by Meridith Levinson

Beat Your Burnout Before Staff Morale Goes Up in Flames

Jun 15, 2010

Burnout is like a contagious disease: It can poison your entire staff unless you learn to control it.

An unintended consequence of burnout for an IT leader is the impact it can have on his staff.  A reader who commented on my recent article, IT Career Burnout: What to Do When the Thrill Is Gone, noted that he’s witnessed first-hand the devastating effect an IT executive’s stress and dissatisfaction can have on staff morale and productivity. The reader’s observation sends a vital message to IT leaders about how their emotions can affect their staff, and about their need to control and compartmentalize certain emotions in the workplace in order to lead effectively.

When You’re Burned Out, Your Staff Suffers, Too.

Let’s face it: When you’re stressed and burned out, the only person you’re really tuned into is yourself. You tend not to notice the needs and emotions of people around you because you’re consumed by your own misery. While this self-centeredness is not an ideal space from which to operate, it’s somewhat understandable in my opinion: The self-centeredness that accompanies stress and burnout may serve as a defense mechanism, allowing you to focus on yourself when you need to the most. For some, it may be the only way they know how to cope.  

But while you’re experiencing the emotional and psychological symptoms of burnout, your staff is picking up on the subtle and not-so-subtle cues you emit that indicate your misery, and your misery rubs off on them. Perhaps it’s those mirror neurons, which I mentioned in a previous blog entry on charisma, at work. (Mirror neurons mimic the emotions of others in our own minds such that we experience whatever emotion they are feeling.)

In any event, your dissatisfaction “spreads like a disease” across your staff, wrote the reader who’s seen this happen. Morale drops. Productivity plummets. As a leader, you set the tone for your organization, and when you’re burned out, that tone is morose.

I don’t mean to suggest that it’s not okay to get burned out. On the contrary, it’s normal. What matters is how you cope with it on a day to day basis inside your organization. Your job as a leader is to set a strong example for your staff. Controlling your emotions is not easy, but learning how to do so separates the true leaders from the people who are leaders in title only.

How do you cope with burnout and prevent it from consuming your staff?