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Under pressure, we revert to type – to behaviours that come most naturally, that feel most familiar to us.

When that pressure is long-term, those behaviours develop into coping strategies, which can mask a real problem, such as burnout.

Burnout is sometimes misunderstood as being synonymous with ‘in need of a break’. Hence attempts at various corporate sticking plasters, from yoga and mindfulness classes to exercises to combat zoom fatigue when working from home.

But burnout is a complex, long-term form of exhaustion resulting from prolonged emotional, physical, and mental stress. It can include feeling detached and overwhelmed, having a cynical outlook, self-doubt and procrastination.

In 2019, burnout was recognised by the WHO as an occupational phenomenon, affecting mental and physical health.

In other words, the problems are situated in our work life, and therefore so is the remedy. Attending a yoga class might provide temporary stress relief, but the root causes of burnout have not been addressed and are still lying in wait back in the office.

And quite apart from obvious moral obligations to employees, burnout is a real threat to an organisation’s bottom line. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), companies that don’t invest in employee wellbeing have higher staff turnover, lower productivity, and higher healthcare costs.

But tackling burnout comes with its own problems. The subject is bound up with sensitive issues around mental health and wellbeing, and it can be difficult for managers to know what to look out for, and how best to help those in their team.

In this article, we’ll talk about the causes and signs of burnout, how to spot them within patterns of observable behaviour at work, and preventing burnout in teams using the Belbin methodology and reports.

So, what causes burnout? You might be surprised.

A Gallup study reported that the top five reasons for burnout were:

  • Unfair treatment at work. When employees don’t trust their manager or teammates, the psychological bond that makes work meaningful is broken.
  • Unmanageable workload. Even high-performing employees can find themselves struggling beneath an overwhelming in-tray.
  • Lack of role clarity. Only 60% of workers know what is expected of them at work, and the tension between expectations and reality can be damaging for both manager and employee.
  • Lack of communication and support from a manager. Employees who feel supported by their manager are 70% less likely to experience burnout.
  • Unreasonable time pressure. Employees who say they often or always have enough time to do their work are 70% less likely to suffer from burnout.

How do we spot team burnout in employees?

Belbin can give you a head start, because it measures behaviour, specific to a work context.

These behaviours can offer insights into coping strategies. Whilst our coping strategies can have complex origins, they manifest in certain behaviours. If a manager is observant, they can see what’s going on for different team members and can use this data to help them ask the right questions.

Team Role burnout

Here’s an idea of how people with each Team Role strength might display symptoms of burnout.

(Our usual caveat applies: we’ve distilled this down per role for simplicity, but of course, we each have a combination of Team Role strengths.)

One of the key elements of burnout is feeling less productive than we would like. For an achievement-oriented high Shaper, an outward sign of burnout is likely to be increased frustration. They might push harder than is needed for action, which could alienate the team or lead to rash decision-making.

Ask them what frustrates them. Do they feel that things aren’t moving as quickly as they’d like? Are there quick wins they can be involved with that might satisfy the need to be ‘doing’?

Those with Completer Finisher strengths are likely to have higher levels of anxiety than those with other Team Role strengths. They find it difficult to delegate work to others (whose standards might not match their own) so they are among the most likely to be experiencing burnout from a heavy workload. If this is combined with time pressure, they’ll be left feeling as though they have to compromise on quality in order to meet deadlines, which compounds the anxiety.

Ask them about their workload. Boundaries need to be really clear. They can be supported by others taking things as far as they can. For example, checking for typos before leaving the Completer Finisher to do the final sweep, rather than leaving documents unchecked or even half-finished. Let them know deadlines as soon as possible to avoid last-minute rushing.

If the Completer Finisher is overwhelmed by work, those with Teamworker amongst their top roles are overwhelmed by people – suffering emotional overload. They’re likely to be acutely aware of all the pressures in the team, and trying to help alleviate the inevitable conflicts arising, often at the expense of their own wellbeing.

Ask them what they need, and if they deflect this to the team’s needs, point out this tendency. Sometimes they might need someone else to take a turn as the listening ear, just to relieve some pressure.

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Those with high Implementer behaviours can struggle to respond to change effectively, so are likely to cling to policy and order when things are falling down around them. They keep their heads down and cleave to existing processes, even when these have become cumbersome or obsolete.

Ask them what is working well and how they think processes might be improved to better support their work. Simply pulling the rug out from under them and changing everything around is unlikely to help.

Someone with Plant tendencies is likely to retreat into themselves and become lost in their own ideas. They may lose their grounding in what the team needs from them (if they had that to begin with!) and the result is that ideas may not be appropriate or relevant.

It’s crucial to keep the lines of communication open. Ask them what they’re working on, and how it relates to the problems the team needs to solve. Would they benefit from checking in with the team’s Monitor Evaluator more regularly (with a little mediation from a Co-ordinator) to assess the viability of their proposals? This might avoid frustration or the feeling that no one is listening to their ideas.

Those who score highly for Monitor Evaluator are likely to experience difficulties with time pressure, since they need sufficient time to consider decisions carefully and don’t like being pushed into action. If sufficient care is not being taken, they may become apathetic and remove themselves from the process, thinking that the project in question is a pointless exercise if things aren’t going to be done properly.

It’s important to acknowledge the difficulties in reconciling quickly-changing circumstances with taking the right course of action. Ask them what is most engaging in their work, and how these elements can be brought into new projects.

As the team's conductor, the Co-ordinator is simply trying to hold everything – and everyone – together. But the woodwind section are doing their own thing, and half the orchestra have skipped the chorus. Rather than getting flustered, they're likely to shrug and walk away, figuratively speaking. This is where employee engagement suffers.

Ask them about the talents they see in the team and whether people’s skills are being utilised to best effect. Explain that others may have their heads down, not because they don’t appreciate the importance of the bigger picture, but because they’re trying to cope in their own way.

Those who have Resource Investigator high in their profile are likely to be hearing the sound of smashing crockery. There are too many plates spinning and something has to give. People with this strength are likely to be more attuned to what is going on in the outside world, but rather than interaction with others re-energising them, it’s bringing them down. The resulting feeling of being overwhelmed is not surprising.

Ask them which plate they can let go of, or hand over to someone else, especially if it means follow-up or routine work that is likely to be tiresome for them. Find out if there’s a particular project or idea that still sparks their energy and let them run with it, where possible.

Those with Specialist tendencies are likely to deep dive into their work or research, complete with literal or metaphorical headphones to block out the world. The problem with this is that no one can check the relevance of their work to the team, which means that work can go to waste. And a Specialist whose expertise is not recognised is an unhappy Specialist.

Communicate frequently and make role boundaries and expectations clear. Ask them what they’re working on. Express an interest and explain how it might add value to the team.

Of course, Team Roles can only take us so far. They are not a panacea and there are many other factors – professional and personal – which can contribute to burnout.


Asking the right questions

The good news is that many of the causes of burnout are solvable – and solvable within the workplace.

As written in Harvard Business Review, “burnout is preventable. It requires good organisational hygiene, better data” and “asking more timely and relevant questions”.

In this context, hygiene includes: salary, working conditions, company policy and working relationships.

Motivators include: being assigned challenging work; recognition for achievements; being given responsibility and the opportunity to do something meaningful; being involved in decision making; and having a sense of importance to the organisation.

This is where the Belbin report comes in.

Belbin is uniquely positioned to help you find the right questions to ask. As a work-focused, evidence-based behavioural tool, it allows you to open up otherwise difficult conversations in a dispassionate and safe way, centring an individual’s strengths and contributions, but also allowing them space to talk about what’s not going right at work.

For those who are overwhelmed and don’t know how to begin explaining the complexity and breadth of burnout, it offers a number of practical discussion-starters and questions which can provide a way in to talking about more multivalent issues.

Explore their strengths.

Begin by talking about the value that person brings to the team and the importance of what they do.

The Team Role Feedback page of the Belbin Individual report explores someone’s contribution in depth and might help someone to consider what they enjoy most in their role.

Next, explore the strengths colleagues see in them. Is there anything that surprises them?

Talk about their frustrations.

Are there any areas where the person is being asked to play out of role (causing ‘Team Role strain’)? Or perhaps their strengths are not valued by a team with predominantly different Team Role contributions?

The Placement Suggestions and Suggested Work Styles pages of the Belbin Individual reports come into their own here. Does the individual get to spend much time working in those particular styles? How does their ideal working environment square with their current one? Are there any ‘quick win’ changes that could be made?

Analyse the team as a whole.

If work is to be redistributed (as in the case of overwhelming workloads, for example), you need to know where else it can go. In other words, you need to know the strengths present in the rest of the team.

If there are particular working relationships causing difficulties (those with very similar, or opposite Team Role behaviours often clash, for example), the Team report can help to flag these up.

It’s worth checking the ‘Comparison between Individual and Team’ page in particular, to see where the team might be reliant on one person to fulfil a particular Team Role.

Compare the individual to the job.

It’s difficult to clarify role boundaries and expectations to someone if you don’t have a clear idea of what their job entails, or if your idea of the role clashes with someone else’s.

The Belbin Job reports allow you to characterise a particular job in Team Role terms, so you can compare these to the jobholder and look at the synergy between the two. This can give you pointers as to where the job is pulling an individual out of role, or where their hidden strengths are not being utilised to best effect.

The traffic light system gives an at-a-glance view of where an individual might be out of step with job demands, offering insights to aid discussions and more in-depth gap analysis.

Don’t make any assumptions.

It’s all too easy to manage others as we ourselves would want to be managed. But if you have assembled a diverse team, you can expect the symptoms of burnout to be equally diverse, and therefore more difficult to spot.

It’s crucial that we listen to what people need and don’t make assumptions. Some solutions can be very simple and practical; others might require more wholesale changes to ‘the way things work around here’.

Either way, burnout can affect everyone – top performers included – and ignoring it is far more costly than addressing it – both personally, for individuals, and professionally, for businesses.

Tackling burnout requires gathering data and using it to ask the right questions.

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