they’re facing in their roles, and the difficulties being felt within their teams.

Next, ask what you can do as an organisation to help them. In my experience, simply creating space for these types of open and frank conversations helps managers feel that their organisation is listening and responding to their needs, and proactively preventing opportunities for burnout to creep in.

3. Provide high-quality manager development training 

Management training cannot be training for training’s sake. It must be designed to change the types of manager habits that can lead to burnout.

Let’s be honest, the somewhat old-fashioned development programmes that take managers away for a few days are operating on the assumption they’ll come back and automatically be better at their jobs – these kinds of workshops simply aren’t effective and need to be resigned to the past. 

Managers, like any other employee, don’t learn new skill sets overnight (or even in just a few days). To build new, healthy habits, they need sustained time and accountability. I’ve found that management development programmes work best when they proceed at a more gradual pace.

Instead of trying to find a quick fix, focus instead on building better manager habits week-by-week. Support them by giving constructive feedback, having regular career development meetings with their reports, and coaching them in how to ruthlessly prioritise for their team.

By doing so you can help managers make lasting changes in their flow of work that mitigate the risks of burnout.

Being a manager can be a thankless task, and it’s only getting more complex.

4. Provide other avenues for employees to get support beyond their manager 

Make feedback more holistic. There are many people within every organisation that can provide employees with feedback, career development opportunities, and mentorship. Don’t just rely solely on line managers. Reduce the burden by mixing things up a little.  

Do you have a mentorship programme? If not (or if you do and it’s not working as effectively as you’d like), try matching employees with a mentor based on their individual needs, aspirations, and preferences.

While you’re at it, why not also try out open team effectiveness sessions? These create valuable space for everyone to give and receive feedback from people other than their manager.

Start supporting your managers now

Being a manager can be a thankless task, and it’s only getting more complex. You can make it a more valuable, positive, and rewarding experience with the right support.  Try out these strategies and find the right balance between manager performance and wellbeing so your organisation can stop this pernicious crisis from burning out of control.

Interested in this topic? Read HR’s newest problem: Managing leadership burnout

Author Profile Picture
Mollie West Duffy

Head of Learning and Development

Read more from Mollie West Duffy
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