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When the leader’s cup runs dry: How burnout undermines mission and how to fix it
“Suck it up and keep moving”
We don’t talk much about burnout in agency leaders. No doubt about it, in the Federal government there is an overwhelming sense of commitment to service and the mission — at all costs.
But I remember being a leader and juggling so many different roles at the same time — wife, mother, student, colleague, daughter, sister, friend.
I’d run from meeting to meeting, fly to speaking engagements, feed the kids, and walk my dog late at night to re-energize myself. My mind was racing on those walks, and I’d come home and share my “random thoughts while walking the dog” in emails to my team. There was always a congressional hearing to prep for, an IG/GAO/OPM audit to address, a press release that needed review, data that needed analyzed, employees who needed care, and the mission … oh my, the mission.
I was completely exhausted, not really listening during conversations with my husband (or anyone else), performing in all my roles but amid an increasing level of personal thrash and stress. I remember talking to my mom (on the phone) and becoming frantic that I’d lost my phone, only to have her ask me “but, aren’t you talking to me on your phone.” It took me two weeks to realize that we had an exchange student living with us (I traveled a lot).
I didn’t know I was burnt out. Even if I did, I wouldn’t have admitted it. I’d always worked in an environment where you “sucked it up and kept it moving.” I was the leader, after all. As government leaders, we often feel like we have to “soldier through” regardless of how we’re doing. We don’t have the luxury of having a bad day. We have a Mission. We have oversight. We succeed or fail publicly — and at scale.
“You are exhausting us” — Your burnout is their burnout
What I now recognize is that my burnout didn’t just affect me. It affected everyone around me. My team jokingly (maybe?) told me that they were going to kidnap my dog if I didn’t stop sending emails at 2 AM — my dog-walking thoughts were raining more work, follow-ups, and stress down on them. They were struggling to keep up with my craziness and tacitly deciding not to add anything to my plate.
This routine of mine didn’t change for a long time. It might never have, were it not for one of my executives pulling me aside — “Listen, Angie, we love your energy, and you know we’ll do anything for you, but you are exhausting us. You’re burning us out.”
I’m burning out my team? But I’m doing this for my team!
For leaders in government, it often feels like we don’t have space to have a life, let alone say “no” — for ourselves or our teams. Rolling up our sleeves and getting the job done despite difficult, stressful circumstances is part of our culture. It’s incorporated into the DNA of our country. And so we push on. Sometimes for days, months, years — an entire career.
Sounds noble, right? What we fail to work into the equation is just how devastating burnout can be for ourselves and our teams when we don’t address it. We fail to realize how often our teams try to hide the impact from us.
As leaders, we have an outsized impact on our direct reports, as individuals and managers. And because the manager has the biggest influence on an employee’s experience, that negative impact flows downward and ripples outward. In fact, BetterUp research shows that when teams have a leader who is burned out or isn’t thriving, there is a ripple effect on their team, with direct reports showing reduced engagement, dips in productivity, creativity, innovation, a lower sense of belonging, and even lower intent to stay. In response to leader burnout, teams’ performance suffers, and they are more likely to leave, creating additional stress and burden for those who stay.
Burnout has also been shown to be contagious within teams. So, if we don’t address it, it spreads. Take a moment to consider the impact on the thousands of civil servants who depend on us to lead, inspire, coach, mentor, and create shared connections.
Suddenly, I saw my burnout in a new light. “Soldiering through” wasn’t just a personal decision, and it was not helping my team or serving the mission. Burnout reduces our effectiveness as leaders, creating stress for our teams, decreasing their effectiveness, and generating a vicious cycle of burnout that further impacts effectiveness and readiness. My team was less able to perform. Burnout was threatening the mission.
What is burnout? The opposite of readiness
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines burnout as a “state of vital exhaustion,” an “occupational phenomenon” that occurs as a result of chronic workplace stress combined with a lack of resources to manage it. It isn’t so much the absolute size of a person’s workload. It’s that it feels “heavy,” and we don’t feel equipped to handle it in a way that delivers effective results and is sustainable.
Burnout shows up for each of us differently, yet we experience common elements. Our energy is depleted. We’re exhausted. We have a negative perspective and become cynical, especially about our job. It can be difficult to manage our emotions or show consideration and care for others. We can’t seem to get anything done or stay focused. Others find us disengaged, difficult, or underperforming (we may experience our burnt-out employees the same way).
When we’re burned out, we often fall short of our capabilities as civil servants. The end result? Our individual performance declines, team performance declines, and the mission suffers.
Unfortunately, research indicates that burnout levels are getting worse. And, it may be an even bigger problem within the federal government. According to a recent study by Eagle Hill Consulting, 65% of government employees report burnout, compared to 44% in the private sector. What’s more, burnout rates are highest at the senior leadership level with 70% of senior executives (SES) reporting burnout. The upswing in turnover/resignations in the federal workforce leaves positions unfilled, exacerbating the problem.
There is no single cause of burnout. It results from a mismatch between chronic workplace stressors, and our ability to manage them.
While workload is often cited, it’s not the sole cause. Organizations with uncompromising workloads might be tempted to think: nothing can be done about the workload — hence, suck it up. However, a host of other factors contribute to how an individual perceives and reacts to stress and ultimately experiences burnout — or doesn’t.
Personality factors — including perfectionism, competitiveness and comparison, difficulty asking for help, inability to prioritize, and over-identifying with our work — come into play. What’s happening in our life outside of work also factors into our ability to manage work stressors. Personal obligations like caregiving, life changes, illness, and personal loss can all tap our available resources.
The added stressors of a global pandemic have taken a toll as well. It's been a rough few years and our internal resources are low. Combine that with all-or-nothing mindset, unproductive behaviors, limited skills or practices to support stress management and emotional regulation, and lack of self-awareness or self-compassion and many of our people — and our leaders — aren’t set up to survive and thrive as change accelerates.
Good news — burnout is addressable. Here’s what to do
Since burnout has many organizational and personal causes, different levels of the organization have different levers to alleviate — or prevent — burnout. From top-down to bottom-up, there are individual, team, and org-level actions we can take to buffer these causes, depending on our role and sphere of influence.
Let's start with a few ways that leaders can help ourselves, and our teams, overcome the more prominent issues that lead to burnout:
Start with your own burnout: Individual factors and what you can do
After that day when my executive pulled me aside, I started taking steps toward addressing my own burnout. Instead of trying to work harder, I started making time to run slower, breath more deeply, and actively listen. And, the world didn’t stop rotating. I learned to prioritize the priorities and to set realistic goals for myself and my team. Everyone started to breathe easier, resulting in more creativity and more productivity.
Let me say that again because it’s so important — when I was able to address my own burnout and set better boundaries, my team became higher performing.
As leaders, we have to address our own burnout before we can serve our teams. According to BetterUp research, the highest impact levers to increase our resilience and ability to manage stress and avoid burnout are self-compassion, emotional regulation, and cognitive agility. Anyone can learn and develop these skills through practice.
Self-Compassion. When we are compassionate toward ourselves, giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt, extending kindness and empathetic understanding, and acknowledging we are only human, we experience greater life satisfaction and resilience. In fact, BetterUp members who report high levels of self-compassion show, on average, 33% more resilience.
Try it out: The next time you’re struggling or tempted to beat yourself up over a mistake, imagine what you’d say to a good friend in the same situation. Can you offer yourself similar words of support and encouragement?
Emotional Regulation. As we learn to regulate our emotions to remain in control rather than at their mercy, we are better equipped to be resilient and agile when challenges arise. This translates to an average of 13% less burnout in BetterUp members who report increased emotional stability through coaching.
Try it out: Despite popular thinking, we can’t ignore or simply “think positive” when we have difficult or uncomfortable emotions. Navigating our emotions starts by acknowledging what we are feeling simply as information without labeling the feeling as good or bad. Practice noticing sensations in the body without making a judgment about what you’re experiencing.
Cognitive Agility. Our ability to adapt and shift our thought processes when confronting a challenge leads to more positive outcomes like increased resilience and a greater ability to cope with change and uncertainty. Learning to make plans while allowing for flexibility is an important skill for well-being and productivity.
Try it out: Cognitive agility starts with self-awareness about the beliefs, stories, and assumptions that keep us stuck in behaviors that don’t serve us. Over the next few days, notice when you tell yourself “I can’t,” “I should,” or “I have to.” Merely observing our habitual ways of thinking is a huge win. Once you notice the thoughts, ask yourself: is it true or is there another possibility or way of seeing things?
Sleep quality and quantity impact our levels of stress, performance, and even emotional intelligence! But rest also includes taking breaks throughout the workday. Just the perception that we can take a break is restorative: 100% of people surveyed who were encouraged to take a break at work doubled their sense of well-being.
Many leaders in mission-critical roles think of rest as a four-letter word. There is so much to accomplish. Yet, consider: People who take a break every 90 minutes report 30% better focus than those who take one or no breaks during the day. BetterUp research has shown that focus is the single biggest driver of productivity. So when you take a break, not only are you managing your stress, you’re also more able to think clearly and actually get things done when you return to work.
Support your team. Organizational factors and what you can do
Now that you’ve put on your own oxygen mask, you can begin to influence your team’s — and even your organization’s — well-being, based on the factors that cause burnout in the first place (Maslach, 2016).
Work-Resource Mismatch → Prioritize and eliminate.
We will almost never have enough resources to accomplish all that is on our plates. But we can prioritize our work and align our resources to match those current priorities. And sometimes we need to look at the work and ask —“what can we stop doing?” We get so locked into our programs and services and take on more and more without shedding what is no longer important or necessary.
Values Conflict → Disconnect purpose from policy.
We won’t always agree with our leadership, including whichever Administration is in office. We can still take the time to remind ourselves and our teams of our purpose and how that connects to the overall mission, not necessarily the “policy.” For example, regardless of how we feel about immigration policy, knowing and reinforcing our role in providing care to those in our custody helps keep teams connected and engaged.
Limited Autonomy → Make space for fresh eyes.
We all have a boss. We all have a chain of command. That doesn’t mean we give up our opinions, thoughts, and ideas. Even when we are told what to do, and how to do it, we can take a step back and see new possibilities. Ask your team to “push back” and give input. Then discuss why you do or don’t agree. This will help your team more openly discuss ideas and feel more invested.
Recognition and Rewards → Be specific and frequent.
Everyone wants their work to have meaning, to know that it matters and that people value their performance. This shouldn’t be left to a once a year performance rating. Try to acknowledge someone every day with a simple thank you in email or text. A hand-written note or public acknowledgement in a meeting goes even further. Regular celebrations of birthdays, births, accomplishments, and milestones bring people together in shared connection beyond “just the job.”
Equity and Fairness → See the individual.
Sometimes we think this means treating everyone the same. But the answer really lies in meeting our people where they are in their experience. We do not experience our joys, sorrows, challenges and triumphs in the same order or at the same time. It’s about creating an environment where people know that they will be given a fair opportunity or will have their needs met in a common sense way, even when it is different from how their colleague’s needs are met.
Relationships and Support → Build trust.
In a high-stakes environment, it might feel frivolous to take the time to build relationships or show care or laugh with each other. However, it is key in 2 ways: 1) Knowing that you can count on each other means we see each other as resources to help deal with challenges, including workload and exhaustion. 2) Trusting relationships also enable us to be vulnerable and admit we are burnt out because we trust what will happen with that information once we share it.
Sustainable behavior change, through coaching
In case all of this seems like more work and is causing you stress just thinking about it, it’s okay. You’re not alone. Change is hard, especially if we’re already feeling burned out. Between an intention to change and making that change reality lie so many distractions, competing priorities, and barriers.
Coaching has proven effective for supporting behavior change, including developing skills that address our own burnout and enhance our ability to lead others in better and healthier ways.
While coaching is also a proven approach to build professional and leadership skills, and enhance job performance, it is so effective because it helps us to take important information about new behaviors and skills, practice them in our unique circumstances, and turn them into habits. That conversion from skills into habits is what so often is missed with traditional learning and development or wellness programs.
Certain approaches to coaching, like BetterUp’s Whole Person approach, incorporate well-being into professional development. And the science supports it. In fact, with 3-4 months of coaching BetterUp participants see, on average:
20% increase in self awareness
16% increase in stress management
21% increase in ability to focus
15% increase in ability to guide their teams
10% boost in team performance
Employees with this support are also less likely to leave with 5X lower attrition than peers without coaching support.
Soldering through (or asking our teams to do the same) might be a common tactic. However, it does no good for anyone and degrades the entire organization’s readiness and ability to execute the critical missions that keep our country running, safe and secure.
Learn more about how BetterUp can support you or your teams to combat burnout, boost well-being and performance by scheduling a briefing.
About the authors
Angela Bailey, retired SES and former DHS CHCO. Angie began her began her career with the Social Security Administration, earned a BA and MA in Leadership, and became Chief Human Capital Officer with the Department of Homeland Security in January 2016. She worked for the Department of Defense as a Labor Employee Relations Officer and Human Resources Director, and within the US Office of Personnel Management, as a Deputy Associate Director for Recruiting and Hiring, Associate Director for Employee Services, and Chief Operating Officer. Most recently, Angie founded AnandaLife, LLC. to share her knowledge, insight, and life experiences on achieving personal and professional leadership excellence, becoming an innovation catalyst, and finding coherence of mind, body and spirit.
Marissa Berman, PsyD., BetterUp Senior Behavioral Scientist, People Insights | Government. Dr. Berman is a licensed psychologist, executive coach and organization development consultant. She has spent 2 decades researching and applying best practices to mental health, well-being and performance for individuals, teams, and organizations. She has an MA and PsyD in clinical psychology (University of Denver), and completed a postdoctoral residency in counseling & sport psychology (UC Davis), and a postdoctoral fellowship in organization development psychology and consulting (VHA National Center for Organization Development). She is a former US Ski Team member and national champion in the sport of inverted aerials.
Alissa Manolescu, BetterUp Senior Behavioral Scientist, People Insights | Government.
Alissa Manolescu is an organizational psychologist and coach with a decade and a half of experience partnering with organizations to create business impact through talent development and assessment solutions. At BetterUp, she translates the science of behavior change to help private and public-sector clients connect coaching and leadership transformation with organizational results. Alissa holds a M.A. degree in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from the University of Georgia, and an Executive Coaching Diploma from the Goizueta Business School at Emory University.
Dr. Marissa Berman is a Senior Behavioral Scientist at BetterUp.
Alissa Manolescu is a Senior Behavioral Scientist at BetterUp.
Angela Bailey is a retired SES and former DHS CHCO, CEO and Founder AnandaLife, LLC.