Welcome to Lattice’s advice column for new managers, “Like a Boss.” I’m your host, Jennifer Romolini. I’m an editor, an author (of the career guide “Weird In a World That’s Not”), and, yes, a boss who’s been managing other humans for the past dozen or so years at companies both giant and tiny, at quick and dirty startups and multi-layered corporations, with remote and in-office teams ranging from five to 45. I’m also a speaker who talks about succeeding at work even when you feel like a freak. And, sometimes, I give advice, like right now.
I can tell my direct report is super burnt out but I don’t think they’re overworked. We’re a small team and everyone has to wear a lot of hats and work hard — including me. How do I approach helping her out without cutting back her workload? I’m starting to become frustrated.
Annoyed manager in MN
Since the 1980s — when burnout was first identified as something that mainly affected rich white men with slicked-back hair wearing suspenders — it’s become something of an American epidemic. In fact, earlier this year, for the first time, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified burnout as a serious, diagnosable health condition; linking it to depression, addiction, and even heart disease. And, while we know work burnout is a real and significant mental health issue, the scam of modern hustle culture (RISE AND GRIND, am I right?) has normalized and glorified a type of performative workaholism to the point that feeling fried at work is easily dismissed as just a sign of the times.
In the year of our Lord 2019, lots of people pontificate about the problem of burnout, but discovering a solution has largely been placed on the already-stressed shoulders of employees, not the institutions mandating and benefiting from all this overwork. It’s as if we collectively believe the problem of burnout can be fixed with face masks, ASMR, and some CBD. Bibbidy Bobbity Boo, you’re cured, now get back to work.
Your message doesn’t give me enough information to accurately assess where the real issue in your office lies — is it with your employee’s time-management skills or an office ethos that works people to the bone? — but I am going to take a leap and gently suggest that the call may be coming at least somewhat from inside the house. This is not necessarily your fault or anything you’ve done wrong, but finding a solution will require asking yourself a few challenging questions, questions which probably don’t include, “How can I keep working this person as hard as I am and also have them stop feeling bad about all this working?” I get it, you’re in a tough spot, but until you really examine the (potentially systemic) problem, you can’t come up with a truly worthwhile fix. Or, in the words of Marlo from The Wire, “You want it to be one way, but it’s the other way.”
Here are some questions you should ask instead:
This is a larger question which encompasses lots of smaller questions, the first is: How does your employee spend her day? You’ve mentioned that you’re a small team where everyone is expected to complete a lot of different kinds of tasks, which may be part of the problem. In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, scientist Cal Newport identifies the difference between deep work (thoughtful, time-consuming assignments like writing and analyzing data) vs. shallow work (tasks such as answering emails, responding to memes on Slack) and how it’s nearly impossible to do both well at once. So, if you’re expecting this employee to be available to you at all times during the workday, to answer emails and Slacks lightning fast, while also expecting her to complete deeper work like creating decks and presentations or analyzing metrics, it doesn’t really matter how much work there is to do or even if she’s the perfect person to do it; you’re setting her up to not only burn out, but fail.
In order to solve this, sit down with the staffer and ask her to outline what an average day and week looks like for her; writing down all of the things she needs to do (afterward, log all of your insights in a tool like Lattice). Start to identify patterns where assignments can be grouped, weekly deadlines can be moved, superfluous meetings can be changed or canceled. Allow her to block out appropriate space for “deeper work” projects — which may include a more flexible in-office schedule (one day a week at home) or at least hours in the week when she’s not expected to respond to every message that comes her way.
This is also an opportunity to audit how your company communicates overall: How do you engage with clients? Is your system efficient or do you have areas where you could tighten up (i.e., nine people owning the same project and responding to queries on said project)? How available do you expect your employees to be? (Remember that availability is not the same as accountability — an employee who doesn’t talk to you for a full day but turns in thoughtful, complete work is often better than one waving “Look at me! Look at me! I’m still on the clock at 10 p.m.!”) By carefully scrutinizing all of your processes and streamlining your systems in logical ways, you may find there is more time in the week than you ever conceived.
Staffing is weird — sometimes you hire someone thinking you need them to do a thing and then, really, it turns out you don’t need them to do that thing but another thing. Or this other person is better at the thing than that person you hired who turns out to be good at other things. Most org charts make sense on paper, but in reality look like a game of Twister where everyone has four hands and they’re all on red.
To more cynical managers (cough cough OK Boomer) this might seem like a special snowflake question that only weak managers ask, but I am here to tell you that sometimes you hire a good person who is better suited to slightly different tasks than what you initially hired them to do. And if you can shift the person’s work and take the one or two things they are bad at away and add one or two things they are good at, you will feel like a human magician and avoid the Draconian hell of a performance improvement plan (PIP) and the ultimate soul-suck of termination.
I know, I’m sorry. Management is a messy business and not — as I’ve outlined previously — for emotional wimps. If you’re a high-achieving manager who’s been through some stuff, there will be times when you’re going to be triggered by an employee’s complaints or concerns, by their very act of self-advocacy. You’re going to think “I would never do that” or “I work all the time and never complain” or “Who does this person think she is!?” And maybe it’s true that you’re a mentally healthy, not-masochistic-at-all human who just loves work and likes putting in 60 hours a week and answering emails during insomnia sessions at 2am because it feels right. But here’s the thing: Your employees don’t have to be like you. They shouldn’t have to kill themselves to do an adequate enough job to keep said job. Part of your work is to identify if their positions are reasonable and realistic, whether they have the skills to complete them, and, if they don’t, if they’re willing to (quickly) learn.
None of this is to say you won’t find lazy, low-skilled employees who can’t improve no matter how many productivity apps they download and how many pep talks they receive. And at the end of asking and answering all of these questions, you may very well land there. But you’ll be a lot smarter and know your business a lot better if you go through this tedious exercise first — and I’d venture you’ll like yourself more, too.