Belonging Not Burnout
Belonging and meaning are at the core of heart-based leadership.
But I never saw clearly how belonging could directly help fight burnout, until we offered a workshop on scaling back from burnout last summer. A multitude of questions came up, including:
How exactly do we know when we need to scale back?
How might we be perceptive to burnout in ourselves and our teammates?
Answers to these questions for a lot of leaders and organizations can be elusive. What was our answer for how to detect, and fight burnout? That we ultimately need to be more open to each other in sharing our struggles, and leading with empathy. That’s where heart-based leadership comes in. That was, and is, my answer.
From that workshop came about a huge takeaway. Belonging and meaning are the tools necessary to fight burnout. Not only that, but we already have those tools at our fingertips. Workplace burnout is rampant in our society. We need to be sending a clear message to our teams: cultivating your career wins cannot come at the cost of losing sight of your health and needs.
The type of belonging we’re talking about also does not mean being so devoted in the workplace that you lose your balance either. Instead we need safe spaces, and fertile ground to have those (sometimes difficult) conversations when we ourselves, or our people on our teams, are at the limit.
Belonging and meaning can help us to detect and ward off burnout if we’re doing them right. Sometimes belonging looks like opening lines of communication, other times it might mean pulling back, and withdrawing.
That’s also what we talk about, when we talk about scaling back.
It means not striving so hard for performance you inadvertently hurt yourself, or your team. Heart-based leadership involves respect for boundaries.
For anyone concerned whether this could hurt the bottom line (i.e. revenues): people are our bottom line. Belonging and taking care of our people also turns out to correspond to improved performance. Harvard Business Review reports a high sense of belonging is demonstrated to increase performance by 56% or more, reduce turnover by 50%, and significantly decrease sick days.
If you're wondering how this works at an organizational level, it would look like a sense of belonging so strong that people are comfortable with sharing—honestly and openly— about their potential burnout, and exhaustion.
Knowing your team members have your best interests at heart is crucial. It’s the difference between shutting down vulnerability (which poses too big a risk), and a real willingness to open up about our struggles.
We’re all interconnected beings. Much of what we read about burnout is very focused on individuals. But teams get burnout too, just like individuals can—partly because burnout is a phenomenon that arises based on the overall work context and culture in an organization.
Since individuals make up our teams and our organizations, I tend to imagine us all as the cells of an organism. Each cell matters, and needs to be doing well for the organism to thrive. Companies and individuals, every single entity and person on the planet represents a unique path, and history.
Burnout may have been discovered in offices, but we know burnout begins and spreads in our lives through many mechanisms, for many reasons. Though we often consider burnout’s roots in the workplace, research shows it rarely begins at work, or even as a result of work. On the contrary it can start in any part of our lives, also in our home lives, and personal pasts.
Wherever burnout begins though, the workplace still has a tremendous impact— it’s where we spend so much of our day, virtually or physically. For that reason alone, we as leaders are in a position to locate the roots of burnout, and to address them.
Here’s the heart-based leadership perspective.
What we do to create belonging, and to scale back from burnout, are part of the same picture. These pieces are interconnected. Leadership at a heart-level, committed to belonging, will sometimes mean accepting when we, or our employees, need to step back in certain areas. It could mean acceptance of a slower cadence.
These realizations led me to come up with practices to nurture belonging, while fighting against burnout in the workplace. Processes that we create to counter burnout also have the potential to develop belonging, and vice versa.
It’s worth saying that the practices you as a manager, leader, or individual take part in, can ignite change on your team, and on a wider scale.
This first practice is a loving challenge to teammates to step back somewhat from their devices. Depending on the organization, this can be tried at a team or company level.
The concept is to avoid connecting virtually, or electronically, until you’ve taken the time to wake up, care for yourself, and do whatever you normally need to do in the morning. Only when your personal routines are taken care of, does it make sense to connect to your work, and check-in on projects.
This doesn’t have to look like disconnecting 100 percent, but more like making boundaries in an intentional way. As a team you can decide what these boundaries look like, and for how long you want to disconnect. (It may not sound like what a remote-first Co-Founder would suggest, but it’s my honest recommendation. This can actually help productivity, as well as moving away from burnout.)
There are a lot of ways this can look. Folks who are normally hyper-connected to their devices could make it a challenge not to touch their device first thing in the morning—or for whatever time span you decide upon. As I generally avoid technology completely in the morning, this wouldn’t be difficult, and I’d want to go with a more intense challenge. (I realize I may be an anomaly on this.)
The logic of the exercise is that it just makes sense to avoid Slack and other platforms until you’re actually ready to be at work. Whatever app or platform leaves you spinning and swirling in the morning, try not looking at it at all until you’ve grounded for the day.
It may sound simple, and it is. But nobody ever said simple is easy!
Here's another proposal for how we can move back from burnout, and create belonging: start meetings with two to three minutes of silence and meditation.
Each person ought to have the opportunity to consider what they want to bring to that meeting, at that moment in time. It’s a lovely, easy and simple practice that allows people to have their energy show up with their body.
Whether it's a virtual meeting, Zoom, or, Microsoft Teams, or in person in the office, the majority of people run from meeting to meeting, appointment to appointment, without a pause. This damages our adrenals, and doesn’t offer a chance to take a breath or land properly in the space.
The aim is to get present with the purpose of why you’re there. A variation on this practice is to invite teammates to leave the meeting entirely for that silent moment, or to turn off their camera if it’s Zoom. It’s about feeling into the space together: sensing where each person is at, and what they’re bringing to the moment.
It may be that you have a question you pose to the group before the silent meditation. These are all means to create presence, which is one of the ways that we can best fight burnout. That’s the only way we can bring our best selves, heart and soul, to our projects.
The third and final practice or exercise is simple: gratitude. It pulls together all the pieces of heart-based leadership—helping people as individuals feel better about who they are, where they are and what they're contributing.
It could be once per week, for instance as a close out on a Friday. Sharing gratitudes adds to belonging and meaning for individuals, but it can also work for your team. On our team, I've been asking every Friday what people are feeling grateful for.
My suggestion is everyone should welcome to contribute, but not forced. It can be business, team, or personal stuff; it’s whatever is coming up for that person in that particular moment. It would also be possible to share gratitude in a stand up or Huddle, a weekly meeting where anyone who wants has an opportunity to share.
Propose these as ideas, talk to your people about these practices, and see what resonates.
Try one challenge for a month with your team or organization, then assess and see how it works. Check in with other team members to see how it’s going, as part of taking care of each other—- that’s the belonging piece.
We have a lot more sway, and opportunity to guide and support than we realize. While so much is needed for teams and organizations to function, if you don't have belonging, meaning, and connection, performance on your team will suffer. Nor will that performance, or those results, matter as much to the humans in your organization without these pieces.
My encouragement for managers or leaders reading this is to think of ways you personally can bring your teammates together that reduce pressure and burnout. As a result of implementing these practices myself at our company, I’ve learned about certain wins and celebrations of our teammates, I wouldn't otherwise have known about.
It’s all about offering a space where we can learn more from, and about, each other—and that’s already a cause to celebrate.
If you'd be interested to share what you do on your team, and how it goes, I would love to hear about it.