I recently led an energy and personal sustainability workshop with a team at one of the world’s largest, most successful organizations. The people I worked with were bright. They were driven. They believed in what they did and enjoyed working as a team to do it.

And they were on the brink of breaking down.

I see this all the time.

Some companies are proud of their reputations for grinding people down and rigorously initiating them into the cult of work.

Then there are companies like the one I am working with. The leaders care about their people. The team members want to see the organization succeed. But it’s just not enough.

I call this burn-in. It happens when people work hard but just don’t have the resources and capacity to manage their heavy workload and the strain of the continual burden of others’ (and their own) expectations.

In many ways, burn-in is just a manifestation of the world we live in, one where the long-tail pandemic has eroded all boundaries between work and personal life, one where technology keeps us ever-distracted and never-fully-present.

We expect people to give their best at work. Then, when they do, we praise it. We appreciate it. And then we reward them by giving them even more to manage. When team members demonstrate high-functioning capacity, it is typically met with the continual testing, being asked to give more and take on more, until it becomes completely untenable.

How Does Burn-in Impact Your Team?

Many people feel quite virtuous when they put in dozens of extra hours at work, like they’re going above and beyond and achieving what the “regular” employees could never do.

Here’s the thing, though: It’s not hard to work 60-hour weeks. It is hard to analyze your workload, find ways to manage it more sustainably, and reduce those hours and make a commitment to compartmentalizing your work efforts.

When you have the mentality that more is better and that winning can make up for anything – any number of sleepless nights, hours in the office, soccer games missed, fast food meals eaten – that’s when burn-in strikes.

It doesn’t start from a person hating their job – in fact, they may be quite passionate about their work – but burn-in develops as they rely on unhealthy and unsustainable behaviors to keep themselves in the game.

Burned-in employees often:

  • Work hard, only to have leadership notice their hard work and pile more work on them
  • Spend too much of their work time in meetings, then feel as though they have no time available to complete their own work
  • Stay at the office late or return to their home office after others go to bed because it’s the only time they can get an uninterrupted moment to take on their ever-growing list of tasks
  • Respond to emails and work communications around the clock because they don’t want to feel like others are waiting on them or that they’re letting the team down
  • Feel like they can’t say no, so they just keep taking on more until they decide to give their notice

Finding Ways to Support Burned-in Teams and Individuals

If you’re leading a hard-working team, you are probably managing high achievers who want to do well, want to advance, and are prone to overworking themselves.

Your job as a leader is to give them the resources to stop burn-in and move to a more renewable way of working. Start by considering and focusing on their humanity.

Your team members are not robots designed to produce an ongoing, consistent output. They need time to re-energize and to renew themselves in order to be able to provide the creative energy that differentiates your team and organization.  Being burned-in can seriously impede those efforts. For example:

  • When people go without sleep, they lose their ability to think strategically, and it can take days for their energy to rebound.
  • Brain-derived neurotropic factor aids in brain elasticity so people can think and recall with greater clarity. People with high stress levels and those who are sedentary have lower levels of BDNF, the backbone of healthy and high capacity thinking.

Setting boundaries is critical to building a work environment where people can get what they need to thrive. Are you and your organization’s leadership team creating an environment where people can refresh and heal from their burnout/burn-in?

Or, are you unknowingly creating an environment where your team members are becoming bogged down by chronic stress? You might evaluate:

  • How easy is it for employees to discuss and disagree, either with one another or with leadership?
  • What deadlines are in place for your team’s projects? Are your team members placed under stress occasionally for an event or launch, or are they enduring the ongoing stress of performing for artificial deadlines like monthly or quarterly goals?
  • Are team members able to take time off when they need to, or are others constantly calling/contacting them and asking for help putting out fires? Are team members treated differently based on the reason they’re taking time off?

Putting boundaries in place may not stop certain employees from trying to take on too much, because their mindset is focused on proving themselves and their worth. With these types of achievement-oriented team members, you may need to take a slightly different approach.

Ask them to show maturity and the capability to lead by leading themselves. Ask them to take time to assess their workload and develop their own norms, and be sure you’re ready to walk the walk. If you’ve been relying on them to do the work of three people, will you shift some of that burden and actually give them the time and space they need to regenerate their energy?

Does it Really Make a Difference?

When toxic companies make shifts, it’s often greeted with a healthy dose of skepticism. When good companies make the same shifts, they tap into a wellspring of resources that can supercharge their productivity.

That’s because overwhelmed and burned-in teams are relying on time to fuel their efforts. If they just work more, take on more, do it faster, give a little more – they think they can get the job done.

When you shift the way you view and manage your team, you switch from relying on time as the sole commodity to fuel your team’s efforts. Energy becomes the resource your efforts rely on and unlike finite time, energy is renewable and can be produced in abundance.

Your team can focus on regenerating energy by setting clear boundaries – both interpersonal and between work and personal life. They can regenerate energy by changing their physical behaviors – becoming more active, resting, adjusting their nutrition. And they can do it by managing their mental strain – compartmentalizing work responsibilities and prioritizing their efforts; powering off technology; being mindful of the chronic stressors weighing on them.

Regenerating energy as an individual means greater sustainability and the capability to push through challenges when needed.

As a team, relying on energy regeneration to fuel your efforts means you’ll be able to focus more on productivity than merely presence. You’ll give your people the bandwidth they need to be fully present both at work and at home, and they’ll reward you with exceptional work product, engagement, and loyalty.

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