Do You Reinforce or Avoid Team Burnout?


In many recent blogs which are acritical, I have supported the idea of forming agile teams in organizational structures. Agile methods often talk about using dedicated team members for many good reasons. But the reality in our business world is just the opposite and many employees are working on a number of different teams and projects at the same time. In particular, senior managers and more experienced experts are contributing to a quite considerable number of different projects. Especially in knowledge-intensive industries, these people are assigned to multiple projects simultaneously because the organization wants to benefit from their knowledge. But for how long will that be possible? They often experience stress, fatigue and burnout as these highly-respected people do not want to admit that they cannot handle managing their time and commitments across different projects and tasks. And, in the end, we lose them as we have overstressed the human ability of multi-teaming. 


Is this the responsible management of our human capacities within our organizations? Most probably not, but because senior managers are so focused on increasing the efficiency within their organization, they often simply do not care about individual conflicts. They are affected in the same way, alternating between five, seven, or even more projects in a single day. Thus, this working style has become normal and only very few managers have an understanding of how this affects the individuals, the teams and the entire organization. Last October, the HRB has published an interesting article regarding the “overcommitted organization”. Mark Mortensen and Heidi K. Gardner have measured both the benefits and trade-offs of multi-teaming. Without any doubt, multi-teaming is not avoidable as we do not have the resources to dedicate people to only one project. The authors referred to a survey (in the U.S.) which showed that 81% of managers are working on more than one project concurrently–and the number increases to 95% in knowledge-intensive industries. 


It is a mistake to assume that burnout is merely an emotional response to long hours or a challenging job. At its core, burnout occurs when the demands of a job outpace a person’s ability to cope with the stress. Stress means that we indeed do require too much from these people and teams and this cultivates feelings of negativity and hopelessness. In many transformational processes, we see this effect as there is not enough time for the individuals to cope with the new situation and consequently the people do not understand the goals they are supposed to be pursuing. This is not only the case in change management processes. More and more people are losing their orientation. They are suffering from not getting the right prioritization from senior management–possibly because they are just not able to prioritize anymore due to a loss of control over their own time schedule. 


Neuroscientists have discovered that burnout has significant effects on your brain. By enlarging our amygdala, we sustain a negative effect on the part of our brain which is in charge of the control of emotional reactions. This increase moodiness and this has an effect on the team members and consequently on team performance. Burnout also affects the prefrontal cortex which is responsible for our cognitive functioning. We need more and more energy to complete tasks while the ability to learn dramatically decreases. This happens normally as the result of aging, but it occurs much more rapidly in people who are stressed for prolonged periods of time. Burnout reduces the connectivity between different parts of the brain which can lead to decreased creativity, working memory and problem-solving skills. Based upon all these effects, we must take into consideration that burnout is not just a state of mind, but a condition that leaves its mark on the brain as well as the body. 


If senior managers do not feel this emotional pain, they should learn to be responsible for the outcome. Instead of putting more pressure on the operational level, they should stop their own rat race and become people managers again. We cannot avoid multi-teaming, but we have to manage this in a more responsible manner. Mark Mortensen and Heidi K. Gardner have already pointed out the actions we have to take in social human-responsible organizations:    

  1.  Launch the team well in order to establish trust and familiarity
  2. Clarify roles and objectives (which is necessary in any case, but even more so when people belong to several teams)
  3. Map everyone’s skills
  4. Manage time across teams (and use technologies in order to avoid wasting time with meetings with too many people)
  5. Boost motivation
  6. Map and analyze human capital interdependence and
  7. Promote knowledge flows.    

We have to take much better care of our high-performing talents within the organizations. Today, we neglect them and are surprised when they leave the organization (in time) or even when they burn out and collapse. To avoid this, brain-friendly organizations will need to invest significant time and effort – the other will pay a much higher price when they neglect these needs.