Being part of an innovative team is exciting. The energy, the creative process, the relationships, and the satisfaction of doing the work are all products of a high-level team. A group of this quality feels like a dream when you are a young leader.
It is easy to think that limitations do not apply. In some ways, limits do not apply—until they do.
Limitations are our body’s way of saying, “I have had enough.” Often, this will show up in the form of tiredness, fatigue, brain fog, decreased passion, increased cynicism, and many other symptoms.
But ignoring these limit markers can be the cause of team burnout. We see the team lose innovation, productivity, and momentum when it loses its edge.
Table of Contents
- The Reality of Team Burnout
- Some Symptoms of Team Burnout
- 4 Signs of Team Burnout and How to Cope With It
- General Practices to Help Combat Team Burnout
- Final Thoughts
The Reality of Team Burnout
According to Dictionary.com, burnout is fatigue, frustration, or apathy resulting from prolonged stress, overwork, or intense activity. In other words, burnout is what happens to the body when you ignore the signs of stress and refuse to do something about it.
Similarly, team burnout is when a group of individuals ignores these same signs. Instead of it affecting one person, burnout affects the entire team.
Team burnout is much worse than navigating the everyday stress and fatigue of accomplishing team goals and responsibilities. Teams experiencing this often develop pessimistic attitudes, emotional distance, lowered production and productivity, and higher irritability.
The stark reality of team burnout is that most team members face what I like to call functional burnout. Functional burnout is when team members are living in a state of burnout but somehow find the will to keep showing up and pushing through.
After 20 years of leadership development and my personal experience with burnout, I am convinced that most teams live in a state of functional burnout.
Functional team burnout takes its toll on the team’s mental, physical, and emotional stability. Team burnout is a real thing, and leaders who do not take this seriously will quickly see failure knocking at their door.
Some Symptoms of Team Burnout
Here are the different ways in which team burnout manifests in teams.
- Dreading the thought of coming to work
- Decreased motivation and interest in working with the team
- Lowered sense of self-worth and belonging within the team
- Increased avoidance and procrastination of team members and responsibility
- Increased brain fog and decreased interactions
- Chronic fatigue and stress
- Unexplained illnesses
- Insomnia and other sleep disturbances
- Frequent physical symptoms like headaches, gastrointestinal issues, and so forth
- Increased absences from team meetings
- Cynicism toward others
- Anger, irritability, and frustration when interacting with others
- Feelings of emptiness, hopelessness, and numbness
- Feelings of isolation even while working with the team
- Mood swings that are often projected on the other members of the team
4 Signs of Team Burnout and How to Cope With It
Team burnout is apparent if you know what you are looking for. As a leader, you must understand who your people are, how they usually behave, and how they operate.
When you have a baseline for each team member, seeing the signs becomes easier to notice. If you are not aware of who you work with, then the symptoms of team burnout will go unnoticed and thus surprise you when you realize what is happening.
Let’s look at several signs that your team is facing burnout.
1. Decrease in the Quality and Output of Work
One of the telltale signs of team burnout is that the quality and output of work decreases. This is why having a baseline for your team’s ability and production is essential.
A red flag should be raised when you see a mild drop-off in the quality and output of work. A mild drop-off indicates that the team might be overworked, unclear about expectations, or experiencing higher stress levels.
However, if you notice a significant drop-off in the quality and output of work, this is a clear sign of team burnout.
How to Help Your Team Cope
This is why it’s important to have a baseline for your team’s ability and production. Keeping tabs on the quality and output of the group is a crucial indicator of where they might be emotionally and mentally. As a leader, knowing this information will allow you to be proactive.
Being Proactive Can Show Up in Different Ways
- Allowing your team time to decompress
- Promoting physical exercise as part of the work schedule
- Giving your team a safe space to “check-in” and talk about areas they may be struggling in
- Giving your team some mental health days they can take
2. Regularly Acting Out of Character
Another telltale sign of team burnout is when your team begins to act out of character.
As a Certified John Maxwell DISC Consultant, we learn that there are patterns to people’s personalities. These patterns give us strong indications of how people will act and behave under normal conditions.
When the personality pattern shifts dramatically, we instantly know that the person we are consulting is under great stress. This means that the person, under tremendous pressure, is demonstrating a pattern that is remarkably different than their usual pattern.
If the pattern shifts occasionally, we should start having conversations proactively. If the pattern shift is becoming more regular, the leader has to start engaging in the beginning stages of crisis prevention.
The closer to burnout the team becomes, the more frequently they behave out of character.
How to Help Your Team Cope
Here are some questions to ask when you notice out-of-character behavior.
- How do you feel, energy-wise, during and after work?
- Are you getting enough rest?
- How are your relationships at work?
- What causes the most worry for you while you are at work?
- Do you feel as if you are valued as a member of the team?
- What are you doing that you should stop doing?
- What are you not doing that you should start doing?
These questions are not an exhaustive list of possible questions to ask your team. The goal is to determine where they are, how they feel, and what they need to do for the work they were hired for.
3. Increased Complaining and Cynicism
Cynicism is a primary aspect of those who struggle with burnout. When team members are unhappy, the whole team feels it. When these emotions are unchecked, they can stray into hopelessness, isolation, and even bitter despair.
The impact of such negative emotions manifests itself through cynicism and complaining. The more burnt out the team member becomes the more profound cynicism and complaining become.
Emotions are contagious. It doesn’t matter if the feeling is negative or positive. Strong emotions have a way of permeating through the entire team.
How to Spot a Cynical Team Member
- The team member complains about fellow team members, staff, and clients.
- The team member becomes more combative and confrontational.
- Team members are no longer coachable, teachable, or open to correction.
- The team member openly speaks negatively about the team and the company.
How to Help Your Team Cope
If the team member is at the level of burnout where cynicism has taken control, then you’ll need to refer them to a professional. This level of burnout will require the individual to work through inner challenges.
These challenges can be work-related, home-related, connected to childhood trauma, or developed due to a lack of self-care. Whatever the reason the person is dealing with, this isn’t as important as recognizing that they need help and that you are most likely not equipped to help them.
Even though this individual may be dealing with this deep level of burnout, there are still some things you can do that can benefit the entire team.
- Practice gratitude
- Embrace positivity
- Learn strategic breathing exercises
- Practice mindfulness together as a team
- Have fun together (even if it’s just ten minutes a day)
4. Continual Energy Depletion and Chronic Exhaustion
We all have those days when it is hard to get out of bed. This is part of the typical human experience. We push ourselves too hard and suddenly do not want to leave our bed for a few days to recuperate.
However, a different story begins to unfold when we speak of burnout within the team dynamic. Instead of feeling tired with no energy, you start to feel chronically fatigued. Also, there is a dramatic increase in disengagement, isolation, and absenteeism.
As the team member’s energy decreases and chronic fatigue sets in, the team member becomes a liability within the team. The disengagement, isolation, and absenteeism put pressure on the other team members to carry the weight of the member who has burnt out.
This is a tough place because the team member is usually aware of what is happening. The tension created can become overwhelming. A thriving team can quickly become demoralized and fractured due to the excess challenges.
How to Help Your Team Cope
- Seek to understand how they got to the place they currently find themselves in.
- Spend time locating the source of the energy depletion.
- Do a survey to see where the team can pivot towards a healthy work ethic without grinding themselves into a place of burnout.
- Determine if the members are correctly placed within the position that they operate in.
General Practices to Help Combat Team Burnout
It may feel counterintuitive to teach life skills within the professional team context, but the reality is that the more successful the team is in life, the greater success they will create for the company.
Great leaders know that teaching life skills helps the team cross the finish line together.
Invest time encouraging and providing resources for your team to understand and engage in:
- Regular exercise
- Eating right
- Asking for help
Being exposed to continual stress can cause us to burn out. Feelings of exhaustion, anxiety and isolation from our professional and private lives can add up over time. The key is to manage the stress early by knowing the signs and being proactive enough to do something about it.
The biggest mistake of any team is to ignore the signs of burnout. A warning ignored today will be a problem you deal with tomorrow.
Instead, focus on the continual health of your team. Invest time and energy in developing a healthy team mentality—the team will carry the company mission across the finish life.
It is up to you to discover the signs of burnout and help your team learn to cope with it. In the end, the team’s success depends on the team’s longevity and how well you manage and prevent team burnout.
Featured photo credit: Annie Spratt via unsplash.com