“There is strange comfort in knowing that no matter what happens today, the sun will rise again tomorrow.”
– Aaron Lauritsen, Canadian author
What’s Wrong With Him?
I was puzzled. Martin’s writing and spelling were usually exceptional, but typos and errors had begun to litter his reports.
Then I began to notice that he was having trouble with his normal workload. He wasn’t as motivated as usual, and he was visibly annoyed when I asked him to take extra care with his proofreading.
Martin usually had a great attitude to criticism, but now he seemed oversensitive. Every time I pointed out something that needed attention, he went into a tailspin of negativity.
Could it have something to do with the fact that he had recently moved house, changed jobs, and lost a parent?
All of this had happened months earlier, and on the surface he seemed to be coping well. At the time, I’d offered him extra leave, but he preferred to stick to his regular shifts and carried on working without missing a beat.
One day, the problem reached a point where I could no longer ignore it. I took Martin out of the office for coffee, and asked him whether he shouldn’t take a few weeks off work. His tears started flowing immediately.
Martin confessed that he was exhausted. He struggled to sleep at night and struggled to keep awake during the day. Nothing excited him anymore, and he’d stopped going to the gym, even though he used to love training.
Facing the Truth
Martin was an overachiever and a highly competitive person, so he’d been reluctant to admit that he was mentally and physically drained. Although he knew that our workplace was a safe space, he wouldn’t allow it to be safe for him. He’d always thought of exhausted people as weak, and now he was facing the same “fault” that he disliked in others.
So he put on a brave face every day and tried to continue as if nothing had happened. Of course, this was counterproductive, as it took more and more of his energy to pretend that everything was OK.
When we finished our coffee, I sent Martin home. I made it clear that between myself and his colleagues (who had also noticed that he wasn’t himself) we’d be able to cover his shifts and take care of his duties.
I made him promise that he wouldn’t send any work-related emails, or respond to work calls and messages. Back at the office, I asked the team to help Martin out, and not to contact him.
A month later, Martin returned to work, and it was like having the “old” Martin back. His passion and motivation had returned, and he was once again one of the star performers.
By his own admission, he was also a little wiser. He knew now that pretending to be strong didn’t benefit him or the team, and that it’s OK to show when you’re tired and to take a break when you need to rest.
Managing Exhausted Team Members
A person’s performance, accuracy and emotional equilibrium can change when they’re exhausted. Understanding this can help you to deal with it quickly and effectively.
During last Friday’s #MTtalk Twitter chat, we talked about managing exhausted team members. Here are the questions we asked and some of the responses:
Q1. How can you identify exhausted team members?
@Mushcado Just look out for people. If you know them well enough you’ll recognize when they’re exhausted.
@BrainBlenderTec Usually you notice changes in their eyes, physical appearance, and day-to-day banter.
Q2. How might someone’s behavior change when they’re exhausted?
@MicheleDD_MT They become less engaged with their team. Commitment to the organization drops. Just do what has to be done and no more. Less energy. The sparkle is gone.
@s_narmadhaa They stop caring about the quality of their work. Job satisfaction means nothing, and they’re physically present but emotionally unavailable.
Q3. What effect does exhaustion have on performance?
@carriemaslen Burned-out employees just “mail it in.” Productivity suffers.
@B2the7 Performance does suffer, and with that comes lack of concentration, potential errors, and less teamwork/collaboration with others.
Q4. How would you know if a team member was heading for burnout?
@Ganesh_Sabari Smile is missing; ideas are disappearing; cocooning; silly mistakes that are not commensurate with one’s professional level; sick body language; negative mindset.
@ClkContrl Sometimes there is no way to know because of the way your team is structured. Building in regular communication, with one-on-one check-ins and allowing people to ask each other and their superior the hard questions, is essential.
Q5. What are some of the biggest risks for the company if team members are exhausted?
@MicheleDD_MT Difficult to provide excellent customer service when you’re exhausted – may affect brand reputation.
@PIPability Injuries on the job to that person or to others. There are many cases of death, like this headline: “CSX engineer admits falling asleep before train crash.” It is a real problem that needs attention. It can’t be ignored.
Q6. What short-term coping strategies do people tend to use when they’re exhausted, and how helpful are those strategies?
Many participants noted that some people use substances such as alcohol or caffeine to cope in the short term. Other short-term coping strategies include:
@PIPability Denial, which really does not help. Good coping strategies, when taking a nap is not feasible, are to take a slow walk, eat healthy snacks, and just talk with someone.
@maat333 Take a break or resume a hobby. Make contact with relatives and friends. Something as simple as clearing the mind and an external impulse is all that many need.
Q7. How might you support someone who is exhausted?
Zala (@ZalkaB) makes an excellent point, because not every exhausted person recognizes the cause of the problems they’re experiencing.
@ZalkaB Try to help them see that they are exhausted. Talk to them. Encourage them to take a break, to take time for themselves, and to rest and recover. Give them applicable options, not generalized “You should change something.” Some people need support and encouragement.
@jojacob_uk Help them prioritize, including the priority of resting and doing healthy things like eating well.
Q8. How might you handle a situation when the exhaustion results from factors outside the workplace?
@SanabriaJav Just listen. Sometimes people just need to vent. We’re not robots – that’s when being a human and being empathetic comes into play.
@harrisonia As a leader, if you are certain the source of someone’s exhaustion is outside of the office, ask the team member if there is anything you can do to assist, and say that you (or HR) are available for a confidential discussion.
Q9. What strategies could you use, for yourself or others, to minimize the effects of exhaustion?
@Midgie_MT Take regular breaks throughout the day and on a regular basis to recharge. Also, disconnect from work/social media for periods of time.
@goiuby The end of the workday is exactly that, the END of the WORK day. Leave it at the door! As the leader, you should set an example of not only hard work within the office, but of responsible life-work balance outside the office as well.
Q10. What measures can you take today to prevent exhaustion within your team?
@Yolande_MT Decide to devote each day only to that which is worthy of your attention, and help your team members to do the same.
@ClkContrl Ask, individually, how they’re doing. Not very many people feel comfortable speaking up in a big meeting, or even a small group, for fear of sounding weak or bad. Talking privately allows honesty.
To read all the tweets, have a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat.
In next week’s blog, we’ll take a look back at the very best of the useful tips, heartfelt advice, and illuminating anecdotes that have been shared by #MTtalk participants throughout 2018.
And we’re going to kick off 2019’s #MTtalk chats with a discussion about learning from experience. It’s always great to hear what, and how, others have learned from experience and how it has helped to shape them. When we share with others, everybody can benefit from our collective pool of wisdom.
In the meantime, here are some resources relating to exhaustion, burnout and managing exhausted team members. (Please note, some of the resources listed below are only available in full to members of the Mind Tools Club.)