When the canary in the coal mine stops chirping, you know there’s a problem.
When your team stop telling you about issues, you have a problem too.
Many leaders seem to have the impression that their team members will tell them when they are unhappy. That their team will come to them and say that they have too much work to handle.
Your team is rarely going to tell you they are burning out
People don’t want to tell their manager that they have too much work on, because:
- They don’t want to be seen as lazy
- If they are being given such a large workload, then they feel that handling this is what is expected as part of the role. If they don’t handle it, they feel they’re underperforming
- Saying “no” can be an uncomfortable conversation; or
- They may think their manager is a tyrant and raising the issue will be a pointless exercise.
If you are not a tyrant leader, then you might be dismayed to find out that team members aren’t willing to come to you for help. So how can you work out whether your team is burning out or simply remaining silent? Has their internal canary just snuffed it? Have they checked out?
Unfortunately, even if you try hard to develop a culture of openness within your team, some people may still feel uncomfortable coming to you with workload issues, because of the fear of being perceived as underperforming. Cultural differences can also matter here – some cultures don’t encourage speaking up to authority and they may simply absorb the heavy burden instead.
This is why you simply can’t rely on your team telling you when there is a workload issue. You need to remain aware of the situation before your team starts burning out.
Take time out to periodically catalogue the activities of your team
In the hustle and bustle of work, leaders are busy. They always seem to have hundreds of things to do, which is often why they end up pushing tasks down to their teams. This is what eventually leads to team members being overworked and burning out.
It’s important to set aside time to actually do a stocktake of what your team is doing. You aren’t omniscient – you can’t monitor what they do every day, so you need to stop and do some analysis. Some aspects of their work to look for include:
- The amount of meetings that a team member is expected to attend. If they are in meetings all the time, when do you expect them to be doing actual work?
- The number of stakeholders they need to deal with. If one of your team is dealing with many stakeholders all requiring support of some kind, this will take up a lot more of their time than somebody who is dealing with relatively few.
- The number of disconnected pieces of work they need to juggle. Doing lots of work for a particular business unit, stakeholder or client can be far easier than needing to handle multiple deliverables for purposes that aren’t related. The amount of “context switching” that occurs in someone’s day can have a dramatic effect on their stress levels and productivity.
- The sheer number of deliverables they are expected to complete. Similar to the point above, is the amount that needs to be produced by this person reasonable? Or does it make it difficult for them to focus and actually get some work done?
Take time out to monitor the behaviour of your team members
It’s not enough to simply look at the work activities of your team members in isolation. A key indicator that there may be issues can often be seen by a person’s behaviour. Some key aspects of behaviour to look for are:
- Stress behaviours: Irritability, snapping at colleagues, headaches, anger, lack of communication, disengagement with peers are all good examples of stress behaviours to look out for.
- Working hours: Does your team member work late often? Do they send emails after hours during their personal time? Do they answer emails when they are on holiday?
- Behavioural change: Sometimes a change in behaviour is an indicator that something is wrong. Maybe your team member is normally bright and bubbly, but now they are brooding and silent. Perhaps previously they used to go do lunch with their colleagues and now they eat alone at their desk.
Taking the time as a leader to periodically do a stock take of what your team is doing is critical, and often something that seems to be overlooked in the hustle and bustle of the working day.
Many leaders seem to rely on the mantra “no news is good news” when it comes to dealing with their teams. They expect their team to come to them with workload issues, but if their team doesn’t do that, there needs to be another mechanism to sense-check and balance the workload. Without another way of testing the workload of each team member, there is a real risk of leading your teams to burnout, disengagement or simply choosing to work elsewhere.
Stop, take stock and balance the work of your team.
When you notice the canary has stopped chirping, it might already be too late.