Management

How to Address Manager Burnout

Kathleen O'Donnell
January 3, 2024
0min

We’ve got a big employee burnout problem in the workplace. More than two in five U.S. workers are burnt out. Corporate burnout is costing the U.S. $1.8 trillion (yes, trillion) in lost productivity alone. It’s not a U.S.-specific problem either: more than one in four workers worldwide is burnt out. 

But as bad as the burnout situation across all levels is, it’s even worse in one critical group: managers. Managers are more likely than individual contributors to be burned out (and disengaged, looking for a new job, and feeling like their organizations don’t care about their well-being, to boot). A stunning 42% of managers feel burnt out, according to Slack research

Eek—all this data points to a very serious problem. Organizations need to tackle manager burnout head-on or risk losing more of the terrific, motivating people managers who help your teams and company thrive. But there’s good news too: there are data-backed ways to alleviate, and even prevent, manager burnout from bringing down your organization and your people. 

Why is manager burnout different?

But why, exactly, is manager burnout a separate problem from typical employee burnout? Well, managers are employees too, of course, so there’s plenty of overlap; burnout is damaging and demoralizing no matter what your level in the organization. 

But since managers occupy an unusual (and often stressful) place in an organization, they’re both more susceptible to burnout. And their burnout also has greater ramifications than an individual contributor. 

First, managers take on a lot of the work of individual contributors as well as managing their teams. Recent McKinsey research shows that managers don’t spend the majority of their time on managerial tasks. They’re spending at least one full day per week on admin tasks, and at least 1.5 days per week on individual contributor work. 

That constant task-switching is distracting—managers are 67% more likely than individual contributors to strongly agree that they have a lot of interruptions at work. And that leaves them with less time to focus on the critical elements of managing: developing, coaching, and supporting their people. 

And when burnout gets in the way? It decreases productivity and engagement, meaning that even fewer of those vital management tasks get done. Manager burnout can drag down a whole team instead of just one person, as it leaves managers with less capacity to support and lead others. It can even damage retention, as managers play a key role there.  

Managers in many organizations are in a tough spot. They’re faced with multiple competing priorities from senior leaders, trying to guide employees who may be burned out themselves, and are faced with understaffed teams thanks to high levels of turnover. They have a huge amount of responsibility, but usually without a corresponding amount of ownership. 

Finally, managers are, for the most part, naturally caring and helpful people who got into their roles to help others, to coach and lead, and to make their teams’ lives better. It’s easier for them to slip into an overextended mode of operation where they’re juggling too many tasks and working well into the nights, weekends, and even their days off. 

The 4 warning signs of manager burnout 

Burned-out managers exhibit a lot of the same symptoms as burned-out individual contributors, but they can often hide their distress better (they’re trying to keep spirits up for the team, typically). But there are some telltale warning signs that your managers may be suffering from burnout, or about to get there. 

1. Irritability 

If a manager is typically patient and understanding with their team’s questions and requests, and begins seeming annoyed by, or impatient with, the same tasks and questions, they might be burnt out. 

2. Forgetfulness 

Normally diligent managers experiencing burnout might forget critical deadlines, important updates for the team, or even small details they would usually be on top of. 

3. Absenteeism 

The stress that causes burnout also dampens the immune system, so managers might miss work more because they’re sick or exhausted or just be later getting in the door of the office regularly. 

4. Apathy 

The biggest sign of burnout in managers is being apathetic about the work they used to love. Coaching people and helping them develop their careers is usually deeply satisfying work, so if managers aren’t finding it enjoyable anymore, burnout is probably to blame. 

How to help your burned-out managers 

If you’re spotting a few (or all) of these signs in your managers, what can you do to help them recover? These initiatives should help get them back on track to loving their jobs again. 

We have encouraging news, too! These methods will also help your currently engaged managers avoid burn out. Yes, that means you should implement them across your organization so you’re preventing burnout in the first place. Here’s what the data shows really works to manage burnout. 

Take a load off their plates

If your managers are overworked and dealing with too many competing priorities, the best way to combat their burnout is to take at least a few things off their plates. And since an average manager has 51% more responsibilities than they can effectively manage, this is a vital first step. 

A manageable workload instead of an overwhelming one will go a long way toward lowering burnout levels (and preventing burnout in all your other managers too). This might mean hiring contractors or adding freelancers into the rotation for your busy season, or postponing or canceling low-impact projects altogether. 

Look at staffing and support levels critically

Freelancers and contractors can be a great short-term solution. But you may also need to look at long-term staffing plans—do you have enough people to do the work that needs to get done, now and in the future? 

Reassessing priorities and taking a hard look at staffing levels right now can help you determine what work needs to get done now, and what you can put off until staffing levels are back to normal. If a burned-out manager’s team is chronically understaffed, perhaps moving one of their projects to a better-staffed team’s plate could help. 

Set up stronger work and life boundaries 

Managers can feel the need to be accessible to their teams at all times—in the middle of a deep focus task, late at night, or even on weekends. But that level of responsiveness and accessibility isn’t healthy and doesn’t allow them to balance work with their personal lives. 

Helping them set firmer communication boundaries, both with their direct reports and their leaders, can ease the stress that 24/7 availability causes and help with managing burnout. 

Ensure they’re taking time off

It’s so easy, especially on understaffed and overworked teams, for managers to put off taking a vacation until “things quiet down.” But there is never a perfect time to take time off, and it’s necessary to treat (and prevent) burnout. 

Leaders must ensure their people managers are taking all of their hard-earned time off, and that they’re able to unplug and step away from the office fully. One vacation won’t cure a bad case of burnout, but it’s a good first step, and it can also boost productivity

Encourage community and bond-building 

Strong bonds with peers make even the toughest workday bearable, and that goes just as much for managers as it does for individual contributors. Helping managers connect and form bonds with their peers can build a support network where managers can get help with sticky situations, like giving an employee negative feedback, so they feel less alone. 

And don’t assume these bonds will just pop up organically, especially if your company isn’t all working in the same office every day. Creating purposeful opportunities to connect, like manager lunch and learns or virtual happy hours, will help managers bond, and those bonds are a great burnout-preventer. 

Build a culture of recognition 

Yes, we talk all the time about how critical recognition is to engagement, performance, and productivity (it really is! That ROI doesn’t lie). But one group is often left out of recognition programs, even though they’re just as deserving: managers. Recognition—making sure they feel valued and appreciated—shows overwhelmed managers that they are making the company a better place, for their direct reports and their peers. 

Peer-to-peer recognition can be especially powerful for managers, and recognition from leaders is also crucial. That’s why developing a comprehensive, holistic recognition program that shares recognition with everyone in the organization—from managers to their teams, individual contributors to managers, peers to peers, and leaders to everyone else—is so critical. 

Managing burnout in managers 

Your managers are the glue that holds your whole organization together—motivating and coaching employees, translating leadership directives and priorities into action, and caring for employees as workers and as people. With a job that huge, it’s no wonder manager burnout is so high. 

But by prioritizing the work they excel at, helping them create stronger work-life boundaries, and recognizing all the hard work they do every day, you can turn burnout into engagement. 

It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. 

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We’ve got a big employee burnout problem in the workplace. More than two in five U.S. workers are burnt out. Corporate burnout is costing the U.S. $1.8 trillion (yes, trillion) in lost productivity alone. It’s not a U.S.-specific problem either: more than one in four workers worldwide is burnt out. 

But as bad as the burnout situation across all levels is, it’s even worse in one critical group: managers. Managers are more likely than individual contributors to be burned out (and disengaged, looking for a new job, and feeling like their organizations don’t care about their well-being, to boot). A stunning 42% of managers feel burnt out, according to Slack research

Eek—all this data points to a very serious problem. Organizations need to tackle manager burnout head-on or risk losing more of the terrific, motivating people managers who help your teams and company thrive. But there’s good news too: there are data-backed ways to alleviate, and even prevent, manager burnout from bringing down your organization and your people. 

Why is manager burnout different?

But why, exactly, is manager burnout a separate problem from typical employee burnout? Well, managers are employees too, of course, so there’s plenty of overlap; burnout is damaging and demoralizing no matter what your level in the organization. 

But since managers occupy an unusual (and often stressful) place in an organization, they’re both more susceptible to burnout. And their burnout also has greater ramifications than an individual contributor. 

First, managers take on a lot of the work of individual contributors as well as managing their teams. Recent McKinsey research shows that managers don’t spend the majority of their time on managerial tasks. They’re spending at least one full day per week on admin tasks, and at least 1.5 days per week on individual contributor work. 

That constant task-switching is distracting—managers are 67% more likely than individual contributors to strongly agree that they have a lot of interruptions at work. And that leaves them with less time to focus on the critical elements of managing: developing, coaching, and supporting their people. 

And when burnout gets in the way? It decreases productivity and engagement, meaning that even fewer of those vital management tasks get done. Manager burnout can drag down a whole team instead of just one person, as it leaves managers with less capacity to support and lead others. It can even damage retention, as managers play a key role there.  

Managers in many organizations are in a tough spot. They’re faced with multiple competing priorities from senior leaders, trying to guide employees who may be burned out themselves, and are faced with understaffed teams thanks to high levels of turnover. They have a huge amount of responsibility, but usually without a corresponding amount of ownership. 

Finally, managers are, for the most part, naturally caring and helpful people who got into their roles to help others, to coach and lead, and to make their teams’ lives better. It’s easier for them to slip into an overextended mode of operation where they’re juggling too many tasks and working well into the nights, weekends, and even their days off. 

The 4 warning signs of manager burnout 

Burned-out managers exhibit a lot of the same symptoms as burned-out individual contributors, but they can often hide their distress better (they’re trying to keep spirits up for the team, typically). But there are some telltale warning signs that your managers may be suffering from burnout, or about to get there. 

1. Irritability 

If a manager is typically patient and understanding with their team’s questions and requests, and begins seeming annoyed by, or impatient with, the same tasks and questions, they might be burnt out. 

2. Forgetfulness 

Normally diligent managers experiencing burnout might forget critical deadlines, important updates for the team, or even small details they would usually be on top of. 

3. Absenteeism 

The stress that causes burnout also dampens the immune system, so managers might miss work more because they’re sick or exhausted or just be later getting in the door of the office regularly. 

4. Apathy 

The biggest sign of burnout in managers is being apathetic about the work they used to love. Coaching people and helping them develop their careers is usually deeply satisfying work, so if managers aren’t finding it enjoyable anymore, burnout is probably to blame. 

How to help your burned-out managers 

If you’re spotting a few (or all) of these signs in your managers, what can you do to help them recover? These initiatives should help get them back on track to loving their jobs again. 

We have encouraging news, too! These methods will also help your currently engaged managers avoid burn out. Yes, that means you should implement them across your organization so you’re preventing burnout in the first place. Here’s what the data shows really works to manage burnout. 

Take a load off their plates

If your managers are overworked and dealing with too many competing priorities, the best way to combat their burnout is to take at least a few things off their plates. And since an average manager has 51% more responsibilities than they can effectively manage, this is a vital first step. 

A manageable workload instead of an overwhelming one will go a long way toward lowering burnout levels (and preventing burnout in all your other managers too). This might mean hiring contractors or adding freelancers into the rotation for your busy season, or postponing or canceling low-impact projects altogether. 

Look at staffing and support levels critically

Freelancers and contractors can be a great short-term solution. But you may also need to look at long-term staffing plans—do you have enough people to do the work that needs to get done, now and in the future? 

Reassessing priorities and taking a hard look at staffing levels right now can help you determine what work needs to get done now, and what you can put off until staffing levels are back to normal. If a burned-out manager’s team is chronically understaffed, perhaps moving one of their projects to a better-staffed team’s plate could help. 

Set up stronger work and life boundaries 

Managers can feel the need to be accessible to their teams at all times—in the middle of a deep focus task, late at night, or even on weekends. But that level of responsiveness and accessibility isn’t healthy and doesn’t allow them to balance work with their personal lives. 

Helping them set firmer communication boundaries, both with their direct reports and their leaders, can ease the stress that 24/7 availability causes and help with managing burnout. 

Ensure they’re taking time off

It’s so easy, especially on understaffed and overworked teams, for managers to put off taking a vacation until “things quiet down.” But there is never a perfect time to take time off, and it’s necessary to treat (and prevent) burnout. 

Leaders must ensure their people managers are taking all of their hard-earned time off, and that they’re able to unplug and step away from the office fully. One vacation won’t cure a bad case of burnout, but it’s a good first step, and it can also boost productivity

Encourage community and bond-building 

Strong bonds with peers make even the toughest workday bearable, and that goes just as much for managers as it does for individual contributors. Helping managers connect and form bonds with their peers can build a support network where managers can get help with sticky situations, like giving an employee negative feedback, so they feel less alone. 

And don’t assume these bonds will just pop up organically, especially if your company isn’t all working in the same office every day. Creating purposeful opportunities to connect, like manager lunch and learns or virtual happy hours, will help managers bond, and those bonds are a great burnout-preventer. 

Build a culture of recognition 

Yes, we talk all the time about how critical recognition is to engagement, performance, and productivity (it really is! That ROI doesn’t lie). But one group is often left out of recognition programs, even though they’re just as deserving: managers. Recognition—making sure they feel valued and appreciated—shows overwhelmed managers that they are making the company a better place, for their direct reports and their peers. 

Peer-to-peer recognition can be especially powerful for managers, and recognition from leaders is also crucial. That’s why developing a comprehensive, holistic recognition program that shares recognition with everyone in the organization—from managers to their teams, individual contributors to managers, peers to peers, and leaders to everyone else—is so critical. 

Managing burnout in managers 

Your managers are the glue that holds your whole organization together—motivating and coaching employees, translating leadership directives and priorities into action, and caring for employees as workers and as people. With a job that huge, it’s no wonder manager burnout is so high. 

But by prioritizing the work they excel at, helping them create stronger work-life boundaries, and recognizing all the hard work they do every day, you can turn burnout into engagement. 

It’s not easy, but it’s worth it. 

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