Explainers

Why Burnout Is Hard to Avoid—and How to Restore Work Life Balance

Saying “no” to incoming projects and colleagues’ requests can be difficult in the workplace, but these habits can help you prioritize

If you want to avoid burnout, you’re going to have to become more selective: what won’t you do in order to maintain work-life balance, and long-term productivity?

It seems like a straight-forward task: surely not doing things is easier than doing things. But in our experience of working with hundreds of teams, saying no—turning down new projects, refusing colleagues’ requests—is one of the greatest challenges employees face. Part of this, of course, is due to working in a market economy, with its focus on growth, competition, and production. Some of it is due to perfectionism; high-performing teams tend to want to take on greater challenges and deliver at the highest level. And some of it comes down to relationships: of course teams want to help their colleagues and maintain personal ties.

But with only so many people and so many hours in the day, you need to figure out, as a team and as an organization, what you won’t do if you want to maintain work-life balance. Our Adaptive Planning process helps teams figure out what “bets” they want to make—that is, the projects and activities that they will implement in an effort to achieve their strategic objectives. But just as importantly, it incorporates practices that help you determine what not to do. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the work ahead, try the following with your team:

  • Implement regular reflection to assess the amount of work you’re doing. Retros and roundtables aren’t just good opportunities to think about how the work is going—they can also help you assess how much work is going on. It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of new projects or the grind of day-to-day work, so take time now to establish a rhythm for coming together as a team and deciding if you’re taking on too much.
  • Focus on outcomes and measures, not input. Some work occurs due to inertia: the team has always run a campaign, or a project has always been run a certain way. Or the team throws themselves into a project because it’s something they’re good at, or that they enjoy doing (AKA bikeshedding). But if these efforts aren’t hitting their numbers or contributing to the organization’s strategic goals, it may be time to re-evaluate whether they’re worth doing. Setting up clear outcomes at the start makes it easier to assess effectiveness later, while focusing on outcomes rather than inputs may result in your team finding cheaper and easier ways to achieve them.
  • Assign resources. There’s nothing like a dose of cold, hard reality to force you to re-evaluate priorities. If you’re planning for the quarter or year ahead, start assigning people to different projects (and don’t forget, it will most likely take them longer  to complete tasks than estimated). When you run out of people or hours, you’ll have to decide, in advance, if you want to reassign employees, hire more people (if possible), or eliminate or postpone work.
  • As a team, “spring clean” your work habits. A lot of work gets bogged down because of “noise” like inefficient meetings or busywork. Review your calendar from the last few weeks to determine what’s been causing the most pain. One of the simplest ways to address these kinds of issues is by stopping. Try canceling a meeting for a week, or not sending out a regular report. If no one notices, it may be a sign that you’re engaged in low-value work.
  • Push power down the org chart. Work often backs up because teams are waiting to hear from a decision-maker higher up in the organization, but as a general rule, decisions should be made by those closest to the problem. Again, evaluate the decisions that you’ve been asked to make over the past few weeks: should these actually be delegated to other individuals? Can you define simple “even overs” so that your team can resolve these issues independently?
  • Consider how failure is assigned and treated at your company. Ultimately, people respond to incentives: rewards and punishments for their behavior. And these incentives don’t necessarily have to be financial. Are people praised for doing a lot of things, rather than the right things? If someone fails to achieve a goal or a deadline, are they shut out of future opportunities? Take a step back and evaluate whether your team is incentivized to encourage burnout. Can you find a way to celebrate NOT doing things?

Interested in implementing Adaptive Planning in your organization? Contact us.

Published January 25, 2022

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