(4-minute read)

It’s been a tough year for everyone, but especially tough if you’re a boss. As we enter year two of the pandemic, this seems like the right time to talk about boss burnout.

Just about everyone reading this blog manages someone, and without a doubt, everyone reading this has a boss. Adjusting to the uncertainties of a global pandemic, transitioning to remote work and delivering on quickly shifting organizational goals has made this past year like no other.

Many of us are also actively managing or improving internal culture. And overall, we’re expected to display empathy, inclusivity, flexibility, agility and resiliency in every daily interaction.

All of these changes and disruptions have caused lots of stress. When stress is left unchecked, it can become burnout affecting both personal well-being and organizational productivity.

In Harvard Business Review’s recent article, the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2019 defined burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” and included it in the International Classification of Diseases.

Mystery solved; burnout is real. The good news is that the definition suggests that workplace stress can be “successfully managed” so let’s try.

To understand how to manage burnout, we need to begin with its root causes. Christina Maslach of the University of California, Berkeley, Susan E. Jackson of Rutgers, and Michael Leiter of Deakin University outlined six leading causes of burnout as

  1. Unsustainable workload
  2. Perceived lack of control
  3. Insufficient rewards for effort
  4. Lack of a supportive community
  5. Lack of fairness
  6. Mismatched values and skills

In other words, many of the things we faced in 2020.



The first step in dealing with burnout is to become attuned to changes in behavior. It’s always easy to spot changes in others; it’s harder to see changes in ourselves.

Below are some behavior changes, compiled from various sources, to keep on your radar. Noticing these changes in your boss or in yourself is the first step toward managing burnout.

1)  My boss has stopped communicating, repeatedly reschedules our 1-1 meeting or doesn’t fully read/respond to my emails. This behavior suggests exhaustion and feeling a lack of support from staff or management.

2)  My boss is harder on me and my team than usual. He/she/they may be struggling to manage expectations from superiors.

3)  My boss is distracted in meetings and can’t focus on larger goals. Your boss is not effectively managing the team’s workload.

4)  My boss has become a micromanager. Micromanaging happens when your boss wants to regain a sense of control.



How you can help your burned-out boss

A burned-out boss makes everyone’s job harder.The suggestions that follow will help pull your boss from the weeds and reconnect with the team and larger goals.

The benefits aren’t one-sided. You’ll gain insight, remain connected to the purpose of your work and get valuable advice.

1)   Talk 1-1
Lack of a supportive community is one of the leading factors of burnout. For those who have a good working relationship with their boss, schedule a virtual lunch or coffee and talk about how you’ve both been managing the events of the past year. A one-on-one conversation will help reconnect the boss with the individuals on the team. For those who don’t have this level of relationship, read on.

2)   Connect your activities to larger goals
Connect your To Do list tasks with larger company objectives. Stay practical. In conversations, connect your projects to outcomes to keep everyone focused on the bigger picture and purpose of the work. This keeps your boss outcome-focused and builds your leadership skills.

3)   Ask outcome specific questions
An excellent way for redirecting your boss away from micromanaging is to ask questions like, “How does this project connect with the company’s larger goals?” and “What other departments can we tap into for help?” Questions provide a path for your boss to move beyond tasks and refocus on the bigger picture.

4)   Seek advice
Asking for advice gives your boss the chance to act as a mentor. This simple act can help your boss remember that they are part of a supportive community. For you to benefit, be specific with your ask.

5)   Show gratitude
At the beginning of a staff meeting, suggest setting aside a few minutes for “moments of gratitude.” These moments help everyone on the team connect on a human level.


What to do if you’re a burned-out boss

1)   Take a day
There has been a lot written about self-care and for good reason. Self-care is essential for well-being. Figure out what works for you, then do it.

2)   Reconnect with your team
If you are being extra hard on your team and micromanaging, step back and make a three-column list of the skills each team member has mastered, is developing and where they are showing potential. It’s easy to see your team’s strengths on paper, then recognize those strengths during moments of gratitude.

3)   Control your To-Do list
The Eisenhower Matrix is an organizational tool that segments tasks in order of urgency and importance. The matrix prioritizes functions into four categories: Do First, Schedule, Delegate and Don’t Do and provides clarity if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

4)   Free Yourself
Use the matrix to identify areas where you can transfer ownership to team members, allowing them to step up, contribute and build key skills.

5)   Start Talking  
If you’ve let 1-1 meetings, ideation sessions and office hours slip; put these blocks of time back in the schedule. In times of stress, we all need to connect and come up with new ideas. Conversation and ideas generate energy and excitement, reconnecting you with your work.

Chances are if you are experiencing burnout, so is your team. The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) is a tool for measuring your team’s level and likely causes of burnout.

Overcoming burnout is accomplished faster when it’s a team effort. To keep burnout at bay, first pay attention to the signals then accept help from others.


Thanks for reading!

If you’re not on the list and would like to be,
Sign up here >

You’ll get advice about career and leadership the first Tuesday of every month

If there is a topic you want to explore,
let me know >